Multi Host Networking

Cilium is in full control over both ends of the connection for connections inside the cluster. It can thus transmit state and security context information between two container hosts by embedding the information in encapsulation headers or even unused bits of the IPv6 packet header. This allows Cilium to transmit the security context of where the packet originates, which allows tracing back which container labels are assigned to the origin container.


As the packet headers contain security sensitive information, it is highly recommended to either encrypt all traffic or run Cilium in a trusted network environment.

Cilium keeps the networking concept as simple as possible. There are two networking models to choose from.

Regardless of the option chosen, the container itself has no awareness of the underlying network it runs on; it only contains a default route which points to the IP address of the cluster node. Given the removal of the routing cache in the Linux kernel, this reduces the amount of state to keep in the per connection flow cache (TCP metrics), which allows to terminate millions of connections in each container.

Overlay Network Mode

When no configuration is provided, Cilium automatically runs in this mode.

In this mode, all cluster nodes form a mesh of tunnels using the UDP based encapsulation protocols VXLAN or Geneve. All container-to-container network traffic is routed through these tunnels. This mode has several major advantages:

  • Simplicity: The network which connects the cluster nodes does not need to be made aware of the cluster prefix. Cluster nodes can spawn multiple routing or link-layer domains. The topology of the underlying network is irrelevant as long as cluster nodes can reach each other using IP/UDP.
  • Auto-configuration: When running together with an orchestration system such as Kubernetes, the list of all nodes in the cluster including their associated allocation prefix node is made available to each agent automatically. This means that if Kubernetes is being run with the --allocate-node-cidrs option, Cilium can form an overlay network automatically without any configuration by the user. New nodes joining the cluster will automatically be incorporated into the mesh.
  • Identity transfer: Encapsulation protocols allow for the carrying of arbitrary metadata along with the network packet. Cilium makes use of this ability to transfer metadata such as the source security identity and load balancing state to perform direct-server-return.

Direct / Native Routing Mode


This is an advanced networking mode which requires the underlying network to be made aware of container IPs. You can enable this mode by running Cilium with the option --tunnel disabled.

In direct routing mode, Cilium will hand all packets which are not addressed for another local endpoint to the routing subsystem of the Linux kernel. This means that the packet will be routed as if a local process would have emitted the packet. As a result, the network connecting the cluster nodes must be aware that each of the node IP prefixes are reachable by using the node’s primary IP address as an L3 next hop address.

Cilium automatically enables IP forwarding in Linux when direct mode is configured, but it is up to the container cluster administrator to ensure that each routing element in the underlying network has a route that describes each node IP as the IP next hop for the corresponding node prefix.

This is typically achieved using two methods:

  • Operation of a routing protocol such as OSPF or BGP via routing daemon such as Zebra, bird, bgpd. The routing protocols will announce the node allocation prefix via the node’s IP to all other nodes.
  • Use of the cloud provider’s routing functionality. Refer to the documentation of your cloud provider for additional details (e.g,. AWS VPC Route Tables or GCE Routes). These APIs can be used to associate each node prefix with the appropriate next hop IP each time a container node is added to the cluster. If you are running Kubernetes with the --cloud-provider in combination with the --allocate-node-cidrs option then this is configured automatically for IPv4 prefixes.


Use of direct routing mode with advanced policy use cases such as L7 policies is currently beta. Please provide feedback and file a GitHub issue if you experience any problems.

There are two possible approaches to performing network forwarding for container-to-container traffic:

Cluster Mesh

Cluster mesh extends the networking datapath across multiple clusters. It allows endpoints in all connected clusters to communicate while providing full policy enforcement. Load-balancing is available via Kubernetes annotations.

See Setting up Cluster Mesh for instructions on how to set up cluster mesh.

Container Communication with External Hosts

Container communication with the outside world has two primary modes:

  • Containers exposing API services for consumption by hosts outside of the container cluster.
  • Containers making outgoing connections. Examples include connecting to 3rd-party API services like Twilio or Stripe as well as accessing private APIs that are hosted elsewhere in your enterprise datacenter or cloud deployment.

In the Direct / Native Routing Mode mode described before, if container IP addresses are routable outside of the container cluster, communication with external hosts requires little more than enabling L3 forwarding on each of the Linux nodes.

External Network Connectivity

If the destination of a packet lies outside of the cluster, Cilium will delegate routing to the routing subsystem of the cluster node to use the default route which is installed on the node of the cluster.

As the IP addresses used for the cluster prefix are typically allocated from RFC1918 private address blocks and are not publicly routable. Cilium will automatically masquerade the source IP address of all traffic that is leaving the cluster. This behavior can be disabled by running cilium-agent with the option --masquerade=false.

Public Endpoint Exposure

In direct routing mode, endpoint IPs can be publicly routable IPs and no additional action needs to be taken.

In overlay mode, endpoints that are accepting inbound connections from cluster external clients likely want to be exposed via some kind of load-balancing layer. Such a load-balancer will have a public external address that is not part of the Cilium network. This can be achieved by having a load-balancer container that both has a public IP on an externally reachable network and a private IP on a Cilium network. However, many container orchestration frameworks, like Kubernetes, have built in abstractions to handle this “ingress” load-balancing capability, which achieve the same effect that Cilium handles forwarding and security only for ‘’internal’’ traffic between different services.