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Super Simple Discovery API


It is surprisingly hard to figure out how to talk to a Kubernetes cluster. Not only do clients need to know where to look on the network, they also need to identify the set of root certificates to trust when talking to that endpoint.

This presents a set of problems:

  • It should be super easy for users to configure client systems with a minimum of effort kubectl or kubeadm init (or other client systems).
    • Establishing this should be doable even in the face of nodes and master components booting out of order.
    • We should have mechanisms that don't require users to ever have to manually manage certificate files.
  • Over the life of the cluster this information could change and client systems should be able to adapt.

While this design is mainly being created to help kubeadm possible, these problems aren't isolated there and can be used outside of the kubeadm context.

Mature organizations should be able to distribute and manage root certificates out of band of Kubernetes installations. In that case, clients will defer to corporation wide system installed root certificates or root certificates distributed through other means. However, for smaller and more casual users distributing or obtaining certificates represents a challenge.

Similarly, mature organizations will be able to rely on a centrally managed DNS system to distribute the location of a set of API servers and keep those names up to date over time. Those DNS servers will be managed for high availability.

With that in mind, the proposals here will devolve into simply using DNS names that are validated with system installed root certificates.

Cluster location information (aka ClusterInfo)

First we define a set of information that identifies a cluster and how to talk to it. We will call this ClusterInfo in this document.

While we could define a new format for communicating the set of information needed here, we'll start by using the standard kubeconfig file format.

It is expected that the kubeconfig file will have a single unnamed Cluster entry. Other information (especially authentication secrets) MUST be omitted.

Evolving kubeconfig

In the future we look forward to enhancing kubeconfig to address some issues. These are out of scope for this design. Some of this is covered in #30395.

Additions include:

  • A cluster serial number/identifier.
    • In an HA world, API servers may come and go and it is necessary to make sure we are talking to the same cluster as we thought we were talking to.
  • A set of addresses for finding the cluster.
    • It is implied that all of these are equivalent and that a client can try multiple until an appropriate target is found.
    • Initially I'm proposing a flat set here. In the future we can introduce more structure that hints to the user which addresses to try first.
  • Better documentation and exposure of:
    • The root certificates can be a bundle to enable rotation.
    • If no root certificates are given (and the insecure bit isn't set) then the client trusts the system managed list of CAs.

Client caching and update

This is to be implemented in a later phase

Any client of the cluster will want to have this information. As the configuration of the cluster changes we need the client to keep this information up to date. The ClusterInfo ConfigMap (defined below) is expected to be a common place to get the latest ClusterInfo for any cluster. Clients should periodically grab this and cache it. It is assumed that the information here won't drift so fast that clients won't be able to find some way to connect.

In exceptional circumstances it is possible that this information may be out of date and a client would be unable to connect to a cluster. Consider the case where a user has kubectl set up and working well and then doesn't run kubectl for quite a while. It is possible that over this time (a) the set of servers will have migrated so that all endpoints are now invalid or (b) the root certificates will have rotated so that the user can no longer trust any endpoint.


Now that we know what we want to get to the client, the question is how. We want to do this in as secure a way possible (as there are cryptographic keys involved) without requiring a lot of overhead in terms of information that needs to be copied around.

Method: Out of Band

The simplest way to obtain ClusterInfo this would be to simply put this object in a file and copy it around. This is more overhead for the user, but it is easy to implement and lets users rely on existing systems to distribute configuration.

For the kubeadm flow, the command line might look like:

kubeadm join --discovery-file=my-cluster.yaml

After loading the ClusterInfo from a file, the client MAY look for updated information from the server by reading the kube-public/cluster-info ConfigMap defined below. However, when retrieving this ConfigMap the client MUST validate the certificate chain when talking to the API server.

Note: TLS bootstrap (which establishes a way for a client to authenticate itself to the server) is a separate issue and has its own set of methods. This command line may have a TLS bootstrap token (or config file) on the command line also. For this reason, even thought the --discovery-file argument is in the form of a kubeconfig, it MUST NOT contain client credentials as defined above.

