The Case for Kubernetes

on Apr 24, 2017

One of the first questions you are likely to come up against when deploying containers in production is the choice of orchestration framework.  While it may not be the right solution for everyone, Kubernetes is a popular scheduler that enjoys strong industry support.  In this short article, I’ll provide an overview of Kubernetes, explain how it is deployed with Rancher, and show some of the advantages of using Kubernetes for distributed multi-tier applications.

About Kubernetes

Kubernetes has an impressive heritage.  Spun-off as an open-source project in 2015, the technology on which Kubernetes is based (Google’s Borg system) has been managing containerized workloads at scale for over a decade.  While it’s young as open-source projects go, the underlying architecture is mature and proven.  The name Kubernetes derives from the Greek word for “helmsman” and is meant to be evocative of steering container-laden ships through choppy seas.  I won’t attempt to describe the architecture of Kubernetes here.  There are already some excellent posts on this topic including this informative article by Usman Ismail.

Like other orchestration solutions deployed with Rancher, Kubernetes deploys services comprised of Docker containers. Kubernetes evolved independently of Docker, so for those familiar with Docker and docker-compose, the Kubernetes management model will take a little getting used to. Kubernetes clusters are managed via a kubectl CLI or the Kubernetes Web UI (referred to as the Dashboard).  Applications and various services are defined to Kubernetes using JSON or YAML manifest files in a format that is different than docker-compose.  To make it easy for people familiar with Docker to get started with Kubernetes, a kubectl primer provides Kubernetes equivalents for the most commonly used Docker commands.

A Primer on Kubernetes Concepts

Kubernetes involves some new concepts that at first glance may seem confusing, but for multi-tier applications, the Kubernetes management model is elegant and powerful.

The basic workload unit in Kubernetes is a Pod, a collection of one or more containers that reside on the same cluster host.  Pods are managed via Replication Controllers associated with each application Deployment. Replication Controllers facilitate horizontal scaling and ensure that Pods are resilient in case of host or application failures.  The Replication Controller is responsible for ensuring the desired number of Pods are running on the cluster.  If a container goes down or a host becomes unavailable, Pods will re-start on different hosts as necessary to maintain a target number of replicas.

In Kubernetes, the notion of a Service also has a different meaning than in Docker.  Services are essentially load balancers and front-ends to a collection of Pods.  A Services’ IP address remains stable and can be exposed to the outside world, abstracting away the number of Pods as well as virtual IP addresses that can change as Pods are scheduled to different cluster hosts.  This all sounds a little complicated, but basically a Deployment described in a Kubernetes YAML file defines the Pods, Replica Sets and Services that comprise an application (as well as other things).

Deploying Kubernetes on a Rancher Cluster

Kubernetes has a reputation for being difficult to install and configure because it is comprised of many different components (etcd, Tiller, Heapster, Grafana etc..).  However, installing Kubernetes using Rancher is impressively easy.  You simply add a new environment via the “Manage Environments” option in the Rancher UI, and select Kubernetes as your orchestration template. Rancher will guide you through the process of attaching local or cloud-resident Docker hosts and will install and configure all the components for you.

Figure 1: Selecting Kubernetes orchestration in Rancher

I created a new environment in Rancher called K8s-sandbox for testing, and as soon as I switched to the environmen,  I was invited to add two new hosts.  I provisioned the Kubernetes environment on two m3.large AWS instances.

Bringing up the hosts, installing Docker, the Rancher agent and all components of the Kubernetes environment takes a few minutes, but the process is 100% automated.

Figure 2 – Setting up Kubernetes

This simplified view below shows how Kubernetes components were deployed across my hosts.

Figure 3 – How Kubernetes services are deployed

Kubernetes has the notion of Namespaces, and two Namespaces are provisioned out of the box.  A kube-system Namespace includes the components that comprise Kubernetes as well as a default Namespace for Kubernetes workloads.  Once all the containers start, the Kubernetes dashboard becomes accessible under the KUBERNETES pull-down in the Rancher UI. A web accessible kubectl shell is provided as well for convenience.

Deploying and Managing an Application with Kubernetes

To illustrate how a multi-tier application is deployed via Kubernetes, I used the Kubernetes guestbook example available on GitHub (also used in Rancher’s Kubernetes whitepaper).   The example consists of a web front-end, a redis master for storage (redis is an open-source in-memory datastore) and a replicated set of redis slaves.

The application tiers are expressed as three different Kubernetes deployments, but they are packaged as a single YAML file (available here) for convenience.

You can either deploy the application as a single Kubernetes command like the one below, or use the “Create” option in the Kubernetes web UI to create the new application workload.

$ kubectl create -f examples/guestbook/all-in-one/guestbook-all-in-one.yaml

In my case, I uploaded the YAML file via the Kubernetes GUI exposed through Rancher as shown:

Figure 4 – Deploying an app through the Kubernetes dashboard

This application illustrates the key Kubernetes concepts described earlier: Deployments, Replica Sets, Pods and Services.

