Deep Dive into Kubernetes Network Policies

March 14, 2024
min read

As Kubernetes deployments grow and diversify, robust segregation between workloads becomes indispensable to maintaining operational integrity and data privacy, particularly if you are intending to use Kubernetes in a multi-tenant fashion.

At its core, a network policy is a Kubernetes resource that governs the communication flow between pods. It acts as a sentinel, shaping the interactions among different components of your applications. You can explicitly control what connects to where, enhancing security and reducing the attack surface.

This article explores the practical implementation of Kubernetes network policies, focusing on best practices through real-world scenarios.


Concept Description
Definition Network policies are Kubernetes resources that define which pods can communicate and in what manner. They can also be employed to control traffic to and from external networks.
Network policies vs. plugins Kubernetes, by default, does not inherently enforce network policies. It relies on network plugins to implement and enforce the policies at the network level.
Network policies vs. SecurityContext Network policies operate at the network layer, while SecurityContext pertains to pod-level security settings.
Network policies vs. RBAC Network policies excel in governing network traffic, while RBAC controls access to Kubernetes resources.
  • Isolating tenants
  • Microservices communication
  • Database access
  • Compliance and governance
NetworkPolicy API in Kubernetes NetworkPolicy resource, types, and policy ordering.

What are Kubernetes network policies?

Network policies are Kubernetes resources that define which pods can communicate and in what manner. They aim to secure multi-tenant environments by controlling traffic flow and minimizing unauthorized access. They serve as virtual sentinels, dictating communication rules between pods inside and between clusters.

Intra-cluster communication

At their core, network policies govern ingress (incoming) and egress (outgoing) traffic. To craft communication blueprints, you can stipulate podSelectors and port rules in a network policy. For instance, a policy can allow connections only between pods with specific labels on certain ports, effectively building a controlled communication mesh.

The true potential of Kubernetes network policies is visible in real-world scenarios where multi-tenant Kubernetes environments demand secure and well-orchestrated communication between pods. The policies enforce isolation and prevent cross-tenant communication and data leakage in multi-tenant setups. They enable network segmentation to enhance security, fortify individual tenants' privacy, and shield them from unintended interactions.

Inter-cluster communication

While network policies primarily focus on regulating communication within the Kubernetes cluster, their capabilities extend beyond these boundaries. They can also be employed to control traffic to and from external networks, such as corporate offices or cloud Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs).

Administrators have the flexibility to define policies that allowlist specific IP blocks or ranges, effectively permitting or denying connectivity between the cluster and external entities. For example, an organization uses network policies to restrict access to sensitive workloads within the cluster to authorized IP addresses only, enhancing security by reducing the attack surface.

Network plugins for policies

In the context of Kubernetes, there is a symbiotic relationship between network policies and plugins. It should be emphasized that network plugins are not merely complementary but strictly required to enforce network policies effectively. Kubernetes, by default, does not inherently enforce network policies; rather, it relies on network plugins to implement and enforce the policies at the network level. The policies remain dormant without a compatible network plugin, and you cannot realize the desired security and communication controls.

Network policies smoothly integrate with various network plugins like Calico and Cilium. Each plugin brings unique enforcement capabilities. Admins can select a plugin that suits their security needs, harnessing its strengths to bolster multi-tenant communication.

The partnership between policies and plugins guarantees consistency, but watch for potential latency or resource usage effects. Striking a balance ensures policies remain adequate while not hindering cluster performance.


Kubernetes network policies vs. other security mechanisms

In the realm of Kubernetes security, network policies stand alongside other mechanisms like SecurityContext and Role-Based Access Control (RBAC).

Network policies vs. SecurityContext

Network policies operate at the network layer, defining communication rules between pods. They govern incoming and outgoing traffic, safeguarding against unauthorized access and data leaks.

In contrast, SecurityContext pertains to pod-level security settings. It enforces constraints like user privileges, filesystem permissions, and capabilities. While vital, SecurityContext addresses aspects within a pod and doesn't directly control network-level communication.

Network policies vs. RBAC

Network policies excel in governing network traffic. They define allowed connections between pods based on labels and rules, enabling fine-grained control over communication paths.

In contrast, RBAC controls access to Kubernetes resources. It specifies who can perform actions on specific resources, helping manage cluster-wide permissions. While pivotal for authorization, RBAC focuses on access control and doesn't directly handle network segmentation.

Use cases of Kubernetes network policies

This section explores practical use cases that showcase how you can tailor your network policies to address diverse application requirements.

Tenant workloads

Consider a multi-tenant environment where each tenant hosts their applications. By implementing network policies, you can ensure that communication between pods belonging to different tenants is strictly controlled. This prevents unintended data leakage and minimizes the potential attack surface.

Microservices communication

In a microservices architecture, individual services often communicate with one another via APIs. By configuring network policies, you can permit precise communication between specific services while blocking unnecessary interactions. This fine-grained control fosters a secure and efficient microservices ecosystem.

