Labels are a generic, flexible and highly scalable way of addressing a large set of resources as they allow for arbitrary grouping and creation of sets. Whenever something needs to be described, addressed or selected, it is done based on labels:

  • Endpoint are assigned labels as derived from the container runtime, orchestration system, or other sources.

  • Overview of Network Policy select pairs of Endpoint which are allowed to communicate based on labels. The policies themselves are identified by labels as well.

What is a Label?

A label is a pair of strings consisting of a key and value. A label can be formatted as a single string with the format key=value. The key portion is mandatory and must be unique. This is typically achieved by using the reverse domain name notion, e.g. io.cilium.mykey=myvalue. The value portion is optional and can be omitted, e.g. io.cilium.mykey.

Key names should typically consist of the character set [a-z0-9-.].

When using labels to select resources, both the key and the value must match, e.g. when a policy should be applied to all endpoints with the label my.corp.foo then the label my.corp.foo=bar will not match the selector.

Label Source

A label can be derived from various sources. For example, an endpoint will derive the labels associated to the container by the local container runtime as well as the labels associated with the pod as provided by Kubernetes. As these two label namespaces are not aware of each other, this may result in conflicting label keys.

To resolve this potential conflict, Cilium prefixes all label keys with source: to indicate the source of the label when importing labels, e.g. k8s:role=frontend, container:user=joe, k8s:role=backend. This means that when you run a Docker container using docker run [...] -l foo=bar, the label container:foo=bar will appear on the Cilium endpoint representing the container. Similarly, a Kubernetes pod started with the label foo: bar will be represented with a Cilium endpoint associated with the label k8s:foo=bar. A unique name is allocated for each potential source. The following label sources are currently supported:

  • container: for labels derived from the local container runtime

  • k8s: for labels derived from Kubernetes

  • reserved: for special reserved labels, see Special Identities.

  • unspec: for labels with unspecified source

When using labels to identify other resources, the source can be included to limit matching of labels to a particular type. If no source is provided, the label source defaults to any: which will match all labels regardless of their source. If a source is provided, the source of the selecting and matching labels need to match.


Cilium makes application containers available on the network by assigning them IP addresses. Multiple application containers can share the same IP address; a typical example for this model is a Kubernetes Pod. All application containers which share a common address are grouped together in what Cilium refers to as an endpoint.

Allocating individual IP addresses enables the use of the entire Layer 4 port range by each endpoint. This essentially allows multiple application containers running on the same cluster node to all bind to well known ports such as 80 without causing any conflicts.

The default behavior of Cilium is to assign both an IPv6 and IPv4 address to every endpoint. However, this behavior can be configured to only allocate an IPv6 address with the --enable-ipv4=false option. If both an IPv6 and IPv4 address are assigned, either address can be used to reach the endpoint. The same behavior will apply with regard to policy rules, load-balancing, etc. See IP Address Management (IPAM) for more details.


For identification purposes, Cilium assigns an internal endpoint id to all endpoints on a cluster node. The endpoint id is unique within the context of an individual cluster node.

Endpoint Metadata

An endpoint automatically derives metadata from the application containers associated with the endpoint. The metadata can then be used to identify the endpoint for security/policy, load-balancing and routing purposes.

The source of the metadata will depend on the orchestration system and container runtime in use. The following metadata retrieval mechanisms are currently supported:




Pod labels (via k8s API)

containerd (Docker)

Container labels (via Docker API)

Metadata is attached to endpoints in the form of Labels.

The following example launches a container with the label app=benchmark which is then associated with the endpoint. The label is prefixed with container: to indicate that the label was derived from the container runtime.

$ docker run --net cilium -d -l app=benchmark tgraf/netperf
$ cilium-dbg endpoint list
ENDPOINT   POLICY        IDENTITY   LABELS (source:key[=value])   IPv6                   IPv4            STATUS
62006      Disabled      257        container:app=benchmark       f00d::a00:20f:0:f236   ready

An endpoint can have metadata associated from multiple sources. A typical example is a Kubernetes cluster which uses containerd as the container runtime. Endpoints will derive Kubernetes pod labels (prefixed with the k8s: source prefix) and containerd labels (prefixed with container: source prefix).


All Endpoint are assigned an identity. The identity is what is used to enforce basic connectivity between endpoints. In traditional networking terminology, this would be equivalent to Layer 3 enforcement.

