GRPC & GRPC-Web multiplexed in Istio

Envoy had grpc-web support ealy on. It’s used in the official grpc-web tutorial docs. In the envoy config of this tutorial, both grpc & grpcWeb are exposed via a single listener port. This is nice model when you have a production deployment in which some clients (mobile apps) want to speak to the GRPC protocol directly, but web apps want to go down to http/1.1 to work with browsers’ xhr or fetch requests.

In production, we use istio as our gateway, but we have always struggled to utilise one single port to proxy both GRPC and GRPC-Web requests, even though envoy - the underlying proxy supports it very well. I suppose it’s partially due to the lack of documentation out there and the GRPC-Web community is still relatively small.

As we adopted Istio & GRPC-Web quite early on, we used what some other bloggers suggested: using a sidecar to convert HTTP1.1 request to GRPC and use a separate gateway dedicated to GRPC. The solution roughly looks like this:

For grpc

gateway:31400 -> app

For grpc-web

gateway:443 -> pod sidecar -> app

This has a few issues:

  1. We’re adding an extra open port to outside world: more attacking surface
  2. The new grpc-only port doesn’t have TLS or needs a separate TLS config
  3. We added a sidecar pod for every grpc service that we want to expose as GRPC-Web: wasted resources when we don’t need service mesh

This is definitely not right when evnoy supports the use case so well, but why does it feels so difficult on Istio’s side?

I finally sat down today and look at this from scratch: We have an effective envoy config, so we just need to configure istio such that the gateway envoy of istio has the most important elements that supports both GRPC & GRPC-Web. Namely:

  1. on the listener config we need the filter envoy.filters.http.grpc_web
  2. on the clusters config we need the http2_protocol_options

And we definitely don’t need the sidecar for this: sidecar is for east-west traffic, not north-south traffic. So the filter needs to be on the gateway, not the sidecar.

Well, it turns out it’s still in the same EnvoyFilter documentation. We just need to 1) configure the filter on the gateway; 2) use grpc-web as the protocol in the service. (I believe grpc works just as well)

The solution

gateway:443 -> app for both grpc & grpc-web

envoy filter

kind: EnvoyFilter
  name: gateway-grpc-web-filter
  namespace: istio-system
      istio: ingressgateway
    - applyTo: HTTP_FILTER
	  	# importantly we're patching to the GATEWAY envoy, not sidecar
        context: GATEWAY
              name: ""
				# apply the patch before the cors filter, just like the one in
				# grpc-web example
                name: "envoy.filters.http.cors"
        operation: INSERT_BEFORE
          name: envoy.filters.http.grpc_web

virtual service

kind: VirtualService
  name: hello-grpc
  namespace: default
    - "*"
    - httpbin-gateway
    - route:
        - destination:
            host: hello-grpc
              number: 12345
        - uri:
            prefix: /main.HelloService/

And importantly the service needs to have grpc in the service name or use appProtocol: ref

apiVersion: v1
kind: Service

  name: hello-grpc
  namespace: default
    app: hello-grpc
  type: LoadBalancer
    - name: grpc # name has to start with grpc, alternatively use appProtocol below
      port: 12345
      # or use appProtocol for Kubernetes 1.18+
      # appProtocol: grpc

Full example on github. There are some useful debug commands that helped.