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Multi-Tenant Crossplane

This guide describes how to use Crossplane effectively in multi-tenant environments by utilizing Kubernetes primitives and compatible policy enforcement projects in the cloud-native ecosystem.


Infrastructure operators in multi-tenant Crossplane environments typically utilize composition and Kubernetes RBAC to define lightweight, standardized policies that dictate what level of self-service developers are given when requesting infrastructure. This is primarily achieved through exposing abstract resource types at the namespace scope, defining Roles for teams and individuals within that namespace, and patching the spec.providerConfigRef of the underlying managed resources so that they use a specific ProviderConfig and credentials when provisioned from each namespace. Larger organizations, or those with more complex environments, may choose to incorporate third-party policy engines, or scale to multiple Crossplane clusters. The following sections describe each of these scenarios in greater detail.


Crossplane is designed to run in multi-tenant environments where many teams are consuming the services and abstractions provided by infrastructure operators in the cluster. This functionality is facilitated by two major design patterns in the Crossplane ecosystem.

Cluster-Scoped Managed Resources

Typically, Crossplane providers, which supply granular managed resources that reflect an external API, authenticate by using a ProviderConfig object that points to a credentials source (such as a Kubernetes Secret, the Pod filesystem, or an environment variable). Then, every managed resource references a ProviderConfig that points to credentials with sufficient permissions to manage that resource type.

For example, the following ProviderConfig for provider-aws points to a Kubernetes Secret with AWS credentials.

apiVersion: aws.crossplane.io/v1beta1
kind: ProviderConfig
  name: cool-aws-creds
    source: Secret
      namespace: crossplane-system
      name: aws-creds
      key: key

If a user desired for these credentials to be used to provision an RDSInstance, they would reference the ProviderConfig in the object manifest:

apiVersion: database.aws.crossplane.io/v1beta1
kind: RDSInstance
  name: rdsmysql
    region: us-east-1
    dbInstanceClass: db.t3.medium
    masterUsername: masteruser
    allocatedStorage: 20
    engine: mysql
    engineVersion: "5.6.35"
    skipFinalSnapshotBeforeDeletion: true
    name: cool-aws-creds # name of ProviderConfig above
    namespace: crossplane-system
    name: aws-rdsmysql-conn

Since both the ProviderConfig and all managed resources are cluster-scoped, the RDS controller in provider-aws will resolve this reference by fetching the ProviderConfig, obtaining the credentials it points to, and using those credentials to reconcile the RDSInstance. This means that anyone who has been given RBAC to manage RDSInstance objects can use any credentials to do so. In practice, Crossplane assumes that only folks acting as infrastructure administrators or platform builders will interact directly with cluster-scoped resources.

Namespace Scoped Claims

While managed resources exist at the cluster scope, composite resources, which are defined using a CompositeResourceDefinition (XRD) may exist at either the cluster or namespace scope. Platform builders define XRDs and Compositions that specify what granular managed resources should be created in response to the creation of an instance of the XRD. More information about this architecture can be found in the Composition documentation.

Every XRD is exposed at the cluster scope, but only those with spec.claimNames defined will have a namespace-scoped variant.

apiVersion: apiextensions.crossplane.io/v1
kind: CompositeResourceDefinition
  name: compositemysqlinstances.example.org
  group: example.org
    kind: CompositeMySQLInstance
    plural: compositemysqlinstances
    kind: MySQLInstance
    plural: mysqlinstances

When the example above is created, Crossplane will produce two CustomResourceDefinitions:

  1. A cluster-scoped type with kind: CompositeMySQLInstance. This is referred to as a Composite Resource (XR).
  2. A namespace-scoped type with kind: MySQLInstance. This is referred to as a Claim (XRC).

Platform builders may choose to define an arbitrary number of Compositions that map to these types, meaning that creating a MySQLInstance in a given namespace can result in the creations of any set of managed resources at the cluster scope. For instance, creating a MySQLInstance could result in the creation of the RDSInstance defined above.

Single Cluster Multi-Tenancy

Depending on the size and scope of an organization, platform teams may choose to run one central Crossplane control plane, or many different ones for each team or business unit. This section will focus on servicing multiple teams within a single cluster, which may or may not be one of many other Crossplane clusters in the organization.

Composition as an Isolation Mechanism

While managed resources always reflect every field that the underlying provider API exposes, XRDs can have any schema that a platform builder chooses. The fields in the XRD schema can then be patched onto fields in the underlying managed resource defined in a Composition, essentially exposing those fields as configurable to the consumer of the XR or XRC.

This feature serves as a lightweight policy mechanism by only giving the consumer the ability to customize the underlying resources to the extent the platform builder desires. For instance, in the examples above, a platform builder may choose to define a spec.location field in the schema of the CompositeMySQLInstance that is an enum with options east and west. In the Composition, those fields could map to the RDSInstance spec.region field, making the value either us-east-1 or us-west-1. If no other patches were defined for the RDSInstance, giving a user the ability (using RBAC) to create a CompositeMySQLInstance / MySQLInstance would be akin to giving the ability to create a very specifically configured RDSInstance, where they can only decide the region where it lives and they are restricted to two options.

