Kubernetes Ingress Controller with NGINX Reverse Proxy and Wildcard SSL from Let’s Encrypt

This is a pattern I’ve used with success for access to apps running in a number of Kubernetes clusters that were restricted to only having a single kubernetes ingress load balancer.

The Scenario

  • Kubernetes clusters (EKS) are on the internal network only (in this case private subnets in an AWS VPC).
  • IAM permissions are locked down to prevent creation of security groups (we can only use existing, pre-defined security groups) and so the LoadBalancer service type of Kubernetes is off-limits, as the k8s control plane needs to be able to create these automatically with security groups – this operation fails because of the restricted IAM permissions on the cluster. We have one Elastic Load Balancer created with the LoadBalancer service type when the cluster was initial bootstrapped with an nginx ingress controller + service type == LoadBalancer before the permissions were locked down again.
  • The Ingress Controller that is running is backed by an internal facing Elastic Load Balancer (ELB), created initially as described above.
  • Applications run across namespaces in each cluster, and the Ingress Controller must be able to provide dynamic access for users of these internal applications that sit on the network outside the k8s cluster.
  • DNS and ingress must be dynamic enough to allow the same apps to run in different namespaces, use the same URL path, but with differing hostnames. SSL must also be provided for all of these apps using a wildcard SSL certificate. E.g.
    • namespace1.cluster.foo.bar/app1
    • namespace2.cluster.foo.bar/app1
    • namespace3.cluster.foo.bar/app1
    • namespace1.cluster.foo.bar/app2
    • namespace2.cluster.foo.bar/app2
    • namespace3.cluster.foo.bar/app2
  • Once DNS wildcard CNAME record is created, it is difficult to change to point to a new location if needing changes (reliant on 3rd party to manage DNS).

A Solution with Reverse Proxying

There are of course a number of ways to approach this, like running under cert-manager inside the cluster with the letsencrypt issuer, or if you are running your own PKI with vault, the vault issuer.

cert-manager wouldn’t work well here as services are not publicly accessible for HTTP-01 certificate verification.

It could also be possible to terminate SSL at the ingress controller level in the cluster with the SSL certificate loaded there.

One additional requirement that I didn’t mention above though was that developers who are pushing their apps into the clusters need to be able to ‘dynamically’ configure their own personal ‘dev’ namespaces / ingress rules.

They configure their ingress easily enough with the Kubernetes Ingress resource when they deploy their apps (using Helm), however hostnames are not so easy for them to configure. Route53 is not in use here, and not allowed in this environment, and programmatic access to DNS is not possible.

A reverse proxy with NGINX

This layer exists more or less just to allow easy re-pointing of CNANE wildcard DNS entry to the Kubernetes cluster. As DNS is not easily configured (handled by another team/resource), we can simply leave it pointed to the NGINX elastic load balancer, and then just re-point requests using NGINX configuration if we need to.

It’s worth pointing out that this NGINX layer could be hosted on a multitude of places, including as a containerised solution, or it could even be replaced by a lambda function with API Gateway that could do the reverse proxying instead.

diagram showing flow of traffic from dns all the way through to pod via ingress controller.

Environments are designated by namespaces in each ‘class’ of cluster. For example a non-production EKS cluster will have namespaces for non-production environments.

Hostnames need to be used to help the ingress rules match correctly with designated paths.

I configured an internal load balancer and setup a fleet of NGINX instances behind it.

Here is a quick runbook of how to setup NGINX and certbot on a vanilla Amazon Linux 2 EC2 instance. Use whichever automation you prefer such as baking your own AMI with packer, using Terraform, or ansible, but the runbook of steps to install NGINX and certbot is effectively:

# nginx
sudo amazon-linux-extras install nginx1.12
sudo systemctl enable nginx
sudo systemctl start nginx

# certbot
sudo wget -r --no-parent -A 'epel-release-*.rpm' https://dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/7/x86_64/Packages/e/
sudo rpm -Uvh dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/7/x86_64/Packages/e/epel-release-*.rpm
sudo yum-config-manager --enable epel*
yum repolist all
yum install -y certbot

# request / generate letsencrypt wildcard cert using dns challenge interactively
certbot -d *.your.domain.here --manual --preferred-challenges dns certonly
# Interactive command above, choose to omit this in automation and do manually if you're using DNS-01 like I am here - certbot will give you a dynamically generated TXT record value for DNS-01 that you'll need to create.
systemctl restart nginx

Once NGINX is installed and your certs are generated, you’ll need to configure /etc/nginx/nginx.conf to point to the correct certificate files.
A wildcard CNAME record is created once-off that points anyhost.cluster.foo.bar to the internal ELB hostname for the reverse proxy NGINX instances (these sit outside of the cluster as standard EC2 hosts for now). For example:

[CNAME] *.cluster.foo.bar -> internal-nginx-reverse-proxy-fleet-xxxx-xxxx.us-east-2.elb.amazonaws.com

I used certbot (letsencrypt) to issue a wildcard SSL certificate for the NGINX fleet servers for *.cluster.foo.bar. DNS-01 challenge type was used, as everything here is in a private, internal network, not accessible by letsencrypt services.

