External CA integration with cert-manager using istio-csr

by Zhihan Zhang on Feb 9, 2021 / 3 min read

In this article we at Tetrate will show how to integrate cert-manager as an external CA to your Istio service mesh using istio-csr extension.


For key and certificate management, Istio is using its own Certificate Authority (CA) inside istiod control plane.

Here, we would use the cert-manager provisioned Issuer as the external CA to sign the workload certificates using Istio CSR API with the CSR request directly going from the workloads to the external CA.

Setting up the Environment

We performed this demo using Kubernetes 1.18 and Istio 1.8:

  1. Deploy Kubernetes cluster(>=1.16) with minikube.

    minikube start --memory=10000 --cpus=4 --kubernetes-version=1.18.6
  2. Install helm3 for cert-manager CRD installation.

    curl https://raw.githubusercontent.com/helm/helm/master/scripts/get-helm-3 | sh
  3. Install GetMesh and fetch Istio.

    curl -sL https://istio.tetratelabs.io/getmesh/install.sh | sh
    getmesh fetch

Deploy cert-manager

Install cert-manager in cert-manager namespace.

kubectl create namespace cert-manager
helm repo add jetstack https://charts.jetstack.io
helm repo update
helm install \
  cert-manager jetstack/cert-manager \
  --namespace cert-manager \
  --version v1.1.0 \
  --set installCRDs=true

Configure cert-manager Issuer

While we could use cert-manager to connect with several Issuers, in this example we would configure cert-manager to create a self-signed CA to issue workload certificates. The istio-ca secret would hold the CA key/cert pair.

apiVersion: cert-manager.io/v1
kind: Issuer
  name: selfsigned
  selfSigned: {}
apiVersion: cert-manager.io/v1
kind: Certificate
  name: istio-ca
  isCA: true
  duration: 2160h # 90d
  secretName: istio-ca
  commonName: istio-ca
    - cluster.local
    - cert-manager
    name: selfsigned
    kind: Issuer
    group: cert-manager.io
apiVersion: cert-manager.io/v1
kind: Issuer
  name: istio-ca
    secretName: istio-ca
kubectl create ns istio-system
kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/cert-manager/istio-csr/master/hack/demo/cert-manager-bootstrap-resources.yaml -n istio-system

Deploy istio-csr agent for cert-manager

Deploy istio-csr through official helm chart. It will use a certificate named istio-ca to generate istio-ca secret for workload certificate and verification.

helm repo add https://chart.jetstack.io
helm repo update
helm install -n cert-manager cert-manager-istio-csr jetstack/cert-manager-istio-csr

This agent also creates a secret istod-tls which holds the tls cert/key for istiod to serve XDS. This newly created cert is signed by istio-ca.

Install and Configure Istio

Initialize Istio operator.

getmesh istioctl operator init

Configure on the operator yaml.

  • Configure External CA address for workloads
  • Disable istiod as the CA Server
  • provide TLS certs for istiod from cert-manager
apiVersion: install.istio.io/v1alpha1
kind: IstioOperator
  namespace: istio-system
  name: istio-operator-csr
  profile: "demo"
  hub: containers.istio.tetratelabs.com
      # Change certificate provider to cert-manager istio agent for istio agent
      caAddress: cert-manager-istio-csr.cert-manager.svc:443
          # Disable istiod CA Sever functionality
        - name: ENABLE_CA_SERVER
          value: "false"
        - apiVersion: apps/v1
          kind: Deployment
          name: istiod

            # Mount istiod serving and webhook certificate from Secret mount
          - path: spec.template.spec.containers.[name:discovery].args[7]
            value: "--tlsCertFile=/etc/cert-manager/tls/tls.crt"
          - path: spec.template.spec.containers.[name:discovery].args[8]
            value: "--tlsKeyFile=/etc/cert-manager/tls/tls.key"
          - path: spec.template.spec.containers.[name:discovery].args[9]
            value: "--caCertFile=/etc/cert-manager/ca/root-cert.pem"

          - path: spec.template.spec.containers.[name:discovery].volumeMounts[6]
              name: cert-manager
              mountPath: "/etc/cert-manager/tls"
              readOnly: true
          - path: spec.template.spec.containers.[name:discovery].volumeMounts[7]
              name: ca-root-cert
              mountPath: "/etc/cert-manager/ca"
              readOnly: true

          - path: spec.template.spec.volumes[6]
              name: cert-manager
                secretName: istiod-tls
          - path: spec.template.spec.volumes[7]
              name: ca-root-cert
                secretName: istiod-tls
                defaultMode: 420
                name: istio-ca-root-cert

You could validate on all cert-manager certs in istio-system namespace through the following command.

kubectl get certificates -n istio-system
istio-ca   True    istio-ca     16m
istiod     True    istiod-tls   16m

Deploy application

Here we deploy a simple workload for certificate verification.

kubectl create ns foo
kubectl label ns foo istio-injection=enabled
kubectl apply -f samples/sleep/sleep.yaml -n foo

kubectl get pods -n foo
NAME                    READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
sleep-8f795f47d-vv6hx   2/2     Running   0          42s

Validate mTLS certs issued for workloads

After the workload is running, we could check on the secret in SDS using the istioctl proxy-config command.

getmesh istioctl pc secret sleep-8f795f47d-vv6hx.foo -o json > proxy_secret

Check on the proxy_secret. There should be a field named ROOTCA and in ROOTCA there should be a field trustedCA which is signed by cert-manager istio-ca.

Compare the base64 value in trustedCA with the istio-ca secret ca.crt located in istio-system. Those two should be the same.

kubectl get secrets -n istio-system istio-ca -o json > istio-ca


This article demonstrates how to integrate cert-manager as an external CA for Istio service mesh. The cert-manager/service mesh integration can be successfully implemented in different clouds with brand-new or existing deployments of cert-manager, when the service mesh is introduced during Day 2 implementations stage. In the end, you’re getting the best of two worlds: Istio integrating with an external CA of your choice!