Julia Evans

Day 20: trying to figure out how Google Cloud IAM works

Hello! I spent all day on Friday trying to run a Rails app in Google Cloud run and I partially succeeded, so I wanted to write down the main points I found confusing.

Google Cloud’s IAM is different from AWS IAM

I’ve worked with AWS IAM a lot, and GCP’s IAM seems pretty different. The way I’m used to IAM working in AWS is:

  1. You create an IAM role for a service/machine/whatever
  2. You give permissions to that IAM role (like “this role can access this S3 bucket”)
  3. That’s it

As far as I can tell, with Google Cloud both the terminology used in IAM and the way it works is different.

Here are the mappings (as far as I can tell) from GCP IAM concepts to AWS IAM concepts

  • an “IAM role” in Google Cloud is like a “permission” in AWS (NOT like an AWS IAM role). So for example roles/cloudsql.client lets you access SQL instances
  • a “service account” in Google Cloud is kiiiind of like a “IAM role” in AWS – it’s the identity of a service. I think there are some pretty significant differences though.

So “IAM role” in GCP and “IAM role” in AWS have completely different meanings. Cool, that’s fine, we can work with that.

how to assign a GCP IAM role to a service account

Like I said before, assigning an AWS permission to an AWS IAM role is pretty simple (here’s the terraform to do it.

I thought it would be the same in GCP (“just assign a role to a service account”), but it’s completely different.

Instead of there being 1 single way to assign a permission to an identity (like “this service can do X and Y and Z”), the way you give a service account access to a resource is different depending on the kind of resource.

For example. Let’s say I want to give my service account access to a secret. Here’s the command line incantation to do that:

gcloud beta secrets add-iam-policy-binding rails-master-key
--role=roles/secretmanager.secretAccessor ```

or in Terraform:

resource "google_secret_manager_secret_iam_binding" "binding" {
  project   = "refrigerator-poetry"
  secret_id = google_secret_manager_secret.railsmaster.secret_id
  role      = "roles/secretmanager.secretAccessor"
  members = [

The general gcloud command line rule here seems to be (from the GCP documentation on granting access):

gcloud GROUP add-iam-policy-binding RESOURCE --member=MEMBER --role=ROLE-ID

Okay, this isn’t what I’d hoped for (a single JSON file or something where I can specify everything my service account can access), but at least there’s a pattern. We can work with that!

ok, so what if we want to give a service account access to a SQL database?

I used the above approach to give my service account access to the secrets it needed access to. Hooray!

Next I wanted to give a service account access to a SQL database. The pattern from before is:

gcloud GROUP add-iam-policy-binding RESOURCE --member=MEMBER --role=ROLE-ID

which seems like it should translate to something like

gcloud sql instances add-iam-policy-binding my-db --member=serviceAccount:my-account@whatever --role=roles/cloudsql.client

But it doesn’t. gcloud sql instances add-iam-policy-binding doesn’t exist, and gcloud sql add-iam-policy-binding doesn’t exist either. So it seems like if you want to give access to a SQL instance, you need to do something different.

At this point it was like 11:30PM so I gave up and granted my service account very broad permissions on the project (roles/editor) because I just wanted to get something to work.

Here’s what I ran:

gcloud projects add-iam-policy-binding  PROJECT_NAME \
                              --member=serviceAccount:account-email@whatever --role=roles/editor

and that worked! I still don’t know the correct way to grant access to a SQL instance but that’s a fight for another day. At least I know you need to do something different than for other types of resources.

the terraform IAM resources are apparently generated with ERB

I spent many hours with Kamal trying to understand how this works, and he went and figured out how the Terraform resources that assign roles to service accounts work. I was really surprised by this so here it is!

In the GCP Terraform provider, there are dozens of different resources to assign a role to an identity, one for each different kind of GCP resource. (in contract with AWS, where it’s just aws_iam_role, aws_iam_policy, aws_iam_role_policy).

Here are just a few.


So if you want to give a service account access to a google_iap_web_backend (whatever that is), you use a google_iap_web_backend_service_iam_binding. Okay!

But there are all of these almost identical things, so how are they generated? As promised in the section heading, it seems to be a bunch of Go code templated with ERB.

Kamal did a bunch of digging and found this ERB template which generates a giant Go program that defines all these resources. So I guess that’s how they generate a lot of resources that are very similar.

I still don’t really understand how this works

My guess is that there are some upsides to the GCP approach to identity management that I don’t understand yet – I’ve only used it for like 4 hours and I’ve spent a LOT more time using AWS IAM.

But I still don’t really understand how to use it – I feel like there should be a way to define “here are all the things this service account is allowed to do” in a single place, but I haven’t found it yet. Maybe I’ll figure it out soon!

Day 18: an answer to an autoencoder question How I write useful programming comics