An Introduction to Fernet tokens in Red Hat OpenStack Platform

Thank you for joining me to talk about Fernet tokens. In this first of three posts on Fernet tokens, I’d like to go over the definition of OpenStack tokens, the different types and why Fernet tokens should matter to you. This series will conclude with some awesome examples of how to use Red Hat Ansible to manage your Fernet token keys in production.

First, some definitions …

What is a token? OpenStack tokens are bearer tokens, used to authenticate and validate users and processes in your OpenStack environment. Pretty much any time anything happens in OpenStack a token is involved. The OpenStack Keystone service is the core service that issues and validates tokens. Using these tokens, users and and software clients via API’s authenticate, receive, and finally use that token when requesting operations ranging from creating compute resources to allocating storage. Services like Nova or Ceph then validate that token with Keystone and continue on with or deny the requested operation. The following diagram, shows a simplified version of this dance.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 12.06.02 pm
Courtesy of the author

Token Types

Tokens come in several types, referred to as “token providers” in Keystone parlance. These types can be set at deployment time, or changed post deployment. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide what works best for your environment, given your organization’s workload in the cloud.

The following types of tokens exist in Keystone:

UUID (Universal Unique Identifier)

The default token provider in Keystone is UUID. This is a 32-byte bearer token that must be persisted (stored) across controller nodes, along with their associated metadata, in order to be validated.

PKI & PKIZ (public key infrastructure)

This token format is deprecated as of the OpenStack Ocata release, which means it is deprecated in Red Hat OpenStack Platform 11. This format is also persisted across controller nodes. PKI tokens contain catalog information of the user that bears them, and thus can get quite large, depending on how large your cloud is. PKIZ tokens are simply compressed versions of PKI tokens.


Fernet tokens (pronounced fehr:NET) are message packed tokens that contain authentication and authorization data. Fernet tokens are signed and encrypted before being handed out to users. Most importantly, however, Fernet tokens are ephemeral. This means they do not need to be persisted across clustered systems in order to successfully be validated.

Fernet was originally a secure messaging format created by Heroku. The OpenStack implementation of this lightweight and more API-friendly format was developed by the OpenStack Keystone core team.

The Problem

As you may have guessed by now, the real problem solved by Fernet tokens is one of persistence. Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:

  1. A user logs into Horizon (the OpenStack Dashboard)
  2. User creates a compute instance
  3. User requests persistent storage upon instance creation
  4. User assigns a floating IP to the instance

While this is a simplified scenario, you can clearly see that there are multiple calls to different core components being made. In even the most basic of examples  you see at least one authentication, as well as multiple validations along the way. Not only does this require network bandwidth, but when using persistent token providers such as UUID it also requires a lot of storage in Keystone. Additionally, the token table in the database

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

used by  Keystone grows as your cloud gets more usage. When using UUID tokens, operators must implement a detailed and comprehensive strategy to prune this table at periodic intervals to avoid real trouble down the line. This becomes even more difficult in a clustered environment.

It’s not only backend components which are affected. In fact, all services that are exposed to users require authentication and authorization. This leads to increased bandwidth and storage usage on one of the most critical core components in OpenStack. If Keystone goes down, your users will know it and you no longer have a cloud in any sense of the word.

Now imagine the impact as you scale your cloud;  the  problems with UUID tokens are dangerously amplified.

Benefits of Fernet tokens

Because Fernet tokens are ephemeral, you have the following immediate benefits:

  • Tokens do not need to be replicated to other instances of Keystone in your controller cluster
  • Storage is not affected, as these tokens are not stored

The end-result offers increased performance overall. This was the design imperative of Fernet tokens, and the OpenStack community has more than delivered.  

Show me the numbers

All of these benefits sound good, but what are the real numbers behind the performance differences between UUID and Fernet? One of the core keystone developers, Dolph Matthews, created a great post about Fernet benchmarks.

Note that these benchmarks are for OpenStack Kilo, so you’ll most likely see even greater performance numbers in newer releases.

The most important benchmarks in Dolph’s post are the ones comparing the various token formats to each other on a globally-distributed Galera cluster. These show the following results using UUID as a baseline:

Token creation performance

Fernet 50.8 ms (85% faster than UUID) 237.1 (42% faster than UUID)

Token validation performance

Fernet 5.55 ms (8% faster than UUID) 1957.8 (14% faster then UUID)

As you can see, these numbers are quite remarkable. More informal benchmarks can be found at the Cern OpenStack blog,
OpenStack in Production.

Security Implications

Photo by Praveesh Palakeel on Unsplash

One important aspect of using Fernet tokens is security. As these tokens are signed and encrypted, they are inherently more secure than plain text UUID tokens. One really great aspect of this is the fact that you can invalidate a large number of tokens, either during normal operations or during a security incident, by simply changing the keys used to validate them. This requires a key rotation strategy, which I’ll get into in the third part of this series.

While there are security advantages to Fernet tokens, it must be said they are only as secure as the keys that created them. Keystone creates the tokens with a set of keys in your Red Hat OpenStack Platform environment. Using advanced technologies like SELinux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a trusted partner in this equation. Remember, the OS matters.


While OpenStack functions just fine with its default UUID token format, I hope that this article shows you some of the benefits of Fernet tokens. I also hope that you find the knowledge you’ve gained here to be useful, once you decide to move forward to implementing them.

In our follow-up blog post in this series, we’ll be looking at how to enable Fernet tokens in your OpenStack environment — both pre and post-deploy. Finally, our last post will show you how to automate key rotation using Red Hat Ansible in a production environment. I hope you’ll join me along the way.