Istio Authentication and Authorization

Applications running on Kubernetes platform seeks to offload common non-business features to the platform. Istio helps Kubernetes bridge that gap. It can enforce mTLS communication, which is known as Peer Authentication. It can help with two other things with the use of JWT token: when a web request presents a JWT token, it can validate whether it is authentic. Then, it can use the claims in JWT token to drive authorization decision on whether the specific request is allowed or denied. Both will use Istio CRDs.

Peer Authentication

Istio can enforce mTLS for TCP traffic between Pods. According to its documentation, enforcing mTLS at mesh level is as simple as applying a Peer Authentication resource to the root-level namespace:

kind: PeerAuthentication
  name: default
  namespace: istio-system
    mode: STRICT

The role of mTLS is so Pods can validates each other’s identity and then encrypt the TLS traffic in between. Each workload must first have an identity and Envoy proxy addressed this issue by adopting SPIFFE framework. It gives each workload an identity in the format of <TRUST_DOMAIN>/ns/<NAMESPACE>/sa/<SERVICE_ACCOUNT>. For example: spiffe://cluster.local/ns/myapp-dev/sa/default. It is also important to understand that only Pods with injected Envoy sidecar have SPIFFE workload identity and therefore is able to speak in mTLS. For new services, this is usually not an issue. For migrating workload without sidecar, a Pod without sidecar may connect with one in the mesh (with sidecar) if the mtls mode is PERMISSIVE in Peer Authentication. Otherwise, the connect is reset at layer 4 with the following error:

curl: (56) Recv failure: Connection reset by peer
command terminated with exit code 56

Therefore, it is advisable to start with PERMISSIVE mode for a precautionary migration of workload to mTLS. With mTLS all effective at the mesh level, there is no need to natively configure TLS between services.

The SPIFFE identity used in PeerAuthentication can also be used in Request Authorization as rule conditions. I will discuss request authentication before request authorization. To understand request authentication, let’s first warm up on JWT.

JSON Web Token

JSON Web Token (JWT, RFC 7519) is a format to carry JSON payload with optional signature and/or encryption. It can be thought of as a document (in JSON format) with signature for web servers to exchange information. The signature portion makes it friendly for document consumers to validate the authenticity. It is also URL-safe, and thereby adopted in web-browser SSO context, to pass identity of an authenticated user between and identity provider and a service provider.

JWT enables token-based authentication, a significant improvement from traditional session-based authentication. The traditional session-based authentication can be illustrated as below:

session-based authentication

This authentication model has major drawbacks. First, a mechanism to validate the authenticity of Cookie is missing. Second, the server has to keep the session information, making itself not stateless, unless a state store such as memcached is introduced.

token-based authentication

In token-based authentication such as using JWT, a token is issued. The authenticity of the token are validated before the server provides data, and it can be validated by any backend server.

The payload of JWT consists of claims, which are statements about an identity (such as name, role, email). There are custom claims as well as standard reserved claims, such as iss (issuer), sub (subject), aud (audience), iat (issued at time), exp (expiration time), and jti (JWT ID). When a program produces a JWT, it turns the raw payload into standardize payload by adding the required reserved claims and may sort the claims alphabetically.

The JWT consists of three parts with a period as delimiter:

The third part is a signature in the format of JWS (JSON Web Signature, RFC 7515) for the JWT consumer to validate its authenticity. The first and second parts, as you can tell, are the claims in the document. Their base64 encoding can be decoded with no effort and should therefore be considered exposed. Although JWT addresses the authenticity of information, it does not intend to address the confidentiality of the payload at HTTP layer. The payload should not carry sensitive information and should always be used with secure HTTPS port. To tackle this issue, there is JWE (JSON Web Encryption, RFC 7516) which is an implementation similar to JWT which also encrypts the payload.

Some IAM protocols are built on top of JWT. For example, the OpenID Connect specification also defines a set of standard claims that it uses while still allow custom claims.

