5 Challenges Of Managing Digital Certificates In The Kubernetes Environment

Organizations are embracing new cloud-native container services to deliver applications faster and boost business agility. The adoption of containers and container-orchestration systems like Kubernetes has been fueled by the shift towards modern, microservices-based application development and deployment. Kubernetes (K8s), an open-source platform, orchestrates and automates container operations for managing, scaling, and deploying containerized applications.

The most ephemeral computing unit ever created is a container. Many containers only operate for a short while before they’re removed or changed. Containers appear to be a secure solution for running applications because of their limited lifespan and isolated nature. While most containers are deployed within the same IP space and are walled off from one another, they are nevertheless susceptible to the network-based vulnerabilities that affect legacy hardware and VM environments. If attackers are able to access even a single container, they can then launch an attack against an entire cluster.

Securing applications running on Kubernetes should start by creating a secret that contains a TLS (Transport Layer Security) private key and certificate. Kubernetes needs PKI certificates for authentication in order to securely provide access to the cluster (i.e., north-south traffic), allowing communication across container functions (i.e., east-west traffic) and encrypt the traffic passing within the application that runs inside the container.

When using Kubernetes, network traffic must be secured using TLS certificates. TLS offers trust, data integrity, and encryption, preventing unauthorized access to and tampering with sensitive data. TLS certificates secure transactions across the Kubernetes environment by encrypting communication routes between nodes, pods, and services. By doing so, the cluster is protected from eavesdropping and interception by hostile threat actors while also ensuring the security and privacy of data and applications shared within the cluster.

Role of TLS Certificates in the Kubernetes Environment

There are four primary layers in the Kubernetes environment – Cloud, Clusters, Containers, and Code. Within these essential layers, PKI (public key infrastructure) and TLS (transport layer security) need to be implemented in order to provide strong authentication, encryption, and integrity.

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TLS certificates are fundamental for securing Kubernetes clusters, including communications with and within clusters. Specifically, TLS Certificates are used to:

  • Secure traffic to the cluster through the ingress point: Securing ingress points is essential to ensuring that only authorized traffic accesses the services and safeguards them from attacks and breaches because they act as entry gates for outside traffic into a cluster. One of the most efficient ways to protect the ingress and the cluster from potential attacks is by implementing TLS. Installing TLS server certificates on ingress controllers enables clients to confirm the legitimacy of the controllers and make sure they are communicating to authentic servers rather than malicious ones, thereby protecting their connection against man-in-the-middle attacks.

Installing mutual TLS (mTLS) adds an additional layer of security and prevents unauthorized access by enabling both the client and the ingress controller to authenticate one another using their respective TLS certificates. TLS is also helpful in protecting north-south communication. TLS helps encrypt the data to prevent it from being intercepted or altered, as the web traffic coming through the ingress is in plain-text. TLS creates a secure and reliable communication channel to prevent the exposure of sensitive data, including login credentials, private information, and other confidential data.

  • Secure communication between containers, pods, and service mesh: TLS certificates play a crucial role in securing container communication within and between Kubernetes clusters. First, in a Pod-to-Pod communication scenario, mTLS (mutual Transport Layer Security) is employed to ensure secure interactions between containers. Each container within a Pod can have its own TLS certificate, enabling mutual authentication, encryption, and data integrity between them. This prevents unauthorized access and protects sensitive information exchanged within the Pod.

In a service mesh architecture, such as Istio or Linkerd, mTLS is used to secure communication between services. TLS certificates are provisioned to each service and utilized by the service mesh infrastructure to establish encrypted connections and enable mutual authentication between services. This enhances security and confidentiality, especially in microservices environments where service-to-service communication occurs across multiple Pods and clusters.

TLS certificates are also utilized to secure communication with ephemeral pods, which are short-lived containers that are dynamically created and terminated. Each ephemeral pod can be assigned a unique TLS certificate to ensure secure communication during its lifetime, maintaining confidentiality and preventing unauthorized access to the ephemeral pod’s resources. Overall, TLS certificates play a vital role in securing container communication within and between Pods, service mesh environments, and ephemeral pods, safeguarding sensitive data, and maintaining a secure containerized infrastructure.

  • Secure Kubernetes Infrastructure or component-to-component communication: TLS certificates play a significant role in securing the Kubernetes architecture and component-to-component communication. TLS certificates enable secure communication between various Kubernetes components, such as the API server, etcd, and the controller manager. These certificates are used to authenticate and encrypt the communication channels, preventing unauthorized access and protecting sensitive data transmitted between these components. By utilizing TLS certificates, Kubernetes ensures that only trusted entities can communicate and helps maintain the integrity and confidentiality of the cluster’s internal communication.