There are three Deployments described in the YAML file (frontend, redis-master and redis-slave) and named Replica Sets are created for each Deployment.  The frontend consists of three Pods. A single instance of a redis-master is persisted by a redis-master Replica Set, and there are two redis-slaves managed by a redis-slave Replica Set.

Figure 5 – Replica sets exposed through the Kubernetes dashboard

From the Infrastructure view in Rancher, you can see how the components of the application are deployed in the default Namespace.  You can see three frontends (the web-tier), a single redis-master, and two redis-slaves consistent with the definition in the application’s manifest file.

Figure 6 – Kubernetes hosts as seen through the Rancher web UI

For fun, you can kill any of the containers that comprise the application and watch Kubernetes restart them automatically in accordance with the replication policy.

A nice feature of Kubernetes is its ability to auto-scale the number of Pods in a replication group to meet target resource utilization thresholds.  This is one of the reasons that Kubernetes is known to be efficient in its use of infrastructure.  Despite the complexity of the framework, these kinds of “auto-pilot” features allow relatively few administrators to manage large and complex clusters.

The kubectl command below implements an auto-scaling policy for the application above such that Kubernetes will try and maintain a target utilization of 80% CPU usage, scaling the number of Pods between 1 and 10 as needed to try and maintain this utilization.

> kubectl autoscale deployment frontend --max=10 –-cpu-percent=80

To force the web-tier of the service to scale up (even though there is insufficient load to trigger the autoscale policy in my case), I can manually scale up the frontend via the kubectl shell exposed in the Rancher GUI as below.

> kubectl scale --replicas=10 rs/frontend-88237173
replicaset "frontend-88237173" scaled

After scaling the service, I see in the Rancher UI that seven new frontend Pods have been started across the two cluster hosts.

Figure 7 – View in Rancher of scaled up front-ends

Useful Features for Large Deployments

As someone whose experience with workload management is shaped by working with Platform LSF (now IBM Spectrum LSF), Kubernetes feels familiar. Like LSF, the CLI is large and exposes many scheduling and cluster management features.  Capabilities like cordoning off and draining hosts may seem like “nice to haves” until you find yourself managing a large cluster in production.

In addition to supporting applications as described above, Kubernetes also supports the notion of Batch Jobs.  Unlike persistent Deployments, Batch Jobs are meant for workloads that run to completion.  Jobs can be run in parallel, be submitted via queues, and the notion of Cron Jobs (or time based jobs familiar to Linux/UNIX folks) enable Kubernetes workloads to run automatically on arbitrarily complex schedules.

Kubernetes provides an array of features including:

  • Pet Sets (now Stateful Sets, as of Kubernetes 1.5) for applications that require stable persistent storage or predictable, ordered deployment or termination
  • Daemon sets (for pods that need to be replicated on every node)
  • Container Lifecycle Hooks (for building cluster-aware applications)
  • Guaranteed Scheduling (for critical pods with SLA guarantees)
  • Persistent Volumes (Providing an easy way to manage volumes across different storage platforms independent of Pods)

Scheduling features in Kubernetes are being enhanced at a rapid pace.  As an example, Kubernetes 1.5 supports opaque integer resources (referred to as “consumable resources” by other workload schedulers) used for modeling things like software licenses or consumable resources like host GPUs.

When Kubernetes is deployed on Rancher, other services are automatically configured as well.

  • Heapster is a facility that enables container cluster monitoring and performance analysis by aggregating monitoring and event data cluster wide.  Heapster runs as a Pod and queries usage information from all cluster nodes
  • Heapster supports pluggable storage frameworks, and InfluxDB, an open-source time-series database is configured by default in Rancher to store the gathered data
  • Grafana, also runs as a Pod provides a flexible web-based visual interface for monitoring the Kubernetes cluster

The Bottom Line

If you’re comfortable with Docker, and don’t want to face the learning curve of a new scheduling environment, Kubernetes may not be the right solution for you, but the great thing about Rancher is you have a choice.  You can deploy multiple environments and get a feel for each orchestration solution.

You might want to consider Kubernetes as your orchestration framework in Rancher if you are:

  • Managing a large environment where efficient use of infrastructure is crucial and you are willing to invest more time in workload and cluster administration.
  • Anticipating specialized requirements like scheduling workloads other than Docker applications or the need to accommodate stateful services that need to be started up or shutdown in a particular order.
  • Managing complex, multi-tier or horizontally scalable workloads and see benefits in grouping and managing containers as collections of logical units.

To learn more about Kubernetes on Rancher, you can download the eBook Deploying and Scaling Kubernetes with Rancher.


Gord Sissons is a consultant at StoryTek focused on HPC, Big Data & Analytics. Gord has more than 25 years of experience in IT that includes roles in product management, marketing, development and technical sales. Previously he worked at IBM, Platform Computing, and Sun Microsystems and was the founder of NeatWorx Web Solutions Inc.  Follow @GJSissons on Twitter.

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