Method: HTTPS Endpoint

If the ClusterInfo information is hosted in a trusted place via HTTPS you can just request it that way. This will use the root certificates that are installed on the system. It may or may not be appropriate based on the user's constraints. This method MUST use HTTPS. Also, even though the payload for this URL is the kubeconfig format, it MUST NOT contain client credentials.

kubeadm join --discovery-file="https://example/mycluster.yaml"

This is really a shorthand for someone doing something like (assuming we support stdin with -):

curl | kubeadm join --discovery-file=-

After loading the ClusterInfo from a URL, the client MAY look for updated information from the server by reading the kube-public/cluster-info ConfigMap defined below. However, when retrieving this ConfigMap the client MUST validate the certificate chain when talking to the API server.

Note: support for loading from stdin for --discovery-file may not be implemented immediately.

Method: Bootstrap Token

There won't always be a trusted external endpoint to talk to and transmitting the locator file out of band is a pain. However, we want something more secure than just hitting HTTP and trusting whatever we get back. In this case, we assume we have the following:

  • An address for at least one of the API servers (which will implement this API).
    • This address is technically an HTTPS URL base but is often expressed as a bare domain or IP.
  • A shared secret token

An interesting aspect here is that this information is often easily obtained before the API server is configured or started. This makes some cluster bring-up scenarios much easier.

The user experience for joining a cluster would be something like:

kubeadm join --token=ae23dc.faddc87f5a5ab458 <address>:<port>

Note: This is logically a different use of the token used for authentication for TLS bootstrap. We harmonize these usages and allow the same token to play double duty.

Implementation Flow

kubeadm will implement the following flow:

  • kubeadm connects to the API server address specified over TLS. As we don't yet have a root certificate to trust, this is an insecure connection and the server certificate is not validated. kubeadm provides no authentication credentials at all.
    • Implementation note: the API server doesn't have to expose a new and special insecure HTTP endpoint.
    • (D)DoS concern: Before this flow is secure to use/enable publicly (when not bootstrapping), the API Server must support rate-limiting. There are a couple of ways rate-limiting can be implemented to work for this use-case, but defining the rate-limiting flow in detail here is out of scope. One simple idea is limiting unauthenticated requests to come from clients in RFC1918 ranges.
  • kubeadm requests a ConfigMap containing the kubeconfig file defined above.
    • This ConfigMap exists at a well known URL: https://<server>/api/v1/namespaces/kube-public/configmaps/cluster-info
    • This ConfigMap is really public. Users don't need to authenticate to read this ConfigMap. In fact, the client MUST NOT use a bearer token here as we don't trust this endpoint yet.
  • The API server returns the ConfigMap with the kubeconfig contents as normal
    • Extra data items on that ConfigMap contains JWS signatures. kubeadm finds the correct signature based on the token-id part of the token. (Described below).
  • kubeadm verifies the JWS and can now trust the server. Further communication is simpler as the CA certificate in the kubeconfig file can be trusted.

NEW: Bootstrap Token Structure

To first make this work, we put some structure into the token. It has both a token identifier and the token value, separated by a dot. Example:


The first part of the token is the token-id. The second part is the token-secret. By having a token identifier, we make it easier to specify which token you are talking about without sending the token itself in the clear.

This new type of token is different from the current CSV token authenticator that is currently part of Kubernetes. The CSV token authenticator requires an update on disk and a restart of the API server to update/delete tokens. As we prove out this token mechanism we may wish to deprecate and eventually remove that mechanism.

The token-id must be 6 characters and the token-secret must be 16 characters. They must be lower case ASCII letters and numbers. Specifically it must match the regular expression: [a-z0-9]{6}\.[a-z0-9]{16}. There is no strong reasoning behind this beyond the history of how this has been implemented in alpha versions.

