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October 10, 2019

How to Debug Istio Mutual TLS (mTLS) Policy Issues Using Aspen Mesh


Users Care About Secure Service to Service Communication

Mutual TLS (mTLS) communication between services is a key Istio feature driving adoption as applications do not have to be altered to support it. mTLS provides client and server side security for service to service communications, enabling organizations to enhance network security with reduced operational burden (e.g. certificate management is handled by Istio). If you are interested in learning more about this, checkout Istio’s mTLS docs here. From regulatory concerns to auditing requirements and a host of other reasons businesses need to demonstrate they are following burgeoning security practices in a microservice landscape.

Many techniques evolved to help ease this requirement and enable businesses to focus on business value. Unfortunately, many of these techniques require expertise to ensure they are developed or configured properly, from IPSec to a wide range of other solutions. Unless you are a security expert, it is challenging to implement these techniques correctly. Managing ciphers, algorithms, rotating keys, certificates, and updating system libraries when CVEs are found is difficult for software developers, DevOps and sys admins to keep abreast of. Even seasoned security professionals can find it difficult to implement and audit such systems. As security is a core feature, this is where a service mesh like Aspen Mesh can help. A service mesh helps to alleviate these concerns with the goal of drastically lessening the burden of securing and auditing such systems, enabling users to focus on their core products.

Gradually Adopting mTLS Within Istio

At Aspen Mesh we recommend installing Istio with global mTLS enabled. However, very few deployments of Istio are in green-field environments where services are slowly adopted, created and can be monitored independently before new services are rolled out. In these cases, users will most likely adopt mTLS gradually service-by-service and will carefully monitor traffic behavior before proceeding to the next service.

A common problem that many users experience when enabling mTLS for service communication in their service mesh is inadvertently breaking traffic. A misconfigured AuthenticationPolicy or DestinationRule can affect communication unbeknownst to a user until other issues arise.

It is difficult to monitor for such specific failures because they occur at the transport layer (L4) where raw TCP connections are first established by the underlying OS after which the TLS handshake takes places. If a problem happens during this handshake the Envoy sidecar is not be able to create detailed diagnostic metrics and messaging as this error is not at the application layer (L7). While 503 errors can surface due to misconfiguration, a 503 alone is not specific enough to determine if the issue is due to misconfiguration or a misbehaving service. We are working with the Istio community to add telemetry for traffic failures related to mTLS misconfiguration. This requires surfacing the relevant information from Envoy which we are collaborating with in this pull request. Until such capability exists there are techniques and tools which we will discuss to aid you in debugging traffic management issues.

At Aspen Mesh we are trying to enable our users to feel confident in their ability to manage their infrastructure. Kubernetes, Istio and Aspen Mesh are the platform, but business value is derived from software written and configured in-house, so quickly resolving issues is paramount to our customer’s success.

Debugging Policy Issues With Aspen Mesh

We will now walk-through debugging policy issues when using Aspen Mesh. Many of the following techniques are relevant to Istio in case you don’t have Aspen Mesh installed.

In the below example, bookinfo was installed into the bookinfo namespace using Aspen Mesh with global mTLS set to PERMISSIVE. We then deployed three deployments that communicated with the productpage service spanning three different namespaces.

A namespace policy was created to set mTLS to be STRICT. However, no DestinationRules were created and as a result the system started to experience mTLS errors.

The graph suggests that there is a problem with traffic generator communicating with productpage. We will first inspect policy settings and logs of our services.

Determining the DestinationRule for a workload and an associated service is pretty straight-forward.

$ istioctl authn tls-check -n bookinfo traffic-generator-productpage-6b88d69f-xxfkn productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local

where traffic-generator-productpage-6b88d69f-xxfkn is the name of a pod within the bookinfo namespace and productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local is the server. The output will be similar to the following:

HOST:PORT                                       STATUS       SERVER     CLIENT     AUTHN POLICY         DESTINATION RULE
productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local:9080     CONFLICT     mTLS       HTTP       default/bookinfo     destrule-productpage/bookinfo

if no conflict is found then the STATUS column will say OK, but for this example there is a conflict that exists between the AuthenticationPolicy and the DestinationRule. Inspecting the output closely, we see that there is a namespace wide AuthenticationPolicy used–determined by its name of default–and what appears, by name, to be a host-specific DestinationRule.

Using kubectl we can directly inspect the contents of the DestinationRule:

$ kubectl get destinationrule -n bookinfo destrule-productpage -o yaml
kind: DestinationRule
  annotations: |
  creationTimestamp: "2019-10-10T20:24:48Z"
  generation: 1
  name: destrule-productpage
  namespace: bookinfo
  resourceVersion: "4874298"
  selfLink: /apis/
  uid: 01612af7-eb9c-11e9-a719-06457fb661c2
  - '*'
  host: productpage
      mode: DISABLE

A conflict does exist and we can simply fix this by altering our DestinationRule to have a mode of ISTIO_MUTUAL instead of DISABLE. For this example it was a fairly simple fix. At times, however, it is possible that you may see a DestinationRule that is different from the one you expect. Reasoning about the correct DestinationRule object can be difficult without first knowing the resolution hierarchy established by Istio. In our example, the DestinationRule above also applies to the traffic-generator workloads in the other namespaces as well.

DestinationRule Hierarchy Resolution

When Istio configures the sidecars for service to service communication, it must make a determination on which DestinationRule, if any, should be used to handle communication between each service. When a client attempts to contact a server, the client’s request is first routed to its sidecar and that sidecar inspects its configuration to determine the method by which it should establish a communication with the server’s sidecar.

