Building a Secure Public Key Infrastructure for Kubernetes

The target for this implementation is primarily to support Kubernetes infrastructure. Before getting into the specifics of the infrastructure setup and server configurations, I’ll go over project goals for this implementation along with known limitations and how CFSSL–a tool created by CloudFlare for generating and signing certificates–is designed.

Goals

Secure

First and foremost - this is a PKI. We need it to be secure. If the PKI itself can’t be trusted, then nothing depending on the PKI can be trusted. There are a few specific goals here:

Keys must never leave their hosts

When generating certificate pairs, the private keys are never transferred across the network. This behaves much like public CAs: a private key and certificate signing request (CSR) are generated, the CSR is transferred to the certificate authority (CA), and the signed public certificate is returned to the requesting server.

All signing requests must be authenticated

When making requests, the requesting server must authenticate to the CA. Unauthorized servers must not be allowed to request certificates from the CA.

All signing requests must be encrypted

Because credentials are being passed via the signing process, we need to make sure that all network transmission is encrypted. This will be done using TLS.

Manageable

I don’t want babysitting a PKI to be a full time job. I want to ensure that it’s properly configured and secured, then let it work without needing to do anything manually. The infrastructure will be distributed and configured via configuration management.

Known Omissions

Because of the scope of distribution (each CA will service a single Kubernetes cluster), we can establish a few facts about the infrastucture:

  • All endpoints that trust the CA are known
  • The entirety of the CA can be blown away and recreated trivially

This will sign a root CA and use that to directly sign any certificates for the cluster. In a less controlled environment (i.e. distributing to clients), creating an offline root CA with an online trusted intermediate CA allows for much easier management–a root CA can authorize multiple intermediate CAs, and if security issues are found with an intermediate CA, its trust can be revoked without needing to alter any clients.

Because the CA can be easily blown away and recreated, the CA isn’t implementing revocation lists.

The CA server also isn’t set up to provide OCSP (Online Certificate Status Protocol) to verify certificate status real-time.

Both CRL and OCSP can be implemented using the tools below, but I’m not going to cover it in this post.

CFSSL

To build out the PKI, we’ll use CFSSL, an open source golang project developed by CloudFlare. It supports the goals explained above, and it’s both easily compiled and fully contained. That makes the infrastructure much more manageable.

Multiple Binaries

The CFSSL project is comprised of multiple binaries all built using the same base packages. The ones we’ll deal with are:

CFSSL

cfssl is a binary that takes the form of cfssl <command> [args] (similar to tools like docker, git, and kubectl). It can be used locally (by providing a keypair that will be used to sign certificates) or remotely (request certificates from an instance running a CFSSL server).

CFSSLJSON

cfssljson is used to unmarshal JSON responses from the CFSSL server (whether local or remote) for easy command line manipulation. It can be used to save certificates off to files or expose them via stdout. Unlike cfssl, cfssljson does not use subcommands.

MultirootCA

multirootca is designed as a CFSSL server that exposes few endpoints but is capable of signing certificates using multiple certificate authorities, each having its own policies and authentication scheme. Like cfssljson, multirootca does not use subcommands. Its API behavior is very similar to cfssl serve, but it only exposes the sign, authsign and info endpoints.

Signing Certificates

Local Signing CA

As mentioned above, the cfssl binary can be used to sign certificates locally. This is a simple process and just needs arguments for -ca and -ca-key, pointing to files that contain the signing CA public certificate and private key respectively.

However, this requires that any node that is going to sign a certificate needs to have both the CA public key and the CA private key. In the case of the Kubernetes cluster, that means that all api servers, nodes, etc each need copies of the CA private key. This means that they key is transferred across the network and that copies of the CA keys are stored on many servers. This is really bad from a security perspective, as it is much easier to restrict and audit access to a single server than to a farm of servers.

Remote Signing CA

To get around the problem of CA private key distribution mentioned above, we could use the cfssl tool locally on each machine to generate the private key and signing request on the target node, transfer the CSR file to a CA server, invoke cfssl locally on the CA server to locally sign the certificate, and transfer the signed certificate back to the requester. Lucky for us, CFSSL already includes a web API with bundled server that handles this process.

