Security Best Practices

Istio security features provide strong identity, powerful policy, transparent TLS encryption, and authentication, authorization and audit (AAA) tools to protect your services and data. However, to fully make use of these features securely, care must be taken to follow best practices. It is recommended to review the Security overview before proceeding.

Mutual TLS

Istio will automatically encrypt traffic using Mutual TLS whenever possible. However, proxies are configured in permissive mode by default, meaning they will accept both mutual TLS and plaintext traffic.

While this is required for incremental adoption or allowing traffic from clients without an Istio sidecar, it also weakens the security stance. It is recommended to migrate to strict mode when possible, to enforce that mutual TLS is used.

Mutual TLS alone is not always enough to fully secure traffic, however, as it provides only authentication, not authorization. This means that anyone with a valid certificate can still access a service.

To fully lock down traffic, it is recommended to configure authorization policies. These allow creating fine-grained policies to allow or deny traffic. For example, you can allow only requests from the app namespace to access the hello-world service.

Understand traffic capture limitations

The Istio sidecar works by capturing both inbound traffic and outbound traffic and directing them through the sidecar proxy.

However, not all traffic is captured:

  • Redirection only handles TCP based traffic. Any UDP or ICMP packets will not be captured or modified.
  • Inbound capture is disabled on many ports used by the sidecar as well as port 22. This list can be expanded by options like traffic.sidecar.istio.io/excludeInboundPorts.
  • Outbound capture may similarly be reduced through settings like traffic.sidecar.istio.io/excludeOutboundPorts or other means.

In general, there is minimal security boundary between an application and its sidecar proxy. Configuration of the sidecar is allowed on a per-pod basis, and both run in the same network/process namespace. As such, the application may have the ability to remove redirection rules and remove, alter, terminate, or replace the sidecar proxy. This allows a pod to intentionally bypass its sidecar for outbound traffic or intentionally allow inbound traffic to bypass its sidecar.

As a result, it is not secure to rely on all traffic being captured unconditionally by Istio. Instead, the security boundary is that a client may not bypass another pod’s sidecar.

For example, if I run the reviews application on port 9080, I can assume that all traffic from the productpage application will be captured by the sidecar proxy, where Istio authentication and authorization policies may apply.

Defense in depth with NetworkPolicy

To further secure traffic, Istio policies can be layered with Kubernetes Network Policies. This enables a strong defense in depth strategy that can be used to further strengthen the security of your mesh.

For example, you may choose to only allow traffic to port 9080 of our reviews application. In the event of a compromised pod or security vulnerability in the cluster, this may limit or stop an attackers progress.

Securing egress traffic

A common misconception is that options like outboundTrafficPolicy: REGISTRY_ONLY acts as a security policy preventing all access to undeclared services. However, this is not a strong security boundary as mentioned above, and should be considered best-effort.

While this is useful to prevent accidental dependencies, if you want to secure egress traffic, and enforce all outbound traffic goes through a proxy, you should instead rely on an Egress Gateway. When combined with a Network Policy, you can enforce all traffic, or some subset, goes through the egress gateway. This ensures that even if a client accidentally or maliciously bypasses their sidecar, the request will be blocked.

Configure TLS verification in Destination Rule when using TLS origination

Istio offers the ability to originate TLS from a sidecar proxy or gateway. This enables applications that send plaintext HTTP traffic to be transparently “upgraded” to HTTPS.

Care must be taken when configuring the DestinationRule’s tls setting to specify the caCertificates field. When this is not set, the servers certificate will not be verified.

For example:

apiVersion: networking.istio.io/v1beta1
kind: DestinationRule
metadata:
  name: google-tls
spec:
  host: google.com
  trafficPolicy:
    tls:
      mode: SIMPLE
      caCertificates: /etc/ssl/certs/ca-certificates.crt

Gateways

When running an Istio gateway, there are a few resources involved:

  • Gateways, which controls the ports and TLS settings for the gateway.
  • VirtualServices, which control the routing logic. These are associated with Gateways by direct reference in the gateways field and a mutual agreement on the hosts field in the Gateway and VirtualService.

Restrict Gateway creation privileges

It is recommended to restrict creation of Gateway resources to trusted cluster administrators. This can be achieved by Kubernetes RBAC policies or tools like Open Policy Agent.

Avoid overly broad hosts configurations

When possible, avoid overly broad hosts settings in Gateway.

