Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Security Details: Serverless database access within IBM Watson Conversation service

Slackbot Architecture
Last week, I introduced you to a new tutorial for a database-driven Slackbot. Today, I am going to discuss details of how the IBM Watson Conversation service is accessing a Db2 Warehouse service from within a dialog. It uses a serverless setup with IBM Cloud Functions. All the necessary credentials to execute the code and to access the Db2 database are automatically bound. Hence, the function code and the dialog don't need any account-specific changes and are generic.

Programmatic Calls from a dialog node

The Conversation service allows to make programmatic calls from a dialog node. It supports both server- and client-side actions. For a client-side action the response to the caller is flagged. It means for the caller to look for action-specific metadata, execute the intended action and to again call into the Conversation dialog. For a server-side action the Conversation service utilizes IBM Cloud Functions and invokes the specified action.


In order to do so, it needs the appropriate credentials to execute the intended action. Best practice is to configure the dialog node with a variable that, as a value, holds the variable name of where to find the JSON-formatted username and password. This is also what I implemented for the server-side actions in the Slackbot tutorial. The username and password need to be passed in by the caller to the Conversation service. In the case of the Slackbot, the caller is the Conversation connector, a serverless, Cloud Functions-based framework itself. The connector consists of a sequence of actions. Each part of the sequence can be adapted.Default Pipeline Architecture

For the Slackbot, the pre-conversation action is the best for adding credentials. That action sits between the handling of Slack- and Facebook-specific tasks and calling into the Conversation service. What I had to do is to implement own version of pre-conversation and update the action with my code. The action is using an OpenWhisk environment variable, OW_API_KEY, to access the user and password information. Thereafter, it adds that data as the configured variable to the call context into the Conversation service. With that information present, the Conversation can invoke the server-side action which accesses Db2.

Action Bindings

To retrieve data and store new events, the action needs Db2 service credentials. This can be accomplished by binding the action to that service. The CLI for IBM Cloud Functions has a command for that purpose. It is used by my setup script to bind the database-related actions to a specific service key which I created for the Db2 service on IBM Cloud.


To call serverless actions and to access the Db2 service credentials are needed. They protect the resources from unauthorized access and use. I could solve access management for my Slackbot tutorial elegantly with the features offered by IBM Cloud and its services: A service key and action binding for the Db2 access, a meta-variable and a Cloud Functions environment variable for the service-side actions in the Conversation service.

If you have feedback, suggestions, or questions about this post, please reach out to me on Twitter (@data_henrik) or LinkedIn.

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