This model is in contrast to many infrastructure as code tools where the end user must have provider credentials to create the underlying resources that are rendered from the abstraction. Crossplane takes a different approach, defining various credentials in the cluster (using the ProviderConfig), then giving only the provider controllers the ability to utilize those credentials and provision infrastructure on the users behalf. This creates a consistent permission model, even when using many providers with differing IAM models, by standardizing on Kubernetes RBAC.

Namespaces as an Isolation Mechanism

While the ability to define abstract schemas and patches to concrete resource types using composition is powerful, the ability to define Claim types at the namespace scope enhances the functionality further by enabling RBAC to be applied with namespace restrictions. Most users in a cluster do not have access to cluster-scoped resources as they are considered only relevant to infrastructure admins by both Kubernetes and Crossplane.

Building on our simple CompositeMySQLInstance / MySQLInstance example, a platform builder may choose to define permissions on MySQLInstance at the namespace scope using a Role. This allows for giving users the ability to create and and manage MySQLInstances in their given namespace, but not the ability to see those defined in other namespaces.

Futhermore, because the metadata.namespace is a field on the XRC, patching can be utilized to configure managed resources based on the namespace in which the corresponding XRC was defined. This is especially useful if a platform builder wants to designate specific credentials or a set of credentials that users in a given namespace can utilize when provisioning infrastructure using an XRC. This can be accomplished today by creating one or more ProviderConfig objects that include the name of the namespace in the ProviderConfig name. For example, if any MySQLInstance created in the team-1 namespace should use specific AWS credentials when the provider controller creates the underlying RDSInstance, the platform builder could:

  1. Define a ProviderConfig with name team-1.
apiVersion: aws.crossplane.io/v1beta1
kind: ProviderConfig
  name: team-1
    source: Secret
      namespace: crossplane-system
      name: team-1-creds
      key: key
  1. Define a Composition that patches the name of the Claim reference in the XR to the providerConfigRef of the RDSInstance.
- base:
    apiVersion: database.aws.crossplane.io/v1beta1
    kind: RDSInstance
  - fromFieldPath: spec.claimRef.namespace
    toFieldPath: spec.providerConfigRef.name
      fromFieldPath: Required

This would result in the RDSInstance using the ProviderConfig of whatever namespace the corresponding MySQLInstance was created in.

Note that this model currently only allows for a single ProviderConfig per namespace. However, future Crossplane releases should allow for defining a set of ProviderConfig that can be selected from using Multiple Source Field patching.

Policy Enforcement with Open Policy Agent

In some Crossplane deployment models, only using composition and RBAC to define policy will not be flexible enough. However, because Crossplane brings management of external infrastructure to the Kubernetes API, it is well suited to integrate with other projects in the cloud-native ecosystem. Organizations and individuals that need a more robust policy engine, or just prefer a more general language for defining policy, often turn to Open Policy Agent (OPA). OPA allows platform builders to write custom logic in Rego, a domain-specific language. Writing policy in this manner allows for not only incorporating the information available in the specific resource being evaluated, but also using other state represented in the cluster. Crossplane users typically install OPA’s Gatekeeper to make policy management as streamlined as possible.

A live demo of using OPA with Crossplane can be viewed here.

Multi-Cluster Multi-Tenancy

Organizations that deploy Crossplane across many clusters typically take advantage of two major features that make managing multiple control planes much simpler.

Reproducible Platforms with Configuration Packages

Configuration packages allow platform builders to package their XRDs and Compositions into OCI images that can be distributed via any OCI-compliant image registry. These packages can also declare dependencies on providers, meaning that a single package can declare all of the granular managed resources, the controllers that must be deployed to reconcile them, and the abstract types that expose the underlying resources using composition.

Organizations with many Crossplane deployments utilize Configuration packages to reproduce their platform in each cluster. This can be as simple as installing Crossplane with the flag to automatically install a Configuration package alongside it.

helm install crossplane --namespace crossplane-system crossplane-stable/crossplane --set configuration.packages={"registry.upbound.io/xp/getting-started-with-aws:latest"}

Control Plane of Control Planes

Taking the multi-cluster multi-tenancy model one step further, some organizations opt to manage their many Crossplane clusters using a single central Crossplane control plane. This requires setting up the central cluster, then using a provider to spin up new clusters (such as an EKS Cluster using provider-aws), then using provider-helm to install Crossplane into the new remote cluster, potentially bundling a common Configuration package into each install using the method described above.

This advanced pattern allows for full management of Crossplane clusters using Crossplane itself, and when done properly, is a scalable solution to providing dedicated control planes to many tenants within a single organization.