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Centralized Authorization Flow

In this section, we're going to examine the centralized authorization flow.


Before we go into the details of the authorization flow, it's important to understand the subsystems involved. The authorization (AuthZ) system shown in the figure below consists of several logical subsystems, which we will elaborate on in the following section.

ZMS (AuthZ Management System)

ZMS is where domains, roles, and policies are defined. This is Athenz's centralized authorization system and is likely part of a larger management system. In addition to allowing CRUD operations on the basic entities, ZMS provides an API to replicate the entities, per domain, to ZTS. It also can directly support the access check, both for internal management system checks, as well as a simple centralized deployment.

ZMS is the source of truth for domains, roles, and policies for centralized authorization. ZMS supports a centralized call to check if a principal has access to a resource. Because ZMS supports service identities, ZMS can authenticate services.

For centralized authorization, ZMS may be the only Athenz subsystem that you need to interact with.

SIA (Service Identity Agent)

SIA is required for authenticating existing unmanaged services. Any service that launches other services should integrate SIA (or an equivalent system). To confirm a service's identity, SIA communicates with ZTS.

Centralized Access Control

A traditional centralized mechanism works as expected for services that are not dealing with the decentralized authorization: the server with resources can simply ask the ZMS directly about access, passing its credentials (X.509 Cert) and resource/action information for a given principal to get a simple boolean answer. In this model, the Athenz Management Service is the only component that needs to be deployed and managed within your environment.

This does not scale well enough for data-plane access, since a central service must be consulted, but requires no local installation of other components and related storage and synchronization logic, so it is suitable for human interaction and control-plane provisioning uses where the number of requests processed by the server is small and the latency for authorization checks is not important.


In Athenz, actors that can assume a role are called principals. Principals can be users or services, and users can be those looking for resources from a service or use the ZMS management console.

The user or service must be configured with Athenz CA certificates and require mutual client authentication to accept and validate the service's X.509 certificate. Once validated, it can extract the CN field from the certificate would be the service's identity. Finally, just like the user case, it which would perform an identical check with ZMS to confirm access passing the action, resource and service name to ZMS.

Authenticated Service as Principal