Security Best Practices

This section provides some deployment guidelines to help keep a service mesh secure.

Use namespaces for isolation

If there are multiple service operators (a.k.a. SREs) deploying different services in a medium- or large-size cluster, we recommend creating a separate Kubernetes namespace for each SRE team to isolate their access. For example, you can create a team1-ns namespace for team1, and team2-ns namespace for team2, such that both teams cannot access each other’s services.

Let us consider a three-tier application with three services: photo-frontend, photo-backend, and datastore. The photo SRE team manages the photo-frontend and photo-backend services while the datastore SRE team manages the datastore service. The photo-frontend service can access photo-backend, and the photo-backend service can access datastore. However, the photo-frontend service cannot access datastore.

In this scenario, a cluster administrator creates two namespaces: photo-ns and datastore-ns. The administrator has access to all namespaces and each team only has access to its own namespace. The photo SRE team creates two service accounts to run photo-frontend and photo-backend respectively in the photo-ns namespace. The datastore SRE team creates one service account to run the datastore service in the datastore-ns namespace. Moreover, we need to enforce the service access control in Istio Mixer such that photo-frontend cannot access datastore.

In this setup, Kubernetes can isolate the operator privileges on managing the services. Istio manages certificates and keys in all namespaces and enforces different access control rules to the services.

Configure third party service account tokens

To authenticate with the Istio control plane, the Istio proxy will use a Service Account token. Kubernetes supports two forms of these tokens:

  • Third party tokens, which have a scoped audience and expiration.
  • First party tokens, which have no expiration and are mounted into all pods.

Because the properties of the first party token are less secure, Istio will default to using third party tokens. However, this feature is not enabled on all Kubernetes platforms.

If you are using istioctl to install, support will be automatically detected. This can be done manually as well, and configured by passing --set or --set

To determine if your cluster supports third party tokens, look for the TokenRequest API. If this returns no response, then the feature is not supported:

$ kubectl get --raw /api/v1 | jq '.resources[] | select(.name | index("serviceaccounts/token"))'
    "name": "serviceaccounts/token",
    "singularName": "",
    "namespaced": true,
    "group": "",
    "version": "v1",
    "kind": "TokenRequest",
    "verbs": [

While most cloud providers support this feature now, many local development tools and custom installations may not. To enable this feature, please refer to the Kubernetes documentation.

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