You don’t have to spend much time in the cloud-native world before mTLS comes up. It shows up over and over again, especially once you start talking about zero trust. So what is it? What can it do, and what can it not do?
To answer these questions, let’s start with a quick look at TLS itself.
TLS - Transport Layer Security - is defined in RFC 8446. It’s the standard at the root of most of the secure communications happening online today. It can provide authentication and encryption of communications over insecure channels, and it’s designed to work with basically any connection-oriented Internet protocol. Note both that a connection is required (so HTTP/3 brings up some very interesting things, which I’ll be writing about later), and that setup can be costly, so TLS works best when you get to reuse the connection for multiple requests.
A critical component of TLS and mTLS is the certificate. More properly called X.509 Certificates, these things act like ID cards for the Internet. They’re based on asymmetric keypairs, where a cryptographic key is generated with a public half and a private half, and they gather up the public half of the keypair along with several pieces of information into one easy-to-transport blob of data.
Every certificate has a Subject and an Issuer:
- the Subject is the entity identified by the certificate;
- the Issuer is an entity that has certified that the Subject really is who they say they are.
In X.509 parlance, certifying the Subject’s identity is called “issuing” a certificate. Under the hood, the Issuer makes sure of the Subject’s identity, then uses its own certificate to sign the Subject’s certificate. This process can be (and often is) repeated, so that you end up with a certificate chain, where each certificate signs the next one in the chain. At the head of the chain - the root - you have a “self-signed” certificate, where the certificate signs itself.
Since certificates never contain private keys, they are always safe to distribute far and wide, and there’s also a simple way to bundle an entire certificate chain into a single file that you can pass around. This allows anyone receiving a certificate to also have everything they need to validate all the signatures the entire certificate chain (since verifying a signature only requires access to the public key of the signer).
TLS for the Web
While TLS can help secure basically any connection-oriented Internet protocol, it definitely came into its own with the World Wide Web, so it’s definitely worth looking to the Web as the de facto “normal” TLS use case:
The client makes a connection to the server, and the two parties conduct a key exchange which sets up the encryption to be used for the rest of the session.
The server sends its certificate chain to the client, and the client checks to make sure that the server’s certificate is valid.
The client and server start exchanging encrypted data.
Obviously I’m glossing over a lot of things here! The really critical bit to notice, though, is that while the client verifies the server’s identity, the server does not verify the client’s identity. In other words, TLS is doing unidirectional authentication – and it’s barely doing authorization at all. Remember:
Authentication (authn) has to do with identity: are you who you’re claiming to be?
Authorization (authz) has to do with policy: are you allowed to do the thing you’re trying to do?
The only authorization check in TLS is determining that the server has a valid certificate, ultimately signed by an issuer that your browser trusts. This is pretty minimal, but it’s usually OK for the Web — it will protect the human using a Web browser from being fooled by a malicious Web server, and that’s often all that’s necessary.
The cloud-native world, though, is not the Web.
TLS for the Cloud-Native World
In a cloud-native application, we’re looking at applications built out of microservices, which talk to each other in complex ways. The goals are different here, because of the nature of security in this world.
In particular, the cloud-native world doesn’t really have the concept of a security perimeter any more. Instead, we have to verify every access made to a microservice, every time – this is a foundation of zero trust, and it relies on authenticating both parties in order to authorize the request. We need both – but as we saw above, “normal” TLS doesn’t do this.
mTLS stands for mutual TLS. It takes TLS as we’ve just described it and adds the extra constraint that the server must also verify the client’s identity:
Workload A makes a connection to workload B, and the two parties conduct a key exchange which sets up the encryption to be used for the rest of the session.
Workload B sends its certificate chain to the workload A, and workload A checks to make sure that this chain is valid.
Workload A then sends its certificate chain to workload B, and workload B checks to make sure it’s valid.
The two workloads start exchanging encrypted data.
This is a small addition with a large impact. Authenticating both parties allows for meaningful authorization, which the service mesh can use to enforce meaningful security policies. So basically, this one change gives the mesh everything it needs for real zero trust.
Furthermore, cryptographic authentication gets us away from using anything about the network itself as a proxy for identity. This is a particularly important point when you’re talking about code running in a cluster where you don’t really have control over the network infrastructure: using a network you don’t control as a basis for identity gives you identity you can’t trust.
mTLS and Communications Security
One last thing, before we get into the details of mTLS in Linkerd, is a quick note about communications security. Proper communications security relies on three distinct things: confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity. If you don’t have all three, you can’t communicate securely:
Without confidentiality, anyone else can eavesdrop on data in transit. mTLS provides confidentiality using encryption.
Without integrity, anyone can modify your data in transit. mTLS provides integrity using, basically, checksums of blocks of data. (In cryptography this is called a message authentication code, or MAC, but it’s important to realize that it’s a different meaning of “authentication”.)
Without authenticity, an evildoer could easily pretend to be someone you trust. mTLS provides authenticity using certificates.
Note that we haven’t really said anything about authorization here. Much like with “normal” TLS, the only authorization that mTLS provides is the check that the certificates in play are valid and ultimately signed by a trusted issuer. Anything beyond that is up to something beyond mTLS: in our case, the service mesh.
mTLS in Linkerd
With all that under our belt, we can - finally! - talk about mTLS in Linkerd.
