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Manage TLS Certificates in a Cluster

Kubernetes provides a API, which lets you provision TLS certificates signed by a Certificate Authority (CA) that you control. These CA and certificates can be used by your workloads to establish trust. API uses a protocol that is similar to the ACME draft.

Before you begin

You need to have a Kubernetes cluster, and the kubectl command-line tool must be configured to communicate with your cluster. It is recommended to run this tutorial on a cluster with at least two nodes that are not acting as control plane hosts. If you do not already have a cluster, you can create one by using minikube or you can use one of these Kubernetes playgrounds:

To check the version, enter kubectl version.

Trusting TLS in a Cluster

Trusting the custom CA from an application running as a pod usually requires some extra application configuration. You will need to add the CA certificate bundle to the list of CA certificates that the TLS client or server trusts. For example, you would do this with a golang TLS config by parsing the certificate chain and adding the parsed certificates to the RootCAs field in the tls.Config struct.

You can distribute the CA certificate as a ConfigMap that your pods have access to use.

Requesting a Certificate

The following section demonstrates how to create a TLS certificate for a Kubernetes service accessed through DNS.

Download and install CFSSL

The cfssl tools used in this example can be downloaded at

Create a Certificate Signing Request

Generate a private key and certificate signing request (or CSR) by running the following command:

cat <<EOF | cfssl genkey - | cfssljson -bare server
  "hosts": [
  "CN": "",
  "key": {
    "algo": "ecdsa",
    "size": 256
  "names": [
      "O": "system:nodes"

Where is the service's cluster IP, is the service's DNS name, is the pod's IP and is the pod's DNS name. You should see the following output:

2017/03/21 06:48:17 [INFO] generate received request
2017/03/21 06:48:17 [INFO] received CSR
2017/03/21 06:48:17 [INFO] generating key: ecdsa-256
2017/03/21 06:48:17 [INFO] encoded CSR

This command generates two files; it generates server.csr containing the PEM encoded pkcs#10 certification request, and server-key.pem containing the PEM encoded key to the certificate that is still to be created.

Create a Certificate Signing Request object to send to the Kubernetes API

Generate a CSR yaml blob and send it to the apiserver by running the following command:

cat <<EOF | kubectl apply -f -
kind: CertificateSigningRequest
  request: $(cat server.csr | base64 | tr -d '\n')
  - digital signature
  - key encipherment
  - server auth

Notice that the server.csr file created in step 1 is base64 encoded and stashed in the .spec.request field. We are also requesting a certificate with the "digital signature", "key encipherment", and "server auth" key usages, signed by the signer. A specific signerName must be requested. View documentation for supported signer names for more information.

The CSR should now be visible from the API in a Pending state. You can see it by running:

kubectl describe csr
Labels:                 <none>
Annotations:            <none>
CreationTimestamp:      Tue, 21 Mar 2017 07:03:51 -0700
Requesting User:
Status:                 Pending
        Common Name:
        Serial Number:
Subject Alternative Names:
        DNS Names:
        IP Addresses:
Events: <none>

Get the Certificate Signing Request Approved

Approving the certificate signing request is either done by an automated approval process or on a one off basis by a cluster administrator. If you're authorized to approve a certificate request, you can do that manually using kubectl; for example:

kubectl certificate approve approved

Download the Certificate and Use It

Once the CSR is signed and approved you should see the following:

kubectl get csr
NAME                  AGE       REQUESTOR               CONDITION   10m    Approved,Issued

You can download the issued certificate and save it to a server.crt file by running the following:

kubectl get csr -o jsonpath='{.status.certificate}' \
    | base64 --decode > server.crt

Now you can use server.crt and server-key.pem as the keypair to start your HTTPS server.

Approving Certificate Signing Requests

A Kubernetes administrator (with appropriate permissions) can manually approve (or deny) Certificate Signing Requests by using the kubectl certificate approve and kubectl certificate deny commands. However if you intend to make heavy usage of this API, you might consider writing an automated certificates controller.

Whether a machine or a human using kubectl as above, the role of the approver is to verify that the CSR satisfies two requirements:

  1. The subject of the CSR controls the private key used to sign the CSR. This addresses the threat of a third party masquerading as an authorized subject. In the above example, this step would be to verify that the pod controls the private key used to generate the CSR.
  2. The subject of the CSR is authorized to act in the requested context. This addresses the threat of an undesired subject joining the cluster. In the above example, this step would be to verify that the pod is allowed to participate in the requested service.

If and only if these two requirements are met, the approver should approve the CSR and otherwise should deny the CSR.

A Word of Warning on the Approval Permission

The ability to approve CSRs decides who trusts whom within your environment. The ability to approve CSRs should not be granted broadly or lightly. The requirements of the challenge noted in the previous section and the repercussions of issuing a specific certificate should be fully understood before granting this permission.

A Note to Cluster Administrators

This tutorial assumes that a signer is setup to serve the certificates API. The Kubernetes controller manager provides a default implementation of a signer. To enable it, pass the --cluster-signing-cert-file and --cluster-signing-key-file parameters to the controller manager with paths to your Certificate Authority's keypair.

Last modified November 16, 2021 at 11:17 AM PST : Update (0cb7bc3295)