Applications on Kubernetes

In earlier sections we looked at the conceptual steps to get and keep an app running, and also what those look like when using Cloud Foundry. In this section we’ll look at the same steps when using Kubernetes directly, without Cloud Foundry.

One stark difference is that, in comparison to Cloud Foundry’s one-or-two opinionated workflows, Kubernetes offers many ways to achieve a given outcome. It would be impractical to list all possible approaches here, so we’ll focus on a naive implementation, and additionally what would be likely in an enterprise environment.

Getting it running

Write the application

Kubernetes can run any application that is packaged as an OCI container image. This means all app code needs to be built into an image before it can be deployed (see below).

Cloud Foundry allows the pushing of Docker image-based apps to be disabled, to make it less likely that unauthorised, external code is run on the platform. This is not possible on Kubernetes and so some consideration may be given to preventing untrusted code from reaching the platform.

Kubernetes operators may choose to use tools like Notary to sign images and thus prove their provenance. Kubernetes can be configured to pull images only from a private registry.

Build a container image

Most folks will be familiar with using Docker to build an container image from a Dockerfile.

The simplest approach is for a developer to run docker build from their machine, and then push the image to a registry that the target Kubernetes can access.

In an enterprise environment, the building of images should be automated by a CI server, or automation running inside the Kubernetes cluster such as WeaveWorks’ Flux.

Alternative approaches exist. If you wanted to leverage the power of buildpacks, you could use the pack CLI to build an image from your source code.

Enable HTTPS access

The Kubernetes cluster needs to be configured to accept HTTP traffic on given ports and direct them to the correct place.

In a local development environment, a developer might configure a NodePort Service. This causes all Kubernetes worker nodes to listen on a given port, and then direct traffic to the application pods. In order to use hostnames with this approach, a hosts file entry would be required. This approach isn’t scalable, and is suitable only for trivial examples.

On a hosted Kubernetes service like GKE, a developer could create a LoadBalancer Service. This creates a load balancer in the underlying infrastructure, and then configures it to direct traffic to the correct port on Kubernetes workers. DNS then would be configured to point to the load balancer.

If there is no LoadBalancer Service available then the same approach could be taken, albeit provisioning the load balancer out-of-band.

The experience may be made more uniform and user-friendly through use of an Ingress. An Ingress comprises two components: a deployment of pods that actually handle HTTP traffic (such as NGiNX) and a controller which watches the Kubernetes API to see if new rules have been applied, or new pods deployed. The Ingress can be configured to direct traffic according to a number of strategies depending on your preference. An Ingress is functionally equivalent to the Cloud Foundry GoRouter.

Connect to data services

The Open Service Broker API and Service Catalog projects make a Cloud Foundry-like workflow for data services entirely possible. However, this approach is less popular amongst Kubernetes users.

There is no single approach to deploying data services in Kubernetes. Developers may determine their own data service requirements, and deploy and operate their own databases, message brokers and so on. This might be done via Helm charts, or directly with Kubernetes YAML files.

Applications running in Kubernetes can be configured to know about data services via Config Maps, which inject data both via environment variables and flat files on disk. Sensitive data (e.g. credentials) can be injected as Secrets, which are encrypted at rest. Access and credential management will need to be considered.

Various data service vendors offer Custom Resource Definitions (CRDs) and controllers that implement the ‘operator’ pattern. These controller processes run inside the Kubernetes cluster, and watch for new configuration (CRDs) to be submitted to the cluster. They then take appropriate action, such as creating new users or schema. Each implementation is unique and will offer custom functionality.

Most IaaS providers offer Kubernetes extensions called Cloud Controller Managers that register CRDs and can then dynamically provision new IaaS services, such as hosted databases.

Operators may choose to run data services on behalf of developers, and issue connection details and credentials when requested.

Keeping it running

Scaling in response to load

Kubernetes has built-in functionality that makes it very easy to automatically scale the number of pods that are running. This can be done using a number of metrics, including custom user-defined ones.

The following command will make sure that there are at least two instances of my-app, and will add up to two more when CPU usage goes over 75%.

kubectl autoscale deployment my-app --min=2 --max=4 --cpu-percent=75

Autoscaling in Kubernetes is very flexible and configurable.

Recovery from failures

As long as they are created as ReplicaSets or Deployments, Kubernetes will restart failing apps.

As Kubernetes has more layers of abstraction, the explanation of what gets restarted in which circumstances is a little more complex.

Pods are made up of several collaborating processes in containers. If one of these processes fails, it will be restarted. If it continues to fail, Kubernetes will waiting an exponentially-increasing amount of time before restarting the process again, capped at five minutes. Unlike Cloud Foundry, in Kubernetes this behaviour can be disabled.

Pods themselves will be restarted as long as they were deployed via a ReplicaSet (and so also a Deployment, which itself creates ReplicaSets). If a pod is created in isolation, it will not be recreated upon deletion, or upon worker node failure.


Kubernetes allows logs to be retrieved via the kubectl logs command.

Logs can only be followed for one particular pod, or app instance. If you want to stream logs across all of your app instances, then additional software will be required. CLIs like Stern are available, or a more comprehensive solution can be architected (likely involving something like FluentD) and an external indexer, as described below.

kubectl can retrieve historic logs from a number of different pods by using the --selector flag - it’s only following logs that doesn’t work across many instances.

$ kubectl logs --selector run=my-app
# Returns recent logs for all pods with the label

$ kubectl logs my-app-6db489d4b7-7dtj9 --follow
# Streams logs specific pod

$ kubectl logs --selector run=my-app --follow
error: only one of follow (-f) or selector (-l) is allowed

Just as with Cloud Foundry, logs in Kubernetes are ephemeral, and any important information should be pushed out to an external logging system such as ELK, Splunk or Papertrail, amongst others.

Zero-downtime updates

Kubernetes’ Deployment resource handles zero-downtime, rolling upgrades of apps.

Simply changing the Deployment’s template specification (e.g. changing the image tag) will trigger a rollout automatically.

You can track the progress of a rolling upgrade:

$ kubectl rollout status deployment.v1.apps/my-app
Waiting for deployment "my-app" rollout to finish: 2 of 5 updated replicas are available...
Waiting for deployment "my-app" rollout to finish: 3 of 5 updated replicas are available...
Waiting for deployment "my-app" rollout to finish: 4 of 5 updated replicas are available...
deployment "my-app" successfully rolled out


Kubernetes has no way of knowing which layers of a container image are app code, and which provide underlying dependencies or a root filesystem. For this reason, Kubernetes alone cannot rebuild images on demand.

This problem is typically solved through the combined use of continuous integration pipelines, and image-scanning tools such as Snyk. Rebuilding and redeployment of images may depend on collaboration between app developers and operators.