Understanding Cattle, Swarm and Kubernetes in Rancher

on Jun 2, 2016

swarm small intro


Note: we’ve provided an updated version this post! You can find an in-depth guide comparing Rancher Orchestration options Kubernetes, Mesos, and Docker Swarm here.

Over the last six months, Rancher has grown very quickly, and now includes support for multiple orchestration frameworks in addition to Cattle, Rancher’s native orchestrator. The first framework to arrive was Kubernetes, and not long after, Docker Swarm was added. This week, the team at Rancher added support for Mesos.  For this article, I’m going to focus on Cattle, Swarm, and Kubernetes, and as I gain experience with Mesos, I’ll share my thoughts in another post.

Rancher’s support for these different orchestration platforms is delivered by creating isolated “environments.” When a user or admin creates an environment, they select the orchestration platform he or she wants to use, and which users will have access to the new cluster. Rancher works with Active Directory, LDAP and GitHub, so you can grant different access privileges to teams or individual on a per cluster basis.

Once you’ve created the environment, Rancher prompts you to add “hosts,” which are just Linux physical or virtual machines that running Docker and Rancher’s agent, which is a container. As soon as the first hosts are added, Rancher begins deploying the orchestration framework you’ve chosen, and you can start using your new environment.

Each of these orchestration platforms has a different set of capabilities. For this article, I won’t try to provide a list pros and cons for each, or a long table comparing features. They are all changing very quickly, so anything I write would be out of date within a month or two. Instead, I’ll share some of my personal experiences with all three, and the scenarios in which I use each of the three frameworks. Rancher makes it so easy to deploy each of these that I highly recommend you try them out for yourself and determine which fits your project best.

Three Frameworks

First, it is important to note that while deploying a new host with Cattle is almost immediate, doing it with Swarm and Kubernetes can take 5-10 minutes as servers are added and each orchestration framework is implemented. From a user perspective, it isn’t any more complex to deploy the different platforms, as Rancher automates all the deployment and configuration of the orchestration platforms. The Kubernetes framework typically takes the longest to launch, as it is built as a set of microservices such as etcd (a distributed key-value store for the cluster), the kubernetes master, kubernetes scheduler, and a handful of other Kubernetes-native services.


Cattle was the first orchestration framework available when Rancher started its beta last June. Because of this, it feels quite mature and stable, and the user experience is very good.  At its core, Cattle should feel very familiar to anyone familiar with Docker. It is based on Docker commands and leverages docker-compose to define application blueprints. Application deployments are organized into “stacks,” which can be launched directly from an application catalog, automatically provisioned from a docker-compose.yml file and extended with a rancher-compose.yml file, or created directly within the UI.

Each stack is a made up of “services,” which are primarily a docker image, along with scaling information, health checks, service discovery links, and a host of other configurables.  You can also include load balancing services and externals services into a cattle stack.

Because it has been around for so long, Cattle has developed a very large application catalog, the vast majority of which has been developed by users and contributed to the rancher/community-catalog github repo.  You can now choose from more than 50 different apps, all of which are defined using a docker-compose file and a rancher-compose file, and deploy them with a single click.  This is the kind of capability that we like most here at FricolaB.  You can even build a private catalog from your own git repo, and expose it within your environment from the settings tab within Rancher.

In the example illustrated in the screenshot, we have created a stack for Gogs, an application that provides similar functionality to Github, based on the Go language. In this stack, we have added a load balancer service to make the external http port that provides access to the graphical Gogs interface available in a custom subdomain of our server. Thus, our final deployment will consist simply of three containers; a container with the database, another with the application, and a third container with a load balancer.

The Cattle community app catalog

The Cattle community app catalog



Docker Swarm is the native Docker clustering system, and important for anyone who will be working heavily in the Docker ecosystem.  I think it is important for any container management platform to support Swarm, as it will probably be the most familiar platform for many users.

Because it uses the native Docker API,  orchestrating a cluster with Docker Swarm allows us to keep compatibility with other standard tools. For example, EduCaaS, a project that FricolaB is developing with MTA, provides users with a simple graphical interface based on Docker Swarm to manage their applications but platform administrators still have perfect control of all applications being deployed on the platform from within Rancher GUI.

Adding hosts and services for Swarm within Rancher

Adding hosts and services for Swarm within Rancher

Swarm initial deployment, as already mentioned, is a bit more complex than Cattle. It uses two extra containers in addition to the Rancher agent: one acts as Swarm master node and the other one a first client node. We can check it out inside the System section, which now appears inside of the new menu item, Swarm, which replaces  the Application menu once we have chosen Swarm as our orchestrator. System submenu is equivalent to the one we had before with Cattle called “Stacks”. In fact, there we can still control the stacks that had been created before using Cattle.

Now in this new menu we have three elements. One of them provides us access to our server via terminal, allowing us to download the configuration file, connect to the remote Docker socket, and manage our server from the PC using Docker or Docker Compose.

The other two tabs, Projects and Services, show the containers we are deploying inside Swarm. From Projects, we can add stacks from the internal catalog or attach a custom docker-compose.yml file. The Services tab will show individual services already deployed, indicating the number of containers available for each service. Every time we deploy a project on our cluster Swarm, a container will be included within each cluster node, so if we have a cluster consisting of 4 nodes each service will have 4 containers associated. This is similar to the way Docker Swarm deployments work without Rancher.


Managing Kubernetes services within Rancher

Managing Kubernetes services within Rancher

For users familiar with Docker, Kubernetes can have the biggest learning curve of all these scheduling options. Many of the concepts are quite different in Kubernetes from Swarm or Cattle, which both will feel very familiar to anyone who knows Docker.  For example, in Kubernetes, the initial deployment is not a container, but instead a “pod,” which can include multiple containers. These pods are then assigned to services and scaling is managed by replication controllers.

All of this is pretty easy to understand once you’ve spun up a Kubernetes environment in Rancher.  The initial deployment of Kubernetes takes a few minutes, since [as previously described], it is built using a number of microservices, and with kubelets and proxy services on each hosts.  However, Rancher makes using Kubernetes quite easy by automating the deployment and scaling of the cluster, and creating an initial namespace as soon as you add your first host.

One thing to note, it probably makes sense to deploy Kubernetes on multiple VMs.  I tried to deploy it once on a single 4GB RAM server, and spinning everything up took more than 15 minutes, and sometimes failed due to lack of memory.

Once you have the cluster running, you can access it through the Rancher UI, and directly log into kubectl. You can also manage manage all deployed services, pods and replication controllers from the UI, and deploy applications from the Kubernetes catalog.

Closing Note

Although it is not the purpose of this post to make a value judgment about the three orchestrators, it would be unfair not to mention that the first two are my favorites. I use Cattle in almost all the environments I manage with Rancher, but I opt for Swarm when it comes to servers in which I have delegated certain management functions to users, since Docker ecosystem provides numerous tools that are worth using in parallel. Obviously, this is just my point of view: the right solution is always what meets your needs!

David Lareo is a Rancher user and the founder of FricolaB.  He designs products and services that respect the fundamental values of the hacker ethic, such as social awareness, accessibility. 

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