Authenticating to the Kubernetes API server

This page describes the supported authentication methods when connecting to the Kubernetes API server in Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) clusters.

For information on authenticating Kubernetes workloads to Google Cloud APIs, refer to Workload Identity.

Overview

There are several methods for authenticating to a Kubernetes API server. In GKE, OAuth authentication is recommended for cluster authentication and is automatically configured for you.

Before you begin

Before you start, make sure you have performed the following tasks:

  • Enable the Google Kubernetes Engine API.
  • Enable Google Kubernetes Engine API
  • If you want to use the Google Cloud CLI for this task, install and then initialize the gcloud CLI.

Authenticating users

GKE manages end-user authentication for you through the Google Cloud CLI. The gcloud CLI authenticates users to Google Cloud, sets up the Kubernetes configuration, gets an OAuth access token for the cluster, and keeps the access token up-to-date.

All GKE clusters are configured to accept Google Cloud user and service account identities, by validating the credentials presented by kubectl and retrieving the email address associated with the user or service account identity. As a result, the credentials for those accounts must include the userinfo.email OAuth scope to successfully authenticate.

When you use gcloud to set up your environment's kubeconfig for a new or existing cluster, gcloud gives kubectl the same credentials used by gcloud itself. For example, if you use gcloud auth login, your personal credentials are provided to kubectl, including the userinfo.email scope. This allows the GKE cluster to authenticate the kubectl client.

Alternatively, you may choose to configure kubectl to use the credentials of a Google Cloud service account, while running on a Compute Engine instance. However, by default, the userinfo.email scope is not included in credentials created by Compute Engine instances. Therefore, you must add this scope explicitly, such as by using the --scopes flag when the Compute Engine instance is created.

You can authorize actions in your cluster using Identity and Access Management (IAM) or Kubernetes Role Based Access Control (RBAC).

Authenticating using OAuth

To authenticate to your cluster using the OAuth method, perform the following:

  1. Sign in to the gcloud CLI using your credentials. This opens a web browser to complete the authentication process to Google Cloud:

    gcloud auth login
    
  2. Retrieve the Kubernetes credentials for a specific cluster:

    gcloud container clusters get-credentials CLUSTER_NAME \
        --zone=COMPUTE_ZONE
    
  3. Verify that you are authenticated:

    kubectl cluster-info
    

Once users or Google Cloud service accounts are authenticated, they must also be authorized to perform any action on a GKE cluster. For more information on how to configure authorization, see role-based access control.

Authenticating applications

You can also authenticate to the API server from an application in a Pod without user interaction, such as from a script in your CI/CD pipeline. How you achieve this depends on the environment where your application is running.

Application in the same cluster

If your application is running in the same GKE cluster, use a Kubernetes service account to authenticate.

  1. Create a Kubernetes service account and attach it to your Pod. If your Pod already has a Kubernetes service account, or if you want to use the namespace's default service account, skip this step.

  2. Use Kubernetes RBAC to grant the Kubernetes service account the permissions that your application requires.

    The following example grants view permissions to resources in the prod namespace to a service account named cicd in the cicd-ns namespace:

    kubectl create rolebinding cicd-secret-viewer \
        --namespace=prod \
        --clusterrole=view \
        --serviceaccount=cicd-ns:cicd
    
  3. At runtime, when your application sends a Kubernetes API request, the API server authenticates the service account credentials.

Applications within Google Cloud

If your application runs inside Google Cloud but outside the target cluster (for example, a Compute Engine VM or another GKE cluster), you should authenticate to the API server using the IAM service account credentials available in the environment.

  1. Assign an IAM service account to your environment. If your application is running inside a Compute Engine VM, assign an IAM service account to the instance. If your application is running in a different GKE cluster, use Workload Identity to configure your Pod to run as an IAM service account.

    The examples that follow use ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com as the IAM service account.

  2. Grant the IAM service account access to the cluster.

    The following example grants the roles/container.developer IAM role, which provides access to Kubernetes API objects inside clusters:

    gcloud projects add-iam-policy-binding PROJECT_ID \
        --member=serviceAccount:ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com \
        --role=roles/container.developer
    

    You can also use RBAC to grant the IAM service account access to the cluster. Run the kubectl create rolebinding command from Applications in the same cluster and use --user=ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com instead of the --service-account flag.

  3. Retrieve the cluster credentials:

    gcloud container clusters get-credentials CLUSTER_NAME \
        --zone=COMPUTE_ZONE
    

    Your application is automatically authenticated using the IAM service account set on the environment.

Applications in other environments

If your application is authenticating from an environment outside Google Cloud, it cannot access managed IAM service account credentials. To retrieve cluster credentials, you can create an IAM service account, download its key, and use the key at runtime from your service to retrieve cluster credentials with the gcloud CLI.

  1. Create an IAM service account for your application. If you already have an IAM service account, skip this step.

    The following command creates an IAM service account named ci-cd-pipeline:

    gcloud iam service-accounts create ci-cd-pipeline
    
  2. Grant the IAM service account access to your cluster.

    The following command grants the roles/container.developer IAM role to the ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com IAM service account:

    gcloud projects add-iam-policy-binding PROJECT_ID \
        --member=serviceAccount:ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com \
        --role=roles/container.developer
    

    You can also use RBAC to grant the IAM service account access to the cluster. Run the kubectl create rolebinding command from Applications in the same cluster and use --user=ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com instead of the --service-account flag.

