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Kubernetes and the Rise of Portable Stateful Applications

With its success and widespread adoption, one of the big benefits developers have observed with Kubernetes is that of application portability. Today, users can select any major clouds provider as they all have managed Kubernetes offerings (including AWS, Google, Azure, and IBM). For those interested in on-premises deployments, a variety of Kubernetes distributions are available including Red Hat’s OpenShift and Pivotal Container Service. Truly, this availability of common infrastructure across diverse operating environments is both unprecedented and empowering for all application developers. Once designed for Kubernetes, it is relatively easy to deploy the same application everywhere.

These portability benefits are already being leveraged for stateless applications but, as people add more stateful applications including relational databases and NoSQL systems to the mix, this article shows how, when architected correctly, these same portability benefits also apply to stateful applications.

Leveraging Storage Interface Portability

For applications that don’t have data portability requirements, underlying storage infrastructure diversity can be abstracted away through the use of Storage Classes and the Container Storage Interface (CSI).

In particular, infrastructure-specific storage configuration can be abstracted away within a StorageClass and, as long as a StorageClass with the requested name is present, the application will use the administrator-provided mapping for the selected storage infrastructure. Common examples of storage configuration include defining the underlying storage performance type (e.g., SSD vs. spinning disks), QoS features such as IOPS requirements, and at-rest encryption options.

CSI, used to add block and file storage to containerized applications, similarly abstracts away the management interface of different storage providers by providing a common cross-platform API. Some of the useful common CSI storage abstracts provided by almost all storage vendors include all lifecycle operations such as volume creation, deletion, and mounting as well as the ability to take and restore volume snapshots.

When used together, these two abstractions will allow developers to build and deploy applications on heterogeneous storage infrastructure without needing to know about either the storage vendor or the underlying storage architecture.

KISS Principle

This API portability approach is what we have discovered works best for a majority of Kubernetes users because it follows the KISS principle that states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated. In particular, using API abstractions has a number of advantages when compared to adopting storage “overlay” solutions that introduce a new storage layer on top of whatever might be present in the deployment environment:

  • Best of Breed: Use the native storage technology (e.g., EBS in AWS or NetApp on-premises) that will always be the best suited for your deployment environment. This allows your applications to leverage the underlying storage provider’s optimized performance, reliability, and deep hardware integrations instead of a multi-platform storage overlay that could be limited to lowest common denominator APIs.

  • Performance and Cost Benefits: Directly allowing applications to use the deployment infrastructure’s native storage stack also delivers cost and performance benefits that accrue over time. In contrast, the increased overhead of layering one storage system on another (e.g., a storage overlay over EBS) results in reduced performance while suffering from the additional management overhead and budgetary costs of running two separate storage layers.

Delivering Data Portability

While the use of the above storage abstractions can deliver deployment portability for your stateful applications, data portability support is also required for improved resiliency, disaster recovery and even test/dev workflows. In fact, what you really need is application portability but we will dig into that in a later post and just focus on the data components here.

Given a stateful Kubernetes application, application data has to not only be backed up within cluster but also retain the ability to move the entire application stack and its data in multi-cluster, multi-region, and multi-cloud environments. We want to do this for a number of reasons:

  • Disaster Recovery: Having a hot standby across failure domains (clusters, zones, regions)
  • Hybrid Setups: Ability to support data movement across hybrid environments given the on-premises footprint seen in enterprises
  • Avoiding Vendor Lock In: Apart from cost benefits, retain the ability to not redeploy on the infrastructure of choice.
  • Test/Dev Workflows: Support copy data management workflows to frequently bring production data into test or CI environments.

When working with customers that needed data portability, we learned that the following characteristics were very important to them:

  • Transparency: No application changes should be required for this. Slowing developers down is just not a viable option.
  • API-Driven Automated Workflows: The workflow should be API-drive and completely automated. There should be no manual actions required.
  • Infrastructure Independence: Just like with storage interface portability described above, you should not be forced to use the same storage system everywhere to benefit from data portability. You should be able to pick the best storage system for your environment but be able to transparently move across infrastructure (e.g., from AWS EBS disks to Google Cloud GPD volumes).
  • Data Security: All data transfers must be secure and orchestration APIs RBAC-enabled. Apart from in-flight and at-rest encryption, a solution should support data masking and policy-based GDPR compliance.
  • Environment Isolation: The ability to support data movement across different accounts, resource groups, and clusters so as to not impact the performance of your primary workload.
  • Performance and Efficiency: Given data gravity, the ability to use advanced deduplication and data transfer techniques for both cost and performance reasons.

Given this consistent feedback, we set out to extend the K10 Data Management Platform to support data portability and discovered a number of interesting things along the way. First, generic data movement in the context of the application might seem intractable or fragile at first glance, Kubernetes’s APIs allow us to dynamically discover all relevant components and make this problem a bit simpler to solve in a reliable way. While there are always things that don’t always port over across clouds or slightly leaky abstractions, we have been able to address those for almost all scenarios.

Second, the deduplication technologies used by K10 to reduce both data storage and transfer has proven to be very effective for most stateful cloud-native workloads. For every fresh data transfer, it allows us to only transfer changes instead of the entire data set. This, for portability, delivers better Recovery Time Objectives (RTOs) and reduces bandwidth costs.

Finally, for use cases like data masking when migration of production data into test drive environments, we discovered that data cannot handled in an opaque manner. To address this, we heavily leverage Kanister, an open-source project, to add extensibility to our system. It allows users to inject their playbooks as everything from easy-to-use bash scripts to Docker containers to operate on data at any point in its lifecycle. For data portability, Kanister can be used to transform (including mask) data during or after capture but before the transfer.

Portability Demo

To effectively see everything we did in K10, our cloud-native data management platform, to deliver both interface and data portability, we put the below video together. It will show you how a complex application like GitLab can not only be captured within a single cloud environment (Google GKE) using interface portability abstractions but also be migrated to a completely different cloud (AWS EKS) provider by using data portability features.

Questions or thoughts about how this magic happens? Reach out to us at any time!


The first version of this article was originally published at The New Stack.

Niraj Tolia is the CEO and Co-Founder at Kasten and is interested in all things Kubernetes. He has played multiple roles in the past, including the Senior Director of Engineering for Dell EMC's CloudBoost family of products and the VP of Engineering and Chief Architect at Maginatics (acquired by EMC). Niraj received his PhD, MS, and BS in Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

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