What Is Kubernetes?

Justin Ellingwood
Justin Ellingwood
Published: September 12, 2019


As technologies like Docker and containerization have become indispensable parts of developer and operations toolkits and gained traction in organizations of all sizes, the need for greater management tools and deployment environments has increased. Kubernetes, a container orchestration system, has become the overwhelming standard for managing complex container workloads in production environments. But what is Kubernetes and how does it work?

In this guide, we’ll talk about how Kubernetes came to be, introduce some core Kubernetes concepts, and explore how container orchestration platforms help turn containerized applications into robust, highly scalable environments for modern development.

Container Orchestration and the Birth of Kubernetes

Container orchestration is a term for software that allows operators to run groups of containers across multiple hosts. These systems coordinate with container runtimes to manage the life cycle of containerized workloads and operate an entire supporting environment for containers to create a scalable platform for deployment. In short, container orchestration systems are designed to create a complete management environment that takes care of the hard work of operating containers with production requirements.

Container orchestration grew out of the need for an additional layer of management above individual container runtimes. While runtimes are able to manage containers on a single host, they don’t often provide adequate methods of scaling. Furthermore, while running containers on hosts is certainly a central requirement of running production-ready containers, there are many other requirements that need to be addressed. Container orchestrators take on a core subset of these requirements to provide additional functionality.

Kubernetes is, by far, the most popular and feature rich container orchestration system in the world. It grew out of an internal Google cluster system called Borg which was used to operate and scale workloads across the organization starting in 2003. In 2014, after transitioning internally to a new system, Google released Kubernetes as an open-source version of Borg.

Kubernetes immediately captured the interest of the container community due to its well-defined primitives, robust architecture, and a design proven to be able to handle enormous workloads. After hitting version 1.0 in 2015, Google and the Linux Foundation partnered to create the Cloud Native Computing Foundation as a steward for Kubernetes and like-minded open-source projects to ensure that the community would maintain ownership and control over Kubernetes. From there, Kubernetes continued to gain widespread adoption as it matured and its ecosystem ballooned with countless projects seeking to enhance the platform.

Kubernetes Features

Kubernetes offers a wide range of features that help it achieve production viability. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.

Flexible Container Scheduling

One of the fundamental capabilities that Kubernetes provides is the ability to schedule containers on individual nodes based on given requirements. In this context, “schedule” means selecting an appropriate node, passing off the task to it, and then reacting if health checks indicate that the workload needs attention. Kubernetes tries to automatically select the best node for containers based on the containers’ requirements and the current status and resources available on individual nodes.

Users can influence the scheduling decisions by providing additional requirements when deploying containers to the cluster. They can also influence the scheduling by changing the properties associated with specific nodes to increase or decrease the likelihood of certain types of containers being assigned to the individual node. This type of flexibility provides a good balance between hands off automatic selection and fine-grained control to run containers how you’d like.

Health Checks and Self-Healing

Kubernetes takes responsibility for knowing about and responding to changes in the health of your containers. If a container fails to start properly, Kubernetes will try to start it again. Similarly, if a container exits prematurely, Kubernetes will notice and reschedule it to reach the previous level of availability. While this is happening, it will also automatically adjust the networking to make sure no new traffic is forwarded to the unhealthy containers.

Kubernetes provides mechanisms for defining your own criteria for container health, which it will then monitor for you. Kubernetes can check for healthy behavior by executing a command within the container itself, by looking for a specific response to an HTTP request at a specific endpoint, or by attempting a TCP connection to a certain port. This allows you to define the exact behavior of a healthy component so that Kubernetes can take action if it deviates.

Workload-Specific Management Features

Kubernetes is great at managing containers, but it does so by building and working with more complex objects on top of the container paradigm. This layering comes with additional capabilities as more specific use cases are targeted.

For example, Kubernetes wraps all containers within an object it calls Pods, which is its smallest unit of management. To enable horizontal scaling, Pods are managed by ReplicaSets. To add roll out and rollback features, ReplicaSets are managed by Deployments. Each additional abstraction adds new features, guarantees, and capabilities without much additional complexity. Different abstractions exist to run one-off Pods, to run Pods on every node in the cluster, and to run Pods that require special storage management.

Network Management, Service Discovery, and Load Balancing

Kubernetes pays special attention to the communication requirements of running different types of applications in a clustered environment. Connectivity needs to be configurable, secure, and reliable by default. Kubernetes provides robust networking capabilities out of the box but also allows for other projects to enhance or modify the networking features available. This allows administrators to tailor their network environment to meet their requirements.

Beyond basic connectivity, Kubernetes also provides application-related network features. Service discovery is built into the platform, allowing applications and components to easily find and route traffic to one another. Similarly, load balancing is available out of the box, allowing you to route requests to an entire pool of containers from a single endpoint.

Separate Secret and Configuration Management

By design, Kubernetes embraces the software development best practices by providing mechanisms for managing configuration separate from applications themselves. The workload definitions that are used by Kubernetes can reference configuration values that can be stored and managed separately. This allows you to standardize your application definitions while retaining flexibility, allowing you to adjust variable data to match the needs of the current environment.

Similarly, Kubernetes offers a separate category for data that should be considered secret. Separating sensitive data from regular configuration data allows organizations to allow access to important information without negatively impacting the security of the system. Secrets in Kubernetes can be protected by handling them through separate, more closely guarded processes.

Easy Scalability

One of the most valuable features provided by Kubernetes is the ability to easily scale. Horizontal scaling is a feature provided by Kubernetes Deployment objects, allowing you to manage the number of containers for each application you are running. By making scaling simple, you can react to fluctuations in demand and, with monitoring and autoscaling functionality, can configure your Kubernetes to automatically respond and scale your services appropriately.

How Kubernetes Works

Now that you understand some of the benefits that Kubernetes offers, let’s talk briefly about how Kubernetes works. This will be a simple explanation as later guides will cover the Kubernetes architecture and workloads in more depth.

The basic idea behind Kubernetes is to provide a resilient platform for containerized workloads. On an architecture level, Kubernetes is a clustered system comprised of master (or control plane) nodes, responsible for the orchestration logic, resource management, scheduling, etc., and worker nodes, responsible for running assigned container workloads and reporting back to the control plane. These systems work in unison to provide a stable platform managed through an API server, which is used by tools like kubectl, the standard Kubernetes command line client.

Kubernetes offers users a great deal of control over how their applications run by providing primitives on top of the container paradigm that add additional layers of abstraction and functionality. We call these abstractions “objects” and these well-structured components are the primary way that Kubernetes turns basic containers into composable, robust applications. Users define their desired outcome and the cluster will work to ensure that current state is brought in line with the request.

Kubernetes not only manages the life cycle of containers, it also helps with what is in some ways a trickier task: managing the connectivity between containers and hosts. As containers are created and destroyed, interfaces between components need to be refreshed with up-to-date information about how to communicate with each other and how to receive outside requests. Kubernetes takes care of a lot of this complexity by providing a stable, self-updating service model on top of groups of applications to route traffic appropriately and to expose the correct interfaces to the outside world.


Now that we’ve covered the basics of what Kubernetes is and why it’s useful, you’re ready to take a deeper look at how Kubernetes works and how to work with it. Kubernetes provides the management layer that makes powerful production-grade container systems accessible. Explore how it can help you move from managing individual containerized applications to leveraging a fully functional container-based application platform.

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