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Securing Istio Service Mesh

cert-manager can be integrated with Istio using the project istio-csr. istio-csr will deploy an agent that is responsible for receiving certificate signing requests for all members of the Istio mesh, and signing them through cert-manager.

istio-csr is an agent that allows for Istio workload and control plane components to be secured using cert-manager.

Certificates facilitating mTLS — both inter and intra-cluster — will be signed, delivered and renewed using cert-manager issuers.


See the installation guide for setting up istio-csr in a fresh kind cluster.

Following the guide is the best way to see istio-csr in action.

Lower-Level Details (For Experienced Istio Users)

⚠️ The installation guide guide is a better place if you just want to try istio-csr out!

Running istio-csr requires a few steps and preconditions in order:

  1. A cluster without Istio already installed
  2. cert-manager installed in the cluster
  3. An Issuer or ClusterIssuer which will be used to issue Istio certificates
  4. istio-csr installed (likely via helm)
  5. Istio installed with some custom config required, e.g. using the example config from the repository.

Why Custom Istio Install Manifests?

If you take a look at the contents of the example Istio install manifests there are a few custom configuration options which are important.

Required changes include setting ENABLE_CA_SERVER to false and setting the caAddress from which Istio will request certificates; replacing the CA server is the whole point of istio-csr!

Mounting and statically specifying the root CA is also an important recommended step. Without a manually specified root CA istio-csr defaults to trying to discover root CAs automatically, which could theoretically lead to a signer hijacking attack if for example a signer's token was stolen (such as the cert-manager controller's token).

Issuer or ClusterIssuer?

Unless you know you need a ClusterIssuer we'd recommend starting with an Issuer, since it should be easier to reason about the access controls for an Issuer; they're namespaced and so naturally a little more limited in scope.

That said, if you view your entire Kubernetes cluster as being a trust domain itself, then a ClusterIssuer is the more natural fit. The best choice will depend on your specific situation.

Our installation guide uses an Issuer.

Which Issuer Type?

Whether you choose to use an Issuer or a ClusterIssuer, you'll also need to choose the type of issuer you want such as:

The key requirement is that arbitrary values can be placed into the subjectAltName (SAN) X.509 extension, since Istio places SPIFFE IDs there.

That means that the ACME issuer will not work — publicly trusted certificates such as those issued by Let's Encrypt don't allow arbitrary entries in the SAN, for very good reasons.

If you're already using HashiCorp Vault then the Vault issuer is an obvious choice. If you want to control your own PKI entirely, we'd recommend the CA issuer. The choice is ultimately yours.

Installing istio-csr After Istio

This is unsupported because it's exceptionally difficult to do safely. It's likely that installing istio-csr after Istio isn't possible to do without downtime, since installing istio-csr second would require a time period where all Istio sidecars trust both the old Istio-managed CA and the new cert-manager controlled CA.

How Does istio-csr Work?

istio-csr implements the gRPC Istio certificate service which authenticates, authorizes, and signs incoming certificate signing requests from Istio workloads, routing all certificate handling through cert-manager installed in the cluster.

This seamlessly matches the behavior of istiod in a typical installation, while allowing certificate management through cert-manager.