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The mountain of Kubernetes

Shulhan
27 June 2020

I have seen and read the hype about Kubernetes and finally had a first chance to experience it on the first hand. Like other new software technology, most of software engineer or system administrator want to try and experiment with it. They will learn and acquired knowledges, to see if its feasible; is it good or bad? This article is one of out many articles out there that try to understand and make sense of what is Kubernetes. We will take a hike on the mountain of Kubernetes and see the world from one of their hill.

The preliminary of this article is written in this single tweet,

Let see if the assumption and premise is still stand.

What is Kubernetes?

Its begin with container.

Let say we have an application that run on port 80. To use Kubernetes, we pack all the application artifacts into a container, make it run and open port 80, and deploy it using "Deployment" into one or more Pods.

You can instruct Kubernetes to run 1, 2, or more pods on the same container, statically or dynamically based on CPU and memory usage, so we will have "auto-scale".

Since the pods is internal to Kubernetes (inside the cluster), we need to expose it using Service. There are three types of Service: ClusterIP, NodePort, and LoadBalancer. The ClusterIP service will create single IP inside cluster to access the application inside the cluster only. The NodePort service will open a port in each node and forward the traffic from outside using that port to our application port. The LoadBalancer service will create external IP (in the same subnet as the cluster) to access the application from outside the cluster.

To sum it up, we got the following diagram for a single application deployment,

            CLIENT
              ^^
              ||
              vv
       +----------+  +------------------+
  +----| Node IP  |--| LOAD BALANCER IP |--+
  |    +----------+  +------------------+  |
  |           ^^             ^^            |
  |           ||             ||            |
  |           vv             vv            |
  |      +--------------------------+      |
  |  +---| NODE PORT                |---+  |
  |  |   +--------------------------+   |  |
  |  |        ^^                        |  |
  |  |        ||                        |  |
  |  |        vv                        |  |
  |  |  +-------------+                 |  |
  |  |  | CLUSTER IP  |                 |  |
  |  |  +-------------+                 |  |
  |  |  | SERVICE     |                 |  |
  |  |  +-------------+                 |  |
  |  |  | 1*POD       |                 |  |
  |  |  +-------------+                 |  |
  |  |  | 1*CONTAINER |                 |  |
  |  |  +-------------+                 |  |
  |  |                                  |  |
  |  +----------------------------------+  |
  |     1*Node                             |
  +----------------------------------------+
     Cluster

There are at least five layers before a single request from client to reach the application. Amazing!

A cluster is a group of one or more nodes. Kubernetes recommended minimum three nodes. This nodes also have auto-scaling capability based on resource consumption of our pods and/or services.

A Node is a VM. In Google Cloud Platform (GCP) this would be represented by Compute Engine, and in AWS it would be by Elastic Compute instance.

Of course, this is just a glimpse of overview on overall Kubernetes layer, but at least we got a big picture on how it operates to provide an illustration in the next section.

Why Kubernetes?

We search for Why kubernetes? and take three articles in the first page and summarize the answer to take the key points.

The first article is come from the Kubernetes site itself, which state (emphasis on mine),

Kubernetes provides you with a framework to run distributed systems resiliently. It takes care of scaling and failover for your application, provides deployment patterns, and more.

The key points here is scaling, failover, and deployment patterns.

The second article is from infoworld.com. It provide four answers which can be summarized as,

  1. An infrastructure framework for today. …​ Kubernetes eliminates infrastructure lock-in by providing core capabilities for containers without imposing restrictions.

  2. Better management through modularity. …​ Containers allow applications to be decomposed into smaller parts with clear separation of concerns. The abstraction layer provided for an individual container image allows us to fundamentally rethink how distributed applications are built.

  3. Deploying and updating software at scale. This reason come with seven bullet points: scalability, visibility, time savings, version control, horizontal autoscaling, rolling updates, and canary deployments.

  4. Laying the foundation for cloud-native apps. …​ Kubernetes allows us to derive maximum utility from containers and build cloud-native applications that can run anywhere, independent of cloud-specific requirements.

The point number 1, 2 and 4 seems have one key point: abstraction. With existing Kubernetes configurations (data?) in hand, we can deploy the same infrastructure in other cloud service.

The point number 3 can be grouped into scaling and failover, with one new key point: version control. Time savings, rolling updates, visibility, and canary development can be grouped into version control.

The last article is from stackoverflow's blog on "Why is Kubernetes getting so popular?". The blog have five main points,

  • Infrastructure as YAML, or they called infrastructure as data which has the following benefits: GitOps or Git Operations Version Control, Scalability (again), Security and Controls, Cloud Provider Integrations.

  • Extensibility. One can extend the Kubernetes and add custom resource and/or Operators.

  • Innovation. Kubernetes release every three of four months.

  • Community. "…​ gathers thousands of technologists and professionals who want to improve Kubernetes and its ecosystem as well as make use of some of the new features released every three months."

