Options for automatically creating certificates for mutual pod authentication

13 Nov 2022 15:04 kubernetes certificates

I want to set up an Erlang cluster in Kubernetes, using TLS with mutual authentication. This post discusses some of the potential options for doing that. It’s also applicable to general mutual TLS between pods.

When doing mutual TLS authentication between pods, we need each pod to have its own certificate. It will use this certificate as both a server certificate and a client certificate. All of the certificates should be issued by the same certificate authority.

The problem is that we can’t easily create the certificates ahead of time, because the pod names aren’t known at that point. Moreover, the usual way to make keys and certificates available to containers is as secrets, which aren’t pod-specific.

Certificate Signing Requests

Kubernetes has an in-built CertificateSigningRequest resource. Extremely simplified, it works like this:

  1. Create a CertificateSigningRequest resource.
  2. A controller in the cluster watches for these.
  3. It signs the request and puts the result in the status.certificate field.

This is explained in more detail (and with more manual steps) here: Manage TLS Certificates in a Cluster.

My initial plan was to have an init container in the pod which would submit the CertificateSigningRequest and would wait for it to be signed. It would then write that to a shared volume for the main container to find.

The problem with this scheme is that Kubernetes only includes controllers for specific types of CertificateSigningRequest resources, mostly for kubelet mutual authentication, and it doesn’t support general certificate use cases.

Nitpicking: you can enable a default certificate signer (see Configuring your cluster to provide signing) on the Manage TLS Certificates in a Cluster page), but it only allows for a single CA, and it requires the CA key and certificate live somewhere on the bare metal running the cluster.

I haven’t done much investigation, but it’s not clear to me how you get that configured on, e.g., EKS or AKS, or – in my case – on K3s. It also seems like a thing that your DevSecOps team are going to have a conniption fit over.

I could probably write my own controller to implement this, but that seems like a lot of effort. It also seems that CertificateSigningRequest resources are cluster-wide (they’re not namespaced), which means any such controller would need cluster-wide permissions. Again, your DevSecOps team are likely to be asking pointed questions about that.

So that’s probably out.


Then it occurred to me that I’ve got cert-manager installed on my cluster. That does support general certificate use cases. In fact, that’s what it’s for. Can I leverage that at all?

At its most basic, cert-manager watches for Certificate resources, which specify various certificate attributes, and it creates (and keeps in sync) a Secret resource containing the generated certificate for each one.

The problem with that is that Secret resources aren’t pod-specific, and we need a unique certificate for each pod.

But cert-manager does also provide CertificateRequest resources, which are functionally the same as CertificateSigningRequest resources.

To see it in action, you can follow the Normal User example in the Kubernetes “Certificate Signing Requests” documentation. But instead of a Kubernetes CertificateSigningRequest, create a cert-manager CertificateRequest instead:

cat <<EOF | kubectl apply -f -
apiVersion: cert-manager.io/v1
kind: CertificateRequest
  name: myuser
  request: LS0tLS1...
  isCA: false
  - server auth
  - client auth
  # 90 days
  duration: 2160h
    name: my-cluster-issuer
    kind: ClusterIssuer

Other Options

  • cert-manager provides a CSI Driver specifically for mTLS of Pods. See https://cert-manager.io/docs/usage/csi/. The documentation seems a bit sparse and I’ve not had a chance to play with it yet.
  • There’s an experimental feature for cert-manager that allows it to process Kubernetes-native CertificateSigningRequest objects; see https://cert-manager.io/docs/usage/kube-csr/. This would allow you to use an init container, but without directly adding a dependency on cert-manager.


To support mutual authentication between pods, I’m going to go with the following plan:

  • Assume cert-manager.
  • Each pod has an init container that:
    1. Creates cert-manager CertificateRequest objects.
    2. Waits for the certificate to be ready.
    3. Writes the certificate to a shared volume.
  • Use that certificate for mutual TLS authentication.

Open Questions

  • Garbage collection. Someone’s got to delete the CertificateRequest objects.
    • CronJob, maybe?
  • Expiry and rotation. The example above has 90 day duration. When that expires, who’s going to rotate it?
    • Probably a sidecar container in addition to/instead of the init container.
  • …etc.