Request Authentication

Istio can perform request authentication using its CRD. It is important to distinguish request authentication and user authentication. In user authentication, the identify provider typically looks up an identity store and compares password hash results to check whether the identity of the visiting user is authentic or not. This is outside of Istio’s capability but many off-the-shelf solution excels at it, such as Azure AD. Once the user’s identity is validated by identity provider, and a JWT is issued for downstream service providers to consume. Istio’s CRD can front the service provider and validate that the presented JWT is authentic. It authenticates the identity of a request (as truly issued by the trusted issuer without being tampered). This process does not involve checking user’s identity, even though user’s identity could be stored in the payload by the JWT issuer.

Istio uses the RequestAuthentication CRD to perform this function. The JWT issuer signs with its private key and stores the signature in the JWT. When it is presented to Istio, Istio’s RequestAuthentication CRD needs the public key of the issuer in order to validate the JWT. The public key usually comes in as a JWK (JSON Web Key, RFC7517), a format convertible to and from PEM format. The JWK can be provided either inline in the RequestAuthentication’s YAML manifest, or via a URI.

Below is an example of a basic RequestAuthentication declaration:

kind: RequestAuthentication
  name: httpbin
  namespace: foo
      app: httpbin
  - issuer: "issuer-foo"

In this example (from the documentation), the jwtRule requires that the issuer be issuer-foo, and the JWK (containing public key) is provided by a given URI address. Istio will pass the authentication once the signature in the presented JWT is verified with the JWK.

Authorization Policy

Istio’s Authorization Policy by itself can operate at both TCP or HTTP layers and is enforced at the envoy proxy. The result is an ALLOW or DENY decision, based on a set of conditions at both levels. If the traffic is HTTP then you should consider use some HTTP level information as it provides a lot more flexibility. Even when operating at HTTP layer, AuthorizationPolicy does not have to work in conjunction with RequestAuthentication. The rules can use path, methods, etc to drive an authorization decision, for example:

kind: AuthorizationPolicy
  name: authz-policy-orthanc
      app: orth
  action: ALLOW
  - from:
    - source:
        namespaces: ["istio-system","orthweb"]
    - operation:
        methods: ["GET","POST","PUT","HEAD","DELETE"]
        ports: ["8042"]
  - from:
    - source:
        namespaces: ["istio-system","orthweb"]
    - operation:
        ports: ["4242"]

The claims in the JWT payload can also be used to drive authorization decision, as exemplified in the Istio documentation, by using a when keyword in a rule and specifying the claim as a key:

    - key:[iss]
      values: [""]

The when clause requires that the iss claim in the JWT must carry a specific value in order to ALLOW the HTTP request. While the claims in JWT is just an additional factor to drive authorization decision, using authenticated information to drive authorization decision makes the overall workflow more secure, and should therefore be used when applicable.

When using AuthorizationPolicy CRD, keep in mind:

  1. Use correct selectors so it only applies to workloads labelled as such. Without selector the policy takes effect in the entire namespace which is a recipe for issues
  2. When multiple policies (each with multiple rules) are applied to the same workload, be aware of the policy precedence. Troubleshooting may get tricky.
  3. For an AuthorizationPolicy to use HTTP fields in rules, it first needs to identify the traffic as HTTP. To tell Authorization Policy to treat the traffic as HTTP, we need to understand Protocol Selection. In a nutshell, we can name the port as http or http-* in the Service manifest of the workload. Otherwise all HTTP-based rules will be missed.

For troubleshooting, we can check authorization policies effective on a Pod with:

$ istioctl x authz check orthanc-6c9679d8c7-2ttlf -n dev-orthweb

This returns the effective policies but does not necessarily indicate which rule is matched when a request is denied or allowed. To find out further information, you will need to follow Istio FAQ to set RBAC logging to debug, and then monitor the log in the istio-proxy sidecar.

Apart from HTTP fields, path, authenticated claims in JWT, Istio Authorization can also integrate with an Open Policy Agent (OPA) to drive actions, in advanced use cases.

Bottom line

While Istio itself does not perform user authentication, its support of JWT in RequestAuthentication allows a workload to integrate with external identity provider. This capability, along with creative use of claims in JWT, also empowers authorization capability.