Automated certificate provisioning in Kubernetes using kube-lego

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Written by Christian Simon

			Automated certificate provisioning in Kubernetes using kube-lego
Automated certificate provisioning in Kubernetes

Published on our Cloud Native Blog.
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Update kube-lego has been superseded by cert-manager.

In this blog post, we are pleased to introduce Kube-Lego, an open source tool for automated Let’s Encrypt TLS-enabled web services running in Kubernetes.

TLS has become increasingly important for production deployment of web services. This has been driven by revelations of surveillance post-Snowden, as well as the fact that Google now favours secure HTTPS sites in search result rankings.

An important step towards increased adoption of TLS has been the availability of Let’s Encrypt. It provides an easy, free-of-charge way to obtain certificates. Certificates are limited to a 90-day lifetime and so the free certificate authority (CA) encourages full automation for ease-of-use. At the time of writing, Let’s Encrypt has approaching 3.5 million unexpired certificates so adoption has certainly been strong.

Kube-Lego automates the process in Kubernetes by watching ingress resources and automatically requesting missing or expired TLS certificates from Let’s Encrypt.

ACME protocol

In order to automate the process of verification and certificate issuance for Let’s Encrypt’s CA, the ACME (Automated Certificate Management Environment) protocol is used. It specifies an API that can be integrated into many products that require publicly trusted certificates.

To interact with the CA’s ACME server, clients are required to authenticate with a private/public key pair (account). This helps to identify the user later for actions like extension or revocation of certificates. Let’s Encrypt supports only domain validation and requires you to specify every valid domain individually, so while a certificate can be valid for multiple hostnames using SAN, there is currently no support for wildcard certificates.

Validation methods

Let’s Encrypt allows you to prove the validity of a certificate request with four methods. They all use a so-called ‘key auth challenge response’, which is derived from the account’s key pair.

  • Simple HTTP: The CA connects to the specified URL (http://${domain-name}/.well-known/acme-challenge/${token}) to verify the authenticity of a certificate request. The response of the HTTP server has to contain the key auth.
  • TLS-SNI: With this method, the CA connects to the requested domain name via HTTPS and selects the verification hostname ${keyAuth[0]}.${keyAuth[1]}.acme.invalid via SNI. The returned certificate is not verified, it only has to contain the verification hostname.
  • DNS: A TXT-record _acme-challenge.${domain-name} has to be published, to verify the authenticity of your request via the DNS method. The content of this records has to include the key auth.
  • Proof of Possession of a Prior Key: If you already have a valid certificate for the domain name you want to request another certificate. You can then use this method to get validated.


Kube-Lego brings fully automated TLS management to a Kubernetes cluster. To achieve this it interfaces with the Kubernetes API on one side and an ACME enabled CA on the other. Kube-Lego is written in Go and uses xenolf’s ACME client implementation Lego for communicating with Let’s Encrypt (this explains the project name). Currently, the only implemented validation method is Simple HTTP


To use Kube-Lego you need a working Kubernetes cluster. The minimum version supported is 1.2, as this includes TLS support for ingress resources. There are plenty of ways getting Kubernetes bootstrapped; for instance, take a look at this Getting Started Guide from the Kubernetes project.

Note: Jetstack will also soon open source its cluster provisioner tool.

Another requirement for using Kube-Lego is a supported ingress controller. The only supported controller at the moment is the nginx-ingress-controller from Kubernetes' contrib project. The current release of the upstream controller needs a simple modification to fully support Kube-Lego. There is already a pull request filed to integrate this change into the next upstream release. Meanwhile you can use a modified build of the nginx-ingress-controller.

Before you can use Kube-Lego you have to make the nginx-ingress-controller pods accessible publicly. This usually happens with a service resource of the type LoadBalancer. Depending on the environment the cluster is running, this will create an ELB/Forwarding Rule and you can point the domains you wish to use to that entry point into your cluster.

Validity check

After starting up, Kube-Lego looks at all ingress objects in all namespaces in the Kubernetes cluster. If the ingress is annotated with "true", Kube-Lego will check the TLS configuration and make sure that the specified secret:

  • Exists and contains a valid private/public key pair;
  • The certificate is not expired;
  • The certificate covers all domain names specified in the ingress config.

Let’s take a look at the following example of an ingress resource:

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Ingress
  name: hello-world
    # enable kube-lego for this ingress "true"
  # this enables tls for the specified domain names
  - hosts:
    secretName: hello-world-tls
  - host:
      - path: /
          serviceName: hello-world
          servicePort: 80

Certificate Request

Let’s assume we haven’t run Kube-Lego before, so neither the certificate nor the user account exists. The Kube-Lego validity check comes to the conclusion that it needs to request a certificate for the domain

Before requesting the certificate, Kube-Lego sets up the challenge endpoint (/.well-known/acme-challenge/) in a separate ingress resource named kube-lego. This resource is meant to only be used by Kube-Lego and the endpoint will be reachable over the public URL. This makes sure that actual traffic can reach the cluster and we do not unnecessarily try to validate with Let’s Encrypt.

Kube-Lego looks for the secret kube-lego-account; if it does not exist, Kube-Lego creates it by registering with Let’s Encrypt. Finally, the request for the certificate can be made with Let’s Encrypt. Kube-Lego responds to the HTTP validation via the challenge endpoint and then finally receives the certificate, which is stored into the secret hello-world-tls.

The following diagram illustrates this flow and the various interfaces.

Kube Lego process


If you want to run these examples, you can always find the latest version on GitHub.

A short demo was also part of the Kubernetes Community Hangout on June 2nd. See the recording here.

A screencast of an extended demo can be found here:


Future work

This is a very early project and does not cover all common use cases. Feel free to report any issues and enhancements via GitHub Issues. You can also see some already identified issues there.

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