By using the cfssl serve subcommand, we can run a web server that runs on the CA server and can sign requests without having to distribute the CA private key anywhere–it remains on the signing server. It supports TLS, so communication between the requester and the signing authority is encrypted. It also supports authentication tokens for client authentication when signing requests, preventing unauthorized and anonymous requests from being serviced if desired–which covers our security goals above–or at least it should. Do not use cfssl serve to set up a secure remote signing endpoint.

Despite having authentication tokens, current CFSSL builds (as of the time of this writing) don’t enforce authentication on all endpoints. When signing an existing CSR, the authentication process is properly followed, and the client must authenticate prior to receiving a signed certificate from the CA. cfssl serve also exposes the following endpoint: /api/v1/cfssl/newcert, which generates and transfers the public certificate and private key then transfers them back to the requester. This has two major issues:

  1. The requesting client never authenticates during this process–meaning anyone with access to the endpoint can get a valid, signed certificate anonymously or with an incorrect token
  2. The private key leaves the system and is transferred across the network

So what can we do about this? CFSSL includes another tool that solves these issues–multirootca. While multirootca is capable of signing for multiple CAs, it can also be used to sign for just a single CA, and that CA can be specified at runtime to be the default signing authority, making the behavior very similar to cfssl serve with a more restricted set of exposed endpoints. This means that unlike cfssl serve, when using multirootca it is not possible to get around authentication when signing.

Infrastructure

The CA used by this PKI is set up to be a remote signing authority over TLS. This means that the network port the system needs to expose to the certificate requesters is the server port specified when running multirootca. The service can be stopped when not needed if desired for additional security. Because this server contains the CA’s private key, access should be restricted and audited.

Configuration

Now that we know what CFSSL and its components do, let’s start configuring it.

Build

Building CFSSL is simple. It requires a system set up with golang version 1.6 or higher to do the builds.

# Main CFSSL Binary
go get -u github.com/cloudflare/cfssl/cmd/cfssl

# JSON Response Decode Tool
go get -u github.com/cloudflare/cfssl/cmd/cfssljson

# MutlirootCA Server
go get -u github.com/cloudflare/cfssl/cmd/multirootca

The builds are supported by the golang official Docker containers, and cross-compiling is simple by using the GOOS environment variable at build time.

For more details, check out the CFSSL Readme.

Once that the binaries are built, we can distribute and use them to establish a CA and start using it to sign certs.

Initialize the CA

The goal of CA initialization is to get a CA online that enforces authorization, secures its network transfer with TLS, and doesn’t require user intervention to do so.

The CA will need cfssl and cfssljson available on the system. After binary distribution, the first thing we need to do to establish the CA is to generate a key pair that will be used to sign certificates. CFSSL uses JSON for most of its configurations, so we’ll generate a CSR payload in JSON. This will have the same fields as a typical certificate request, but the JSON structure makes management and templating super easy:

{
  "CN": "<ca_common_name>",
  "key": {
    "algo": "rsa",
    "size": 2048
  },
  "names": [
     {
       "C": "<country>",
       "L": "<city>",
       "O": "<organization>",
       "OU": "<organization-unit>",
       "ST": "<state>"
     }
  ]
}

Now that a CSR profile has been created, we can initialize the signing CA:

cfssl gencert -initca <path-to-csr>.json | cfssljson -bare ca

This will generate the ca.pem and ca-key.pem files that we will reference throughout the process in the current working directory. Be very careful with permissions on these files. The certificate and key names are defined by the ca argument passed in to cfssljson; if you want the pair to have a different name, just change ca to <foo>, and <foo>.pem and <foo>-key.pem will be generated instead.

Now we’ve got a CA established!

Once again: if you’re planning on using this in a less controlled environment (i.e. distributing the CA as a trusted authority for users), use this key pair to sign an intermediate, and use that to sign all of the certificates below for improved security and manageability.

