GitOps and Kubernetes: The Rising Star of The Cloud World

Fabian Kramm
Sep 2, 2020
14 Minute Read

Due to its enormous potential, GitOps is currently a very hot topic. Eliminating complex CI/CD pipelines, being developer friendly, and offering an automatically integrated authorization process for deployment are just a few of many advantages. Kubernetes, the holy grail of the cloud world, seems to be especially suitable for the implementation of this new paradigm and promises an easy integration. In this article, I will demonstrate how easy the integration of GitOps in Kubernetes really is and which potential obstacles need to be cleared to become a real GitOps superstar. Additionally, I will provide an example implementation of GitOps in a Kubernetes cluster.

#What is GitOps?

GitOps, originally coined by Alexis Richardson at Weavework, has recently gained a lot of popularity. The core concept of GitOps is to use Git as the single source of truth that always contains a complete copy of the desired state of a system. The state is saved in a declarative way within config files and can thus be versioned in Git in the same way as any other source code. GitOps is usually implemented with tools that continually mirror the declarative state within Git with the actual system. This ensures that the system always has the same configuration as Git and vice versa.

GitOps is a logical extension of the infrastructure-as-code idea which allows to define infrastructure with code, mostly in public clouds. Architecturally, GitOps allows you to separate the continuous integration of an application from its actual deployment process. This is possible as the deployment process will no longer be executed via a pipeline directly in the Git-repository but by a remote watcher in the target system, which processes changes in the Git-repository asynchronously. Therefore, it is, for example, not necessary anymore to store the credentials of the production system in the CI/CD pipeline, which improves the security. It is also possible to define several target systems without having to change anything in the Git-repository or the CI/CD pipeline.

The use of git automatically comes with some additional advantages, such as integrated authentication, authorization processes, and a fast system recovery because the whole state of the system has been versioned.

Another big advantage of GitOps only becomes apparent at a second glance: The proximity to the developer. This is because Git is nowadays often common knowledge and developers work with it daily. Now, GitOps allows everybody who has the right to make changes in the versioning system to also make changes automatically in the target system, which eliminates and automates cumbersome intermediate steps. This reduces the effort on both sides: The developers can work with a tool they already know and the operations department spends less time with creating deployment dashboards and complex CI/CD pipelines.

#Kubernetes is everywhere

While GitOps sounds promising, it requires that the target system can be configured declaratively and that the desired state can be described within configuration files. A declaratively configurable system is mainly characterized by the fact that a given problem can be described in a specific way, while the actual computation process to solve this problem is done by the system itself. One currently very popular example of such a system is Kubernetes.

Kubernetes is an open-source platform to manage containerized applications, that was created by Google in 2014 based on its extensive experience with executing production workloads at massive scale. Kubernetes itself is cloud agnostic, i.e. it can run in almost any public cloud as well as in private data centers and even on laptops at home. Together with its vast amount of features and widespread adoption, this has led to an enormous popularity, which is the reason why Kubernetes now has become the de-facto standard for container orchestration.

In Kubernetes, the desired state of a system is typically described declaratively in so-called Kubernetes resources in YAML format. These resources are the core of Kubernetes and are persisted in etcd, the data storage backend. The most important resources are nodes, pods, and services:

  • Nodes describe Kubernetes worker machines and can be physical computers or VMs depending on the cluster. Without nodes, a Kubernetes cluster can not schedule any workloads and is not able to function properly. An example node could look like this:

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: Node
    metadata:
        name: docker-desktop
    status:
        addresses:
        - address: 192.168.65.3
          type: InternalIP
        - address: docker-desktop
          type: Hostname
        allocatable:
          cpu: "4"
          ephemeral-storage: "56453061334"
          hugepages-1Gi: "0"
          hugepages-2Mi: "0"
          memory: 3932656Ki
          pods: "110"
    ...
    