TLS certificates are important in securing communication between external clients or users and the Kubernetes cluster. For example, when accessing the Kubernetes API or dashboard, clients can present their TLS certificates for authentication. Kubernetes can validate these certificates to ensure that only authorized clients can interact with the cluster. This prevents unauthorized access and protects the cluster from potential attacks or unauthorized control. By implementing TLS certificates, Kubernetes enhances the security of its architecture, strengthens component-to-component communication, and establishes a trusted and encrypted environment for both internal and external interactions.

Challenges of Managing Certificates in Kubernetes

Kubernetes environments are distributed and highly complex, giving rise to several unforeseen management challenges and exposure to security vulnerabilities. According to the State of Kubernetes security report 2023 by Red Hat, 90% of respondents experienced at least one security incident in the last 12 months, and 67% of companies reported delayed or slowed down deployment due to Kubernetes security concerns.

Managing certificates in Kubernetes for DevOps can present several challenges. There is the complexity of generating, distributing, and renewing certificates across a dynamic and scalable environment. With numerous pods, services, and nodes, it becomes daunting to maintain proper certificate management practices. Certificate rotation and renewal can be problematic, as manual processes may lead to oversight or downtime if certificates expire. Additionally, securely storing and managing private keys poses a challenge, as they need to be protected from unauthorized access. Integrating certificate management into the DevOps workflow requires coordination between teams and automation to ensure seamless deployment and updates. Overcoming these challenges demands robust certificate management solutions, streamlined processes, and effective collaboration between DevOps and security teams.

2023 EMA Report: SSL/TLS Certificate Security-Management and Expiration Challenges

It’s a major benefit that TLS Certificates can be used for securing the vast layers of Kubernetes, including clusters, containers, and service mesh; however, there are complexities involved. Managing TLS certificates, especially at scale within Kubernetes, is a significant challenge due to several reasons:

  1. Lack of agility and scalability with manual certificate management processes: Developers require efficient and scalable certificate issuance to meet their high-speed demands. Unfortunately, the conventional approach of requesting and obtaining certificates involves a cumbersome process of raising tickets, seeking approvals from multiple sources, and enduring days of waiting. Furthermore, developers must manually install and bind certificates, which not only hampers their productivity but also heightens the risk of misconfigurations and service disruptions. The sluggishness of manual procedures often compels developers to bypass essential certificate management practices and use unapproved certificate authorities (CAs) or self-signed certificates in pursuit of agility, thereby magnifying cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
  2. Lack of visibility: To guarantee that all the components in the Kubernetes cluster are utilizing valid, trustworthy, and compliant certificates, it is essential for InfoSec teams to have complete visibility of all the certificates. However, InfoSec teams soon lose oversight and control as DevOps teams frequently use self-signed certificates or obtain certificates from their chosen CAs independently to prevent delays. As a result, unmanaged, rogue, and non-compliant certificates produce security blind spots. Renewals, rotations, and re-provisioning are very common in Kubernetes settings due to the massive volume of ephemeral or short-lived certificates required by these systems. However, using homegrown solutions like spreadsheets to track certificates and keep an eye on their fluctuating validities is not an efficient way to manage certificates. Missing a certificate expiration date starts to become commonplace, which causes application outages, security flaws, and service interruptions.
  3. Lack of governance and access control leading to non-compliance issues: Weak crypto standards, the use of vulnerable self-signed certificates and certificates obtained from unapproved CAs, misconfigurations, and a lack of clear PKI policies can result in security vulnerabilities and non-compliance issues. The lack of clear protocols for certificate approval and ownership, which results in expired certificates, unauthorized access, and rogue certificate issuance, exacerbates the issue. In order to prevent security flaws and make audits easier, all certificate and key-related operations must be strictly managed because many teams are managing certificates in the same cluster. It is challenging to record and keep track of user and certificate-related actions when certificates are managed manually. Threat remediation and audits are both impacted by this lack of governance and control.
  4. Limited integration support: Lack of direct integrations force developers to work outside of their DevOps tool sets, further hindering productivity and continuous agile deployment. Because DevOps teams need certificates to be deployed quickly to ensure continuous operations, it would be much easier if they could request and install certificates directly from the CI/CD pipeline. Tight integrations between certificate management systems and DevOps/container management solutions are required. Ad hoc CA tools and internal PKI setups (for example, Microsoft CA) are not designed to enable any of these integrations, which is incompatible with DevOps.
  5. Misaligned and siloed teams: When different teams operate independently without proper coordination, issues arise in the provisioning, renewal, and monitoring of certificates. Lack of communication and collaboration leads to inconsistencies in certificate practices, resulting in misconfigurations, expirations, and potential security vulnerabilities. To effectively manage certificates in a Kubernetes environment, it is crucial to foster cross-functional alignment and establish streamlined processes that promote collaboration between DevOps, security, and operations teams.