  • Future. One of the main challenges developers face in the future is how to focus more on the details of the code rather than the infrastructure where that code runs on. For that, serverless is emerging as one of the leading architectural paradigms to address that challenge.

There are four new key points here extensibility, innovation, community, and future.

So, over three articles we have eight key points on why should we use Kubernetes: scaling, failover, abstraction, version control, extensibility, innovation, community, and future.

Auto scaling

One of the key factor that I often read now a days is "scaling". Startup with < 100 users, seems have fear that their application will hit the peak and can't handle client requests if its deployed in normal VM. So, they need to think one step ahead, how do we scale this application or service later. The short answer is provides by Kubernetes: we auto scale your application, dynamically. You only provide the maximum CPU and memory limit, and let us take care of the rest.

This is true. Kubernetes can handle that for us, automatically; but its not free. When deployed on cloud services, we still pay per node, per load balancer, per static IP, and so on. Most of the time, the resource that it will consumed I bet is still below 75% of what cluster have, and by "most" probably by two or three years until we run out of funding.

So, in long term I can say, the cloud service is still the winner here.

Lets say we take the old way, using VM for deployment, and we hit the peak of resource, let say 90% of resource in VM is already consumed. Does adding another VM really the answer? Is it possible that the problem is in the application itself, in the database, in the network, or in the storage?

Failover

There is no specific definition of failover on kubernetes.io page, so we take a guest. One item that may describe failover in kubernetes.io page is the following snippet,

Self-healing: Kubernetes restarts containers that fail, replaces containers, kills containers that don’t respond to your user-defined health check, and doesn’t advertise them to clients until they are ready to serve.

This model may be useful if we deploying binary that got segmentation fault and the application (container) will auto re-created. OK. In the case of application that need to connect to database on startup but failed (for any reasons) and exit immediately, Kubernetes will re-create the container and start again from beginning, over and over. In the case of application using scripted programming language, for example PHP, we did not known if the application fail or not until we inspect the log, because the container will not get restarted.

So, whether the container it self-healing or not we still need to known why is it fail, and to known this we will have another task in our hand after deploying with Kubernetes: logging and monitoring.

Is there an alternative to failover using the old VM? Yes, a process manager like monit or systemd.

Abstraction

I remember trying to learn writing simple graphical user interface (GUI) the first time in Linux. I use X11 library, despite the GTK2 and Qt3 is already exist that day. Why? Just for fun.

Creating GUI application using X11 is not portable. You can't compile and build it on Windows (except using Cygwin/X, I think, never tried it). But, if we use GTK2 or Qt3 it will cross-compiled to other operating system (OS). GTK2 or Qt3 provide an abstraction for our code for different OS.

Another abstraction is Object-Relational Mapping (ORM). Two of the promises that ORM provide is we did not have to know about SQL and we can use different database (as long as the ORM library support it). Many people who support ORM sometimes denying the second point. ORM is make sense for generic application like Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) or Content Management System (CMS), where our client can choose whether to use SQLite, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, or other proprietary database; and we did not want to limit your client. But does it make sense for our own application? If we use ORM because we think maybe we need to use other database later, maybe we need to rethink again.

The same argument also can be applied to Kubernetes. Do we really want to migrate from AWS to GCP or vice versa? Or to other cloud services while still developing our application? I can imagine the whole mess of changing configuration ensue if we did that.

Cloud service is already an abstraction. We can add new CPU or memory by single click. We can add new VM by single click. Of course there is a little works we need to do if we want to vertical scale our application. We need to create new VM, and register its IP address to DNS or proxy server. But if we use somethings scriptable, probably through CLI, we can automated this, no?

Version control

There are three paragraph that mentions about version control.

The first one is from StackOverflow's blog,

GitOps or Git Operations Version Control. With this approach, you can keep all your Kubernetes YAML files under git repositories, which allows you to know precisely when a change was made, who made the change, and what exactly changed. This leads to more transparency across the organization and improves efficiency by avoiding ambiguity as to where members need to go to find what they need. At the same time, it can make it easier to automatically make changes to Kubernetes resources by just merging a pull request.

The great things about infrastructure as code/data is we can see the (almost) whole infrastructure by walking through files. We can create new deployment by copy/paste previous deployment files. We can update the current infrastructure using command line interface (CLI), without touching/SSH the browser/node directly.

Not only Kubernetes, most of cloud provider now can be modified using CLI or APIs. GCP provide gcloud, AWS have aws-cli. Ansible or Puppet made the abstraction using the HTTP APIs that cloud provides. If we write down how to create or modify the resources on the cloud using those CLI on text files, we are already in the right path.

The second and third paragraphs that mention about versioning is from infoworld.com article,

Version control. Update deployed Pods using newer versions of application images and roll back to an earlier deployment if the current version is not stable.

Each time we deploy new container, the Kubernetes will increment the revision number of that container. In case the new deployment is not as we expected, we can rolled back to previous version. At this point we need to know what is "not stable" means and how we know if its "not stable". Once again, we will need logging and monitoring.

