Nick Travers

Kubernetes and SSL

In 2017 it's a little scary to have to browse to a website that isn't "secure". By secure I mean that it's not using HTTPS to encrypt the traffic to and from the client (your browser) to the server (some boxes in a datacenter somewhere). Even for sites like this, which are serving purely static content, it's enough to get your side pushed down in search engine rankings Not that I'm one for rankings, but I spent part of my weekend working out how I'd go about getting my site (more) secure as an exercise in familiarising oneself with some of the new Kubernetes features.

SSL Certificates via Let's Encrypt

Let's Encrypt describe themselves as a free and automated Certificate Authority (or CA). They can generate certificates for you which you stick in your webservers to ensure that you get that nice little "Secure" label next to your site's URLs in Chrome.

While I could roll my own automation for certificate generation via Let's Encrypt and renew them periodically (certificates are valid for 90 days), I'm using Kubernetes to manage the deployment of my site, so it makes sense to see what out there already and make use of someone else's hard work.

The top search result for "kubernetes letsencrypt" is a Github project from a dude called Kelsey Hightower. Kelsey works for Google and does ton of awesome work in the Kubernetes. His kube-cert-manager adds some extra functionality to your Kube cluster that lets you manage your Let's Encrypt certificates. The README is a good place to start, but I've summarized the main parts.

The following sections are adapted from Kelsey's repo. Full props to him.


Create a third-party resource that models a "Certificate" resource:

$ kubectl create -f certificate.yaml

Where the contents of the YAML is as follows:

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: ThirdPartyResource
description: "A specification of a Let's Encrypt Certificate to manage."
name: ""
- name: v1

You'll need a persistent disk resource to store the certificates that the tool generates:

$ gcloud compute disks create kube-cert-manager --size 10GB

The cert manager also needs to be able to create / delete DNS records for your GCP project. This allows you to prove to Let's Encrypt that you're the one in control of the site. More on that process (the ACME protocol) here. Create a new service account that has admin access to DNS for your project. Save that somewhere locally.

Create a secret in your Kubernetes cluster from this secret:

# Create
$ kubectl create secret generic your-site-dns \

# Verify
$ kubectl describe secret nicktrav-site-dns


The cert manager can now be deployed with the following:

$ kubectl create -f kube-cert-manager.yaml

Where the content of the file is as follows:

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Deployment
    app: kube-cert-manager
  name: kube-cert-manager
  replicas: 1
        app: kube-cert-manager
      name: kube-cert-manager
        - name: kube-cert-manager
          imagePullPolicy: Always
            - "-data-dir=/var/lib/cert-manager"
            - "-acme-url="
            - "-sync-interval=30"
            - name: data
              mountPath: /var/lib/cert-manager
        - name: kubectl
            - "/hyperkube"
            - "kubectl"
            - "proxy"
        - name: "data"
          emptyDir: {}

Watch the deployment of this pod with:

$ kubectl describe pod kube-cert-manager

One this is up and running, you're good to start generating certificate resources.


Certificate resources can be created by moulding the following to suit your requirements. Place in a file (in this case your-site-dot-com.yaml).

apiVersion: ""
kind: "Certificate"
  name: "something-descriptive"
  domain: ""
  email: ""
  provider: "googledns"
  secret: "service-account-secret"  # This was named your-site-dns above
  secretKey: "service-account.json"

The most important part is the domain. In my case, I have my main site, as well as a staging domain, so I created a certificate for each ( as well as Note that you could probably wildcard your domain you don't have to generate as many certificates. I haven't experimented with this.

Generate the certificates:

$ kubectl create -f your-site-dot-com.yaml

At this point if you tail the logs of the kube-cert-manager pod you'll see that it's requesting certificates for you from Let's Encrypt. Part of this process (as alluded to earlier) is to add some DNS records so that Let's Encrypt can verify that it's actually you making these requests for certs. Given that you have control of your site's DNS, Let's Encrypt will respond to a request for a certificate by asking you to create a DNS record. You go ahead and do this, Let's Encrypt checks that the DNS records it asked for have been created, and then goes ahead and sends you the cert.


If `kube-cert-manager` was successful, it will create a new secret for each domain that you requested. You can list the certificates and secrets via:

$ kubectl get certificates
$ kubectl get secrets

Inspecting each secret you'll notice that there's a .key and .crt file inside. These are what you'll provide the load balancer for it to set up SSL termination.

TLS Termination

By far the easiest way of securing your site that runs on GCP is to place the certificates in Google's L7 load balancer. If you're running on Kubernetes, you can use an Ingress resource resource to manage this for you. The details, with extensive examples can be found here, but the TLDR is that you need to create a new Deployment, which you expose via Service. Then you use an Ingress to tell Google's LBs about it. The Ingress also defines the certificate that you want to use, as well as the hostnames that it will cover. Here's an example:

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Ingress
  name: ingress-your-site
  annotations: my-site
   - secretName:
    serviceName: service-for-your-site
    servicePort: 80

Note the extra annotation there that tells Kubernetes that I want this Ingress to be exposed to the outside world via a static global IP. I've got an additional A-record in my DNS entries that resolve to this IP.

After creating the Ingress, it takes a while for it to create the entries in the load balancers. The load balancers use health-checks to check to see that your backends are healthy. You can see these under Compute / Health Checks.

And voila! Now your site should be talking HTTPS. Depending on how your backends are set up, you'll probably be handling HTTP too. More on how to deal with that now.


While my site uses HTTPS now, that's only the case if you explicitly _ask_ to speak HTTPs. If a client was to ask for the same content from a http:// resource, the backend would still serve it up to them. Because I'm using Nginx as a reverse-proxy in front of my backends, there's a nice little trick you can use to tell any request for http content to redirect to https.

Place the following in your `nginx.conf`:

if ($http_x_forwarded_proto = "http") {
  return 301 https://$host$request_uri;

This works because Google's load balancers set the X-forwarded-proto header on each request. Nginx will examine these headers and upon seeing HTTP as the request protocol it responds to the load balancer with a 301 moved permanently. This is considered to be a best practice for upgrading users from HTTP to HTTPS.

Next steps

While traffic to and from site is now much more secure and clients know they are talking to servers who are who they say their are, my site still isn't as secure as I'd like it to be. Traffic is only encrypted up to Google's load balancer. While I have ample faith in Google's ability to handle my boring content traffic within their own datacenters, an even safer solution would be to encrypt traffic between the LBs and my webservers (nginx). Traffic from the webserver to the application server is, in my case, on the same VM, so it's less important for it to be encrypted for the last stage of its journey.

I made a fruitless attempt to get the LBs to talk to my backends using HTTPS, but it looks like this is a shortcoming.

While Google's load balancers are easy to use, they are also pretty expensive (roughly $20 a month for a single rule). An alternative approach would be to place an nginx-ingress-controller in front of your services, which obviates the need for Google's Load Balancer altogether. That's some more material for another post.