Minimum Viable Kubernetes

If you're reading this, chances are good that you've heard of Kubernetes. (If you haven't, how exactly did you end up here?) But what actually is Kubernetes? Is it "Production-Grade Container Orchestration"? Is it a "Cloud-Native Operating System"? What do either of those phrases even mean?

To be completely honest, I'm not always 100% sure. But I think it's interesting and informative to take a peek under the hood and see what Kubernetes actually does under the many layers of abstraction and indirection. So just for fun, let's see what the absolute bare minimum "Kubernetes cluster" actually looks like. (It's going to be a lot more minimal than setting up Kubernetes the hard way.)

I'm going to assume a basic familiarity with Kubernetes, Linux, and containers, but nothing too advanced. By the way, this is all for learning/exploration purposes, so don't run any of it in production!

Big Picture View

Kubernetes has a lot of components and it's sometimes a bit difficult to keep track of all of them. Here's what the overall architecture looks like according to Wikipedia:

k8s-arch.png

There are at least eight components listed in that diagram; we're going to be ignoring most of them. I'm going to make the claim that the minimal thing you could reasonably call Kubernetes consists of three essential components:

  • kubelet

  • kube-apiserver (which depends on etcd as its database)

  • A container runtime (Docker in this case)

Let's take a closer look at what each of these do, according to the docs. First, kubelet:

An agent that runs on each node in the cluster. It makes sure that containers are running in a Pod.

That sounds simple enough. What about the container runtime?

The container runtime is the software that is responsible for running containers.

Tremendously informative. But if you're familiar with Docker, than you should have a basic idea of what it does. (The details of the separation of concerns between the container runtime and kubelet are actually a bit subtle, but I won't be digging into them here.)

And the API server?

The API server is a component of the Kubernetes control plane that exposes the Kubernetes API. The API server is the front end for the Kubernetes control plane.

Anyone who's ever done anything with Kubernetes has interacted with the API, either directly or through kubectl. It's the core of what makes Kubernetes Kubernetes, the brain that turns the mountains of YAML we all know and love (?) into running infrastructure. It seems obvious that we'll want to get it running for our minimal setup.

Prerequisites If You Want to Follow Along

  • A Linux virtual or corporeal machine you're OK messing around with as root (I'm using Ubuntu 18.04 on a VM).

  • That's it!

The Boring Setup

The machine we're using needs Docker installed. (I'm not going to dig too much into how Docker and containers work; there are some amazing rabbit holes already out there if you're interested.) Let's just install it using apt:

$ sudo apt install docker.io
$ sudo systemctl start docker

Next we'll need to get the Kubernetes binaries. We actually only need kubelet to bootstrap our "cluster", since we can use kubelet to run the other server components. We'll also grab kubectl to interact with our cluster once it's up and running.

$ curl -L https://dl.k8s.io/v1.18.5/kubernetes-server-linux-amd64.tar.gz > server.tar.gz
$ tar xzvf server.tar.gz
$ cp kubernetes/server/bin/kubelet .
$ cp kubernetes/server/bin/kubectl .
$ ./kubelet --version
Kubernetes v1.18.5

Off To The Races

What happens when we try to run kubelet?

$ ./kubelet
F0609 04:03:29.105194    4583 server.go:254] mkdir /var/lib/kubelet: permission denied

kubelet needs to run as root; fair enough, since it's tasked with managing the entire node. Let's see what the CLI options look like:

$ ./kubelet -h
<far too much output to copy here>
$ ./kubelet -h | wc -l
284

Holy cow, that's a lot of options! Thankfully we'll only need a couple of them for our setup. Here's an option that looks kind of interesting:

--pod-manifest-path string

Path to the directory containing static pod files to run, or the path to a single static pod file. Files starting with dots will be ignored. (DEPRECATED: This parameter should be set via the config file specified by the Kubelet's –config flag. See https://kubernetes.io/docs/tasks/administer-cluster/kubelet-config-file/ for more information.)

This option allows us to run static pods, which are pods that aren't managed through the Kubernetes API. Static pods aren't that common in day-to-day Kubernetes usage but are very useful for bootstrapping clusters, which is exactly what we're trying to do here. We're going to ignore the loud deprecation warning (again, don't run this in prod!) and see if we can run a pod.