Certificate Mismanagement Can Lead to TLS Outages and Cyberattacks

Digital identities are as crucial to cybersecurity as protecting human identities – and potentially even more. The convergence of machine and human identities has the most significant impact on securing digital certificates. With valuable data continuously being exchanged between applications in cloud environments, containers, microservices, IoT, and mobile devices, organizations need to secure this machine-to-machine communication. This is achieved by provisioning digital certificates to these applications, services, machines, and devices with PKI using both public and private certificate authorities (CAs). A recent study commissioned by AppViewX and conducted by the Ponemon Institute, the State of Certificate Lifecycle Management in Global Organization, reveals that only 46 percent of respondents admit that their organization has secured all certificates and keys, and 67 percent believe it is critical to secure them during the digital transformation process.

Digital certificates must be monitored, managed, and renewed due to their restricted lifespans in order to prevent expensive application outages and security weaknesses. Any inaccuracy or oversight in terms of critical certificate details, such as the expiration date, ownership, or device information, can make it challenging to guarantee a timely renewal before the internet application/service is forced offline. Let’s see what happens when certificates are not managed properly:

  • Certificate expirations and outages: An outage or unplanned downtime occurs when a system is unable to perform its core function. When a certificate expires, it often results in the impacted system or application becoming entirely inoperable, momentarily unavailable, or malfunctioning. Missed certificate renewals can lead to critical application disruptions and downtime. Operations might be hampered, and a company’s security posture can be significantly impacted by digital certificates that are no longer valid.
  • Cyberattacks: Expired certificates and non-compliant crypto standards act as potential gateways for hackers to infiltrate corporate networks. According to IBM’s Cost of Data Breach Report 2022, it takes an average of 277 days (or about 9 months) to find and contain data breaches. Critical data breaches and sophisticated attacks like phishing scams, SSL stripping, Poodle, FREAK, and man-in-the-middle (MITM) exploits can target such vulnerabilities. The complexity of managing thousands of digital certificates becomes even more challenging in hybrid, multi-cloud, and perimeter-less network environments. Cybercriminals capitalize on this chaos to launch advanced attacks, taking advantage of the increased use of encrypted communications. To mitigate these risks, organizations must prioritize effective certificate management practices and robust security measures.
  • Cryptographic key compromise: Certificate mismanagement can lead to cryptographic key compromise, exposing sensitive data and systems to cyber threats. Improper handling of certificates, such as weak key generation, improper storage, or failure to revoke compromised certificates, can leave cryptographic mechanisms vulnerable to attacks. Attackers may exploit these weaknesses to intercept encrypted communications, compromising the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive data. Additionally, inadequate certificate management practices can result in the use of weak or deprecated cryptographic algorithms, further weakening the overall security posture. Proper certificate management is essential to ensure the strength and effectiveness of cryptographic mechanisms and prevent key compromise.

Simplify Certificate Lifecycle Management for Kubernetes and Containers with AppViewX

AppViewX offers a ready-to-consume, scalable, and efficient certificate lifecycle management (CLM) solution to effectively manage machine identities as an integral part of your cybersecurity strategy. AppViewX automates the entire certificate lifecycle – from certificate issuance to provisioning to protect code repositories, CI/CD development processes, and containerized environments. Discover and streamline certificate management in Kubernetes for Service Mesh mTLS (i.e., Istio mesh configurations), Ingress traffic TLS as well as Kubernetes Infrastructure. Streamline service mesh certificate management as part of Istio mesh configurations on Kubernetes for both mTLS and Ingress traffic encryption.

Talk to an expert today to learn how you can accelerate DevOps processes through integrations with toolsets to provision and manage certificates.


  • Certificate authority
  • Certificate Management
  • Cybersecurity
  • DevOps
  • Kubernetes
  • microservices environments
  • TLS certificate

About the Author

Debarati Biswas

Senior Specialist- Product Marketing

A content creator and a lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity. She pens insightful resources to address the pain points of the readers and prospective buyers and help them make well-informed decisions.

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