Resilient Workloads with Docker and Rancher: Part 5

Gray Calendar Icon Published: January 24, 2017
Gray Calendar Icon Updated: January 26, 2021

This is the last part in a series on designing resilient containerized workloads. In case you missed it, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are already available online. In Part 4 last week, we covered in-service and rolling updates for single and multiple hosts. Now, let’s dive into common errors that can pop up during these updates:

Common Problems Encountered with Updates

Below is a brief accounting of all the supporting components required during an upgrade. Though the Rancher UI does a great job of presenting the ideal user experience, it does hides some of the complexities that occur with operating container deployments in production: Rancher
support The blue indicates parts of the system under control by Rancher. The types of bugs that exist on this layer require the end user to be comfortable digging into Rancher container logs. We briefly discussed ways to dig into Rancher networking in Part 2. Another consideration is scaling Rancher Server along with your application size; since Rancher writes to a relational database, the entire infrastructure may be slowed down by I/O and CPU issues as multiple services are updated. The yellow parts of the diagram indicate portions of the system managed by the end user. This requires some degree of knowledge of setting the infrastructure hosts up for production. Otherwise, a combination of errors in the yellow and blue layers will create very odd problems for service upgrades that are very difficult to replicate. Broken Network to Agent Communication Rancher Free Ebook 'Continuous Integration and Deployment with Docker and Rancher' Free eBook: Continuous Integration and Deployment with Docker and Rancher Suppose I shutoff my node2 (the one with my Wordpress containers). How does a lost host affect the ability of Rancher to coordinate?

$> vagrant halt node2

Rancher did not automatically migrate my containers, because there was no health check in place - we need to establish a health-check to have the containers automatically migrate. With a health-check in place, our ‘mywordpress’ service will automatically migrate to other hosts. In this case, our application went down because the load balancer on node1 was unable to route traffic to services on node2. Since our application utilizes a HAProxy load balancer that is dynamically configured by Rancher, this problem is a combination of problems with user- and Rancher-managed networking. In this setting, though the app sees downtime, an upgrade still works as expected:

$> rancher-compose up --upgrade --force-upgrade

Rancher starts the containers on the node1 (which is reachable) and then marks node2 as being on reconnecting state: Agent on Host Unable to Locate Image Suppose now that I have a custom repository for my organization. We will need to add a registry to the Rancher instance to pull custom images. A host node might not have access to my custom registry. When this occurs, Rancher will continuously attempt to maintain the scale of the service and keep cycling the containers. Rancher does this by allowing all agents to add various Docker registries in Rancher. The credentials are kept on the agents and are not available to the host. Sometimes, it is also important to check if a host node has access to the registry. A firewall rule or a IAM profile misconfiguration on AWS may cause your host to fail to pull the image, even with proper credentials. This is a issue where errors most commonly reside in the yellow user-controlled infrastructure. Docker on Host Frozen Running a resilient Docker host is a technical challenge in itself. When using Docker in a development capacity, all that was required was installing Docker engine. In production, the Docker engine requires many configuration options, such as the production OS, the type of storage driver to be used, and how much space to allocate to the Docker daemon, all of which play a part in the user-controlled environment. Managing a reliable Docker host layer carries problems similar those in traditional hosting: both require maintaining up-to-date software on bare metal. Since the Rancher agent directly interfaces with the Docker daemon on the host, if the Docker daemon is unresponsive, then Rancher components have little control over this component. An example of when a Docker daemon failure prevents a rollback is when the old containers reside on one host, but the Docker daemon freezes up. This usually requires the daemon or host to be force rebooted. Sometimes the containers will be lost, and our rollback candidates are purged.

Problems with In Service Deployment

A short list of issues we encountered or discussed in our experiments:

  • Port conflicts
  • Service State issues
  • Network Routing issues
  • Registry Authentication issues
  • Moving Containers
  • Host issues

In summary, in-service deployment suffer from the following issues:

  • Unpredictable under failure scenarios
  • Rollbacks don’t always work

If you like to dig more into CI/CD theory, you can continue your deep dive with an exert from the CI/CD Book. In general, we can have confidence that stateless application containers behind load balancers (like a node app or Wordpress) can be quickly redeployed when needed. However, more complex stacks with interconnected behavior and state require a new deployment model. If the deployment process is not exercised daily in a CI/CD process, an ad-hoc in-place update may surface unexpected bugs, which require the operator to dig into Rancher’s behavior. Coupled with multiple lower layer failures, this may make upgrading more complicated applications a dangerous proposition. This is why we introduce the blue-green deployment method.

