Container management systems such as Kubernetes deploy a networking model which assigns an individual IP address to each pod (group of containers). This ensures simplicity in architecture, avoids unnecessary network address translation (NAT) and provides each individual container with a full range of port numbers to use. The logical consequence of this model is that depending on the size of the cluster and total number of pods, the networking layer has to manage a large number of IP addresses.

Traditionally security enforcement architectures have been based on IP address filters. Let’s walk through a simple example: If all pods with the label role=frontend should be allowed to initiate connections to all pods with the label role=backend then each cluster node which runs at least one pod with the label role=backend must have a corresponding filter installed which allows all IP addresses of all role=frontend pods to initiate a connection to the IP addresses of all local role=backend pods. All other connection requests should be denied. This could look like this: If the destination address is then allow the connection only if the source address is one of the following [,,].

Every time a new pod with the label role=frontend or role=backend is either started or stopped, the rules on every cluster node which run any such pods must be updated by either adding or removing the corresponding IP address from the list of allowed IP addresses. In large distributed applications, this could imply updating thousands of cluster nodes multiple times per second depending on the churn rate of deployed pods. Worse, the starting of new role=frontend pods must be delayed until all servers running role=backend pods have been updated with the new security rules as otherwise connection attempts from the new pod could be mistakenly dropped. This makes it difficult to scale efficiently.

In order to avoid these complications which can limit scalability and flexibility, Cilium entirely separates security from network addressing. Instead, security is based on the identity of a pod, which is derived through labels. This identity can be shared between pods. This means that when the first role=frontend pod is started, Cilium assigns an identity to that pod which is then allowed to initiate connections to the identity of the role=backend pod. The subsequent start of additional role=frontend pods only requires to resolve this identity via a key-value store, no action has to be performed on any of the cluster nodes hosting role=backend pods. The starting of a new pod must only be delayed until the identity of the pod has been resolved which is a much simpler operation than updating the security rules on all other cluster nodes.