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:

You need the cfssl tool. You can download cfssl from

Some steps in this page use the jq tool. If you don't have jq, you can install it via your operating system's software sources, or fetch it from

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.

Requesting a certificate

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

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

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 output similar to:

2022/02/01 11:45:32 [INFO] generate received request
2022/02/01 11:45:32 [INFO] received CSR
2022/02/01 11:45:32 [INFO] generating key: ecdsa-256
2022/02/01 11:45:32 [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 CertificateSigningRequest object to send to the Kubernetes API

Generate a CSR manifest (in YAML), and send it to the API server. You can do that 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. You are also requesting a certificate with the "digital signature", "key encipherment", and "server auth" key usages, signed by an example 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, 01 Feb 2022 11:49:15 -0500
Requesting User:
Status:                 Pending
        Common Name:
        Serial Number:
Subject Alternative Names:
        DNS Names:
        IP Addresses:
Events: <none>

Get the CertificateSigningRequest 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

You should now see the following:

kubectl get csr
NAME                  AGE   SIGNERNAME            REQUESTOR              REQUESTEDDURATION   CONDITION   10m   <none>              Approved

This means the certificate request has been approved and is waiting for the requested signer to sign it.

Sign the CertificateSigningRequest

Next, you'll play the part of a certificate signer, issue the certificate, and upload it to the API.

A signer would typically watch the CertificateSigningRequest API for objects with its signerName, check that they have been approved, sign certificates for those requests, and update the API object status with the issued certificate.

Create a Certificate Authority

You need an authority to provide the digital signature on the new certificate.

First, create a signing certificate by running the following:

cat <<EOF | cfssl gencert -initca - | cfssljson -bare ca
  "CN": "My Example Signer",
  "key": {
    "algo": "rsa",
    "size": 2048

You should see output similar to:

2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] generating a new CA key and certificate from CSR
2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] generate received request
2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] received CSR
2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] generating key: rsa-2048
2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] encoded CSR
2022/02/01 11:50:39 [INFO] signed certificate with serial number 263983151013686720899716354349605500797834580472

This produces a certificate authority key file (ca-key.pem) and certificate (ca.pem).

Issue a certificate

    "signing": {
        "default": {
            "usages": [
                "digital signature",
                "key encipherment",
                "server auth"
            "expiry": "876000h",
            "ca_constraint": {
                "is_ca": false

Use a server-signing-config.json signing configuration and the certificate authority key file and certificate to sign the certificate request:

kubectl get csr -o jsonpath='{.spec.request}' | \
  base64 --decode | \
  cfssl sign -ca ca.pem -ca-key ca-key.pem -config server-signing-config.json - | \
  cfssljson -bare ca-signed-server

You should see the output similar to:

2022/02/01 11:52:26 [INFO] signed certificate with serial number 576048928624926584381415936700914530534472870337

This produces a signed serving certificate file, ca-signed-server.pem.

Upload the signed certificate

Finally, populate the signed certificate in the API object's status:

kubectl get csr -o json | \
  jq '.status.certificate = "'$(base64 ca-signed-server.pem | tr -d '\n')'"' | \
  kubectl replace --raw /apis/ -f -

Once the CSR is approved and the signed certificate is uploaded, run:

kubectl get csr

The output is similar to:

NAME                  AGE   SIGNERNAME            REQUESTOR              REQUESTEDDURATION   CONDITION   20m   <none>              Approved,Issued

Download the certificate and use it

Now, as the requesting user, 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 populate server.crt and server-key.pem in a Secret that you could later mount into a Pod (for example, to use with a webserver that serves HTTPS).

kubectl create secret tls server --cert server.crt --key server-key.pem
secret/server created

Finally, you can populate ca.pem into a ConfigMap and use it as the trust root to verify the serving certificate:

kubectl create configmap example-serving-ca --from-file ca.crt=ca.pem
configmap/example-serving-ca created

Approving CertificateSigningRequests

A Kubernetes administrator (with appropriate permissions) can manually approve (or deny) CertificateSigningRequests 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.

For more information on certificate approval and access control, read the Certificate Signing Requests reference page.

Configuring your cluster to provide signing

This page assumes that a signer is set up 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 October 02, 2023 at 11:58 PM PST: Update jq link (e822502654)