First we'll make a static pod directory and run kubelet:

$ mkdir pods
$ sudo ./kubelet --pod-manifest-path=pods

Then, in another terminal/tmux window/whatever, we'll make a pod manifest:

$ cat <<EOF > pods/hello.yaml
apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: hello
spec:
  containers:
  - image: busybox
    name: hello
    command: ["echo", "hello world!"]
EOF

kubelet starts spitting out some warnings; other than that it anti-climatically appears that nothing really happened. But not so! Let's check Docker:

$ sudo docker ps -a
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE                  COMMAND                 CREATED             STATUS                      PORTS               NAMES
8c8a35e26663        busybox                "echo 'hello world!'"   36 seconds ago      Exited (0) 36 seconds ago                       k8s_hello_hello-mink8s_default_ab61ef0307c6e0dee2ab05dc1ff94812_4
68f670c3c85f        k8s.gcr.io/pause:3.2   "/pause"                2 minutes ago       Up 2 minutes                                    k8s_POD_hello-mink8s_default_ab61ef0307c6e0dee2ab05dc1ff94812_0
$ sudo docker logs k8s_hello_hello-mink8s_default_ab61ef0307c6e0dee2ab05dc1ff94812_4
hello world!

kubelet read the pod manifest and instructed Docker to start a couple of containers according to our specification. (If you're wondering about that "pause" container, it's Kubernetes hackery that's used to reap zombie processes —see this blog post for the gory details.) kubelet will run our busybox container with our command and restart it ad infinitum until the static pod is removed.

Let's congratulate ourselves: we've just figured out one of the world's most convoluted ways of printing out text to the terminal!

Getting etcd running

Our eventual goal is to run the Kubernetes API, but in order to do that we'll need etcd running first. A static pod ought to fit the bill. Let's run a minimal etcd cluster by putting the following in a file in the pods directory (e.g. pods/etcd.yaml):

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: etcd
  namespace: kube-system
spec:
  containers:
  - name: etcd
    command:
    - etcd
    - --data-dir=/var/lib/etcd
    image: k8s.gcr.io/etcd:3.4.3-0
    volumeMounts:
    - mountPath: /var/lib/etcd
      name: etcd-data
  hostNetwork: true
  volumes:
  - hostPath:
      path: /var/lib/etcd
      type: DirectoryOrCreate
    name: etcd-data

If you've ever worked with Kubernetes, this kind of YAML file should look familiar. There are only two slightly unusual things worth noting:

  • We mounted the host's /var/lib/etcd to the pod so that the etcd data will survive restarts (if we didn't do this the cluster state would get wiped every time the pod restarted, which would be a drag even for a minimal Kubernetes setup).

  • We set hostNetwork: true which, unsurprisingly, sets up the etcd pod to use the host network instead of the pod-internal network (this will make it easier for the API server to find the etcd cluster).

Some quick sanity checks show that etcd is indeed listening on localhost and writing to disk:

$ curl localhost:2379/version
{"etcdserver":"3.4.3","etcdcluster":"3.4.0"}
$ sudo tree /var/lib/etcd/
/var/lib/etcd/
└── member
    ├── snap
    │   └── db
    └── wal
        ├── 0.tmp
        └── 0000000000000000-0000000000000000.wal

Running the API server

Getting the Kubernetes API server running is even easier. The only CLI flag we have to pass is --etcd-servers, which does what you'd expect:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: kube-apiserver
  namespace: kube-system
spec:
  containers:
  - name: kube-apiserver
    command:
    - kube-apiserver
    - --etcd-servers=http://127.0.0.1:2379
    image: k8s.gcr.io/kube-apiserver:v1.18.5
  hostNetwork: true

Put that YAML file in the pods directory and the API server will start. Some quick curl ing shows that the Kubernetes API is listening on port 8080 with completely open access—no authentication necessary!

$ curl localhost:8080/healthz
ok
$ curl localhost:8080/api/v1/pods
{
  "kind": "PodList",
  "apiVersion": "v1",
  "metadata": {
    "selfLink": "/api/v1/pods",
    "resourceVersion": "59"
  },
  "items": []
}

(Again, don't run this setup in production! I was a bit surprised that the default setup is so insecure, but I assume it's to make development and testing easier.)