A TXT record just needs to be created with your DNS to verify to letsencrypt that you own the domain in question.

In the NGINX configuration, the generated certificate is loaded up for port 443 and the following location rule is setup to proxy_pass the requests sent to the NGINX fleet back to the Kubernetes Ingress Controller ELB.

location / {
  proxy_set_header Host $host;
  proxy_pass http://internal-ingress-controller-xxxxx.us-east-2.elb.amazonaws.com;

The proxy_set_header directive is important, as it adds the host header that the NGINX fleet instance receives from the client, and sends it with the proxied request back to the Kubernetes ingress controller. The ingress rules need to match both hostname AND path in the requests to find the correct service inside the cluster/namespace.

SSL is now effectively terminated at the NGINX fleet layer with a wildcard SSL certificate and services inside the cluster don’t need to worry about configuring their own individual SSL certificates.

Ingress Rule Configuration

Now, developers can deploy their apps, and customise their ingress rules to use both hostname and path to setup access for their apps running in the cluster(s).

For example:

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Ingress
    kubernetes.io/ingress.class: nginx
    app: some-app
  name: some-app
  namespace: namespace1
  - host: namespace1.cluster.foo.bar
      - backend:
          serviceName: app1
          servicePort: 8083
        path: /app1

There are definitely other ways of doing this. Cleaner possibly, more automated in some ways, however with the constraints in play here (internal EKS, private only networks, no public internet access into the cluster), I think this is a good solution that makes life fairly pleasant for the developers that need to deploy their apps to these Kubernetes clusters.

Useful NGINX Ingress Controller Configurations for Kubernetes using Helm

My favourite Ingress Controller for Kubernetes is definitely the official NGINX Ingress Controller. It provides tons of customisation and is under active development with great community support. This post will dive into some of the more useful nginx ingress controller configurations and options available.

If you use the official stable/nginx-ingress chart for Helm, the default values you’ll get with installation are not always the best choices.

This is my collection of useful / common configuration options I tend to change when installing an ingress controller. A few of these options are geared towards AWS deployments, but otherwise the rest of the options are generic enough to apply to any platform you may be running on.

Useful nginx ingress controller options for Kubernetes

AWS only configuration options

  • Use an internal (private) Elastic Load Balancer for Ingress. Annotate with: service.beta.kubernetes.io/aws-load-balancer-internal:
  • Specify the kind of AWS Load Balancer to use with Ingress Controller. Annotate with: service.beta.kubernetes.io/aws-load-balancer-type: nlb/elb/alb

Common configuration options

  • controller.service.type (default == LoadBalancer) – specifies the type of controller service to create. Useful to open up the Ingress Controller for North/South traffic with differing models of access. E.g. Cluster only with ClusterIP, NodePort for specific host only access, or LoadBalancer to expose with a public or internal facing Load Balancer.
  • controller.scope.enabled (default == disabled / watch all namespaces) – where the controller should look out for ingress rule resources. Useful to limit the namespace(s) that the Ingress Controller works in.
  • controller.scope.namespace – namespace to watch for ingress rules if the controller.scope.enabled option is toggled on.
  • controller.minReadySeconds – how many seconds a pod needs to be ready before killing the next, during update – useful for when updating/upgrading the Ingress Controller deployment.
  • controller.replicaCount (default == 1) – definitely set this higher than 1. You want at least 2 for replicaCount to ensure there is always a controller running when draining nodes or updating your ingress controller.
  • controller.service.loadBalancerSourceRanges (default == []) – Useful to lock your Ingress Controller Load Balancer down. For example, you might not want Ingress open to (all internet) and instead assign a value that restricts ingress access to an IP range you own. Using helm, you can specify an array with typical array square brackets e.g. [,]
  • controller.service.enableHttp (default == true) – Useful to disable insecure HTTP (and leave only HTTPS)
  • controller.stats.enabled (default == false) – Enables controller stats page – Useful for stats and debugging. Not a good idea for production though. The controller stats service can be locked down if required by specific CIDR range.