An identity is identified by Labels and is given a cluster wide unique identifier. The endpoint is assigned the identity which matches the endpoint’s Security Relevant Labels, i.e. all endpoints which share the same set of Security Relevant Labels will share the same identity. This concept allows to scale policy enforcement to a massive number of endpoints as many individual endpoints will typically share the same set of security Labels as applications are scaled.

What is an Identity?

The identity of an endpoint is derived based on the Labels associated with the pod or container which are derived to the endpoint. When a pod or container is started, Cilium will create an endpoint based on the event received by the container runtime to represent the pod or container on the network. As a next step, Cilium will resolve the identity of the endpoint created. Whenever the Labels of the pod or container change, the identity is reconfirmed and automatically modified as required.

Security Relevant Labels

Not all Labels associated with a container or pod are meaningful when deriving the Identity. Labels may be used to store metadata such as the timestamp when a container was launched. Cilium requires to know which labels are meaningful and are subject to being considered when deriving the identity. For this purpose, the user is required to specify a list of string prefixes of meaningful labels. The standard behavior is to include all labels which start with the prefix id., e.g. id.service1, id.service2, id.groupA.service44. The list of meaningful label prefixes can be specified when starting the agent.

Special Identities

All endpoints which are managed by Cilium will be assigned an identity. In order to allow communication to network endpoints which are not managed by Cilium, special identities exist to represent those. Special reserved identities are prefixed with the string reserved:.


Numeric ID




The identity could not be derived.



The local host. Any traffic that originates from or is designated to one of the local host IPs.



Any network endpoint outside of the cluster



An endpoint that is not managed by Cilium, e.g. a Kubernetes pod that was launched before Cilium was installed.



This is health checking traffic generated by Cilium agents.



An endpoint for which the identity has not yet been resolved is assigned the init identity. This represents the phase of an endpoint in which some of the metadata required to derive the security identity is still missing. This is typically the case in the bootstrapping phase.

The init identity is only allocated if the labels of the endpoint are not known at creation time. This can be the case for the Docker plugin.



The collection of all remote cluster hosts. Any traffic that originates from or is designated to one of the IPs of any host in any connected cluster other than the local node.



Remote node(s) which have backend(s) serving the kube-apiserver running.



Given to the IPs used as the source address for connections from Ingress proxies.


Cilium used to include both the local and all remote hosts in the reserved:host identity. This is still the default option unless a recent default ConfigMap is used. The remote-node identity can be enabled via the option enable-remote-node-identity.

Well-known Identities

The following is a list of well-known identities which Cilium is aware of automatically and will hand out a security identity without requiring to contact any external dependencies such as the kvstore. The purpose of this is to allow bootstrapping Cilium and enable network connectivity with policy enforcement in the cluster for essential services without depending on any dependencies.




Cluster Name

Numeric ID








kube-dns (EKS)





k8s-app=kube-dns, eks.amazonaws.com/component=kube-dns







core-dns (EKS)





k8s-app=kube-dns, eks.amazonaws.com/component=coredns






name=cilium-operator, io.cilium/app=operator

Note: if cilium-cluster is not defined with the cluster-name option, the default value will be set to “default”.

Identity Management in the Cluster

Identities are valid in the entire cluster which means that if several pods or containers are started on several cluster nodes, all of them will resolve and share a single identity if they share the identity relevant labels. This requires coordination between cluster nodes.


The operation to resolve an endpoint identity is performed with the help of the distributed key-value store which allows to perform atomic operations in the form generate a new unique identifier if the following value has not been seen before. This allows each cluster node to create the identity relevant subset of labels and then query the key-value store to derive the identity. Depending on whether the set of labels has been queried before, either a new identity will be created, or the identity of the initial query will be returned.


Cilium refers to a node as an individual member of a cluster. Each node must be running the cilium-agent and will operate in a mostly autonomous manner. Synchronization of state between Cilium agents running on different nodes is kept to a minimum for simplicity and scale. It occurs exclusively via the Key-Value store or with packet metadata.

Node Address

Cilium will automatically detect the node’s IPv4 and IPv6 address. The detected node address is printed out when the cilium-agent starts:

Local node-name: worker0
Node-IPv6: f00d::ac10:14:0:1
External-Node IPv4:
Internal-Node IPv4: