Traffic Segmentation on Kubernetes Platform

When operating Kubernetes as a platform for multiple tenants, one of the concerns is controlling the network traffic. This is sometimes referred to as traffic segmentation. This initiative involves a broad range of technical topics from networking to containerization. By no means I am an expert on each of those topics. I have however developed some best practices in how to break down this challenge and hence bringing the thought into this post.

Tenant Isolation

Kubernetes has the concept of namespace to logically separate resources allocated for each tenant. Each tenant only operates within their given namespaces. The isolation of computing resources such as CPU and memory can be managed via ResourceQuota objects, and they are enforced at the kernel level, leaving networking isolation the main discussion in the topic of tenant isolation. If the platform hosts a lot of stateful workload then we also needs to address tenant isolation at the storage layer. In this post we focus on the network aspect of resource isolation, aka traffic segmentation.

Controlling network traffic can require a significant amount of efforts depending on the goal. That is why we need to first assess the multi-tenancy models:

  • Soft multi-tenancy: usually a platform is shared by multiple teams within the same organization. Tenants are incentivized to be good neighbours.
  • Hard multi-tenancy: usually a platform shared by multiple customers from different organizations. There is no trust between different tenants, or between tenant and platform operator.

Reality may sits somewhere in between, but we often have to come back to this model when making a technical decision, because it determines the degree of tenant isolation, or the amount of effort we are willing to put in on tenant isolation. At the tough end, is zero-trust network, which usually have the following requirement:

  • Requirement 1: All network connections are subject to enforcement (not just those that cross zone boundaries).
  • Requirement 2: Establishing the identity of a remote endpoint is always based on multiple criteria including strong cryptographic proofs of identity. In particular, network-level identifiers like IP address and port are not sufficient on their own as they can be spoofed by a hostile network.
  • Requirement 3: All expected and allowed network flows are explicitly allowed. Any connection not explicitly allowed is denied.
  • Requirement 4: Compromised workloads must not be able to circumvent policy enforcement.
  • Requirement 5: Many Zero Trust Networks also rely on encryption of network traffic to prevent disclosure of sensitive data to hostile entities snooping network traffic. This is not an absolute requirement if private data are not exchanged over the network, but to fit the criteria of a Zero Trust Network, encryption must be used on every network connection if it is required at all. A Zero Trust Network does not distinguish between trusted and untrusted network links or paths. Also note that even when not using encryption for data privacy, cryptographic proofs of authenticity are still used to establish identity.

As you can see there’s a lot of efforts involved in building a zero-trust network. The cost of building a zero-trust network is worth it only when we determines that the overall business requirement demands it.

Pod Networking

It is important to understand Pod networking before developing a traffic segmentation strategy. Pod networking has to do with the CNI driver used for the cluster. There are in general two categories:

  • Overlay network: Pods are placed on a VXLAN configuration. This is mostly seen in basic Kubenet mode or CNI drives such as Flannel. NAT is required for Pods to communicate across nodes, which might introduce performance issues when deployed at scale. Pods do not use IP address from the host network.
  • Regular network: In this mode Pods are on the same network as the nodes are. For example, Azure CNI assigns Pods with IP address from a given V-Net. The AWS-VPC CNI integrates VPC networking with Pods. Since Pods are on a corporate network, the traffic control must also consider measures at the whole network level.

The main benefit of the first approach, is that IP exhaustion is less likely due to the introduction of a VxLAN. The other benefit from a networking perspective is that the Pod networking is born separated from the corporate network. In the second approach, by assigning Pods with a corporate IP address (which brings the risk of IP exhaustion), Pods are also potentially exposed to all corporate traffic at layer 3. To tackle this additional risk, network security group should be used in the V-Net for Azure AKS, or security groups for Pods should be considered with AWS EKS. Although we will discuss Network Policy in the rest of this essay, Network Policy mostly addresses the traffic segmentation issue within a Kubernetes cluster. A Pod placed on the corporate network needs traffic segmentation strategies from the perspective of the whole network.