To deploy the NGINX Ingress Controller helm chart and specify some of the above customisations, you can create a yaml file and populate it with the following example configuration (replace/change as required):

  replicaCount: 2
    type: "LoadBalancer"
    loadBalancerSourceRanges: []
      http: http
      https: http
      service.beta.kubernetes.io/aws-load-balancer-backend-protocol: "http"
      service.beta.kubernetes.io/aws-load-balancer-ssl-ports: "https"
      service.beta.kubernetes.io/aws-load-balancer-connection-idle-timeout: '3600'
    enabled: true

Install with helm like so:

helm install -f ingress-custom.yaml stable/nginx-ingress --name nginx-ingress --namespace example

If you’re using an internal elastic load balancer (like the above example yaml configuration), don’t forget to make sure your private subnets are tagged with the following key/value:

key = “kubernetes.io/role/internal-elb”
value = “1”

Enjoy customising your own ingress controller!

How to setup a basic Kubernetes cluster and add an NGINX Ingress Controller on DigitalOcean

Most of the steps in this how to post can be applied to any Kubernetes cluster to get an NGINX Ingress Controller deployed, so you don’t necessarily have to be running Kubernetes in DigitalOcean. With that said, let’s go through the process of setting up a Kubernetes cluster with NGINX Ingress Controller on DigitalOcean.

DigitalOcean have just officially announced their own Kubernetes offering so this guide covers initial deployment of a basic worker node pool on DigitalOcean, and then moves on to deploying an Ingress Controller setup.

Note: If you already have a Kubernetes cluster setup and configured, then you can skip the initial cluster and node pool provisioning step below and move on to the Helm setup part.

Deploy a Kubernetes node pool on DigitalOcean

You could simply do this with the Web UI console (which makes things really simple), but here I’ll be providing the doctl commands to do this via the command line.

First of all, if you don’t have it already download and setup the latest doctl release. Make sure it’s available in your PATH.

Initialise / authenticate doctl. Provide your own API key when prompted.

doctl auth init

Right now, the help documentation in doctl version 1.12.2 does not display the kubernetes related commands arguments, but they’re available and do work.

Create a new Kubernetes cluster with just a single node of the smallest size (you can adjust this to your liking of course). I want a nice cheap cluster with a single node for now.

doctl k8s cluster create example-cluster --count=1 --size=s-1vcpu-2gb

The command above will provision a new cluster with a default node pool in the NYC region and wait for the process to finish before completing. It’ll also update your kubeconfig file if it detects one on your system.

output of the doctl k8s cluster create command

Once it completes, it’ll return and you’ll see the ID of your new cluster along with some other details output to the screen.

Viewing the Kubernetes console in your browser should also show it ready to go. You can download the config from the web console too if you wish.

Kubeconfig setup

If you’re new to configuring kubectl to manage Kubernetes, follow the guide here to use your kube config file that DigitalOcean provides you with.

the load balancer that will front your Ingress Controller on DigitalOcean Kubernetes

Handling different cluster contexts

With kubectl configured, test that it works. Make sure you’re in your new cluster’s context.

kubectl config use-context do-nyc1-example-cluster

If you’re on a Windows machine and use PowerShell and have multiple Kubernetes clusters, here is a simple set of functions I usually add to my PowerShell profile – one for each cluster context that allows easy switching of contexts without having to type out the full kubectl command each time:

Open your PowerShell profile with:

notepad $profile

Add the following (one for each context you want) – make sure you replace the context names with your own cluster names:

function kubecontext-minikube { kubectl config use-context minikube }
function kubecontext-seank8s { kubectl config use-context sean.k8s.local }
function kubecontext-digitalocean { kubectl config use-context do-nyc1-example-cluster }

Simply enter the function name and hit enter in your PS session to switch contexts.

If you didn’t have any prior clusters setup in your kubeconfig file, you should just have your new DigitalOcean cluster context selected already by default.

Deploy Helm to your cluster

Time to setup Helm. Follow this guide to install and configure helm using kubectl.

helm logo

Deploy the Helm nginx-ingress chart to enable an Ingress Controller on DigitalOcean in your Kubernetes cluster

Now that you have helm setup, you can easily deploy an Ingress Controller to your cluster using the nginx helm chart (package).

helm install --name nginx-ingress stable/nginx-ingress --set service.type=LoadBalancer --namespace default

When you specify the service.type of “LoadBalancer”, DigitalOcean will provision a LoadBalancer that fronts this Kubernetes service on your cluster. After a few moments the Helm deployment should complete (it’ll run async in the background).

