Understanding AWS IAM Roles for Kubernetes ServiceAccounts

Michael Zeevi


Modern cloud and microservice based applications often reside in Kubernetes, running on cloud infrastructure such as AWS’ EKS. Such applications commonly harness additional cloud resources and services such as S3, RDS, SQS, etc.; in order to do so in a secure manner (preserving the least privilege security principle) one must only grant access (for said cloud resources) to the appropriate microservices (i.e. their pods).

Both Kubernetes and AWS have their permission management systems - RBAC and IAM (respectively), which are both well tailored for access management within their own realms. However, the above case demands both, since our principal microservice is a Kubernetes resource (such as a Deployment), whilst the resource to be accessed is on AWS (such as an S3 Bucket or SQS queue).

In this post we will explore and understand how to utilize both Kubernetes’ RBAC and AWS’ IAM permission management systems in such cases, forming a hybridized solution called IAM Roles for ServiceAccounts (IRSA).

The concept of IRSA

The solution to our case requires bridging between both permissions systems in two places:

This closes a circle between Kubernetes and AWS.

Practical implementation guide

For this guide we will assume a workload (Pods, Deployment...) running in an AWS EKS Kubernetes cluster requires access to certain AWS resources...

Note: If you deployed Kuberenetes manually then you will need to enable the OpenID Connect (OIDC) plugin for your Kubernetes API Server.


  1. Get the cluster’s OIDC provider URL. In EKS it can be found in the web console under the cluster’s Details tab (or it can be retrieved via the AWS CLI with the command: aws eks describe-cluster --name $YOUR_CLUSTER --output text --query "cluster.identity.oidc.issuer").

    The value should look similar to this (with a different Id at the end):
  2. Create an IAM Identity provider of type OpenID Connect, place the value from the previous stage in the Provider URL field and set the Audience to

    Click Get thumbprint and then click Add provider (at the bottom).

    • If using Terraform with the official EKS module, then just set the module’s input variable enable_irsa = true.

    • If using Terraform without the module, then add:

      data "tls_certificate" "cluster" {
        url = aws_eks_cluster.your_cluster.identity[0].oidc[0].issuer
      resource "aws_iam_openid_connect_provider" "this" {
        client_id_list  = [""]
        thumbprint_list = [data.tls_certificate.cluster.certificates.0.sha1_fingerprint]
        url             = aws_eks_cluster.your_cluster.identity[0].oidc[0].issuer
  3. Create an IAM Role with a trusted entity of type Web identity (instead of the default AWS service type), under Identity provider select the Identity provider we created in the previous stage and under Audience select -once again-

    After this any required AWS IAM Policies can be attached normally to the IAM Role.

In Kubernetes

  1. Create a Kubernetes ServiceAccount, and annotate it with the ARN of the IAM Role from the previous stage:

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: ServiceAccount
      name: can-do-stuff-on-aws
      namespace: testing
      annotations: arn:aws:iam::YOUR_ACCOUNT_NUMBER:role/can-do-stuff-on-aws
    • The ServiceAccount name [] doesn’t have to be the same as the IAM Role name [metadata.annotations.eks....] (but it can help remembering).
    • No Kubernetes Role is bound to the ServiceAccount!
  2. Assign the ServiceAccount to a Pod (or workload, such as a Deployment):

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: Pod
      name: my-app
      namespace: testing
      serviceAccountName: can-do-stuff-on-aws
      - name: my-app
        image: nginx:alpine

Once these resources have all been provisioned in the cluster and cloud, any application running in a Pod assigned with the ServiceAccount will have the AWS access rights defined in the IAM policies attached to the IAM Role!

Deep-dive: Examining the trust relationship

Let’s take a closer look at all the components at play and see exactly how the circle of trust is achieved and how they fit together.

IRSA trust relationship diagram

The Assume role policy

Once the IAM Role exists, then under its Trust relationships tab, clicking on Edit trust relationship will show its Assume role policy (not to be confused with IAM policy!).

