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May 19, 2019

Simplifying Microservices Security with Incremental mTLS


Kubernetes removes much of the complexity and difficulty involved in managing and operating a microservices application architecture. Out of the box, Kubernetes gives you advanced application lifecycle management techniques like rolling upgrades, resiliency via pod replication, auto-scalers and disruption budgets, efficient resource utilization with advanced scheduling strategies and health checks like readiness and liveness probes. Kubernetes also sets up basic networking capabilities which allow you to easily discover new services getting added to your cluster (via DNS) and enables pod to pod communication with basic load balancing.

However, most of the networking capabilities provided by Kubernetes and it’s CNI providers are constrained to layer 3/4 (networking/protocols like TCP/IP) of the OSI stack. This means that any advanced networking functionality (like retries or routing) which relies on higher layers i.e. parsing application protocols like HTTP/gRPC (layer 7) or encrypting traffic between pods using TLS (layer 5) has to be baked into the application. Relying on your applications to enforce network security is often fraught with landmines related to close coupling of your operations/security and development teams and at the same time adding more burden on your application developers to own complicated infrastructure code.

Let’s explore what it takes for applications to perform TLS encryption for all inbound and outbound traffic in a Kubernetes environment. In order to achieve TLS encryption, you need to establish trust between the parties involved in communication. For establishing trust, you need to create and maintain some sort of PKI infrastructure which can generate certificates, revoke them and periodically refresh them. As an operator, you now need a mechanism to provide these certificates (maybe use Kubernetes secrets?) to the running pods and update the pods when new certificates are minted. On the application side, you have to rely on OpenSSL (or its derivatives) to verify trust and encrypt traffic. The application developer team needs to handle upgrading these libraries when CVE fixes and upgrades are released. In addition to all these complexities, compliance concerns may also require you only support a TLS version (or higher) and subset of ciphers, which requires creating and supporting more configuration options in your applications. All of these challenges make it very hard for organizations to encrypt all pod network traffic on Kubernetes, whether it’s for compliance reasons or achieving a zero trust network model.

This is the problem that a service mesh leveraging the sidecar proxy approach is designed to solve. The sidecar proxy can initiate a TLS handshake and encrypt traffic without requiring any changes or support from the applications. In this architecture, the application pod makes a request in plain text to another application running in the Kubernetes cluster which the sidecar proxy takes over and transparently upgrades to use mutual TLS. Additionally, the Istio control plane component Citadel handles creating workload identities using the SPIFFE specification to create and renew certificates and mount the appropriate certificates to the sidecars. This removes the burden of encrypting traffic from developers and operators.

Istio provides a rich set of tools to configure mutual TLS globally (on or off) for the entire cluster or incrementally enabling mTLS for namespaces or a subset of services and its clients and incrementally adopting mTLS. This is where things get a little complicated. In order to correctly configure mTLS for one service, you need to configure an Authentication Policy for that service and the corresponding DestinationRules for its clients.

Both the Authentication policy and Destination rule follow a complex set of precedence rules which must be accounted for when creating these configuration objects. For example, a namespace level Authentication policy overrides the mesh level global policy, a service level policy overrides the namespace level and a service port level policy overrides the service specific Authentication policy. Destination rules allow you to specify the client side configuration based on host names where the highest precedence is the Destination rule defined in the client namespace then the server namespace and finally the global default Destination rule. On top of that, if you have conflicting Authentication policies or Destination rules, the system behavior can be indeterminate. A mismatch in Authentication policy and Destination rule can lead to subtle traffic failures which are difficult to debug and diagnose. Aspen Mesh makes it easy to understand mTLS status and avoid any configuration errors.

Editing these complex configuration files in YAML can be tricky and only compound the problem at hand. In order to simplify how you configure these resources and incrementally adopt mutual TLS in your environment, we are releasing a new feature which enables our customers to specify a service port (via APIs or UI) and their desired mTLS state (enabled or disabled). The Aspen Mesh platform automatically generates the correct set of configurations needed (Authentication policy and/or Destination rules) by inspecting the current state and configuration of your cluster. You can then view the generated YAMLs, edit as needed and store them in your CI system or apply them manually as needed. This feature removes the hassle of learning complex Istio resources and their interaction patterns, and provides you with valid, non-conflicting and functional Istio configuration.

Customers that we talk to are in various stages of migrating to a microservices architecture or Kubernetes environment which results in a hybrid environment where you have services which are consumed by clients not in the mesh or are deployed outside the Kubernetes environment, so some services require a different mTLS policy. Our hosted dashboard makes it easy for users to identify services and workloads which have mTLS turned on or off and then easily create configuration using the above workflow to change the mTLS state as needed.

If you’re an existing customer, please upgrade your cluster to our latest release (Aspen Mesh 1.1.3-am2) and login to the dashboard to start using the new capabilities.

If you’re interested in learning about Aspen Mesh and incrementally adopting mTLS in your cluster, you can sign up for a beta account here.

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