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  • Deciphering Istio Multi-Cluster Authentication & MTLS Connection

This blog deeply analyzes the initial authentication and mTLS connection process of remote gateways in Istio’s primary-remote deployment mode.

  • Date :January 16, 2024
  • Category : Istio
  • Word Count :490 words
  • Reading Time :2 Minute


I often answer questions on Istio’s GitHub Discussions , and recently, I came across a discussion about Istio’s primary-remote deployment, specifically regarding how the remote cluster’s gateway initially authenticates to an external Istiod instance. This issue touches upon the core security mechanisms of service meshes in multi-cluster configurations, which I think merits more in-depth sharing in the community.

In the official Istio documentation on Installing Primary-Remote on different networks , one of the steps is to attach cluster2 as a remote cluster of cluster1 . This process creates a Secret containing a kubeconfig configuration, which includes the certificates and tokens required to access the remote cluster (cluster2).

# This file is autogenerated, do not edit.
apiVersion: v1
kind: Secret
    networking.istio.io/cluster: cluster2
  creationTimestamp: null
    istio/multiCluster: "true"
  name: istio-remote-secret-cluster2
  namespace: istio-system
  cluster2: |
    apiVersion: v1
    - cluster:
        certificate-authority-data: {CERTIFICATE}
      name: cluster2
    - context:
        cluster: cluster2
        user: cluster2
      name: cluster2
    current-context: cluster2
    kind: Config
    preferences: {}
    - name: cluster2
        token: {TOKEN}    

The key role of this Secret is to enable Istio in the primary cluster (cluster1) to access the API server of the remote cluster, thereby obtaining service information. Additionally, in the remote cluster (cluster2), the Istiod service points to the primary cluster’s Istiod service’s LoadBalancer IP (ports 15012 and 15017), allowing cluster2 to communicate with the primary cluster’s Istiod.

Visualizing Authentication

Since both clusters share a CA (provided by the primary cluster) and the remote cluster can access its own API server, the Istiod in the primary cluster can validate requests from the remote cluster (cluster2). The following sequence diagram clearly shows this process:

    participant IG as Ingress Gateway (Remote Cluster)
    participant K8s as Kubernetes API (Remote Cluster)
    participant SA as Service Account (Remote Cluster)
    participant Istiod as Istiod (Primary Cluster)

    Note over IG: Startup
    IG->>K8s: Request Service Account Token
    K8s->>SA: Create/Retrieve Token
    SA-->>IG: Return Token
    Note over IG: Token Mounted in Pod

    IG->>Istiod: Authenticate with Token
    Note over Istiod: Validate Token
    Istiod->>Istiod: Generate mTLS Certificates
    Istiod-->>IG: Send mTLS Certificates

    Note over IG: Use mTLS Certificates for Secure Communication in Mesh

This process is a key component of Istio’s multi-cluster configuration, ensuring secure cross-cluster communication within the service mesh. As seen in this discussion, both the remote gateway and the services depend on the primary cluster’s CA for initial mTLS authentication, providing a solid foundation for secure communication across the entire service mesh.


In this blog, we explored how the gateway in a remote cluster initially authenticates to an external Istiod in Istio’s primary-remote deployment. We explained how to create a Secret containing a kubeconfig to allow Istio in the primary cluster to access the remote cluster’s API and how shared CA and service account tokens ensure the security of mTLS authentication. This process secures cross-cluster communication within the service mesh, providing key insights for understanding and implementing Istio’s multi-cluster configuration.

This blog was initially published at tetrate.io .