Daniel Watrous on Software Engineering

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kubernetes overview

Kubernetes is getting a lot of attention recently, and there is good reason for that. Docker containers alone are little more than a developer convenience. Orchestration moves containers from laptop into the datacenter. Kubernetes does that in a way that simplifies development and operations. Unfortunately I struggled to find easy to understand high level descriptions of how kubernetes worked, so I made the diagram below.


While I don’t show the operator specifically (usually someone in IT, or a managed offering like GKE), everything in the yellow box would be managed by the operator. The nodes host pods. The master nodes facilitate orchestration. The gateway facilitates incoming traffic. A bastion host is often used to manage members of the cluster, but isn’t shown above.

Persistent storage, in the form of block storage, databases, etc. is also not directly part of the cluster. There are kubernetes resources, like Persistent Volumes, that can be used to associate external persistent storage with pods, but the management of the storage solution is outside the scope of managing kubernetes.


The Developer performs two primary activities: Create docker images and tell kubernetes to deploy them. Kubernetes is not opinionated when it comes to container image design. This means a developer can choose to manage ports, volumes, libraries, runtimes, and so on in any way that suits him. Kubernetes also has no opinion on container registry, as long as it is compliant with the docker registry v2 spec.

There are a few ways to deploy a container image to kubernetes. The diagram above shows two, one based on an application definition (usually in YAML format) and the other using shortcut commands. Both are typically triggered using the kubectl CLI. In either case, the developer gives kubernetes a desired state that includes details about which container image, how many replicas and exposed ports, for example. Kubernetes then assumes the job of ensuring that the desired state is the actual state. When nodes in a cluster change, or containers fail, kubernetes acts in realtime to to what is necessary to get back to the desired state.


The consumer doesn’t need to know anything about the kubernetes cluster, it’s members or even that kubernetes is being used. The gateway shown might be an nginx reverse proxy or HAProxy. The important point is that the gateway needs to be able to route to the pods, which are generally managed on a flannel or calico type network. It is possible to create redundant gateways and place them behind a load balancer.

Services are used to expose pods (and deployments). Usually the service type of LoadBalancer will trigger an automatic reconfiguration of the gateway to route traffic. Since the gateway is a single host, each port can be used only once. To get around this limitation, it is possible to use an ingress controller to provide name based routing.


Kubernetes definitely has its share of complexity. Depending on your role, it can be very approachable. Cluster installation is by far the most difficult part, but after that, the learning curve is quite small.

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