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GEP-2907: TLS Configuration Placement and Terminology

  • Issue: #2907
  • Status: Memorandum


This GEP aims to define high level TLS terminology and structure within Gateway API to ensure that all our independent proposals related to TLS result in a coherent set of APIs. This will result in some adjustments to provisional and experimental TLS-related GEPs, specifically BackendTLSPolicy and Client Certificate Verification.


  • Define high-level terminology for how we refer to TLS in Gateway API.
  • Define top level fields where TLS configuration can live.


  • Add or change fields directly. (This may inspire changes in other GEPs though).
  • Commit to including specific parts of TLS configuration in Gateway API. (This is merely to provide space for future configuration, not a commitment that we will add it to the API.)

Out of Initial Scope

There are a variety of related TLS concepts in Gateway API that are not currently in scope for this GEP. In the future, this GEP may be expanded to include:

  1. Automatic mTLS (often associated with Service mesh)
  2. TLS Passthrough
  3. TLSRoute


Where TLS could be configured

We have three different places where we might want to configure TLS:

A. Gateways

Config attached at this layer will apply to everything behind a single address such as a virtual IP.

B. Gateway Listeners

Each Gateway contains multiple “Listeners”. Each HTTPS Listener in a Gateway must have a unique combination of protocol, port, and SNI (Server Name Indication). TLS configuration attached at this layer should be isolated via SNI.

C. BackendTLSPolicy

This policy allows us to attach unique TLS configuration per Backend. Depending on the organization, this policy may be owned by the application owner or the cluster operator. Note that this configuration will be used by all Gateways (potentially from different implementations) that are connecting to the backend.

"Frontend" and "Backend"

A guiding principle in this naming is to use consistent naming for “Downstream” (1+2) and “Upstream” (3+4), similar to Envoy. To avoid the confusion with what is upstream and downstream, Gateway API will use “Frontend” (1+2) and “Backend” (3+4).

  • Frontend: The entity connecting to a Gateway, typically a client application and/or web browser.
  • Backend: The entity a Gateway is routing traffic to, typically the endpoints behind a Service.

There are essentially 4 different segments that could be relevant to TLS configuration in Gateway API:

flowchart LR
    Frontend -.->|1. Client Cert| Gateway
    Gateway -.->|2. Server Cert| Frontend
    Gateway -.->|3. Client Cert| Backend
    Backend -.->|4. Server Cert| Gateway

The above diagram depicts these four segments as edges in a graph.

Proposed Segments

Note that this does not represent any form of commitment that any of these fields or concepts will exist within Gateway API. If or when they do, we propose the following naming structure:

1. Validate Client Certificate provided by Frontend

Proposed Placement Name Status
Gateway Listener Listener.TLS.FrontendValidation Proposed


Use FrontendValidation to leave room for concepts like trust anchors and trust domains. Anything not strictly tied to validation would belong to Listener.TLS which is now reserved exclusively for “Frontend” TLS configuration (1+2).

Why Not Frontend.Validation?

Part of the idea behind this GEP is that Listener.TLS is really entirely focused on 1+2 - the bits of TLS between frontend and Gateway. That means that if we were to add any additional TLS configuration in the Listener.TLS struct, it would tied to that limited scope, and thus we don't really need a separate Frontend struct.

One could make an argument that Listener.TLS.Validation should be the field name here to avoid any ambiguity, but in this specific context, we think that it's probably helpful to specifically spell out frontend.

Why Not FrontendTLSPolicy?

It could be reasonable to try to mirror BackendTLSPolicy for Frontend TLS. As we considered that possibility, we evaluated why BackendTLSPolicy exists as a separate policy resource:

  1. Some parts of the config, such as the SNI that should be used to connect to the Service/backend only make sense when attached per Service - it's very unlikely that you'd want to use the same SNI to connect to all backends from a Gateway.
  2. The Service API is overloaded and very slow to change, Gateway API has taken the approach of exposing config at that level via policy resources that are tied to specific personas (why Session Persistence config and Backend TLS are in different resources).

We don't think either of those reasons really apply to frontend TLS. Instead, frontend TLS could theoretically be configured either for an entire Gateway, or a specific Gateway listener. Given that many implementations already support distinguishing this config per SNI, it seems to make sense to start with listener level attachment. We think that the persona that would be responsible for a Gateway is not sufficiently different than the persona that would be responsible for frontend TLS, so the current proposal is likely the best option available to us.

2. Configure TLS Termination, including Server Certificate

Proposed Placement Name Status
Gateway Listener Listener.TLS GA


This is already finalized in the API and so we're stuck with this name. In hindsight a name that was more clearly tied to frontend TLS would have been ideal here.

3. Configure Client Certificate that Gateway should use to connect to Backend

Proposed Placement Name Status
Gateway Gateway.Spec.BackendTLS.ClientCertificateRef Not Proposed
BackendTLSPolicy BackendTLSPolicy.Spec.ClientCertificateRef Not Proposed


It's not yet obvious which of the above options are preferable, but a case could be made for either or both. If we add a BackendTLS struct to Gateway it would leave room for concepts like TLS version, ALPN, cipher suites, etc.

Why Not Listener level to match FrontendValidation?

In general, we'd expect this identity to represent a Gateway as a whole, and thus per-Listener configuration probably does not make sense here. Having FrontendValidation at the Listener level allows a Gateway to accept different client certs per SNI (a matching attribute of the frontend -> Gateway connection). On the other hand, when determining the identity a Gateway should use when connecting to a backend, it should likely either be tied directly to the Gateway or Backend, but the Listener is not particularly relevant in this context.

4. Validate Server Certificate that is provided by Backend

Proposed Placement Name Status
Gateway Gateway.Spec.BackendTLS.Validation Not Proposed
BackendTLSPolicy BackendTLSPolicy.Spec.Validation Experimental (Different Name)


Rename BackendTLSPolicy.TLS to BackendTLSPolicy.Validation. Because this is already clearly backend-focused, config like TLS Version, ALPN, and cipher suites, could live at the same level without confusion. It's also plausible that some Gateways may want to express Gateway-wide CAs that are trusted.

Why BackendTLS on Gateways?

Although this GEP is intentionally not committing to adding new fields or features, it's possible that at some point in the future we may want to have some kind of Backend TLS config at the Gateway level. For example, it may be useful to configure a set of CAs that a Gateway trusts or a client cert that a Gateway should use to connect to all backends. If this existed, there would likely be some overlap in config with BackendTLSPolicy, and if a future GEP proposed this, it would need to include how overlapping config should be handled.

Why the inconsistency between Frontend and Backend TLS config on Gateways?

If we were to populate all the possible fields described in this GEP, we'd end up with the following config on Gateways:


This is all tied to the need to provide backwards compatibility with the TLS config that is already GA on Listeners (Listener.TLS). If we were naming that field today with the broader vision of TLS configuration throughout Gateway API we would almost certainly choose a more descriptive name that was more clearly tied to Frontend TLS. Unfortunately we're too late to change that name, but we can try to make the rest of the terminology clearly tied to frontend or backend TLS.

One suggestion by @candita would be to introduce a Listener like resource for BackendTLS, resulting in a more consistent naming scheme within Gateway TLS configuration. Although it's not yet clear if we need this additional layer, we should reconsider it as we're further developing Backend TLS.