Blue-Green Deployment

With in-place updates having so many avenues of failure, one should only rely on it as part of CI/CD pipeline that exercises the updates in a repeatable fashion. When the deployment is regularly exercised and bugs are fixed as they arise, the cost of deployment issues is negligible for most common web-apps and light running services. But what if it is a stack due for update is rarely touched? Or the stack that requires many complex data and network interactions? A blue-green deployment pattern creates breathing space to more reliably upgrade the stack. The Blue-Green Deployment Section of the CI/CD book details how to leverage internet routing to redirect traffic to another stack. So instead of keeping traffic coming into a service or stack while it is updating, we will make upgrades in a separate stack and then adjust the DNS entry or proxy to switch over the traffic. Once the blue stack is updated, we will update the load-balancer to redirect traffic to the green stack. Now our blue stack has become our staging environment, and we make changes and upgrades there until the next release. To test such a stack, we deploy a new stack of services that is only load-balancers. We set it as a global service, so it will intercept requests at port :80 on each host. We will then modify our Wordpress application to internal port :80, so no conflicts occur. We then clone this setup to another stack, and call it wordpress-single-blue.

 tty: true
 image: wordpress
 - database:mysql
 stdin_open: true
 tty: true
 image: mysql
 - '/data:/var/lib/mysql'
 stdin_open: true
 # internal load balancer
 - 80:80
 tty: true
 image: rancher/load-balancer-service
 - mywordpress:mywordpress
 stdin_open: true
 image: rancher/load-balancer-service
 # Listen on public port 80 and direct traffic to private port 80 of the service
 - 80:80
 # Target services in a different stack will be listed as an external link
 - wordpress-single/wordpresslb:mywordpress
 # - wordpress-single-blue/wordpresslb:mywordpress

Summary of Deployments on Rancher

We can see that using clustered environments entails a lot of coordination work. Leveraging the internal overlay network and various routing components to support the containers provides flexibility in how we maintain reliable services within Rancher. This also increases the amount of knowledge needed to properly operate such stacks. A simpler way to use Rancher would be to lock environments to specific hosts with host tags. Then we can schedule containers onto specific hosts, and use Rancher as a Docker manager. While this doesn’t use all the features that Rancher provides, it is a good first step to ensure reliability, and uses Rancher to model a deployment environment that you are comfortable with. Rancher supports container scheduling policies that are modeled closely after Docker Swarm. In an excerpt from the Rancher documentationon scheduling, they include scheduling based on:

  • port conflicts
  • shared volumes
  • host tagging
  • shared network stack: ‘net=container:dependency
  • strict and soft affinity/anti-affinity rules by using both environment variables (Swarm) and labels (Rancher)

You can organize your cluster environment however that is needed to create a comfortable stack.

Supporting Elements

Since Rancher is a combination of blue Rancher manged components, and yellow end user managed components. We want to pick robust components and processes to support our Rancher environment. In this section, we briefly go through the following:

  • Reliable Registry
  • Encoding Services for Repeatable Deployments
  • Reliable Host

Reliable Registry First step is to get a reliable registry, a good reading would be to look at the requirements to setup your own private registry on the Rancher blogs. If you are unsure there may be interest in taking a look at Container Registries You Might Have Missed. This article evaluates registry products, and can be a good starting point for picking out a registry for your use cases. Though, to save on some mental clutter, we recommend taking a look at an excellent article on Amazon Elastic Container Registry (ECR) called Using Amazon Container Registry Service. AWS ECR is a fully managed private docker registry. It is cheap (S3 storage prices) and provides fine grained permissions controls.

Caveat, be sure to use a special container tag for production, e.g. :prod, :dev, :version1. Sometimes with multiple builds, we would like to avoid one developer builds overwriting the same :latest tag.

Encoding Services for Repeatable Deployments We have been encoding our experiments in compose files over the past few blog posts. Though the docker-compose.yml and rancher-compose.yml sections are great for single services, we can extend this to a large team through the use of Rancher catalogs. There is an Article Chain on Rancher Catalog Creation and the documentation for Rancher catalogs. This will go hand in hand with the Blue-Green deploy method, as we can just start a new catalog under a new name, then redirect our top level loadbalancer to the new stack. Reliable Hosts Setting up a Docker host is also critical. For development and testing, using the default Docker installation is enough. Docker itself has many resources, in particular a commercial Docker engine and a compatibility matrixfor known stable configurations. You can also use Rancher to create AWS hosts for you, as Rancher provides an add-host feature that provisions the agent for you, this can be found in the documentation. Building your own hosts allows for some flexibility for more advanced use cases, but will require some additional work from the user-end. In a future article, we will take a look at how to setup a reliable docker host layer, as part of a complete Rancher deployment from scratch.


Now we have a VM environment that can be spun up with Vagrant to test the latest Rancher. It should be a great first step to test out multi-node Rancher locally to get a feel for how the upgrades work for your applications. We have also explored the layers that support a Rancher environment, and highlighted parts that may require additional attention such as hosting and docker engine setup. With this, we hope that we have provided a good reading guide into what additional steps your infrastructure needs prior to a production deployment. Nick Ma is an Infrastructure Engineer who blogs about Rancher and Open Source. You can visit Nick’s blog,, to catch up on practical guides for keeping your services sane and reliable with open-source solutions.

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