Database access

Critical databases require strict access controls. You can design network policies to allow only designated pods—such as those running backend services—to connect to the database pods. The approach enforces a strong security perimeter around sensitive data.

Compliance and governance

In regulated industries, compliance and governance are paramount. You can use network policies to ensure that communication between pods adheres to regulatory requirements. It involves segmenting data flows, restricting external access, and maintaining audit trails.

Security and connectivity

Some applications must interact with external services or APIs while maintaining internal security. You can fine-tune network policies to allow only specific pods to communicate externally, reducing the risk of unauthorized access while enabling essential functionality.

Creating Kubernetes network policies

Network policies control communication flow using ingress rules for incoming connections and egress rules for outgoing connections. Below is an example of ingress and egress rules for a basic network policy.

kind: NetworkPolicy
  name: allow-nginx
      app: nginx
    - from:
        - podSelector:
              role: api
        - protocol: TCP
          port: 80
    - to:
        - podSelector:
              app: database
        - protocol: TCP
          port: 5432

Use label selectors to define which pods the policy applies to. For instance, consider this selector targeting pods with the label.

    app: frontend

Leverage namespaces to isolate applications and manage policies more effectively:

    tenant: finance

Kubernetes NetworkPolicy API

The NetworkPolicy API in Kubernetes is pivotal for shaping secure communication. Let's delve into its mechanics through three technical perspectives.

NetworkPolicy resource

The NetworkPolicy resource houses crucial components that define communication rules.

  • spec.podSelector pinpoints target pods using labels
  • spec.ingress and spec.egress outline traffic rules

Policy types

Kubernetes wields two core policy types: Pod-level and Namespace-level.

  • Pod-level policies pinpoint specific pods
  • Namespace-level policies apply to all pods within a namespace.

Select the appropriate type based on your security needs and scope of policy application.

Policy ordering and precedence

Kubernetes enforces network policies in a deny-by-default manner. Cluster-wide policies top the hierarchy, followed by namespace-wide and pod-specific policies. When multiple policies match a pod, specificity governs precedence. This ensures a systematic evaluation of policies and consistent enforcement.

Auditing and troubleshooting Kubernetes network policies

Regular audits validate the alignment of network policies with evolving application needs.

kubectl describe networkpolicy <policy-name> 

Use the above command to gain insights into applied policies. Meanwhile, the network plugin logs provide enforcement details, illuminating how policies are being translated into actions.

kubectl logs -n kube-system <network-plugin-pod>

Troubleshooting tips  

A systematic approach is key for misconfigured policies or unexpected communication hiccups.

Break down policies: Split complex policies into simpler components. Verify selectors and rules individually to identify potential conflicts or oversights.

Validate selectors: Use the below to confirm label selector matches. Ensure selectors align with both source and destination pods.

kubectl get pods --selector=<label-selector> 

Analyze plugin logs: Dive into network plugin logs (e.g., Calico logs) to spot traffic drops or policy violations.

kubectl logs -n kube-system calico-node-<pod-suffix>

In-pod debugging: Leverage the below to access pods for internal diagnostics. Test connectivity, view routing tables, or analyze network configurations.

kubectl exec -it <pod-name> -- /bin/sh

Some more recommendations:

We give some more suggestions and best practices below so you can make the most of your Kubernetes network policies implementation.

Potential risks and pitfalls

While network policies are a powerful mechanism, there are certain pitfalls and risks you have to be aware of:

Overly restrictive policies

Implementing overly strict policies might unintentionally block legitimate communication, resulting in application failures or performance degradation.

Incomplete coverage

Inadequate policy coverage could create security gaps, allowing unauthorized connections between pods and potentially compromising the multi-tenant environment.

Unintended interactions

Conflicting or interacting policies may lead to unpredictable behavior, making troubleshooting more complex and affecting overall cluster stability.

Operational overhead

Managing an increasing number of policies demands significant effort and resources, potentially leading to policy sprawl and increased operational complexity.

Balancing security and communication

Striking the right balance between stringent security measures and maintaining smooth communication paths is crucial to avoid impeding cluster functionality.

Best practices to consider

  • Start with a "Deny-All" approach. Begin with a policy that blocks all traffic. This ensures a clean slate, allowing you to enable necessary communication progressively.
  • Label wisely. Effective label management allows you to precisely target pods with Network policies, granting access only where needed.
  • Follow the principle of least privilege by permitting only essential communication required for the application's functionality.

This is where Uffizzi’s “intermediated access” to the host cluster comes in handy so that host cluster access to end users is not required, but full access to sandboxed virtual clusters is provided.



While network policies play a crucial role in enhancing security and managing communication between pods, it's worth acknowledging that effectively managing them can introduce a substantial operational overhead.  As the number of policies grows, ensuring proper enforcement, monitoring, and troubleshooting demands meticulous attention and resources. Each addition or modification requires careful consideration to prevent unintended consequences, and complexities can arise when policies interact or conflict.

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