NEW: Bootstrap Token Secrets

Bootstrap tokens are stored and managed via Kubernetes secrets in the kube-system namespace. They have the type

The following keys are on the secret data:

  • token-id. As defined above.
  • token-secret. As defined above.
  • expiration. After this time the token should be automatically deleted. This is encoded as an absolute UTC time using RFC3339.
  • usage-bootstrap-signing. Set to true to indicate this token should be used for signing bootstrap configs. If this is missing from the token secret or set to any other value, the usage is not allowed.
  • usage-bootstrap-authentication. Set to true to indicate that this token should be used for authenticating to the API server. If this is missing from the token secret or set to any other value, the usage is not allowed. The bootstrap token authenticator will use this token to auth as a user that is system:bootstrap:<token-id> in the group system:bootstrappers.
  • description. An optional free form description field for denoting the purpose of the token. If users have especially complex token management neads, they are encouraged to use labels and annotations instead of packing machined readable data in to this field.
  • auth-groups. A comma-separated list of which groups the token should be authenticated as. All groups must have the system:bootstrappers: prefix.

These secrets MUST be named bootstrap-token-<token-id>. If a token doesn't adhere to this naming scheme it MUST be ignored. The secret MUST also be ignored if the token-id key in the secret doesn't match the name of the secret.

Quick Primer on JWS

JSON Web Signatures are a way to sign, serialize and verify a payload. It supports both symmetric keys (aka shared secrets) along with asymmetric keys (aka public key infrastructure or key pairs). The JWS is split in to 3 parts:

  1. a header about how it is signed
  2. the clear text payload
  3. the signature.

There are a couple of different ways of encoding this data -- either as a JSON object or as a set of BASE64URL strings for including in headers or URL parameters. In this case, we are using a shared secret and the HMAC-SHA256 signing algorithm and encoding it as a JSON object. The popular JWT (JSON Web Tokens) specification is a type of JWS.

The JWS specification describes how to encode "detached content". In this way the signature is calculated as normal but the content isn't included in the signature.

NEW: kube-public namespace

Kubernetes ConfigMaps are per-namespace and are generally only visible to principals that have read access on that namespace. To create a config map that everyone can see, we introduce a new kube-public namespace. This namespace, by convention, is readable by all users (including those not authenticated). Note that is a convention (to expose everything in kube-public), not something that's done by default in Kubernetes. kubeadm does solely expose the cluster-info ConfigMap, not anything else.

In the initial implementation the kube-public namespace (and the cluster-info config map) will be created by kubeadm. That means that these won't exist for clusters that aren't bootstrapped with kubeadm. As we have need for this configmap in other contexts (self describing HA clusters?) we'll make this be more generally available.

NEW: cluster-info ConfigMap

A new well known ConfigMap will be created in the kube-public namespace called cluster-info.

Users configuring the cluster (and eventually the cluster itself) will update the kubeconfig key here with the limited kubeconfig above.

A new controller (bootstrapsigner) is introduced that will watch for both new/modified bootstrap tokens and changes to the cluster-info ConfigMap. As things change it will generate new JWS signatures. These will be saved under ConfigMap keys of the pattern jws-kubeconfig-<token-id>.

Another controller (tokencleaner) is introduced that deletes tokens that are past their expiration time.

Logically these controllers could run as a separate component in the control plane. But, for the sake of efficiency, they are bundled as part of the Kubernetes controller-manager.

kubeadm UX

We extend kubeadm with a set of flags and helper commands for managing and using these tokens.

