Certificate Management with kubeadm

FEATURE STATE: Kubernetes v1.15 [stable]

Client certificates generated by kubeadm expire after 1 year. This page explains how to manage certificate renewals with kubeadm. It also covers other tasks related to kubeadm certificate management.

Before you begin

You should be familiar with PKI certificates and requirements in Kubernetes.

Using custom certificates

By default, kubeadm generates all the certificates needed for a cluster to run. You can override this behavior by providing your own certificates.

To do so, you must place them in whatever directory is specified by the --cert-dir flag or the certificatesDir field of kubeadm's ClusterConfiguration. By default this is /etc/kubernetes/pki.

If a given certificate and private key pair exists before running kubeadm init, kubeadm does not overwrite them. This means you can, for example, copy an existing CA into /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.crt and /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.key, and kubeadm will use this CA for signing the rest of the certificates.

External CA mode

It is also possible to provide only the ca.crt file and not the ca.key file (this is only available for the root CA file, not other cert pairs). If all other certificates and kubeconfig files are in place, kubeadm recognizes this condition and activates the "External CA" mode. kubeadm will proceed without the CA key on disk.

Instead, run the controller-manager standalone with --controllers=csrsigner and point to the CA certificate and key.

There are various ways to prepare the component credentials when using external CA mode.

Manual preparation of component credentials

PKI certificates and requirements includes information on how to prepare all the required by kubeadm component credentials manually.

Preparation of credentials by signing CSRs generated by kubeadm

kubeadm can generate CSR files that you can sign manually with tools like openssl and your external CA. These CSR files will include all the specification for credentials that components deployed by kubeadm require.

Automated preparation of component credentials by using kubeadm phases

Alternatively, it is possible to use kubeadm phase commands to automate this process.

  • Go to a host that you want to prepare as a kubeadm control plane node with external CA.
  • Copy the external CA files ca.crt and ca.key that you have into /etc/kubernetes/pki on the node.
  • Prepare a temporary kubeadm configuration file called config.yaml that can be used with kubeadm init. Make sure that this file includes any relevant cluster wide or host-specific information that could be included in certificates, such as, ClusterConfiguration.controlPlaneEndpoint, ClusterConfiguration.certSANs and InitConfiguration.APIEndpoint.
  • On the same host execute the commands kubeadm init phase kubeconfig all --config config.yaml and kubeadm init phase certs all --config config.yaml. This will generate all required kubeconfig files and certificates under /etc/kubernetes/ and its pki sub directory.
  • Inspect the generated files. Delete /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.key, delete or move to a safe location the file /etc/kubernetes/super-admin.conf.
  • On nodes where kubeadm join will be called also delete /etc/kubernetes/kubelet.conf. This file is only required on the first node where kubeadm init will be called.
  • Note that some files such pki/sa.*, pki/front-proxy-ca.* and pki/etc/ca.* are shared between control plane nodes, You can generate them once and distribute them manually to nodes where kubeadm join will be called, or you can use the --upload-certs functionality of kubeadm init and --certificate-key of kubeadm join to automate this distribution.

Once the credentials are prepared on all nodes, call kubeadm init and kubeadm join for these nodes to join the cluster. kubeadm will use the existing kubeconfig and certificate files under /etc/kubernetes/ and its pki sub directory.

Check certificate expiration

You can use the check-expiration subcommand to check when certificates expire:

kubeadm certs check-expiration

The output is similar to this:

admin.conf                 Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d                                    no
apiserver                  Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            ca                      no
apiserver-etcd-client      Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            etcd-ca                 no
apiserver-kubelet-client   Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            ca                      no
controller-manager.conf    Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d                                    no
etcd-healthcheck-client    Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            etcd-ca                 no
etcd-peer                  Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            etcd-ca                 no
etcd-server                Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            etcd-ca                 no
front-proxy-client         Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d            front-proxy-ca          no
scheduler.conf             Dec 30, 2020 23:36 UTC   364d                                    no

ca                      Dec 28, 2029 23:36 UTC   9y              no
etcd-ca                 Dec 28, 2029 23:36 UTC   9y              no
front-proxy-ca          Dec 28, 2029 23:36 UTC   9y              no

The command shows expiration/residual time for the client certificates in the /etc/kubernetes/pki folder and for the client certificate embedded in the kubeconfig files used by kubeadm (admin.conf, controller-manager.conf and scheduler.conf).

Additionally, kubeadm informs the user if the certificate is externally managed; in this case, the user should take care of managing certificate renewal manually/using other tools.

Automatic certificate renewal

kubeadm renews all the certificates during control plane upgrade.