Linkerd uses industry-standard mTLS, implemented as open-source Rust code, for workload-to-workload communication. This communications-security functionality is deliberately not changed from what everyone else does: it’s intentionally boring and safe. About the only interesting thing to point out here is that, since the Linkerd microproxy mediates all workload-to-workload communications, it’s able to maintains long-lived proxy-to-proxy connections no matter what the application does, which can help reduce the overheard of TLS handshakes.
Linkerd’s certificate handling and policy enforcement, though, is worth talking about.
Certificates in Linkerd
In Linkerd, every meshed workload gets a workload certificate derived from its Kubernetes ServiceAccount token. This gives us a solid reference point for workload identity: Kubernetes users are already comfortable with Kubernetes ServiceAccounts, so cryptographically linking the certificate and the ServiceAccount is a solid way of establishing cluster-wide identity for a given workload.
Certificates, of course, must have an Issuer, and using self-signed
certificates for workloads would be counterproductive. Instead, Linkerd
provides an internal certifying authority (CA) called
which manages issuing and rotating workload certificates.
uses a two-layer hierarchy of trust:
- workload certificates are issued by the Linkerd identity issuer, and
- the identity issuer is issued by the Linkerd trust anchor.
Linkerd uses two layers to reduce operational complexity when it comes time to rotate certificates: while Linkerd transparently manages rotating workload certificates, rotating the identity issuer and trust anchor are operational tasks that must be directly managed by the mesh operator. Separating the two layers makes it fairly straightforward to rotate the identity issuer frequently without downtime, and Linkerd includes support for bundling together an old and new trust anchor to make it possible to rotate that without downtime too.
Additionally, this system makes it (mostly) straightforward to recover from a secret getting lost or compromised: you can recover with exactly the same process you’d use to rotate in a new certificate, and you’ll almost never need to incur downtime. (I say “almost” because having a trust anchor get lost or compromised can still be very annoying. Be careful with your trust anchors!)
Of course, real-world certificate handling can still be rather annoying, so Linkerd can work with several other tools to reduce the pain. One common choice is cert-manager, a CNCF project that’s all about managing certificates. There are also fully managed solutions like Buoyant’s own Buoyant Cloud, which can handle certificate management, upgrades, and alerting.
Authorization in Linkerd
Earlier I said that mTLS could handle communications security, but that it needed outside help from the mesh to handle authorization – and, of course, authorization is a critical part of mTLS. Linkerd handles authorization in, again, a fairly straightforward way: mTLS workload certificates provide the basis for authorization, and Linkerd allows policies to dictate what operations are allowed from a given workload to a given workload.
This is more subtle than it might seem. Since workload certificates are tied to ServiceAccounts, this mechanism of using mTLS workload certificates as authorization principals simultaneously:
- gives Linkerd very robust identities that are not tied to any network infrastructure;
- gives Linkerd a way to link its authorization mechanisms with existing Kubernetes security scopes and mechanism;
- arranges for the Linkerd security model to completely match existing Kubernetes mechanisms and models; and
- allows identity to easily accommodate any cluster topology (for example, multicluster identity Just Works).
So using mTLS to tie Linkerd identity to Kubernetes ServiceAccounts ends up being a simple-sounding decision with some pretty deep - and positive! - ramifications.
Is mTLS All You Need?
Spoiler alert: probably not. Sorry.
mTLS is a great tool for protecting against attacks that happen while data are flowing over the network. For example, spoofing attacks (where the attacker pretends to be someone else) generally fail when mTLS is in play: assuming that you’re being careful with certificates, the bad actor won’t have the right certificate. Likewise, a man-in-the-middle attacks where a bad actor is trying to directly modify the encrypted stream will be foiled by mTLS' integrity checks, and a similar man in the middle trying to terminate and then re-originate mTLS will, again, be foiled by certificate checking.
However, mTLS doesn’t do anything at all to help with attacks on data at rest, for example: once the data have finished traversing the network, mTLS has no effect on how the data are stored. And there are network-based attacks that mTLS can’t defend against either: for example, in any Kubernetes implementation, an attacker with free access to the Node may be able to mount interesting and subtle attacks based on recovering private keys or modifying network rules. And for Linkerd specifically, communications between the microproxy and the workload itself happen over the loopback connection in the clear, so a bad actor who can snoop on localhost might be able to mount an attack there.
So, like any other security technology, you still need to think about what threat vectors are relevant in your application, and how to mitigate any you care about. mTLS is a very powerful tool in your toolbox, but it won’t be the only one.
mTLS, Zero Trust, and Linkerd
Taking all this together, mTLS ends up being a critical part of Linkerd’s approach to cloud-native zero trust. Having a solid mechanism for workload identity tied to Kubernetes security models, and not tied to the network topology, gives Linkerd a great place to stand for taking advantage of mTLS' communications security and extending that into authorization and policy as well. And, as always, Linkerd’s position down in the infrastructure generally permits it to provide these benefits without needing any application changes.
If you want more on this topic, check out the Service Mesh Academy workshop
on mTLS with
for hands-on exploration of everything I’ve talked about here! And, as always,
feedback is always welcome – you can find me as
@flynn on the Linkerd