kubeadm init flags

  • --token If set, this injects the bootstrap token to use when initializing the cluster. If this is unset, then a random token is created and shown to the user. If set explicitly to the empty string then no token is generated or created. This token is used for both discovery and TLS bootstrap by having usage-bootstrap-signing and usage-bootstrap-authentication set on the token secret.
  • --token-ttl If set, this sets the TTL for the lifetime of this token. Defaults to 0 which means "forever" in v1.6 and v1.7. Defaults to 24h in v1.8

kubeadm join flags

  • --token This sets the token for both discovery and bootstrap auth.
  • --discovery-file If set, this will load the cluster-info from a file on disk or from a HTTPS URL (the HTTPS requirement due to the sensitive nature of the data)
  • --discovery-token If set, (or set via --token) then we will be using the token scheme described above.
  • --tls-bootstrap-token (not officially part of this spec) This sets the token used to temporarily authenticate to the API server in order to submit a CSR for signing. If the system:csr-approver:approve-node-client-csr ClusterRole is bound to the group the Bootstrap Token authenticates to, the CSR will be approved automatically (by the csrapprover controller) for a hands off joining flow.

Only one of --discovery-file or --discovery-token can be set. If more than one is set then an error is surfaced and kubeadm join exits. Setting --token counts as setting --discovery-token.

kubeadm token commands

kubeadm provides a set of utilities for manipulating token secrets in a running server.

  • kubeadm token create [token] Creates a token server side. With no options this'll create a token that is used for discovery and TLS bootstrap.
    • [token] The actual token value (in id.secret form) to write in. If unset, a random value is generated.
    • --usages A list of usages. Defaults to signing,authentication.
      • If the signing usage is specified, the token will be used (by the BootstrapSigner controller in the KCM) to JWS-sign the ConfigMap and can then be used for discovery.
      • If the authentication usage is specified, the token can be used to authenticate for TLS bootstrap.
    • --ttl The TTL for this token. This sets the expiration of the token as a duration from the current time. This is converted into an absolute UTC time as it is written into the token secret.
    • --description Sets the free form description field for the token.
  • kubeadm token delete <token-id>|<token-id>.<token-secret>
    • Users can either just specify the id or the full token. This will delete the token if it exists.
  • kubeadm token list
    • List tokens in a table form listing out the token-id.token-secret, the TTL, the absolute expiration time, the usages, and the description.
    • Question Support a --json or -o json way to make this info programmatic? We don't want to recreate kubectl here and these aren't plain API objects so we can't reuse that plumbing easily.
  • kubeadm token generate This currently exists but is documented here for completeness. This pure client side method just generated a random token in the correct form.

Implementation Details

Our documentations (and output from kubeadm) should stress to users that when the token is configured for authentication and used for TLS bootstrap is a pretty powerful credential due to that any person with access to it can claim to be a node. The highest risk regarding being able to claim a credential in the system:nodes group is that it can read all Secrets in the cluster, which may compromise the cluster. The Node Authorizer locks this down a bit, but an untrusted person could still try to guess a node's name, get such a credential, guess the name of the Secret and be able to get that.

Users should set a TTL on the token to limit the above mentioned risk. kubeadm sets a 24h TTL on the node bootstrap token by default in v1.8. Or, after the cluster is up and running, users should delete the token using kubeadm token delete.

After some back and forth, we decided to keep the separator in the token between the ID and Secret be a .. During the 1.6 cycle, at one point : was implemented but then reverted.

See kubernetes/client-go#114 for details on creating a shared package with common constants for this scheme.

This proposal assumes RBAC to lock things down in a couple of ways. First, it will open up cluster-info ConfigMap in kube-public so that it is readable by unauthenticated users (user system:anonymous). Next, it will make it so that the identities in the system:bootstrappers group can only be used with the certs API to submit CSRs. After a TLS certificate is created, the groupapprover controller will approve the CSR and the CSR identity can be used instead of the bootstrap token.

The end goal is to make it possible to delegate the client TLS Bootstrapping part to the kubelet, so kubeadm join's function will solely be to verify the validity of the token and fetch the CA bundle.

The binding of the system:bootstrappers (or similar) group to the ability to submit CSRs is not part of the default RBAC configuration. Consumers of this feature like kubeadm will have to explicitly create this binding.

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