Jenkins with agents on a separate Kubernetes cluster 23 Sep 2019
jenkins kubernetes

Running untrusted CI/CD workloads in Jenkins is perhaps my favorite security discussion. Throwing Docker into the mix makes things even interesting, and in some cases less secure. Today I implemented a pattern which I have discussed with colleagues but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to try: a multi-Kubernetes cluster for Jenkins. In short, running a Jenkins master in a cluster which acts as the control pane for it and many other services, while running all of its workloads in an entirely separate Kubernetes cluster. For those who know the joy of managing Kubernetes this may seem like madness, but it does offer a number of security benefits which I would like to outline.

The Jenkins master doesn’t particularly benefit from running in Kubernetes. Its storage requirements and access patterns are orthogonal to the preferred stateless applications which Kubernetes excels at supporting. The Jenkins agents however are an ideal application for Kubernetes: stateless, ephemeral, and elastic workloads which can benefit from spinning up in seconds and running within containers.

In fact, there’s a reasonable argument to be made for not running Jenkins masters in Kubernetes at all! Nonetheless I prefer to run Jenkins in Kubernetes because of its administration and delivery benefits. The problems arise when the master is run with the agents in the same cluster, which I discussed previously here, but in short:

  • Noisy-neighbor problems are abound: a pipeline which saturates CPU or network I/O will adversely affect the master’s performance as well.
  • Lack of isolation: the Jenkins master has all sorts of tasty credentials and should any user workload take advantage of a hole in Kubernetes, or more commonly, a misconfiguration allowing access to the Kubernetes API or Docker socket, they will be able to trivially access the master’s filesystem.

The model which I have now deployed is one where a control plane cluster, with a different set of access grants for Vault, different monitoring, alerting, and auditing, is configured to run the Jenkins master among a number of other important internal tools. A second cluster, which is trusted with far less responsibility than the control plane is made available to the Jenkins Kubernetes plugin.

Configuring Jenkins

In order for this arrangement to work a couple prerequisites need to be squared away first:

  • The master requires a fixed JNLP port, e.g. 50000, which can be exposed outside the control plane for agents to properly phone home.
  • The service account configuration recommended by the Kubernetes plugin needs to be applied to the untrusted Kubernetes cluster.
  • Ensure the Jenkins master has HTTP and JNLP properly exposed.
  • Network connectivity must allow the control plane to access the API controller on the untrusted Kubernetes cluster. The untrusted cluster must also be able to access the Jenkins master via HTTP.

With these in place, the actual configuration within Jenkins is quite simple! Much of the documentation online assumes the master and agents are running in the same cluster, so for this set up we must deviate a bit from what’s commonly done in the “Configure System” view:

  • Add the untrusted Kubernetes API URL to the “Kubernetes URL” field
  • Insert the untrusted cluster’s server certificate key under “Kubernetes server certificate key” (really complex stuff here).
  • Add a Secret Text credential with the untrusted cluster’s service account’s access token. This you will then select from the dropdown in the configuration as “Credentials.”
  • Add the correct Jenkins URL to the Jenkins master on the control plane.

With this configuration in place, the specified pod templates will start provisioning in the untrusted cluster as soon as the configuration is saved; neat! Adding configuration to the untrusted cluster like the Virtual Kubelet in Azure can greatly improve the performance and elasticity of the agent workloads too!

Having more than one Kubernetes cluster is something anybody running Kubernetes should consider since it wasn’t really designed for multi-tenancy. Chances are, if you think Kubernetes is a solution for problems you have, your organization is also large enough to have wildly different requirements from your compute environment, thereby justifying multiple clusters as I am using here.

Structuring our Jenkins environments in this way also makes it much easier to run a single large untrusted compute cluster, while having multiple Jenkins master instances in the control plane. Providing ourselves with better resource utilization, isolation, and easier capacity planning.

I don’t necessarily recommend this approach for everybody, but once you’re already invested in Kubernetes, what’s one more cluster in the mix? :)