And, as a nice surprise, kubectl works out of the box with no extra configuration!

$ ./kubectl version
Client Version: version.Info{Major:"1", Minor:"18", GitVersion:"v1.18.5", GitCommit:"e6503f8d8f769ace2f338794c914a96fc335df0f", GitTreeState:"clean", BuildDate:"2020-06-26T03:47:41Z", GoVersion:"go1.13.9", Compiler:"gc", Platform:"linux/amd64"}
Server Version: version.Info{Major:"1", Minor:"18", GitVersion:"v1.18.5", GitCommit:"e6503f8d8f769ace2f338794c914a96fc335df0f", GitTreeState:"clean", BuildDate:"2020-06-26T03:39:24Z", GoVersion:"go1.13.9", Compiler:"gc", Platform:"linux/amd64"}
$ ./kubectl get pod
No resources found in default namespace.

Easy, right?

A Problem

But digging a bit deeper, something seems amiss:

$ ./kubectl get pod -n kube-system
No resources found in kube-system namespace.

Those static pods we set up earlier are missing! In fact, our kubelet-running node isn't showing up at all:

$ ./kubectl get nodes
No resources found in default namespace.

What's the issue? Well, if you remember from a few paragraphs past, we're running kubelet with an extremely basic set of CLI flags, so kubelet doesn't know how to communicate with the API server and update it on its status. With some perusing through the CLI documentation, we find the relevant flag:

--kubeconfig string

Path to a kubeconfig file, specifying how to connect to the API server. Providing –kubeconfig enables API server mode, omitting –kubeconfig enables standalone mode.

This whole time we've been running kubelet in "standalone mode" without knowing it. (If we were being pedantic we might have considered standalone kubelet to be the "minimum viable Kubernetes setup", but that would have made for a boring blog post.) To get the "real" setup working we need to pass a kubeconfig file to kubelet so that it knows how to talk to the API server. Thankfully that's pretty easy (since we have no authentication or certificates to worry about):

apiVersion: v1
kind: Config
clusters:
- cluster:
    server: http://127.0.0.1:8080
  name: mink8s
contexts:
- context:
    cluster: mink8s
  name: mink8s
current-context: mink8s

Save that as kubeconfig.yaml, kill the kubelet process, and restart with the necessary CLI flag:

$ sudo ./kubelet --pod-manifest-path=pods --kubeconfig=kubeconfig.yaml

(As an aside, if you try curl ing the API while kubelet is dead, you'll find that it still works! Kubelet isn't a "parent" of its pods in the way that Docker is, it's more like a "management daemon". kubelet-managed containers will keep running indefinitely until kubelet stops them.)

After a few minutes, kubectl should show us the pods and nodes as expected:

$ ./kubectl get pods -A
NAMESPACE     NAME                    READY   STATUS             RESTARTS   AGE
default       hello-mink8s            0/1     CrashLoopBackOff   261        21h
kube-system   etcd-mink8s             1/1     Running            0          21h
kube-system   kube-apiserver-mink8s   1/1     Running            0          21h
$ ./kubectl get nodes -owide
NAME     STATUS   ROLES    AGE   VERSION   INTERNAL-IP    EXTERNAL-IP   OS-IMAGE             KERNEL-VERSION       CONTAINER-RUNTIME
mink8s   Ready    <none>   21h   v1.18.5   10.70.10.228   <none>        Ubuntu 18.04.4 LTS   4.15.0-109-generic   docker://19.3.6

Let's congratulate ourselves for real this time (I know I did at this point)—we have an extremely minimal Kubernetes "cluster" running with a fully-functioning API!

Getting a Pod Running

Now let's see what the API can do. We'll start with the old standby, an nginx pod:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: nginx
spec:
  containers:
  - image: nginx
    name: nginx

When we try to apply it, we find a rather curious error:

$ ./kubectl apply -f nginx.yaml
Error from server (Forbidden): error when creating "nginx.yaml": pods "nginx" is
forbidden: error looking up service account default/default: serviceaccount
"default" not found
$ ./kubectl get serviceaccounts
No resources found in default namespace.

