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Live and let live with Kluctl and Server Side Apply

Author: Alexander Block

This blog post was inspired by a previous Kubernetes blog post about Advanced Server Side Apply. The author of said blog post listed multiple benefits for applications and controllers when switching to server-side apply (from now on abbreviated with SSA). Especially the chapter about CI/CD systems motivated me to respond and write down my thoughts and experiences.

These thoughts and experiences are the results of me working on Kluctl for the past 2 years. I describe Kluctl as "The missing glue to put together large Kubernetes deployments, composed of multiple smaller parts (Helm/Kustomize/...) in a manageable and unified way."

To get a basic understanding of Kluctl, I suggest to visit the website and read through the documentation and tutorials, for example the microservices demo tutorial. As an alternative, you can watch Hands-on Introduction to kluctl from the Rawkode Academy YouTube channel which shows a hands-on demo session.

There is also a Kluctl delivery scenario available in my fork of the podtato-head demo project.

Live and let live

One of the main philosophies that Kluctl follows is "live and let live", meaning that it will try its best to work in conjunction with any other tool or controller running outside or inside your clusters. Kluctl will not overwrite any fields that it lost ownership of, unless you explicitly tell it to do so.

Achieving this would not have been possible (or at least several magnitudes harder) without the use of SSA. Server-side apply allows Kluctl to detect when ownership for a field got lost, for example when another controller or operator updates that field to another value. Kluctl can then decide on a field-by-field basis if force-applying is required before retrying based on these decisions.

The days before SSA

The first versions of Kluctl were based on shelling out to kubectl and thus implicitly relied on client-side apply. At that time, SSA was still alpha and quite buggy. And to be honest, I didn't even know it was a thing at that time.

The way client-side apply worked had some serious drawbacks. The most obvious one (it was guaranteed that you'd stumble on this by yourself if enough time passed) is that it relied on an annotation ( being added to the object, bringing in all the limitations and issues with huge annotation values. A good example of such issues are CRDs being so large, that they don't fit into the annotation's value anymore.

Another drawback can be seen just by looking at the name (client-side apply). Being client side means that each client has to provide the apply-logic on its own, which at that time was only properly implemented inside kubectl, making it hard to be replicated inside controllers.

This added kubectl as a dependency (either as an executable or in the form of Go packages) to all controllers that wanted to leverage the apply-logic.

However, even if one managed to get client-side apply running from inside a controller, you ended up with a solution that gave no control over how it worked internally. As an example, there was no way to individually decide which fields to overwrite in case of external changes and which ones to let go.

Discovering SSA apply

I was never happy with the solution described above and then somehow stumbled across server-side apply, which was still in beta at that time. Experimenting with it via kubectl apply --server-side revealed immediately that the true power of SSA can not be easily leveraged by shelling out to kubectl.

The way SSA is implemented in kubectl does not allow enough control over conflict resolution as it can only switch between "not force-applying anything and erroring out" and "force-applying everything without showing any mercy!".

The API documentation however made it clear that SSA is able to control conflict resolution on field level, simply by choosing which fields to include and which fields to omit from the supplied object.

Moving away from kubectl

This meant that Kluctl had to move away from shelling out to kubectl first. Only after that was done, I would have been able to properly implement SSA with its powerful conflict resolution.

To achieve this, I first implemented access to the target clusters via a Kubernetes client library. This had the nice side effect of dramatically speeding up Kluctl as well. It also improved the security and usability of Kluctl by ensuring that a running Kluctl command could not be messed around with by externally modifying the kubeconfig while it was running.

Implementing SSA

After switching to a Kubernetes client library, leveraging SSA felt easy. Kluctl now has to send each manifest to the API server as part of a PATCH request, which signals that Kluctl wants to perform a SSA operation. The API server then responds with an OK response (HTTP status code 200), or with a Conflict response (HTTP status 409).

In case of a Conflict response, the body of that response includes machine-readable details about the conflicts. Kluctl can then use these details to figure out which fields are in conflict and which actors (field managers) have taken ownership of the conflicted fields.

Then, for each field, Kluctl will decide if the conflict should be ignored or if it should be force-applied. If any field needs to be force-applied, Kluctl will retry the apply operation with the ignored fields omitted and the force flag being set on the API call.

In case a conflict is ignored, Kluctl will issue a warning to the user so that the user can react properly (or ignore it forever...).

That's basically it. That is all that is required to leverage SSA. Big thanks and thumbs-up to the Kubernetes developers who made this possible!

Conflict Resolution

Kluctl has a few simple rules to figure out if a conflict should be ignored or force-applied.

It first checks the field's actor (the field manager) against a list of known field manager strings from tools that are frequently used to perform manual modifications. These are for example kubectl and k9s. Any modifications performed with these tools are considered "temporary" and will be overwritten by Kluctl.

If you're using Kluctl along with kubectl where you don't want the changes from kubectl to be overwritten (for example, using in a script) then you can specify --field-manager=<manager-name> on the command line to kubectl, and Kluctl doesn't apply its special heuristic.

If the field manager is not known by Kluctl, it will check if force-applying is requested for that field. Force-applying can be requested in different ways:

  1. By passing --force-apply to Kluctl. This will cause ALL fields to be force-applied on conflicts.
  2. By adding the annotation to the object in question. This will cause all fields of that object to be force-applied on conflicts.
  3. By adding the annotation to the object in question. This causes only fields matching the JSON path to be force-applied on conflicts.

Marking a field to be force-applied is required whenever some other actor is known to erroneously claim fields (the ECK operator does this to the nodeSets field for example), you can ensure that Kluctl always overwrites these fields to the original or a new value.

In the future, Kluctl will allow even more control about conflict resolution. For example, the CLI will allow to control force-applying on field level.

DevOps vs Controllers

So how does SSA in Kluctl lead to "live and let live"?

It allows the co-existence of classical pipelines (e.g. Github Actions or Gitlab CI), controllers (e.g. the HPA controller or GitOps style controllers) and even admins running deployments from their local machines.

Wherever you are on your infrastructure automation journey, Kluctl has a place for you. From running deployments using a script on your PC, all the way to fully automated CI/CD with the pipelines themselves defined in code, Kluctl aims to complement the workflow that's right for you.

And even after fully automating everything, you can intervene with your admin permissions if required and run a kubectl command that will modify a field and prevent Kluctl from overwriting it. You'd just have to switch to a field-manager (e.g. "admin-override") that is not overwritten by Kluctl.

A few takeaways

Server-side apply is a great feature and essential for the future of controllers and tools in Kubernetes. The amount of controllers involved will only get more and proper modes of working together are a must.

I believe that CI/CD-related controllers and tools should leverage SSA to perform proper conflict resolution. I also believe that other controllers (e.g. Flux and ArgoCD) would benefit from the same kind of conflict resolution control on field-level.

It might even be a good idea to come together and work on a standardized set of annotations to control conflict resolution for CI/CD-related tooling.

On the other side, non CI/CD-related controllers should ensure that they don't cause unnecessary conflicts when modifying objects. As of the server-side apply documentation, it is strongly recommended for controllers to always perform force-applying. When following this recommendation, controllers should really make sure that only fields related to the controller are included in the applied object. Otherwise, unnecessary conflicts are guaranteed.

In many cases, controllers are meant to only modify the status subresource of the objects they manage. In this case, controllers should only patch the status subresource and not touch the actual object. If this is followed, conflicts become impossible to occur.

If you are a developer of such a controller and unsure about your controller adhering to the above, simply try to retrieve an object managed by your controller and look at the managedFields (you'll need to pass --show-managed-fields -oyaml to kubectl get) to see if some field got claimed unexpectedly.