This feature is designed for addressing the simplest use cases; if you don't have specific requirements on certificate renewal and perform Kubernetes version upgrades regularly (less than 1 year in between each upgrade), kubeadm will take care of keeping your cluster up to date and reasonably secure.

If you have more complex requirements for certificate renewal, you can opt out from the default behavior by passing --certificate-renewal=false to kubeadm upgrade apply or to kubeadm upgrade node.

Manual certificate renewal

You can renew your certificates manually at any time with the kubeadm certs renew command, with the appropriate command line options.

This command performs the renewal using CA (or front-proxy-CA) certificate and key stored in /etc/kubernetes/pki.

After running the command you should restart the control plane Pods. This is required since dynamic certificate reload is currently not supported for all components and certificates. Static Pods are managed by the local kubelet and not by the API Server, thus kubectl cannot be used to delete and restart them. To restart a static Pod you can temporarily remove its manifest file from /etc/kubernetes/manifests/ and wait for 20 seconds (see the fileCheckFrequency value in KubeletConfiguration struct. The kubelet will terminate the Pod if it's no longer in the manifest directory. You can then move the file back and after another fileCheckFrequency period, the kubelet will recreate the Pod and the certificate renewal for the component can complete.

kubeadm certs renew can renew any specific certificate or, with the subcommand all, it can renew all of them, as shown below:

kubeadm certs renew all

Renew certificates with the Kubernetes certificates API

This section provides more details about how to execute manual certificate renewal using the Kubernetes certificates API.

Set up a signer

The Kubernetes Certificate Authority does not work out of the box. You can configure an external signer such as cert-manager, or you can use the built-in signer.

The built-in signer is part of kube-controller-manager.

To activate the built-in signer, you must pass the --cluster-signing-cert-file and --cluster-signing-key-file flags.

If you're creating a new cluster, you can use a kubeadm configuration file:

apiVersion: kubeadm.k8s.io/v1beta3
kind: ClusterConfiguration
    cluster-signing-cert-file: /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.crt
    cluster-signing-key-file: /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.key

Create certificate signing requests (CSR)

See Create CertificateSigningRequest for creating CSRs with the Kubernetes API.

Renew certificates with external CA

This section provide more details about how to execute manual certificate renewal using an external CA.

To better integrate with external CAs, kubeadm can also produce certificate signing requests (CSRs). A CSR represents a request to a CA for a signed certificate for a client. In kubeadm terms, any certificate that would normally be signed by an on-disk CA can be produced as a CSR instead. A CA, however, cannot be produced as a CSR.

Renewal by using certificate signing requests (CSR)

Renewal of ceritficates is possible by generating new CSRs and signing them with the external CA. For more details about working with CSRs generated by kubeadm see the section Signing certificate signing requests (CSR) generated by kubeadm.

Certificate authority (CA) rotation

Kubeadm does not support rotation or replacement of CA certificates out of the box.

For more information about manual rotation or replacement of CA, see manual rotation of CA certificates.

Enabling signed kubelet serving certificates

By default the kubelet serving certificate deployed by kubeadm is self-signed. This means a connection from external services like the metrics-server to a kubelet cannot be secured with TLS.

To configure the kubelets in a new kubeadm cluster to obtain properly signed serving certificates you must pass the following minimal configuration to kubeadm init:

apiVersion: kubeadm.k8s.io/v1beta3
kind: ClusterConfiguration
apiVersion: kubelet.config.k8s.io/v1beta1
kind: KubeletConfiguration
serverTLSBootstrap: true

If you have already created the cluster you must adapt it by doing the following:

  • Find and edit the kubelet-config-1.30 ConfigMap in the kube-system namespace. In that ConfigMap, the kubelet key has a KubeletConfiguration document as its value. Edit the KubeletConfiguration document to set serverTLSBootstrap: true.
  • On each node, add the serverTLSBootstrap: true field in /var/lib/kubelet/config.yaml and restart the kubelet with systemctl restart kubelet

The field serverTLSBootstrap: true will enable the bootstrap of kubelet serving certificates by requesting them from the certificates.k8s.io API. One known limitation is that the CSRs (Certificate Signing Requests) for these certificates cannot be automatically approved by the default signer in the kube-controller-manager - kubernetes.io/kubelet-serving. This will require action from the user or a third party controller.

These CSRs can be viewed using:

kubectl get csr
NAME        AGE     SIGNERNAME                        REQUESTOR                      CONDITION
csr-9wvgt   112s    kubernetes.io/kubelet-serving     system:node:worker-1           Pending
csr-lz97v   1m58s   kubernetes.io/kubelet-serving     system:node:control-plane-1    Pending

To approve them you can do the following:

kubectl certificate approve <CSR-name>

By default, these serving certificate will expire after one year. Kubeadm sets the KubeletConfiguration field rotateCertificates to true, which means that close to expiration a new set of CSRs for the serving certificates will be created and must be approved to complete the rotation. To understand more see Certificate Rotation.