Another network-level traffic segmentation strategy is on the corporate firewall. For example, with AKS you can specify outbound type as user-defined routes (UDR) to direct all outbound traffic through a corporate firewall where traffic will be inspected. There are firewall products dedicated for managing highly dynamic pod traffic from Kubernetes. This strategy can be used in conjunction with network security groups.

Network Policy

Kubernetes’s default behaviour is to allow traffic between any two pods in the cluster network. This is undesirable. NetworkPolicy is the native Kubernetes construct for platform operators and application developer to control network traffic at layer 3/4. It uses namespace and pod selectors, and is defined based on allow rules, which is good for general use.

Further to the native Network Policy, you can adopt third party policies for advanced features. For example, Azure has Azure Network policy (works for Azure CNI only) and Calico Network policy (works for Calico CNI, Azure CNI or Kubenet). The third party network policies usually provides advanced features such as:

  • Deny rules
  • multiple types of endpoints in addition to Pods, for example, VMs, network interfaces which can be useful in network-level traffic control
  • ordering and priority of rules
  • Flexible matching rules

Calico network has a page that summarizes its features and how it extends the Kubernetes NetworkPolicy. Below is an example of a Calico’s network policy:

kind: NetworkPolicy 
    name: allow-tcp-6379 
    namespace: production 
    selector: color == 'red'
    - action: Allow 
       protocol: TCP 
           selector: color == 'blue'   
           namespaceSelector: shape == 'circle'
            - 6379

It is as self-explanatory as Kubernetes Network Policy. No matter which kind of network policy, this approach takes effect at layer 3/4. The rules are eventually implemented in the kernel on the node (Iptables). The management of this layer is usually by the platform team and they need to have some application knowledge.

Authorization at Application Layer

Traffic above layer 4 is considered application layer traffic. At application layer, the decision to allow or deny a request is by definition an authorization decision. Another layer of protection can be placed at layer 4 is mTLS which ensures that each request to have an identity. The authorization can be built in the application, but it is also very common to offload these functions to the service mesh layer. For example, Istio has constructs such as PeerAuthentication, Request Authentication and Authorization Policy. We will those in more details in a few coming blog posts. Below is a simple example of Istio’s Authorization Policy:

kind: AuthorizationPolicy 
    name: "details-viewer" 
    namespace: default 
             app: details 
    action: ALLOW 
        - from: 
            - source: 
                   principals: ["cluster.local/ns/default/sa/bookinfo-productpage"]
           - operation: 
                  methods: ["GET"]

The rule is also fairly self-explanatory. Compared to Network Policy, the point of enforcement of these Authorization policies are at the envoy proxy. The management of policies at this layer can be debatable if department boundaries are not clear, but it should in general be owned by personnels with good application knowledge.

Consistency between Policies

In-cluster traffic can be controlled with both Network Policy (Calico or Kubernetes) operating at layer 3-4, and Authorization Policy (Istio) at layer 4-7. This brings another challenge of maintaining consistency between the two types of policies. This is especially challenging when they are managed by different teams in a corporate and therefore many operators for soft multi-tenant platform choose not to implement Network Policy or only implements a baseline.

Some network solution providers builds a solution for this. For example, Calico has the capability to enforce network policy for Istio. This integration requires some configuration, but the enhanced GlobalNetworkPolicy supports HTTP methods, eliminating the need to define a separate Authorization Policy in Istio and worry about its consistency with NetworkPolicy. The platform build however, still needs to determine who owns this policy construct. Below is an example from Calico documentation:

kind: GlobalNetworkPolicy
  name: customer
  selector: app == 'customer'
   - action: Allow
       methods: ["GET"]
    - action: Allow

One of the benefits of using this integration is a unified policy language based on GlobalNetworkPolicy CRD. In the mean time, organization should also develop strategy to ensure that, once Calico is integrated with Istio, then there is no need to separately build authorization policies, which may come in conflict with Global network policy.


Controlling network traffic is difficult on Kubernetes platform. In this article I proposed a few angles to approach this issue for enterprise clients.