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Secure database access from web apps

Nazmul Idris Software Engineer
Published 2023-08-18
LearningSecure database access from web apps

In this blog post we will explore the Ockam command line interface, ockam and see how we can connect a traditional web app to a PostgreSQL database, with minimal / no code changes. We will create a very basic Python Flask app that simply increments a counter in a PostgreSQL database. Then we will move the connection between the application and database through an Ockam secure channel.

What is Ockam

Ockam is a suite of Rust libraries, command line tools, and managed cloud services for orchestrating end-to-end encryption, mutual authentication, key management, credential management, and authorization policy enforcement — all on a massive scale. Ockam's end-to-end secure channels guarantee authenticity, integrity, and confidentiality of all data-in-motion at the application layer.

If you store your data in a relational database, NoSQL, graph database, or something similar, that data is probably private. And you probably don't want to expose it to the Internet. So you can resolve this issue by placing it inside a private subnet. However, now you have to manage network access control lists, security groups, or route tables to allow other machines to open a connection to the database. That is a lot of overhead.

With Ockam, network administrators don't have to update network access control lists, security groups, or route tables. Ockam applies fine grained control to your services via Attribute-Based Access Control. And you can even integrate with an external identity provider like Okta to restrict who can access your services.

Our journey

Before we get started, let's take a look at the steps we'll perform in this blog post.

Our journey

  1. Use ockam enroll to install the Ockam application and create an Ockam project. This is the first prerequisite.
  2. Set up the PostgreSQL database. This is the second prerequisite. Then configure an Ockam "outlet" to the database server. We will learn more about this in the "connect the database" section below.
  3. Set up the web app (Python Flask). This is the third prerequisite. Then configure an Ockam "inlet" from the Python app. We will learn more about this in the "connect the web app" section below.


In order to follow along, please make sure to install all the prerequisites listed below.

  1. Ockam Command

    • Run brew install build-trust/ockam/ockam to install this via brew. You'll then be able to run the ockam CLI app in your terminal.
  2. Python, and libraries: Flash, psycopg2

    • Run brew install python to install this via brew. You'll then be able to run the python3 command in your terminal.
    • Instructions on how to get the dependencies (Flask, psycopg2) are in the Python Code section below.
  3. Postgresql

    • Run brew install postgresql@15 via brew. You'll then be able to run the PostgreSQL database server on your machine on the default port of 5432. Please make sure to follow brew's instructions and add PostgreSQL to your path.
    • Run brew services start postgresql@15 to start the PostgreSQL server.
    • Then you can set a new password for the database user postgres. Set this password to password. The Python Code below uses postgres:password@localhost as the connection string for the db driver. These instructions below allow you to do this on Linux and macOS.
      • In a terminal run sudo -u postgres psql --username postgres --password --dbname template1 to login to the database locally as the postgres user.
      • Then type this into REPL: ALTER USER postgres PASSWORD 'password';, and finally type exit.
      • You can learn more about this here.

The Web App - Python Code

The Python Flask web app increments a counter in a PostgreSQL database. The entire app fits in a single file. Create a file on your machine and copy and paste the code below into it.

import os
import psycopg2
from flask import Flask



app = Flask(__name__)
pg_port = os.environ['APP_PG_PORT'] # 5432 is the default port
url = "postgres://postgres:password@localhost:%s/"%pg_port
connection = psycopg2.connect(url)

def hello_world():
    with connection:
        with connection.cursor() as cursor:
            cursor.execute(INSERT_RETURN_ID, ("",))
            id = cursor.fetchone()[0]
    return "I've been visited {} times".format(id), 201

In this script, we use "postgres://postgres:password@localhost:%s/"%pg_port to establish a connection to the database.

  • pg_port gets its value from the environment variable APP_PG_PORT.
  • We will set the environment variable APP_PG_PORT to 5432 before we run the Python script (instructions below).
  • So the database connection string simply points to localhost:5432.

Run the web app

Follow the instructions below to run the web app.

  1. First, make sure to add the required Python dependencies with:
# Install flask.
pip3 install flask
# Install psycopg2.
pip3 install psycopg2-binary
  1. Then start the Flask app ( with:
export APP_PG_PORT=5432
flask --app main run
  1. Finally, in a web browser open this URL: http://localhost:5000/.

This Flask app will show you how many times you visited it, and store each new visit in the PostgreSQL database 🎉.

Install Ockam

Now that we have set up our web app and database let's do this next:

  1. Add Ockam to the mix.
  2. Update our APP_PG_PORT environment variable so that it connects to a new port (not 5432 which is the where the PostgreSQL server runs).

First, let's run ockam enroll. Make sure that you've already installed the Ockam CLI as described in the prerequisites section above.

In a terminal window, run this command and follow the prompts to complete the enrollment process (into Ockam Orchestrator).

ockam enroll

This is what the ockam enroll command does:

  • It checks that everything is installed correctly after successful enrollment with Ockam Orchestrator.
  • It creates a Space and Project for you in Ockam Orchestrator and provisions an End-to-End Encrypted Relay in your default project at /project/default.

Connect the database

Next, let's set up a tcp-outlet that allows us to send raw TCP traffic to the PostgreSQL server on port 5432. Then create a relay in our default Orchestrator project. To do this, run these commands in your terminal.

export PG_PORT=5432
ockam tcp-outlet create --to $PG_PORT
ockam relay create


  • We use PG_PORT environment variable here, and not APP_PG_PORT (which is used in our web app). It points to the default PostgreSQL port of 5432. In the section below we will change APP_PG_PORT to a different value.
  • We'll create the corresponding tcp-inlet in the next section.

Connect the web app

Finally, let's setup a local tcp-inlet so we can receive raw TCP traffic on port 5433 before it is forwarded.

export OCKAM_PORT=5433
ockam tcp-inlet create --from $OCKAM_PORT


  • The new environment variable $OCKAM_PORT points to a new port 5433.
  • This is the port that the tcp-inlet will listen on. And it is different from the default PostgreSQL port.

Next, start your web app again with the commands below.

flask --app main run

Finally, connect to this URL again from your web browser http://localhost:5000/.

  1. We have changed the $APP_PG_PORT to the same value as $OCKAM_PORT (5433). Our web app ( script) does not directly connect to the unsecure database server (on port 5432). It now goes through the secure channel 🔐.
  2. The counter will continue to increment just as it did before, with zero code changes to your application. But the web app now communicates with the database through an Ockam secure channel 🎉.

Multiple machines

You can also extend this example and move the PostgreSQL service into a Docker container or to an entirely different machine. Once the nodes are registered (after ockam enroll runs), this demo will continue to work, with no application code changes and no need to expose the PostgreSQL ports directly to the Internet.

Also, you can run the web app and the database on different machines. To do this:

  1. Change localhost in the script to the IP address of the machine that hosts the database.
  2. Run ockam enroll on both machines (the web app machine and the database server machine).

Explore other commands

Now that you've completed this example, here are some commands for you to try and see what they do. You can always look up the details on what they do in the manual. As you try each of these, please keep an eye out for things you may have created in this exercise.

  • Try ockam node list. Do you see the nodes that you created in this exercise?
  • Try ockam node --help. These are shorter examples for you to get familiar with commands.
  • Try ockam node show web. Do you see the tcp-inlet that you created in this exercise?
  • Try ockam node show db. Do you see the tcp-outlet that you created in this exercise?
  • Try ockam identity list. Do you see the identities you created in this exercise?

Next Article

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