This is our first indication of how woefully incomplete our Kubernetes environment is—there are no service accounts for our pods to use. Let's try again by making a default service account manually and see what happens:

$ cat <<EOS | ./kubectl apply -f -
apiVersion: v1
kind: ServiceAccount
metadata:
  name: default
  namespace: default
EOS
serviceaccount/default created
$ ./kubectl apply -f nginx.yaml
Error from server (ServerTimeout): error when creating "nginx.yaml": No API
token found for service account "default", retry after the token is
automatically created and added to the service account

Even when we make the service account manually, the authentication token never gets created. As we continue using our minimal "cluster", we'll find that most of the useful things that normally happen automatically will be missing. The Kubernetes API server is pretty minimal; most of the heavy automatic lifting happens in various controllers and background jobs that aren't running yet.

We can sidestep this particular issue by setting the automountServiceAccountToken option on the service account (since we won't be needing to use the service account anyways):

$ cat <<EOS | ./kubectl apply -f -
apiVersion: v1
kind: ServiceAccount
metadata:
  name: default
  namespace: default
automountServiceAccountToken: false
EOS
serviceaccount/default configured
$ ./kubectl apply -f nginx.yaml
pod/nginx created
$ ./kubectl get pods
NAME    READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
nginx   0/1     Pending   0          13m

Finally, the pod shows up! But it won't actually start since we're missing the scheduler, another essential Kubernetes component. Again, we see that the Kubernetes API is surprisingly "dumb"—when you create a pod in the API, it registers its existence but doesn't try to figure out which node to run it on.

But we don't actually need the scheduler to get pods running. We can just add the node manually to the manifest with the nodeName option:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: nginx
spec:
  containers:
  - image: nginx
    name: nginx
  nodeName: mink8s

(You'll replace mink8s with whatever the node is called.) After deleting the old pod and reapplying, we see that nginx will start up and listen on an internal IP address:

$ ./kubectl delete pod nginx
pod "nginx" deleted
$ ./kubectl apply -f nginx.yaml
pod/nginx created
$ ./kubectl get pods -owide
NAME    READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE   IP           NODE     NOMINATED NODE   READINESS GATES
nginx   1/1     Running   0          30s   172.17.0.2   mink8s   <none>           <none>
$ curl -s 172.17.0.2 | head -4
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
<title>Welcome to nginx!</title>

To confirm that pod-to-pod networking is working correctly, we can run curl from a different pod:

$ cat <<EOS | ./kubectl apply -f -
apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
metadata:
  name: curl
spec:
  containers:
  - image: curlimages/curl
    name: curl
    command: ["curl", "172.17.0.2"]
  nodeName: mink8s
EOS
pod/curl created
$ ./kubectl logs curl | head -6
  % Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                 Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
<title>Welcome to nginx!</title>

It's fun to poke around this environment to see what works and what doesn't. I found that ConfigMaps and Secrets work as expected, but Services and Deployments are pretty much a no-go for now.

SUCCESS!

This post is getting a bit long, so I'm going to declare victory and arbitrarily state that this is the minimum viable setup that could reasonable be called "Kubernetes". To recap: with 4 binaries, 5 CLI flags, and a "mere" 45 lines of YAML (not much by Kubernetes standards), we have a fair number of things working:

  • Pods can be managed using the normal Kubernetes API (with a few hacks)

  • Public container images can be pulled and managed

  • Pods are kept alive and automatically restarted

  • Pod-to-pod networking within a single node works pretty much fine

  • ConfigMaps, Secrets, and basic volume mounts work as expected

But most of what makes Kubernetes truly useful is still missing, for example:

  • Pod scheduling

  • Authentication/authorization

  • Multiple nodes

  • Networking through Services

  • Cluster-internal DNS

  • Controllers for service accounts, deployments, cloud provider integration, and most of the other "goodies" that Kubernetes brings

So what have we actually set up? The Kubernetes API running by itself is really just a platform for automating containers. It doesn't do much fancy—that's the job of the various controllers and operators that use the API—but it does provide a consistent basis for automation. (In future posts I might dig into the details of some of the other Kubernetes components.)