The Business Executive's Guide to Kubernetes

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 ยท 7 min read


I thought it would be fun to write a post aimed towards business leaders making technology decisions for their organizations. There is a lot of hype in our field and little truth behind the hype.

Like most things I write about, this started from an idea I had on Twitter:

This post will cover some hard truths of Kubernetes and what it means for your organization and business. You might have heard the term “Kubernetes” and you might have been led to believe that this will solve all the infrastructure pain for your organization. There is some truth to that, which will not be the focus of this post. To get to the state of enlightenment with Kubernetes, you need to first go through some hard challenges. Let’s dive in to some of these hard truths.

Stateful Data is Hard

Kubernetes is not to be used for stateful data. There has been a lot of work done in this area but it is still not sufficent. For the more technical members of our audience I direct you to exhibit A. The linked issue goes over problems when a “StatefulSet” gets into an error during deploying or upgrading. This can lead to data loss or corruption since Kubernetes will need manual intervention to fix the state of the deployment. This could even lead to the point where the only recommended fix is you delete the state. What does this mean for your business? Well, if you lose or corrupt your data it could mean a lot of different things depending on what the data was. If the data was your customer database of new account signups, well you might have just lost the data for your new customers. If you are an ecommerce site, it might have been your latest sale. If you are in banking or investments, it might have been data accounting for the movement of capital.

Databases holding valuable information like the examples above should always have mechanisms for replication which is not something Kubernetes is going to solve for you. While you might choose to use Kubernetes for stateful data, you should always remember to handle replicating that data in case there is a failure.

Exposed Dashboards

A lot of organizations are dipping their toes into Kubernetes but forgetting to disable or secure the dashboard for the control plane from the rest of the internet. The control plane dashboard is a website you can navigate to that controls your cluster. Leaving the dashboard exposed to the public can have huge implications on your business. If your dashboard is exposed, anyone could find your dashboard and then control it. Finding an exposed dashboard is not that difficult if you know what you are looking for and have access to a site like shodan.

What would the finder of the dashboard control? Everything running in Kubernetes. If your website is running in Kubernetes, it means someone else could make your website go offline, someone else could replicate your website but send all sales and monetary transactions to their own bank account, someone else can breach your customers’ data, or someone else could hold your infrastructure up for ransom and not give you back control of your website unless you pay what they demand. This is just a few things I thought of off the top of my head but you could probably think of more.

There is a whole other aspect of this in that if this breach goes public, then you have a huge public relations problem on your hands. Which for a public company might even have implications on your stock price if shareholders end up losing trust from the news of your company’s technical incompetence and they decide to sell their shares.

If it’s not the dashboard being exposed it might be your API server or another service. There’s a few options for this particular failure mode.

Upgrading your Kubernetes version seems to always break something

I’ve heard from a bunch of people that whenever they need to upgrade their production environment of Kubernetes it always leads to something breaking. It’s recommended that you have more than one cluster in production for this very reason. Then, if one cluster in production is broken from being upgraded, the other cluster that has not been upgraded is still running the technical parts of your business. This is very good from a reliability point of view. It means reaching your website has a “plan B” where if the “plan A” infrastructure has a problem, everything will be redirected to “plan B” and your customers will not even know the difference. As a downside, your operations teams now have to figure out ways for managing and maintaining two clusters (more work for them) but your business is in a better place for it.

The other option is you just don’t upgrade. However, if you don’t upgrade, your infrastructure might be vulnerable to security threats and then we are back in the situation above where you might have data breached by hackers, a hostile takeover of your website, and then a huge public relations scandal leading to investors and shareholders selling their stock.

Steep learning curve, complexity is king, and operational pain

A lot of the criticism I hear about Kubernetes is how complex it is. For your organization, this means your staff are going to have to surmount this very steep learning curve. As with learning anything, things only get worse before they get better. So get ready for a lot of production outages and failovers as your team starts to learn the ins and outs of this overly complex system. What does this mean for your website and customers? Availability will be spotty for awhile but we hope eventually it will even out. Lastly, to quote someone very wise (send a pull request if you know who!), “Hope is not a strategy.”

Managed Kubernetes

Now you are probably thinking, “my cloud provider said they’d take away all the pain you just described by selling me their managed Kubernetes.” That is indeed the dream. However, it is not reality. Having worked for some cloud providers, I have seen the pain customers still go through trying to learn the patterns Kubernetes implements and applying those patterns to their existing applications. This means your teams will still have to handle the steep learning curve. Just because it’s managed does not mean that your application’s uptime and availability are covered. That is still on your team. Customers being able to use your website on the internet is your team’s responsibility and understanding Kubernetes is still required for that. For every line of YAML written and debugged to get your website running, it is time that is being taken away from building on what your business actually does. Unless of course you are a business of selling Kubernetes, then if so, carry on.

You will also want to be sure your cloud provider did not fall prey to the pitfalls I outlined above as well. You should make sure your cluster is fully isolated from other customer’s clusters. The way the managed Kubernetes offerings work is by the cloud provider managing the “master” for your cluster. This means all the data for your cluster is managed by your cloud provider. If your data is not properly isolated from all the other customer’s data, it means that if the cloud provider gets breached by means of a different customer’s cluster then your data has been breached as well. Then, we are in the scenario where a hacker owns your website, can hold it for ransom, or cause a very public incident for your company that you will need to handle.

This was just a brief overview and I am not trying to throw shade. I merely wanted to phrase some of these prevalent problems in a way that people running a business might be more aware of the impact adopting this technology might have. It should not be understated, if your organization does tackle these difficulties (and others I didn’t mention), then you will possibly see great impact on developer productivity, faster feature releases and deployments (among all the other wins Kubernetes can provide). Just be aware that with the good, comes some bad.