Canary deployments. A useful pattern when deploying a new version of a deployment is to first test the new deployment in production, in parallel with the previous version, and scale up the new deployment while simultaneously scaling down the previous deployment.

This is plausible if our deployments does not depends on specific protocol.

For example, in the microservices land, let say we have two services A and B. Service A is a frontend that can be scaled up to 2 or more, but service B must be 1 instance. Application A talk with B using specific message, let say using protocol buffer.

On the new deployment, we add new field X to message. Using the canary deployment, we got A-B' and A'-B'. Does the service B' will reject request from A because the message missing field X? Should be all A replaced with A' to make all the system works?

Extensibility

I think this one fallen under abstraction, from the stackoverflow's blog,

users and developers can add more resources in the form of Custom Resource Definitions. For example, if we’d like to define a CronTab resource, we could do it with something like this …​

and then continued with,

…​ Another form of Kubernetes extensibility is its ability for developers to write their own Operators, a specific process running in a Kubernetes cluster that follows the control loop pattern. An Operator allows users to automate the management of CRDs (custom resource definitions) by talking to the Kubernetes API.

The StackOverflow's blog show an example of how to create crontab resource inside Kubernetes. I repeat, crontab resource using Kubernetes.

I use vim. If I need some feature in vim, I search if its already have plugin in vim. I wish other editor is vim.

An old adage said, "If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail".

Innovation

Quote from stackoverflow's blog,

Over the last few years, Kubernetes has had major releases every three or four months, which means that every year there are three or four major releases. The number of new features being introduced hasn’t slowed, evidenced by over 30 different additions and changes in its last release. Furthermore, the contributions don’t show signs of slowing down even during these difficult times as indicated by the Kubernetes project Github activity.

Here is the fact about software: it will have bugs. Whether it will break our system or not, that is unforeseen.

Kubernetes it self is not a small software. The level of abstraction that Kubernetes provide so it can works on different cloud provider is amazing.

One thing to consider is we should use stable channel when deploying Kubernetes and only enable automatic upgrade only if we can manage it later. I enable automatic upgrade, but hope I have never seen a failure due to failed upgrade, because it will affect some of pods on some of nodes.

Cloud provider like GCP and AWS also a software. They have a Service Level Agreement (SLA), which we can claim credit if they did not achieve it. Check the Kubernetes service provider SLA before deploying new cluster.

Community

One of great things about open and large community is we will have someone who will answer or help with our issue when we have a problem, either its in stackoverflow, reddit, or local Kubernetes Telegram group.

Ironically, we have one more problem in our infrastructure.

Future

Quote from stackoverflow's blog,

One of the main challenges developers face in the future is how to focus more on the details of the code rather than the infrastructure where that code runs on. For that, serverless is emerging as one of the leading architectural paradigms to address that challenge.

Yes. That is the point. Do developers really need Kubernetes to deploy their application with 1-100 users?

Summary

If you read until this paragraph, you may seems feel my arguments become snarky. There are reasons for that.

Layer. Layer everywhere.

We have seen that Kubernetes is not run on specific hardware by itself. Its run on VM which may run on hypervisor or on top of another software that abstract the CPU and memory in the real hardware. With this additional layer we will have additional infrastructure to manage, another latency to application. I have not experienced it may self, but I hope I will never have to experience the joy of debugging network issue on this layer.

The cost of premature scaling.

As we have discussed on the "What is Kubernetes?", we will pay for VMs (three at least), a load balancer, and an external static IP for single application in Kubernetes. An application that previously can handle traffics with 1 CPU and 2 GB memory now run inside three nodes with 2 CPU 4 GB, with probably 75% unused resources. If you can afford the cost (as in money), then go with it.

Logging, alerting, and monitoring.

Deploying an application that can "scale" does not end up with just packing it in container and let the Kubernetes handle the rest. The second major task in infrastructure is to gather information about all resources, including metrics of CPU, memory, data, networks, application logs, and so on. In case of request fail on application level, we need to know where to look at it, so we need a central logging. In case of timeout we need to know what cause it, does it cause by high CPU usage in one of application which block the rest of request or because the application itself, so we need an alert and monitoring.

Kubernetes recommended using Prometheus, if you were afraid of vendor lock-in (you basically already locked in if you use one of cloud provider anyway). You will need to setup a Prometheus, and some graphical interface like Grafana for dashboard, but that is just for alerting and monitoring. For logging, you will need setup another stack, like ELK because Prometheus is not an event logging system. Finally, now you have one application plus two or more containers to manage for monitoring.

Or …​ you could use one single binary monitoring, like influxdb.

In GCP, they already provide native logging and monitoring, so we did not need to setup or install another applications. Unfortunately for logging we need to setup CloudFunctions that consume the log from Pub/Sub that published by Log Viewer. Once again, there is a price for everything in the cloud.

That's it. Does the original assumption about Kubernetes still stand? You decide, but in my opinion maybe you need a good logging, alerting, and monitoring tools for your infrastructure.