The rules by which Istio creates these sidecar configurations are as follows: clients first look for DestinationRules in their own namespace that match the FQDN of the requested server. If no DestinationRule is found then the server’s namespace is checked for a DestinationRule; again, if no DestinationRule is found then the Istio root namespace (default is istio-system) is checked for a matching DestinationRule.

DestinationRules that use wildcards, specific ports and/or make use of exportTo can further make it arduous to determine DestinationRule resolution. Istio has set of guidelines to help users adopt rule changes found here.

It is also worthwhile to note that when a new DestinationRule is created to adhere to an AuthenticationPolicy change, it is important to keep any previously applied traffic rules, otherwise a behavioral change in service communication within your system may be experienced. For instance, if load balancing was previously LEAST_CONN for service to service communication due to a client namespace DestinationRule targeted for another namespace, then the new DestinationRule should inherit the load balancing setting, or the user will see a behavioral change in traffic patterns within their service mesh as load balancing for that service will use the default setting, ROUND_ROBIN.

Our product helps simplify this by respecting the rules set by Istio in 1.1.0+ and inspecting existing AuthenticationPolicies and DestinationRules when creating new ones.

Even so, it is best to use the fewest number of DestinationRules possible in a service mesh. While it is an incredibly powerful feature, it’s best used with discretion and intent.

Debugging Traffic Issues

Besides globally enabling mTLS and setting the outbound traffic policy to be more restrictive, we also recommend setting global.proxy.accessLogFile to log to /dev/stdout instead of /dev/null. This will enable you to view the access logs from the Envoy sidecar within your cluster when debugging Istio configuration and policy issues.

After applying an AuthenticationPolicy or a DestinationRule it is possible that 503 HTTP Status codes will start appearing. Here are a couple of checks to aid you in diagnosing the issue to see if it is related to an mTLS issue.

First, we we will repeat what we did above, with the name of the POD being the pod seeing the 503 HTTP Status return codes:

$ istioctl authn tls-check <PODNAME> <DESTINATION SERVICE FQDN FORMAT>

In most cases this will be all of the debugging you will have to do. However, we can also dig deeper to understand the issue and it never hurts to know more about the underlying infrastructure of your system.

Remember that in a distributed system changes may take a while to propagate through a system and both Pilot and Mixer are responsible for passing configuration and enforcing policy, respectively. Let’s start looking at some logs and configuration of sidecars.

By enabling proxy access logs we can view them directly:

$ kubectl logs -n <POD NAMESPACE> <PODNAME> -c istio-proxy 

where you may see logs similar to the following:

[2019-10-07T21:54:37.175Z] "GET /productpage HTTP/1.1" 503 UC "-" "-" 0 95 1 - "-" "curl/7.35.0" "819c2e8b-ddad-4579-8508-794ab7de5a55" "productpage:9080" "XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:9080" outbound|9080||productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local - XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:9080 XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:33834 -
[2019-10-07T21:54:38.188Z] "GET /productpage HTTP/1.1" 503 UC "-" "-" 0 95 1 - "-" "curl/7.35.0" "290b42e7-5140-4881-ae87-778b352adcad" "productpage:9080" "XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:9080" outbound|9080||productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local - XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:9080 XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:33840 -

It is important to note the 503 UC in the above access logs. The UC according to Envoy’s documentation states that UC means Upstream connection termination in addition to 503 response code. This helps us understand that it is likely to be an mTLS issue.

If the containers inside of your service mesh contain curl (or equivalent) you can also run the following command within a pod that is experiencing 503s:

$ kubectl exec -c <CONTAINER> <PODNAME> -it -- curl -vv http://<DESTINATIONSERVICE FQDN>:PORT

which may then output something akin to

* Rebuilt URL to: http://productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local:9080/
* Hostname was NOT found in DNS cache
*   Trying XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX...
* Connected to productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local (XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX) port 9080 (#0)
> GET / HTTP/1.1
> User-Agent: curl/7.35.0
> Host: productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local:9080
> Accept: */*
< HTTP/1.1 503 Service Unavailable
< content-length: 95
< content-type: text/plain
< date: Mon, 07 Oct 2019 22:09:23 GMT
* Server envoy is not blacklisted
< server: envoy
* Connection #0 to host productpage.bookinfo.svc.cluster.local left intact
upstream connect error or disconnect/reset before headers. reset reason: connection termination

The last line is what’s important. HTTP headers were not able to be sent before the underlying TCP connection was terminated. This is a very strong indication that the TLS handshake failed.

And lastly, you can inspect the configuration sent by Pilot to your pod’s sidecar using istioctl.

$ istioctl proxy-config cluster -n <POD NAMESPACE> <PODNAME> -o json

whereby if you search for the destination service name you will see an embedded metadata JSON element that names the specific DestinationRule that pod is currently using to communicate with the external service.

    "metadata": {
      "filterMetadata": {
        "istio": {
          "config": "/apis/networking/v1alpha3/namespaces/traffic-generator/destination-rule/named-destrule"

If you look closely at that returned object you can also inspect and verify rules being applied. The source of truth for a given moment is always found in your pod’s Envoy sidecar configuration so while you don’t need to become an expert and learn all of the nuances of debugging Istio it is another tool in your debugging toolbelt.

The Future

Istio is a incredibly sophisticated and powerful tool. Similar to other such tools, it requires expertise to get the most out of it, but the rewards are greater than the challenge. Aspen Mesh is committed to enabling Istio and our customers to succeed. As our platform matures, we will continue to help users by surfacing use cases and examples like in the above service graph, along with further in-depth ways to diagnose and troubleshoot issues. Lowering the mean time to detect (MTTD) and mean time to resolve (MTTR) for our users is critical to their success.

There are some exciting things that Aspen Mesh is planning to help our users tackle some of the hurdles we’ve found when adopting Istio. Keep an eye on our blog for future announcements.

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