IPsec Transparent Encryption

This guide explains how to configure Cilium to use IPsec based transparent encryption using Kubernetes secrets to distribute the IPsec keys. After this configuration is complete all traffic between Cilium-managed endpoints, as well as Cilium-managed host traffic, will be encrypted using IPsec. This guide uses Kubernetes secrets to distribute keys. Alternatively, keys may be manually distributed, but that is not shown here.

Packets are not encrypted when they are destined to the same node from which they were sent. This behavior is intended. Encryption would provide no benefits in that case, given that the raw traffic can be observed on the node anyway.

Generate & Import the PSK

First, create a Kubernetes secret for the IPsec configuration to be stored. The example below demonstrates generation of the necessary IPsec configuration which will be distributed as a Kubernetes secret called cilium-ipsec-keys. A Kubernetes secret should consist of one key-value pair where the key is the name of the file to be mounted as a volume in cilium-agent pods, and the value is an IPSec configuration in the following format:

key-id encryption-algorithms PSK-in-hex-format key-size


Secret resources need to be deployed in the same namespace as Cilium! In our example, we use kube-system.

In the example below, GCM-128-AES is used. However, any of the algorithms supported by Linux may be used. To generate the secret, you may use the following command:

$ kubectl create -n kube-system secret generic cilium-ipsec-keys \
    --from-literal=keys="3+ rfc4106(gcm(aes)) $(echo $(dd if=/dev/urandom count=20 bs=1 2> /dev/null | xxd -p -c 64)) 128"

The secret can be seen with kubectl -n kube-system get secrets and will be listed as cilium-ipsec-keys.

$ kubectl -n kube-system get secrets cilium-ipsec-keys
NAME                TYPE     DATA   AGE
cilium-ipsec-keys   Opaque   1      176m

Enable Encryption in Cilium

If you are deploying Cilium with the Cilium CLI, pass the following options:

cilium install --version 1.15.6    --set encryption.enabled=true    --set encryption.type=ipsec


When using Cilium in any direct routing configuration, ensure that the native routing CIDR is set properly. This is done using --ipv4-native-routing-cidr=CIDR with the CLI or --set ipv4NativeRoutingCIDR=CIDR with Helm.

At this point the Cilium managed nodes will be using IPsec for all traffic. For further information on Cilium’s transparent encryption, see eBPF Datapath.

Encryption interface

An additional argument can be used to identify the network-facing interface. If direct routing is used and no interface is specified, the default route link is chosen by inspecting the routing tables. This will work in many cases, but depending on routing rules, users may need to specify the encryption interface as follows:

cilium install --version 1.15.6    --set encryption.enabled=true    --set encryption.type=ipsec    --set encryption.ipsec.interface=ethX

Validate the Setup

Run a bash shell in one of the Cilium pods with kubectl -n kube-system exec -ti ds/cilium -- bash and execute the following commands:

  1. Install tcpdump

    $ apt-get update
    $ apt-get -y install tcpdump
  2. Check that traffic is encrypted. In the example below, this can be verified by the fact that packets carry the IP Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP). In the example below, eth0 is the interface used for pod-to-pod communication. Replace this interface with e.g. cilium_vxlan if tunneling is enabled.

    tcpdump -l -n -i eth0 esp
    tcpdump: verbose output suppressed, use -v or -vv for full protocol decode
    listening on eth0, link-type EN10MB (Ethernet), capture size 262144 bytes
    15:16:21.626416 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x57e2), length 180
    15:16:21.626473 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x57e3), length 180
    15:16:21.627167 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x579d), length 100
    15:16:21.627296 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x579e), length 100
    15:16:21.627523 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x579f), length 180
    15:16:21.627699 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x57e4), length 100
    15:16:21.628408 IP > ESP(spi=0x00000001,seq=0x57e5), length 100

Key Rotation


Key rotations should not be performed during upgrades and downgrades. That is, all nodes in the cluster (or clustermesh) should be on the same Cilium version before rotating keys.

To replace cilium-ipsec-keys secret with a new key:

KEYID=$(kubectl get secret -n kube-system cilium-ipsec-keys -o go-template --template={{.data.keys}} | base64 -d | grep -oP "^\d+")
if [[ $KEYID -ge 15 ]]; then KEYID=0; fi
data=$(echo "{\"stringData\":{\"keys\":\"$((($KEYID+1)))+ "rfc4106\(gcm\(aes\)\)" $(echo $(dd if=/dev/urandom count=20 bs=1 2> /dev/null| xxd -p -c 64)) 128\"}}")
kubectl patch secret -n kube-system cilium-ipsec-keys -p="${data}" -v=1

During transition the new and old keys will be in use. The Cilium agent keeps per endpoint data on which key is used by each endpoint and will use the correct key if either side has not yet been updated. In this way encryption will work as new keys are rolled out.

The KEYID environment variable in the above example stores the current key ID used by Cilium. The key variable is a uint8 with value between 1 and 15 included and should be monotonically increasing every re-key with a rollover from 15 to 1. The Cilium agent will default to KEYID of zero if its not specified in the secret.