If you are looking for a solution for automatic approval of these CSRs it is recommended that you contact your cloud provider and ask if they have a CSR signer that verifies the node identity with an out of band mechanism.

Third party custom controllers can be used:

Such a controller is not a secure mechanism unless it not only verifies the CommonName in the CSR but also verifies the requested IPs and domain names. This would prevent a malicious actor that has access to a kubelet client certificate to create CSRs requesting serving certificates for any IP or domain name.

Generating kubeconfig files for additional users

During cluster creation, kubeadm signs the certificate in the admin.conf to have Subject: O = system:masters, CN = kubernetes-admin. system:masters is a break-glass, super user group that bypasses the authorization layer (for example, RBAC). Sharing the admin.conf with additional users is not recommended!

Instead, you can use the kubeadm kubeconfig user command to generate kubeconfig files for additional users. The command accepts a mixture of command line flags and kubeadm configuration options. The generated kubeconfig will be written to stdout and can be piped to a file using kubeadm kubeconfig user ... > somefile.conf.

Example configuration file that can be used with --config:

# example.yaml
apiVersion: kubeadm.k8s.io/v1beta3
kind: ClusterConfiguration
# Will be used as the target "cluster" in the kubeconfig
clusterName: "kubernetes"
# Will be used as the "server" (IP or DNS name) of this cluster in the kubeconfig
controlPlaneEndpoint: "some-dns-address:6443"
# The cluster CA key and certificate will be loaded from this local directory
certificatesDir: "/etc/kubernetes/pki"

Make sure that these settings match the desired target cluster settings. To see the settings of an existing cluster use:

kubectl get cm kubeadm-config -n kube-system -o=jsonpath="{.data.ClusterConfiguration}"

The following example will generate a kubeconfig file with credentials valid for 24 hours for a new user johndoe that is part of the appdevs group:

kubeadm kubeconfig user --config example.yaml --org appdevs --client-name johndoe --validity-period 24h

The following example will generate a kubeconfig file with administrator credentials valid for 1 week:

kubeadm kubeconfig user --config example.yaml --client-name admin --validity-period 168h

Signing certificate signing requests (CSR) generated by kubeadm

You can create certificate signing requests with kubeadm certs generate-csr. Calling this command will generate .csr / .key file pairs for regular certificates. For certificates embedded in kubeconfig files, the command will generate a .csr / .conf pair where the key is already embedded in the .conf file.

A CSR file contains all relevant information for a CA to sign a certificate. kubeadm uses a well defined specification for all its certificates and CSRs.

The default certificate directory is /etc/kubernetes/pki, while the default directory for kubeconfig files is /etc/kubernetes. These defaults can be overridden with the flags --cert-dir and --kubeconfig-dir, respectively.

To pass custom options to kubeadm certs generate-csr use the --config flag, which accepts a kubeadm configuration file, similarly to commands such as kubeadm init. Any specification such as extra SANs and custom IP addresses must be stored in the same configuration file and used for all relevant kubeadm commands by passing it as --config.

Preparing CA and service account files

On the primary control plane node, where kubeadm init will be executed, call the following commands:

sudo kubeadm init phase certs ca
sudo kubeadm init phase certs etcd-ca
sudo kubeadm init phase certs front-proxy-ca
sudo kubeadm init phase certs sa

This will populate the folders /etc/kubernetes/pki and /etc/kubernetes/pki/etcd with all self-signed CA files (certificates and keys) and service account (public and private keys) that kubeadm needs for a control plane node.

For secondary control plane nodes (kubeadm join --control-plane) there is no need to call the above commands. Depending on how you setup the High Availability cluster, you either have to manually copy the same files from the primary control plane node, or use the automated --upload-certs functionality of kubeadm init.

Generate CSRs

The kubeadm certs generate-csr command generates CSRs for all known certificates managed by kubeadm. Once the command is done you must manually delete .csr, .conf or .key files that you don't need.

Considerations for kubelet.conf

This section applies to both control plane and worker nodes.

If you have deleted the ca.key file from control plane nodes (External CA mode), the active kube-controller-manager in this cluster will not be able to sign kubelet client certificates. If no external method for signing these certificates exists in your setup (such as an external signer, you could manually sign the kubelet.conf.csr as explained in this guide.

Note that this also means that the automatic kubelet client certificate rotation will be disabled. If so, close to certificate expiration, you must generate a new kubelet.conf.csr, sign the certificate, embed it in kubelet.conf and restart the kubelet.

If this does not apply to your setup, you can skip processing the kubelet.conf.csr on secondary control plane and on workers nodes (all nodes that call kubeadm join ...). That is because the active kube-controller-manager will be responsible for signing new kubelet client certificates.

Control plane nodes

Execute the following command on primary (kubeadm init) and secondary (kubeadm join --control-plane) control plane nodes to generate all CSR files:

sudo kubeadm certs generate-csr

If external etcd is to be used, follow the External etcd with kubeadm guide to understand what CSR files are needed on the kubeadm and etcd nodes. Other .csr and .key files under /etc/kubernetes/pki/etcd can be removed.

Based on the explanation in Considerations for kubelet.conf keep or delete the kubelet.conf and kubelet.conf.csr files.

Worker nodes

Based on the explanation in Considerations for kubelet.conf, optionally call:

sudo kubeadm certs generate-csr

and keep only the kubelet.conf and kubelet.conf.csr files. Alternatively skip the steps for worker nodes entirely.

Signing CSRs for all certificates

Repeat this step for all nodes that have CSR files.

Write the following script in the /etc/kubernetes directory, navigate to the directory and execute the script. The script will generate certificates for all CSR files that are present in the /etc/kubernetes tree.


# Set certificate expiration time in days

# Process all CSR files except those for front-proxy and etcd
find ./ -name "*.csr" | grep -v "pki/etcd" | grep -v "front-proxy" | while read -r FILE;
    echo "* Processing ${FILE} ..."
    FILE=${FILE%.*} # Trim the extension
    if [ -f "./pki/ca.srl" ]; then
        SERIAL_FLAG="-CAserial ./pki/ca.srl"
    openssl x509 -req -days "${DAYS}" -CA ./pki/ca.crt -CAkey ./pki/ca.key ${SERIAL_FLAG} \
        -in "${FILE}.csr" -out "${FILE}.crt"
    sleep 2

# Process all etcd CSRs
find ./pki/etcd -name "*.csr" | while read -r FILE;
    echo "* Processing ${FILE} ..."
    FILE=${FILE%.*} # Trim the extension
    if [ -f "./pki/etcd/ca.srl" ]; then
        SERIAL_FLAG=-CAserial ./pki/etcd/ca.srl
    openssl x509 -req -days "${DAYS}" -CA ./pki/etcd/ca.crt -CAkey ./pki/etcd/ca.key ${SERIAL_FLAG} \
        -in "${FILE}.csr" -out "${FILE}.crt"

# Process front-proxy CSRs
echo "* Processing ./pki/front-proxy-client.csr ..."
openssl x509 -req -days "${DAYS}" -CA ./pki/front-proxy-ca.crt -CAkey ./pki/front-proxy-ca.key -CAcreateserial \
    -in ./pki/front-proxy-client.csr -out ./pki/front-proxy-client.crt

Embedding certificates in kubeconfig files

Repeat this step for all nodes that have CSR files.

Write the following script in the /etc/kubernetes directory, navigate to the directory and execute the script. The script will take the .crt files that were signed for kubeconfig files from CSRs in the previous step and will embed them in the kubeconfig files.


find ./ -name "*.conf" | while read -r FILE;
    echo "* Processing ${FILE} ..."
    KUBECONFIG="${FILE}" kubectl config set-cluster "${CLUSTER}" --certificate-authority ./pki/ca.crt --embed-certs
    USER=$(KUBECONFIG="${FILE}" kubectl config view -o jsonpath='{.users[0].name}')
    KUBECONFIG="${FILE}" kubectl config set-credentials "${USER}" --client-certificate "${FILE}.crt" --embed-certs

Performing cleanup

Perform this step on all nodes that have CSR files.

Write the following script in the /etc/kubernetes directory, navigate to the directory and execute the script.


# Cleanup CSR files
rm -f ./*.csr ./pki/*.csr ./pki/etcd/*.csr # Clean all CSR files

# Cleanup CRT files that were already embedded in kubeconfig files
rm -f ./*.crt

Optionally, move .srl files to the next node to be processed.

Optionally, if using external CA remove the /etc/kubernetes/pki/ca.key file, as explained in the External CA node section.

kubeadm node initialization

Once CSR files have been signed and required certificates are in place on the hosts you want to use as nodes, you can use the commands kubeadm init and kubeadm join to create a Kubernetes cluster from these nodes. During init and join, kubeadm uses existing certificates, encryption keys and kubeconfig files that it finds in the /etc/kubernetes tree on the host's local filesystem.

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