For example, this configuration will allow any VirtualService to bind to the Gateway, potentially exposing unexpected domains:

servers:
- port:
    number: 80
    name: http
    protocol: HTTP
  hosts:
  - "*"

This should be locked down to allow only specific domains or specific namespaces:

servers:
- port:
    number: 80
    name: http
    protocol: HTTP
  hosts:
  - "foo.example.com" # Allow only VirtualServices that are for foo.example.com
  - "default/bar.example.com" # Allow only VirtualServices in the default namespace that are for bar.example.com
  - "route-namespace/*" # Allow only VirtualServices in the route-namespace namespace for any host

Isolate sensitive services

It may be desired to enforce stricter physical isolation for sensitive services. For example, you may want to run a dedicated gateway instance for a sensitive payments.example.com, while utilizing a single shared gateway instance for less sensitive domains like blog.example.com and store.example.com. This can offer a stronger defense-in-depth and help meet certain regulatory compliance guidelines.

Protocol detection

Istio will automatically determine the protocol of traffic it sees. To avoid accidental or intentional miss detection, which may result in unexpected traffic behavior, it is recommended to explicitly declare the protocol where possible.

CNI

In order to transparently capture all traffic, Istio relies on iptables rules configured by the istio-init initContainer. This adds a requirement for the NET_ADMIN and NET_RAW capabilities to be available to the pod.

To reduce privileges granted to pods, Istio offers a CNI plugin which removes this requirement.

Use hardened docker images

Istio’s default docker images, including those run by the control plane, gateway, and sidecar proxies, are based on ubuntu. This provides various tools such as bash and curl, which trades off convenience for an increase attack surface.

Istio also offers a smaller image based on distroless images that reduces the dependencies in the image.

Release and security policy

In order to ensure your cluster has the latest security patches for known vulnerabilities, it is important to stay on the latest patch release of Istio and ensure that you are on a supported release that is still receiving security patches.

Detect invalid configurations

While Istio provides validation of resources when they are created, these checks cannot catch all issues preventing configuration being distributed in the mesh. This could result in applying a policy that is unexpectedly ignored, leading to unexpected results.

  • Run istioctl analyze before or after applying configuration to ensure it is valid.
  • Monitor the control plane for rejected configurations. These are exposed by the pilot_total_xds_rejects metric, in addition to logs.
  • Test your configuration to ensure it gives the expected results. For a security policy, it is useful to run positive and negative tests to ensure you do not accidentally restrict too much or too few traffic.

Avoid alpha and experimental features

All Istio features and APIs are assigned a feature status, defining its stability, deprecation policy, and security policy.

Because alpha and experimental features do not have as strong security guarantees, it is recommended to avoid them whenever possible. Security issues found in these features may not be fixed immediately or otherwise not follow our standard security vulnerability process.

To determine the feature status of features in use in your cluster, consult the Istio features list.

Lock down ports

Istio configures a variety of ports that may be locked down to improve security.

Control Plane

Istiod exposes a few unauthenticated plaintext ports for convenience by default. If desired, these can be closed:

  • Port 8080 exposes the debug interface, which offers read access to a variety of details about the clusters state. This can be disabled by set the environment variable ENABLE_DEBUG_ON_HTTP=false on Istiod. Warning: many istioctl commands depend on this interface and will not function if it is disabled.
  • Port 15010 exposes the XDS service over plaintext. This can be disabled by adding the --grpcAddr="" flag to the Istiod Deployment. Note: highly sensitive services, such as the certificate signing and distribution services, are never served over plaintext.

Data Plane

The proxy exposes a variety of ports. Exposed externally are port 15090 (telemetry) and port 15021 (health check). Ports 15020 and 15000 provide debugging endpoints. These are exposed over localhost only. As a result, the applications running in the same pod as the proxy have access; there is no trust boundary between the sidecar and application.

Configure third party service account tokens

To authenticate with the Istio control plane, the Istio proxy will use a Service Account token. Kubernetes supports two forms of these tokens:

  • Third party tokens, which have a scoped audience and expiration.
  • First party tokens, which have no expiration and are mounted into all pods.

Because the properties of the first party token are less secure, Istio will default to using third party tokens. However, this feature is not enabled on all Kubernetes platforms.

If you are using istioctl to install, support will be automatically detected. This can be done manually as well, and configured by passing --set values.global.jwtPolicy=third-party-jwt or --set values.global.jwtPolicy=first-party-jwt.

To determine if your cluster supports third party tokens, look for the TokenRequest API. If this returns no response, then the feature is not supported:

$ kubectl get --raw /api/v1 | jq '.resources[] | select(.name | index("serviceaccounts/token"))'
{
    "name": "serviceaccounts/token",
    "singularName": "",
    "namespaced": true,
    "group": "authentication.k8s.io",
    "version": "v1",
    "kind": "TokenRequest",
    "verbs": [
        "create"
    ]
}

While most cloud providers support this feature now, many local development tools and custom installations may not prior to Kubernetes 1.20. To enable this feature, please refer to the Kubernetes documentation.

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