As you break apart your monolith into microservices, you’ll gain a slew of advantages such as scalability, increased uptime and better fault isolation. A downside of breaking applications apart into smaller services is that there is a greater area for attack. Additionally, all the communication that used to take place via function calls within the monolith is now exposed to the network. Adding security that addresses this must be a core consideration on your microservices journey.

One of the key benefits of Istio, the open source service mesh that Aspen Mesh is built on, is that it provides unique service mesh security and policy enforcement to microservices. An important thing to note is that while a service mesh adds several important security features, it is not the end-all-be-all for microservices security. It’s important to also consider a strategy around network security (a good read on how the network can help manage microservices), which can detect and neutralize attacks on the service mesh infrastructure itself, to ensure you’re entirely protected against today’s threats.

So let’s look at the attack vectors that Istio addresses, which include traffic control at the edge, traffic encryption within the mesh and layer-7 policy control.

Security at the Edge
Istio adds a layer of security that allows you to monitor and address compromising traffic as it enters the mesh. Istio integrates with Kubernetes as an ingress controller and takes care of load balancing for ingress. This allows you to add a level of security at the perimeter with ingress rules. You can apply monitoring around what is coming into the mesh and use route rules to manage compromising traffic at the edge.

To ensure that only authorized users are allowed in, Istio’s Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) provides flexible, customizable control of access at the namespace-level, service-level and method-level for services in the mesh. RBAC provides two distinct capabilities: the RBAC engine watches for changes on RBAC policy and fetches the updated RBAC policy if it sees any changes, and authorizes requests at runtime, by evaluating the request context against the RBAC policies, and returning the authorization result.

Encrypting Traffic
Security at the edge is a good start, but if a malicious actor gets through, Istio provides defense with mutual TLS encryption of the traffic between your services. The mesh can automatically encrypt and decrypt requests and responses, removing that burden from the application developer. It can also improve performance by prioritizing the reuse of existing, persistent connections, reducing the need for the computationally expensive creation of new ones.

Istio provides more than just client server authentication and authorization, it allows you to understand and enforce how your services are communicating and prove it cryptographically. It automates the delivery of the certificates and keys to the services, the proxies use them to encrypt the traffic (providing mutual TLS), and periodically rotates certificates to reduce exposure to compromise. You can use TLS to ensure that Istio instances can verify that they’re talking to other Istio instances to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks.

Istio makes TLS easy with Citadel, the Istio Auth controller for key management. It allows you to secure traffic over the wire and also make strong identity-based authentication and authorization for each microservice.

Policy Control and Enforcement
Istio gives you the ability to enforce policy at the application level with layer-7 level control. Applying policy at the this level is ideal for service routing, retries, circuit-breaking, and for security that operates at the application layer, such as token validation. Istio provides the ability to set up allowlists and denylists so you can let in what you know is safe and keep out what you know isn’t.

Istio’s Mixer enables integrating extensions into the system and lets you declare policy constraints on network, or service behavior, in a standardized expression language. The benefit is that you can funnel all of those things through a common API which enables you to cache policy decisions at the edge of the service so, if the downstream policy systems start to fail, the network stays up.

Istio addresses some key concerns that arise with microservices. You can make sure that only the services that are supposed to talk to each other are talking to each other. You can encrypt those communications to secure against attacks that can occur when those services interact, and you can apply application-wide policy. While there are other, manual, ways to accomplish much of this, the beauty of a mesh is that is brings several capabilities together and lets you apply them in a manner that is scalable.

At Aspen Mesh, we’re working on some new capabilities to help you get the most out of the security features in Istio. We’ll be posting something on that in the near future so check back in on the Aspen Mesh blog. Or to learn more, get the free white paper on achieving Zero-trust security for containerized applications here.