  3. Create and download a key for your IAM service account. Make it available to your application at runtime:

    gcloud iam service-accounts keys create gsa-key.json \
        --iam-account=ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com
    
  4. At runtime, in the environment running your application, authenticate to the gcloud CLI by using your IAM service account key:

    gcloud auth activate-service-account ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com \
        --key-file=gsa-key.json
    
  5. Use the gcloud CLI to retrieve the cluster credentials:

    gcloud config set project PROJECT_ID
    gcloud container clusters get-credentials CLUSTER_NAME \
        --zone=COMPUTE_ZONE
    

Environments without gcloud

Using the gcloud CLI to retrieve cluster credentials is recommended because this method is resilient to cluster events like a control plane IP rotation or credential rotation. However, if you cannot install the gcloud CLI in your environment, you can still create a static kubeconfig file to authenticate to the cluster:

  1. Create an IAM service account for your application. If you already have an IAM service account, skip this step.

    The following command creates an IAM service account named ci-cd-pipeline:

    gcloud iam service-accounts create ci-cd-pipeline
    
  2. Grant the IAM service account access to your cluster.

    The following command grants the roles/container.developer IAM role to the ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com IAM service account:

    gcloud projects add-iam-policy-binding PROJECT_ID \
        --member=serviceAccount:ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com \
        --role=roles/container.developer
    

    You can also create a custom IAM role for fine-grained control over the permissions that you grant.

  3. Create and download a key for your IAM service account.

    In the following example, the key file is named gsa-key.json:

    gcloud iam service-accounts keys create gsa-key.json \
        --iam-account=ci-cd-pipeline@PROJECT_ID.iam.gserviceaccount.com
    
  4. Get the endpoint and clusterCaCertificate values for your cluster:

    gcloud container clusters describe CLUSTER_NAME \
        --zone=COMPUTE_ZONE \
         --format="value(endpoint)"
    
    gcloud container clusters describe CLUSTER_NAME \
        --zone=COMPUTE_ZONE \
        --format="value(masterAuth.clusterCaCertificate)"
    
  5. Create a kubeconfig.yaml file containing the following:

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: Config
    clusters:
    - name: CLUSTER_NAME
      cluster:
        server: https://endpoint
        certificate-authority-data: masterAuth.clusterCaCertificate
    users:
    - name: ci-cd-pipeline-gsa
      user:
        exec:
          apiVersion: client.authentication.k8s.io/v1beta1
          args:
          - --use_application_default_credentials
          command: gke-gcloud-auth-plugin
          installHint: Install gke-gcloud-auth-plugin for kubectl by following
            https://cloud.google.com/kubernetes-engine/docs/how-to/cluster-access-for-kubectl#install_plugin
          provideClusterInfo: true
    contexts:
    - context:
        cluster: CLUSTER_NAME
        user: ci-cd-pipeline-gsa
      name: CLUSTER_NAME-ci-cd
    current-context: CLUSTER_NAME-ci-cd
    

    Replace the following:

    • CLUSTER_NAME: the name of your cluster.
    • endpoint: the value you obtained for endpoint from the previous step.
    • masterAuth.clusterCaCertificate: the value you obtained for clusterCaCertificate from the previous step (you don't need to decode the base64-encoded certificate).
  6. Deploy kubeconfig.yaml and gsa-key.json alongside your application in your environment. At runtime, in the environment running your application, set these environment variables:

    export KUBECONFIG=path/to/kubeconfig.yaml
    export GOOGLE_APPLICATION_CREDENTIALS=path/to/gsa-key.json
    
  7. Your application can now send requests to the Kubernetes API and will be authenticated as the IAM service account.

Legacy authentication methods

Before OAuth integration with GKE, the pre-provisioned X.509 certificate or a static password were the only available authentication methods, but are no longer recommended and should be disabled. These methods present a wider surface of attack for cluster compromise and are disabled by default on clusters running GKE version 1.12 and later. If you use legacy authentication methods, we recommend that you turn them off.

If enabled, a user with thecontainer.clusters.getCredentials permission can retrieve the client certificate and static password. The roles/container.admin, roles/owner, androles/editor roles all have this permission, so use those roles wisely. Read more about IAM roles in GKE.

Disabling authentication with a static password

A static password is a username and password combination that the API server validates. In GKE, this authentication method is referred to as basic authentication.

To update an existing cluster and remove the static password:

gcloud container clusters update CLUSTER_NAME --no-enable-basic-auth

Disabling authentication with a client certificate

With certificate authentication, a client presents a certificate that the API server verifies with the specified certificate authority. In GKE, the cluster root Certificate Authority (CA) signs client certificates.

Client certificate authentication has implications on authorization to the Kubernetes API server. If legacy Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) authorization is enabled on the cluster, by default, client certificates can authenticate and perform any action on the API server. On the other hand, with Role Based Access Control (RBAC) enabled, client certificates must be granted specific authorization to Kubernetes resources.

To create a cluster without generating a client certificate, use the --no-issue-client-certificate flag:

gcloud container clusters create CLUSTER_NAME \
    --no-issue-client-certificate

Currently, there is no way to remove a client certificate from an existing cluster. To stop using client certificate authentication on an existing cluster, ensure you have RBAC enabled on the cluster, and that the client certificate does not have any authorization on the cluster.

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