Configure Remote Signing

Before starting up a signing server, we’ll need a certificate pair to secure TLS communication from clients. In addition to the cfssl and cfssljson binaries, we’ll need multirootca on the signing server to handle remote requests.

To do that, we’ll use the CA we just created. We can also reuse the CSR generated above.

We’ll need to specify some configuration data, which will be reffered to below as config.json:

{
  "signing": {
    "default": {
      "auth_key": "default",
      "expiry": "43800h",
      "usages": [
         "signing",
         "key encipherment",
         "client auth",
         "server auth"
       ]
     }
  },
  "auth_keys": {
    "default": {
      "key": "<signing-auth-key>",
      "type": "standard"
    }
  }
}

Once the signing config is created, we can generate the desired key pair:

cfssl gencert -ca=<ca>.pem -ca-key=<ca-key>.pem -config=<config.json> -hostname=<hostname> -profile=default <csr.json> | cfssljson -bare server

This will generate server.pem and server-key.pem in the working directory.

Next, we need to specify the CAs that can be used to sign remote requests. This is done in an ini file (referred to as multiroot-profile.ini below):

[default]
private = file://<ca-key>.pem
certificate = <ca>.pem
config = <config.json>

Note: All configuration paths in multiroot-profile.ini need to be relative paths; absolute paths are not supported at this time.

With the server profile created, we can invoke the server:

/usr/local/bin/multirootca \
            -a <ip>:<port> \
            -l default \
            -roots <multiroot-profile.ini> \
            -tls-cert <server.pem> \
            -tls-key <server-key.pem>

Using an IP address of 0.0.0.0 will listen on all IPv4. -l default uses the default signing profile defined in multiroot-profile.ini for requests that have no signing profile assigned to them.

If you’re running this in a server running systemd, the following can be used as the service file:

[Unit]
Description=CFSSL PKI Certificate Authority
After=network.target

[Service]
User=ca
ExecStart=/usr/local/bin/multirootca \
            -a <ip>:<port> \
            -l default \
            -roots <multiroot-profile.ini> \
            -tls-cert <server.pem> \
            -tls-key <server-key.pem>
Restart=on-failure
Type=simple
WorkingDirectory=<cfssl-path>

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

With the process running, we can now securely sign requests remotely.

Set Up Request Process

Each server that will request certificates needs to have cfssl and cfssljson tools available. Once those tools are available, signing is pretty straightforward. Each server will also need the CA’s public certificate on the filesystem. It does not need to be in the system trust.

First, we’ll need to create a signing request (referred to as csr.json):

{
  "CN": "<hostname>",
  "key": {
    "algo": "rsa",
    "size": 2048
  },
  "names": [
     {
       "C": "<country>",
       "L": "<city>",
       "O": "<organization>",
       "OU": "<organization-unit>",
       "ST": "<state>"
     }
  ]
}

Next, a request profile needs to be created (referred to as request-profile.json):

{
  "signing": {
    "default": {
      "auth_remote": {
        "remote": "ca_server",
        "auth_key": "default"
      }
    }
  },
  "auth_keys": {
    "default": {
      "key": "<signing-auth-key>",
      "type": "standard"
    }
  },
  "remotes": {
    "ca_server": "<signing_server:port>"
  }
}

Note: The signing auth key here must match the signing auth key above.

Once those are created, we can request the certificate:

cfssl gencert -config=<request-profile.json> -hostname=<san-entries> -tls-remote-ca <ca.pem> -profile=default <csr.json> | cfssljson -bare <cert-name>

san-entries are a comma separated list of either DNS or IP SAN entries, and both prefixes should be omitted; CFSSL automatically adds the appropriate prefix. Example: -hostname=my-server.fqdn,127.0.0.1.

tls-remote-ca can be omitted if the CA is trusted by the system trust.

After running the command, you will have a certificate and key pair signed by the established CA. After signing, the request-profile.json file can be removed so no secrets are stored on the requesting machine.

Mike Newswanger

SRE Generalist at Stack Overflow — go, kubernetes, containers, databases, linux, powershell

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