You can monitor the progress of the service setup in your cluster with the following command:

kubectl --namespace default get services -o wide -w nginx-ingress-controller

Open the Web console, go to Networking, and then look for Load Balancers.

You should see your new NGINX load balancer. This will direct any traffic through to your worker pool node(s) and into the Kubernetes Service resource that fronts the pods running NGINX Ingress.

view of the digitalocean load balancer

At this point you should be able to hit the IP Address in your web browser and get the default nginx backend for ingress (with a 404 response). E.g.

Great! This means it’s all working so far.

Create a couple of basic web deployments inside your cluster

Next up you’ll create a couple of very simple web server Deployments running in single pods in your cluster’s node pool.

Issue the following kubectl command to create two simple web deployments using Google’s official GCR hello-app image. You’ll end up with two deployments and two pods running separately hosted “hello-app” web apps.

kubectl run web-example1 --image=gcr.io/google-samples/hello-app:2.0 --port=8080
kubectl run web-example2 --image=gcr.io/google-samples/hello-app:2.0 --port=8080

Confirm they’re up and running wth 1 pod each:

kubectl get deployments
NAME                            DESIRED   CURRENT   UP-TO-DATE   AVAILABLE   AGE
web-example1                    1         1         1            1           12m
web-example2                    1         1         1            1           23m

Now you need a service to back the new deployment’s pods. Expose each deployment with a simple NodePort service on port 8080:

kubectl expose deployment/web-example1 --type="NodePort" --port 8080
kubectl expose deployment/web-example2 --type="NodePort" --port 8080

A NodePort service will effectively assign a port number from your cluster’s service node port range (default between 30000 and 32767) and each node in your cluster will proxy that specific port into your Service on the port you specify. Nodes are not available externally by default and so creating a NodePort service does not expose your service externally either.

Check the services are up and running and have node ports assigned:

kubectl get services
NAME                            TYPE           CLUSTER-IP       EXTERNAL-IP      PORT(S)                      AGE
web-example1                    NodePort   <none>           8080:30697/TCP               13m
web-example2                    NodePort    <none>           8080:31812/TCP               24m

DNS pointing to your Load Balancer

Next you’ll want to set up a DNS record to point to your NGINX Ingress Controller Load Balancer IP address. Grab the IP address from the new Kubernetes provisioned Load Balancer for Ingress from the DigitalOcean web console.

Create an A record to point to this IP address.

Create your Ingress Rules

With DNS setup, create a new YAML file called fanout.yaml:

This specification will create an Kubernetes Ingress Resource which your Ingress Controller will use to determine how to route incoming HTTP requests to your Ingress Controller Load Balancer.

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Ingress
  name: simple-fanout-example
    nginx.ingress.kubernetes.io/rewrite-target: /
  - host: example-ingress.yourfancydomainnamehere.com
      - path: /*
          serviceName: web-example1
          servicePort: 8080
      - path: /web2/*
          serviceName: web-example2
          servicePort: 8080

Make sure you update the host value under the first rule to point to your new DNS record (that fronts your Ingress Controller Load Balancer). i.e. the “example-ingress.yourfancydomainnamehere.com” bit needs to change to your own host / A record you created that points to your own Load Balancer IP address.

The configuration above is a typical “fanout” ingress setup. It provides two rules for two different paths on the host DNS you setup and allows you to route HTTP traffic to different services based on the hostname/path.

This is super useful as you can front multiple different services with a single Load Balancer.

  • example-ingress.yourfancydomainnamehere.com/*¬†-> points to your simple web deployment backed by the web-example1 service you exposed it on. Any request that does not match any other rule will be directed to this service (*).
  • example-ingress.yourfancydomainnamehere.com/web2/* -> points to your web-example2¬†service. If you hit your hostname with the path /web2/* the request will go to this service.


Try browse to the first hostname using your own DNS record and try different combinations that match the rules you defined in your ingress rule on HTTP. You should get the web-example1 “hello-app” being served from your web-example1 pod for any request that does not match /web2/*. E.g. /foo.

For /web2/* you should get the web-example2 “hello-app” default web page. It’ll also display the name of the pod it was served from (in my case web-example2-75fd68f658-f8xcd).


Congratulations! You now have a single Load Balancer fronting an NGINX Ingress Controller on DigitalOcean Kubernetes.

You can now expose multiple Kubernetes run services / deployments from a single Ingress and avoid the need to have multiple Load Balancers running (and costing you money!)