Kubernetes explained with food

Kubernetes explained with food

I’ve been learning about Kubernetes recently, a computer program used by software engineers to make large, complex, websites available to customers.

To make it easier to understand what Kubernetes does and how it works, let’s digress and talk about food for a minute.

In order for a restaurant to work well during rush hour, the employees have a set of methods and tools they use. Each table has a number assigned to it, the kitchenware is organized in a specific way, a machine keeps the plates warm, another machine makes payments with a debit card quick and easy. These methods and tools are separate from the food itself, of course, but they help deliver the food in the best possible conditions.

Drawing of a restaurant with a customer at a table, a checkout counter and the kitchen in the background
A restaurant with its cooking ware, its tables, its organizational methods that help deliver a good service

Kubernetes has a similar role for software engineering teams, it helps deliver software. When a new version of a software is ready, software engineers use Kubernetes to make it available to customers. Kubernetes brings with it a set of guidelines that make it easy to collaborate on large software projects.

Although Kubernetes may be overkill for some smaller projects, it can be very useful when a software is expected to grow in scope and complexity. In fact, you have most likely been on a website recently that uses Kubernetes behind the scenes, it’s a tool used by more and more companies.

The two main components in Kubernetes

Kubernetes is actually not a single program, but the name for multiple computer programs that work together so as to provide a large number of software development tools.

From a bird's-eye view, there are two main components: the control plane and the worker nodes. The control plane is kind of like a manager and the worker nodes are their team. The control plane knows what work needs to be done and distributes it to worker nodes.

Drawing of head chef (aka controlplane) distributing work to kitchen assistants (aka worker nodes)
A head chef giving out work to their cooks, similar to how the control plane distributes work to servers called worker nodes

Control plane

If we zoom in to the control plane, we can see that it accomplishes a large number of tasks.

When a request from a software engineer comes in, a control plane component called kube-apiserver steps in handles it. The kube-apiserver also takes appropriate action when a worker node no longer works.

The control plane decides what part of a website to run on which worker node, depending on how much memory and processing power it needs, through a component called the kube-scheduler.

The control plane also has a concept called controller. Controllers are parts of Kubernetes that guarantee specific conditions are met for what software development teams want to make available to customers. For instance, there is a controller that makes sure a website runs on multiple worker nodes in case one fails. There is another controller that makes sure periodic tasks run at a specified time each and every day.

The control plane is extensible. This is a technical term to say that we can add things to it to change its behavior. A company with very specific needs could create controllers for domain-specific requirements. If that’s a bit blurry, let’s talk about cheesecake.

Drawing of a cheesecake, add coulis to extend, just like you would extend Kubernetes with additional code
Cheesecake, can be changed by adding raspberry coulis

A cheesecake can be changed by adding a coulis. In that sense, it is extensible, too.

And just like the raspberry coulis adds to the cheesecake, Kubernetes allows writing bits and pieces of software that change how Kubernetes works and make it adaptable to a very large number of customers.

Worker nodes

So we’ve talked about the control plane, but what about the worker nodes?

The worker nodes are a bit simpler: they do what the control plane asks them to do. That could be anything from displaying the website for a local bakery to sending out emails for a marketing campaign.

Declarative vs. imperative

We’ve now seen the two main parts, the control plane and the worker nodes. Let’s see how we can ask Kubernetes to do things.

Kubernetes supports a declarative approach and an imperative approach.

Let’s go back to our cheesecake to make things more digestible.

If you want to ask your partner to bake a cheesecake, you can try one of two methods:

  • Tell them what you expect and trust them to do the right thing, for instance “I’d like a cheesecake”;
  • Or give them step-by-step instructions such as “Buy 150g digestive biscuits, buy plain flour, (…), preheat the oven to 180C, etc”.

Software engineers would say that the first way is declarative, and the second is imperative.

Comparison of imperative vs declarative programming based on food
On the left, declarative cheesecake, on the right, imperative cheesecake

With Kubernetes, the declarative way consists in writing a file that describes what you expect, and then trusting Kubernetes to do whatever needs to be done to meet your expectation. To run a website on a single server, you’d need to describe your expectation with something like this:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
    name: my-website
    - name: my-website
      image: my-website:1.0
apiVersion: v1
kind: Service
  name: my-website
    app.kubernetes.io/name: my-website
    - protocol: TCP
      port: 80

The imperative way of talking to Kubernetes consists in telling it step by step what to do. To run the same website on a single server, you would use a program called kubectl in a terminal. You would need to:

  • type kubectl run my-website --image my-website:1.0;
  • then type kubectl expose pod my-website --port=80 --name=my-website.

Most of the time, software development teams use the declarative approach with Kubernetes because it makes collaboration easier. But the imperative method can be useful from time to time too.