If you are using Cluster Mesh, you must apply the key rotation procedure to all clusters in the mesh. You might need to increase the transition time to allow for the new keys to be deployed and applied across all clusters, which you can do with the agent flag ipsec-key-rotation-duration.


  • If the cilium Pods fail to start after enabling encryption, double-check if the IPSec Secret and Cilium are deployed in the same namespace together.

  • Check for level=warning and level=error messages in the Cilium log files

    • If there is a warning message similar to Device eth0 does not exist, use --set encryption.ipsec.interface=ethX to set the encryption interface.

  • Run cilium-dbg encrypt status in the Cilium Pod:

    $ cilium-dbg encrypt status
    Encryption: IPsec
    Decryption interface(s): eth0, eth1, eth2
    Keys in use: 4
    Max Seq. Number: 0x1e3/0xffffffff
    Errors: 0

    If the error counter is non-zero, additional information will be displayed with the specific errors the kernel encountered. If the sequence number reaches its maximum value, it will also result in errors.

    The number of keys in use should be 2 per remote node per enabled IP family. During a key rotation, it can double to 4 per remote node per IP family. For example, in a 3-nodes cluster, if both IPv4 and IPv6 are enabled and no key rotation is ongoing, there should be 8 keys in use on each node.

    The list of decryption interfaces should have all native devices that may receive pod traffic (for example, ENI interfaces).

All XFRM errors correspond to a packet drop in the kernel. The following details operational mistakes and expected behaviors that can cause those errors.

  • When a node reboots, the key used to communicate with it is expected to change on other nodes. You may notice the XfrmInNoStates and XfrmOutNoStates counters increase while the new node key is being deployed.

  • If the sequence number reaches its maximum value for any XFRM OUT state, it will result in packet drops and XFRM errors of type XfrmOutStateSeqError. A key rotation resets all sequence numbers. Rotate keys frequently to avoid this issue.

  • After a key rotation, if the old key is cleaned up before the configuration of the new key is installed on all nodes, it results in XfrmInNoStates errors. The old key is removed from nodes after a default interval of 5 minutes by default. By default, all agents watch for key updates and update their configuration within 1 minute after the key is changed, leaving plenty of time before the old key is removed. If you expect the key rotation to take longer for some reason (for example, in the case of Cluster Mesh where several clusters need to be updated), you can increase the delay before cleanup with agent flag ipsec-key-rotation-duration.

  • XfrmInStateProtoError errors can happen if the key is updated without incrementing the SPI (also called KEYID in Key Rotation instructions above). It can be fixed by performing a new key rotation, properly.

  • XfrmFwdHdrError and XfrmInError happen when the kernel fails to lookup the route for a packet it decrypted. This can legitimately happen when a pod was deleted but some packets are still in transit. Note these errors can also happen under memory pressure when the kernel fails to allocate memory.

  • XfrmInStateInvalid can happen on rare occasions if packets are received while an XFRM state is being deleted. XFRM states get deleted as part of node scale-downs and for some upgrades and downgrades.

  • The following table documents the known explanations for several XFRM errors that were observed in the past. Many other error types exist, but they are usually for Linux subfeatures that Cilium doesn’t use (e.g., XFRM expiration).


    Known explanation


    The kernel (1) decrypted and tried to route a packet for a pod that was deleted or (2) failed to allocate memory.


    Bug in the XFRM configuration for decryption.


    There is a key mismatch between nodes.


    A received packet matched an XFRM state that is being deleted.


    Bug in the XFRM configuration for decryption.


    Bug in the XFRM configuration for decryption.


    Explicit drop, not used by Cilium.


    Bug in the XFRM configuration for encryption.


    The sequence number of an encryption XFRM configuration reached its maximum value.


    Cilium dropped packets that would have otherwise left the node in plain-text.


    The kernel (1) decrypted and tried to route a packet for a pod that was deleted or (2) failed to allocate memory.

  • In addition to the above XFRM errors, packet drops of type No node ID found (code 197) may also occur under normal operations. These drops can happen if a pod attempts to send traffic to a pod on a new node for which the Cilium agent didn’t yet receive the CiliumNode object or to a pod on a node that was recently deleted. It can also happen if the IP address of the destination node changed and the agent didn’t receive the updated CiliumNode object yet. In both cases, the IPsec configuration in the kernel isn’t ready yet, so Cilium drops the packets at the source. These drops will stop once the CiliumNode information is propagated across the cluster.

Disabling Encryption

To disable the encryption, regenerate the YAML with the option encryption.enabled=false


  • Transparent encryption is not currently supported when chaining Cilium on top of other CNI plugins. For more information, see GitHub issue 15596.

  • Host Policies are not currently supported with IPsec encryption.

  • IPsec encryption does not work when using kube-proxy replacement. Be aware that other features may require a kube-proxy free environment in which case they are mutual exclusive.

  • IPsec encryption is not currently supported in combination with IPv6-only clusters.

  • IPsec encryption is not supported on clusters or clustermeshes with more than 65535 nodes.

  • Decryption with Cilium IPsec is limited to a single CPU core per IPsec tunnel. This may affect performance in case of high throughput between two nodes.