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Switching to microk8s - 6 Months Later

August 18, 2022

It was about 6 months ago when as a team at the company I work for, we decided to switch from a kubeadm-based cluster to a microk8s-based one. The maintenance time on weekends spent upgrading and fixing kubeadm was just too high. We wanted lower maintenance costs without the added complexity of moving workloads to a cloud-based solution. Before this transition at work, I also switched my home lab cluster to be based on microk8s for testing and learning purposes. After 6 months, there have been some ups and downs with moving, so I wanted to outline them here.

The Pros

There have been quite a few things that we’ve been happy with. The TLDR of this section is there were quality of life improvements and significant time savings in regards to maintaining and supporting the cluster.

The Install Process

To start, installation compared to kubeadm is a breeze. Just spin up an Ubuntu server, run the commands to install the snap for the Kubernetes version you want, generate a join command, run that on the other servers, and you have a cluster. Then install the pre-curated add-ons to your needs with simple commands and it all just works. You also don’t need a load balancer for kube api server, the cluster manages all that internally. As you add more than one node to the cluster, you automatically get upgraded to an HA cluster. You don’t need to think about how many nodes you have running. The control plane manages all that for you.

Stability

One of the best things that came from switching has been stability. With kubeadm, especially early on, there would be mornings when I would come into work and find the cluster in a broken state. It was almost always due to transient network issues and etcd getting corrupted and not handling the situation properly. In microk8s, etcd is replaced with a purpose-built distributed database called dqlite. Its main benefit for us has been stability in the face of transient network issues. It also manages hot spares and replicas within itself, unlike etcd which has to be managed by the administrator and the proper number of replicas has to be maintained based on the raft algorithm. It’s one less thing we need to worry about with a dqlite backed cluster.

Ease of Upgrades

Another pro has been the ease of upgrades. Because microk8s is distributed via snap packages, the distribution handles minor upgrades automatically. This means that any minor upgrades are hands-off and seamless. For major upgrades, it’s as simple as changing the snap channel node by node and waiting for each to show up as ready. THe process has been extremely seamless and pain-free so far. Contrast this to kubeadm, which has a special upgrade process that regularly fails due to cryptic reasons and you can see how having a more packaged solution can save on stress and time.

Ease of Backup and Restore

The final big win is the fact that microk8s has its own built-in backup and restore tools. There’s no worrying about backing up etcd and configuring the etcd CLI tools, it makes the process seamless by providing backup and resores commands natively. I recommend setting up a CI pipeline that runs the backup command on a schedule and stores the backup file as a build artifact. This handles the retention policy of your backups automatically.

The Cons

Nothing’s perfect. These are the things that emerged over time, but there have honestly been fewer problems than expected. Here are a couple:

Where do I point kubectl?

Because of the more resilient and distributed nature of the dqlite database underneath, and because microk8s by default runs an API server on each node, a network load balancer isn’t necessary. This is one less moving part, but it also means pointing kubectl at only one of the nodes, which means if the node goes down, you have to repoint the kubectl config at a working node. The default experience for this seems to be tailored to running kubectl on the nodes themselves, but especially when doing things like proxying requests, that use case becomes less viable.

DNS

Also, the default DNS configuration setup seems to have some issues. It defaults to 8.8.8.8 instead of using each node’s DNS configuration, which means by default no local network names resolve. If it used DHCP by default then this wouldn’t be an issue.

Conclusion

Overall, the experience of using microk8s has been great. It’s been a big win for maintainability and stability. There are a few minor annoyances or gotchas but those are far overshadowed by the benefits. I would highly recommend it as an option to people looking to run an on-prem cluster, or even when just looking to avoid vendor lock-in in a cloud provider. Given dqlite’s resiliency, there may be interesting opportunities in running a cluster across multiple clouds and on-prem using a mesh VPN solution, but that’s a topic for a future blog post. In regards to microk8s and if it’s a good way to run a Kubernetes cluster, I would highly recommend giving it a try to replace an existing cluster.

Written by Ben Brougher who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest developing solutions to problems (usually with software). He graduated 2020 from Eastern Washington University as a Computer Science Major, Bachelor of Science (BS), and works engineering and developing software solutions in the enterprise telecommunications industry.

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