  • Pods describe workloads in Kubernetes and define which container images will be executed. A pod can consist of one or several containers that can share resources such as storage and network. Pods are always assigned to exactly one node and are then executed there. This is handled either automatically by Kubernetes or manually. Pods are treated Kubernetes-internally as “cattle” and can always be terminated or restarted by Kubernetes again, e.g. to move them to another node. A single pod starting an nginx container on a node looks like this:

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: Pod
    metadata:
      name: nginx
    spec:
      containers:
      - name: nginx
        image: nginx
    
  • Services describe how pods can communicate with each other and forward traffic to the pod ports. Services are necessary as pods can be restarted and moved arbitrarily and thus do not provide a fixed endpoint for traffic. Services have a static IP address within the cluster and a static host name if the cluster DNS is available. Kubernetes provides also many other resources and it is even possible to define custom resources that extend the cluster functionality.

#GitOps and Kubernetes: A No-Brainer?

It sounds like Kubernetes is a perfect fit for GitOps as the whole state of a Kubernetes cluster can relatively easily be mirrored in Git. For this, Kubernetes provides a native REST API that can be used to request and change resources. However, there are some pitfalls that need to be considered when implementing GitOps with Kubernetes:

  • Separation of Configruation and Source Code: Usually, it makes sense to create a separate Git-repository for the state of the system that mirrors it without containing the source code of the application. On the one hand, this reduces the Git commit history and it is easier to reset the system in case of an error. On the other hand, this prevents the repository to become too big. In the application repository, there is a pipeline that updates the necessary configurations in the central config repository if they differ from each other. Therefore, the GitOps principle can be implemented for several applications within a target system relatively easily.
  • Direction of Synchronization: It is often not desired to write changes occurring in the target system back into the Git-repository, which is why only one direction of synchronization is allowed: From Git to the target system. However, it is then possible that the state in Kubernetes becomes different from the state in Git immediately after the synchronization, for example if mutating webhooks change the Kubernetes resources during their creation. Hence, it is necessary to ignore some changes in the target system to prevent a new synchronization.
  • Selection of the Right Synchronization Tool: The implementation of GitOps with Kubernetes sounds trivial at first, which may lead someone into developing custom solutions. However, it is usually recommended to use existing solutions because they provide additional functionality as well as a whole set of security features that protect the system from misconfiguration and intruders.
  • Sensitive Data: It is an obvious no-go to save passwords and credentials in Git. How is it now possible to provide applications access to specific services in the context of GitOps if the whole state is saved in Git? There are several approaches to solve this problem, e.g. with so-called Sealed Secrets. They encrypt a Kubernetes secret locally, check it into Git and then decrypt it in the target cluster again. This is a relatively comfortable way of being able to check-in sensitive data into Git while protecting the data from the public.

#Argo CD

With increased interest in GitOps, many tools that implement GitOps in Kubernetes and that take on the task of synchronizing the resources have emerged. One of the most popular tools in the area of GitOps and Kubernetes is Argo CD. Argo CD is an open-source, declarative, GitOps continuous delivery tool for Kubernetes. It has been available on GitHub since 2018 and has been developed by Intuit. In Argo CD, single applications that have a source repository and that should be synchronized into a target system are defined. Argo CD provides a wide range of features and integrations that allow you to adapt its behavior to your needs. The GitOps paradigm is its main focus and Argo CD tries to convey some best practices in this area without forcing its users to adopt them.

#Installation

Argo CD is directly installed in the Kubernetes cluster as an operator via kubectl or helm and creates an own Kubernetes resource (CRD) to define the applications that should be synchronized into the cluster. All configurations are saved in Kubernetes resources which allows it to run Argo CD itself with the GitOps paradigm.

#Features

Argo CD provides a broad feature spectrum:

  • Application Deployment: It is possible to deploy applications with a variety of tools, such as kubectl, helm, kustomize or custom plugins.
  • Web interface: Argo CD provides a web interface that facilitates the configuration of applications.
  • Multi Cluster: It is possible to mirror applications beyond cluster borders.
  • Multi Tenancy: An integrated Dex Server allows remotely managed users to authenticate with Argo CD. Alternatively, additional local users can be configured.
  • Permission Management: It is possible to allow or to prohibit the access to specific resources of Argo CD for users.
  • Customized Health Checks: Argo CD provides extensive options to check the state of an application and to forward it to the Kubernetes resource in case of problems. Users can implement their own health checks with the programming language Lua.
  • Notifications: Argo CD does not provide a direct feature for notifications, but there are third-party projects that add this functionality.
  • Extensibility: Due to its Kubernetes-native design, Argo CD allows modifications directly to the Kubernetes resources. Additionally, one can define plugins to deploy applications, which must be available in the runtime environment of the pod, however. It is further possible to create custom hooks that perform tasks if a resource is mirrored.