It should look similar to this:

  "Version": "2012-10-17"
  "Statement": [
      "Effect": "Allow"
      "Principal": {
        "Federated": "arn:aws:iam::YOUR_ACCOUNT_NUMBER:oidc-provider/"
      "Action": "sts:AssumeRoleWithWebIdentity"
      "Condition": {
        "StringEquals": {
          "": "system:serviceaccount:testing:can-do-stuff-on-aws"

What this policy enforces is that this IAM Role can only be assumed via the AWS’ Secure Token Service when requested by a Web Identity [see "Action"] - specifically our OIDC Identity provider [see "Principal"], and - most importantly - only under the condition that the token’s payload string references the authorized subject (“sub”) - i.e. the Kubernetes ServiceAccount [see "StringEquals", under "Condition"].

The ServiceAccount

When a Kubernetes ServiceAccount is created, it automatically has a special Kubernetes Secret (of type created for it; it can be seen referenced under Mountable secrets when the ServiceAccount is described:

kubectl -n testing describe serviceaccount can-do-stuff-on-aws

Which returns:

Name:                can-do-stuff-on-aws
Namespace:           testing
Labels:              <none>
Annotations: arn:aws:iam::YOUR_ACCOUNT_NUMBER:role/can-do-stuff-on-aws
Image pull secrets:  <none>
Mountable secrets:   can-do-stuff-on-aws-token-5r5xg
Tokens:              can-do-stuff-on-aws-token-5r5xg
Events:              <none>

Note: Your secret’s name will have a different random suffix than my -5r5xg.

The Secret

If we describe the Kubernetes Secret itself, by running:

kubectl -n testing describe secret can-do-stuff-on-aws-token-5r5xg

It returns:

Name:         can-do-stuff-on-aws-token-5r5xg
Namespace:    testing
Labels:       <none>
Annotations: can-do-stuff-on-aws


ca.crt:     1066 bytes
namespace:  7 bytes
token:      eyJhbGciOiJSUzI1NiIsImtpZCI6IjJvNTQwbDBodFpWMUlqX2ktOEZPQ1NJaWZuMENESTZPam53MzVmZUxoR1UifQ.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.Pyf4jdNNQnIH3NO2x2RIrSuecRXlzAFV3c9Ed4kK4OV2sI49RJRQI_A3rEDh-QanKJBdt0BY98G_30QWokmCfwuMbJunb7o2qUKHu4qHkcYYUgxFpGFMNZnMFmZ1hOqSOWX7b6pcfGJtH40nvw7U4FSsKAkON3lI5eQmu2e5hSIgqJgHhNhFmSpRCxdbBSBOOPcHeONQQLuKZ2ogHA6DZ1udJYjIaDMFiSiCngjwAJCccK3r75W5-DQ8jXv5J8peW-UnLNz8A3dUzc9kbzVzg2-_Uc698cnkDjH1yuE7KS8OWSqjqogIN1spuhcc7J6qmO9iBDZGsOcgzyrBiet7TQ

Then under Data we can find the actual token.

The Token

Kubernetes ServiceAccounts’ secret tokens use a standard format called JSON Web Token (JWT) (which is not native to Kubernetes).

Using a JWT debugger to decode it, one can see it’s composed of three parts (each separately base64 encoded) - a HEADER, PAYLOAD and VERIFY SIGNATURE - which are concatenated with periods.

The part that is of most interest is the PAYLOAD, which most importantly contains the "sub" (subject) field:

  "iss": "kubernetes/serviceaccount",
  "": "testing",
  "": "can-do-stuff-on-aws-token-5r5xg",
  "": "can-do-stuff-on-aws",
  "": "59cf0215-e56c-4534-a889-3c8a6c1ada3d",
  "sub": "system:serviceaccount:testing:can-do-stuff-on-aws"

Note: The "sub" field’s value exactly matches the "StringEquals" condition from the Assume role polcy examined earlier.


In this post we learned about the problem which IRSA offers to solve, whilst understanding the requirements of a trust relationship between the AWS and Kubernetes permissions management systems, and we went over all the steps (across both platforms) to implementing the solution.

Following that, we went under the hood to examine the components of the Assume role policy that every IAM Role has, and - finally - explored JWT tokens which are used by Kubernetes ServiceAccounts, seeing what their Payload contains and how they relate to IAM Roles’ Assume role policy.

Sources & additional info