Role Based Access Control for SSH


Role Based Access Control (RBAC) gives Teleport administrators more granular access controls. An example of an RBAC policy could be: "admins can do anything, developers must never touch production servers and interns can only SSH into staging servers as guests"

RBAC is almost always used in conjunction with Signle Sign-On (SSO) but it also works with users stored in Teleport's internal database.

How does it work?

Let's assume a company is using Okta to authenticate users and place them into groups. A typical deployment of Teleport in this scenario would look like this:

  1. Configure Teleport to use existing user identities stored in Okta.
  2. Okta would have users placed in certain grops, perhaps "developers", "admins", "contractors", etc.
  3. Teleport would have certain Teleport roles defined, for simplicity sake let them be "developers" and "admins".
  4. Mappings would connect the Okta groups (SAML assertions) to the Teleport roles. Every Teleport user will be assigned a Teleport role based on their Okta group membership.


Every user in Teleport is always assigned a set of roles. One can think of them as "SSH Roles". The open source edition of Teleport automatically assigns every user to the built-in admin role, but the Teleport Enterprise allows administrators to define their own roles with far greater control over the user permissions.

Some of the permissions a role could define include:

  • Which SSH nodes a user can or cannot access. Teleport uses node labels to do this, i.e. some nodes can be labeled "production" while others can be labeled "staging".
  • Ability to replay recorded sessions.
  • Ability to update cluster configuration.
  • Which UNIX logins a user is allowed to use when logging into servers.

A Teleport role works by having two lists of rules: allow rules and deny rules. When declaring access rules, keep in mind the following:

  • Everything is denied by default.
  • Deny rules get evaluated first and take priority.

A rule consists of two parts: the resources and verbs. Here's an example of an allow rule describing a list verb applied to the SSH sessions resource. It means "allow users of this role to see a list of active SSH sessions".

    - resources: [session]
      verbs: [list]

If this rule was declared in deny section of a role definition, it effectively prohibits users from getting a list of trusted clusters and sessions. You can see all of the available resources and verbs under the allow section in the admin role configuration below.

To manage cluster roles, a Teleport administrator can use the Web UI or the command line using tctl resource commands. To see the list of roles in a Teleport cluster, an administrator can execute:

$ tctl get roles

By default there is always one role called admin which looks like this:

kind: role
version: v3
  name: admin
  # SSH options used for user sessions with default values:
    # max_session_ttl defines the TTL (time to live) of SSH certificates 
    # issued to the users with this role.
    max_session_ttl: 8h

    # forward_agent controls if users are allowed to use SSH agent forwarding
    forward_agent: true

    # port_forwarding controls if users are allowed to use SSH port forwarding
    port_forwarding: true

  # allow section declares a list of resource/verb combinations that are
  # allowed for the users of this role. by default nothing is allowed.
    # logins array defines the OS logins a user is allowed to use.
    # A few special variables are supported here (see below)
    logins: [root, '{{internal.logins}}']

    # node labels that a user can connect to. The wildcard ('*') means "any node"
      '*': '*'

    # see below.
    - resources: [role]
      verbs: [list, create, read, update, delete]
    - resources: [auth_connector]
      verbs: [connect, list, create, read, update, delete]
    - resources: [session]
      verbs: [list, read]
    - resources: [trusted_cluster]
      verbs: [connect, list, create, read, update, delete]

  # the deny section uses the identical format as the 'allow' section.
  # the deny rules always override allow rules.
  deny: {}

The following variables can be used with logins field:

Variable Description
{{ internal.logins }} Substituted with "allowed logins" parameter used in tctl users add [user] <allowed logins> command. This applies only to users stored in Teleport's own local database.
{{ }} Substituted with a value from an external SSO provider. If using SAML, this will be expanded with "xyz" assertion value. For OIDC, this will be expanded a value of "xyz" claim.

Both variables above are there to deliver the same benefit: it allows Teleport administrators to define allowed OS logins via the user database, be it the local DB, or an identity manager behind a SAML or OIDC endpoint.

RBAC for Hosts

A Teleport role can also define which hosts (nodes) a user can have access to. This works by labeling nodes and listing allow/deny labels in a role definition.

Consider the following use case:

The infrastructure is split into staging/production environments using labels like environment=production and environment=staging. You can create roles that only have access to one environment. Let's say you create an intern role with allow rule for label environment=staging.


The role below allows access to all nodes labeled "env=stage" except those that also have "workload=database" (these will always be denied).

Access to any other nodes will be denied:

kind: role
version: v3
  name: example-role
      'env': 'stage'

      'workload': 'database'

Dynamic RBAC

Remember that node labels can be dynamic, i.e. determined at runtime by an output of an executable. In this case you can implement "permissions follow workload" policy, i.e. any server where PostgreSQL is running becomes automatically accessible only by the members of the "DBA" group and nobody else.

RBAC for Sessions

As shown in the role example above, a Teleport administrator can restrict access to user sessions using the following rule:

  - resources: [session]
    verbs: [list, read]
  • "list" determines if a user is allowed to see the list of past sessions.
  • "read" determines if a user is allowed to replay a session.

It's possible to restrict "list" but to allow "read" (in this case a user will be able to replay a session using tsh play if they know the session ID)


Q: But what if a node has multiple labels?

A: In this case the access will be granted only if all of the labels defined in the role are present. This effectively means Teleport uses an "AND" operator when evaluating node-level access using labels.

Q: Can I use node-level RBAC with OpenSSH servers?

A: No. OpenSSH servers running sshd do not have the ability to label themselves. This is one of the reasons to run Teleport node service instead.