#Deployment of a WordPress Sample Application

We are now going to deploy a little WordPress sample application with Argo CD to a Kubernetes cluster. With this we can show how it is possible to implement GitOps in a Kubernetes cluster. Before we begin, we obviously need a working Kubernetes cluster. There are many options to create a Kubernetes cluster but for this example, it is sufficient to install a test cluster such as docker desktop or minikube on your local computer. We further need the Kubernetes CLI tool kubectl that allows us to make changes to the cluster. When both are installed, we can check if the installation worked correctly with:

$ kubectl version
Client Version: version.Info{Major:"1", Minor:"18", GitVersion:"v1.18.3", GitCommit:"2e7996e3e2712684bc73f0dec0200d64eec7fe40", GitTreeState:"clean", BuildDate:"2020-05-20T12:52:00Z", GoVersion:"go1.13.9", Compiler:"gc", Platform:"darwin/amd64"}
Server Version: version.Info{Major:"1", Minor:"16+", GitVersion:"v1.16.6-beta.0", GitCommit:"e7f962ba86f4ce7033828210ca3556393c377bcc", GitTreeState:"clean", BuildDate:"2020-01-15T08:18:29Z", GoVersion:"go1.13.5", Compiler:"gc", Platform:"linux/amd64"}

We now are going to install Argo CD in the Kubernetes Cluster:

kubectl create namespace argocd
kubectl apply -n argocd -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/argoproj/argo-cd/stable/manifests/install.yaml

With this, the Argo CD components are installed in the cluster, which may take a while depending on your internet connection. We can check the status of Argo CD with kubectl:

$ kubectl get po -n argocd
NAME                                             READY   STATUS              RESTARTS   AGE
argocd-application-controller-775fcd65b9-9n4bg   0/1     ContainerCreating   0          77s
argocd-dex-server-58dcbb59b5-rfbt2               0/1     Init:0/1            0          77s
argocd-redis-8c568b5db-vwltk                     0/1     ContainerCreating   0          77s
argocd-repo-server-b8f8b66c7-g8nn7               0/1     ContainerCreating   0          77s
argocd-server-6ccf9b54d9-fd8mg                   0/1     ContainerCreating   0          77s

Here, we see the different components and their statuses. The Argo CD components take on the following tasks:

  • Application Controller: Supervises the running application and recognizes differences between desired and actual state. If configured, the application controller will automatically mirror the application again when it recognizes a difference.
  • Dex Server: A Dex Server that enables single sign on for Argo CD.
  • Redis: A disposable cache for Argo CD.
  • Repo Server: Holds Git repositories in a local cache and generates the Kubernetes manifests that should be deployed from the respective Git repositories.
  • API Server: A gRPC/REST API server that provides the API for the web interface, the CLI and CI/CD systems.

After waiting for some time, all components should be started and show the status “Running”:

$ kubectl get po -n argocd
NAME                                             READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
argocd-application-controller-775fcd65b9-9n4bg   1/1     Running   0          7m54s
argocd-dex-server-58dcbb59b5-rfbt2               1/1     Running   0          7m54s
argocd-redis-8c568b5db-vwltk                     1/1     Running   0          7m54s
argocd-repo-server-b8f8b66c7-g8nn7               1/1     Running   0          7m54s
argocd-server-6ccf9b54d9-fd8mg                   1/1     Running   0          7m54s

Now, we forward the UI port of Argo CD to our local computer via kubectl in a separate terminal to make it available in our web browser:

$ kubectl port-forward svc/argocd-server -n argocd 8080:443
Forwarding from 127.0.0.1:8080 -> 8080
Forwarding from [::1]:8080 -> 8080

In the web browser, Argo CD should be now available at https://localhost:8080 (invalid certificates should be trusted).

The username for the login screen is admin and the password is the pod name of the Argo CD server, which can be displayed with the following command:

$ kubectl get pods -n argocd -l app.kubernetes.io/name=argocd-server -o name | cut -d'/' -f 2
argocd-server-6ccf9b54d9-fd8mg

After successful login, we want to start a little WordPress application. For this, we create the application namespace via kubectl:

$ kubectl create ns wordpress
namespace/wordpress created

Now, we click the “+ NEW APP” button in the Argo CD web interface and create a new application with the following settings:

We confirm with “Create” and will see a new application with the current status “OutOfSync” in the main overview. After pressing the “Sync” button, the status of the application should be updated to “Synced” and “Healthy”:

Argo CD has deployed our WordPress application to the Kubernetes namespace wordpress. We can check the successful installation of WordPress with kubectl locally:

$ kubectl get po -n wordpress
NAME                               READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
wordpress-966746c95-9rjjg          1/1     Running   0          14s
wordpress-mysql-576984556c-rmr85   1/1     Running   0          14s
$ kubectl port-forward -n wordpress svc/wordpress 8090:80
Forwarding from 127.0.0.1:8090 -> 80
Forwarding from [::1]:8090 -> 80

In the web browser, a fully functioning WordPress installation should now be available at http://localhost:8090. To demonstrate what Argo CD does when the state of the Kubernetes cluster changes unexpectedly, we now delete the WordPress deployment with kubectl:

$ kubectl delete deployment wordpress -n wordpress
deployment.apps "wordpress" deleted

Back in the Argo CD web interface, the status of the application should now be “OutOfSync” again. By pressing the “Sync” Button, the WordPress deployment should be recreated. Of course, we can also configure Argo CD in a way that automatic synchronization is started on every change in the cluster or in Git. For this, we click on the application and then press the “APP DETAILS” button at the top of the screen. In the “Sync Policy” section, we press “ENABLE AUTO-SYNC” to enable the automatic synchronization. Additionally, we set the option “Self Heal” to “ENABLE”.

We can now delete the WordPress deployment with kubectl again and see that Argo CD will immediately recreate the deployment and the state from Git is synchronized into the Kubernetes cluster.

#Other Tools

Besides Argo CD, there are many other tools for the implementation of GitOps with Kubernetes:

  • Flux is a GitOps operator for Kubernetes that automatically checks if the configuration of the Kubernetes cluster is the same as in the Git repository and synchronizes it. Flux is open source, a sandbox project of the CNCF (Cloud Native Computing Foundation) and is freely available on GitHub under an Apache 2.0 license. Flux is focused on simplicity and thus does not provide some additional features such as synchronization to several clusters or multi-tenancy. Additionally, Flux only synchronizes one Git repository per installation at a time and it is installed directly in the Kubernetes cluster. Apart from Argo CD, Flux is the most popular project for GitOps and is actively developed by its community.
  • Jenkins X is, compared to Flux and Argo CD, a more complete solution for CI/CD with integrated GitOps support. Jenkins X is very different from its previous versions and builds internally on Tekton which is a project to define CI/CD pipelines in Kubernetes. Similar to Flux and Argo CD, Jenkins is also open source and available on GitHub. Jenkins X has been developed by Cloudbees since the beginning of 2018. Besides its GitOps featues, Jenkins X covers a wide range of other development processes, such as building and testing in a CI pipeline or storing container images.
  • Many other tools also allow you to implement GitOps in Kubernetes in part or as a whole, for example GitKube, Terragrund, kiosk, and Helm Operator.

#Conclusion

GitOps is a promising new paradigm in the container world that makes it possible to simplify CI/CD processes and that reduces the effort for both developers and administrators. GitOps is the logical next step from the concept of infrastructure-as-code and is focused on Git as central single source of truth. Due to the easy synchronization between Git and target system, complex CI/CD pipelines and authorization processes are automatically eliminated.

The most important prerequisite of GitOps is a declaratively configurable target system as without such a system, GitOps can only be partly implemented. Kubernetes meets this requirement, but the implementation is still not a no-brainer and requires continuous monitoring and maintenance of the system. In the Kubernetes ecosystem, there are several open source tools that can do most of the work and provide some additional helpful features.

In the future, one can expect that these tools provide even more functionality and become fully mature. However, given the fact that GitOps is still a relatively new concept, these tools can already be used without much worries today.

This article was originally published in Informatik Aktuell in German language.

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

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