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Introducing kustomize; Template-free Configuration Customization for Kubernetes

Authors: Jeff Regan (Google), Phil Wittrock (Google)

If you run a Kubernetes environment, chances are you’ve customized a Kubernetes configuration — you've copied some API object YAML files and edited them to suit your needs.

But there are drawbacks to this approach — it can be hard to go back to the source material and incorporate any improvements that were made to it. Today Google is announcing kustomize, a command-line tool contributed as a subproject of SIG-CLI. The tool provides a new, purely declarative approach to configuration customization that adheres to and leverages the familiar and carefully designed Kubernetes API.

Here’s a common scenario. Somewhere on the internet you find someone’s Kubernetes configuration for a content management system. It's a set of files containing YAML specifications of Kubernetes API objects. Then, in some corner of your own company you find a configuration for a database to back that CMS — a database you prefer because you know it well.

You want to use these together, somehow. Further, you want to customize the files so that your resource instances appear in the cluster with a label that distinguishes them from a colleague’s resources who’s doing the same thing in the same cluster. You also want to set appropriate values for CPU, memory and replica count.

Additionally, you’ll want multiple variants of the entire configuration: a small variant (in terms of computing resources used) devoted to testing and experimentation, and a much larger variant devoted to serving outside users in production. Likewise, other teams will want their own variants.

This raises all sorts of questions. Do you copy your configuration to multiple locations and edit them independently? What if you have dozens of development teams who need slightly different variations of the stack? How do you maintain and upgrade the aspects of configuration that they share in common? Workflows using kustomize provide answers to these questions.

Customization is reuse

Kubernetes configurations aren't code (being YAML specifications of API objects, they are more strictly viewed as data), but configuration lifecycle has many similarities to code lifecycle.

You should keep configurations in version control. Configuration owners aren’t necessarily the same set of people as configuration users. Configurations may be used as parts of a larger whole. Users will want to reuse configurations for different purposes.

One approach to configuration reuse, as with code reuse, is to simply copy it all and customize the copy. As with code, severing the connection to the source material makes it difficult to benefit from ongoing improvements to the source material. Taking this approach with many teams or environments, each with their own variants of a configuration, makes a simple upgrade intractable.

Another approach to reuse is to express the source material as a parameterized template. A tool processes the template—executing any embedded scripting and replacing parameters with desired values—to generate the configuration. Reuse comes from using different sets of values with the same template. The challenge here is that the templates and value files are not specifications of Kubernetes API resources. They are, necessarily, a new thing, a new language, that wraps the Kubernetes API. And yes, they can be powerful, but bring with them learning and tooling costs. Different teams want different changes—so almost every specification that you can include in a YAML file becomes a parameter that needs a value. As a result, the value sets get large, since all parameters (that don't have trusted defaults) must be specified for replacement. This defeats one of the goals of reuse—keeping the differences between the variants small in size and easy to understand in the absence of a full resource declaration.

A new option for configuration customization

Compare that to kustomize, where the tool’s behavior is determined by declarative specifications expressed in a file called kustomization.yaml.

The kustomize program reads the file and the Kubernetes API resource files it references, then emits complete resources to standard output. This text output can be further processed by other tools, or streamed directly to kubectl for application to a cluster.

For example, if a file called kustomization.yaml containing

     app: hello
   - deployment.yaml
   - configMap.yaml
   - service.yaml

is in the current working directory, along with the three resource files it mentions, then running

kustomize build

emits a YAML stream that includes the three given resources, and adds a common label app: hello to each resource.

Similarly, you can use a commonAnnotations field to add an annotation to all resources, and a namePrefix field to add a common prefix to all resource names. This trivial yet common customization is just the beginning.

A more common use case is that you’ll need multiple variants of a common set of resources, e.g., a development, staging and production variant.

For this purpose, kustomize supports the idea of an overlay and a base. Both are represented by a kustomization file. The base declares things that the variants share in common (both resources and a common customization of those resources), and the overlays declare the differences.

Here’s a file system layout to manage a staging and production variant of a given cluster app:

   ├── base/
   │   ├── kustomization.yaml
   │   ├── deployment.yaml
   │   ├── configMap.yaml
   │   └── service.yaml
   └── overlays/
      ├── production/
      │   └── kustomization.yaml
      │   ├── replica_count.yaml
      └── staging/
          ├── kustomization.yaml
          └── cpu_count.yaml

The file someapp/base/kustomization.yaml specifies the common resources and common customizations to those resources (e.g., they all get some label, name prefix and annotation).

The contents of someapp/overlays/production/kustomization.yaml could be

    env: production
   - ../../base
   - replica_count.yaml

This kustomization specifies a patch file replica_count.yaml, which could be:

   apiVersion: apps/v1
   kind: Deployment
     name: the-deployment
     replicas: 100

A patch is a partial resource declaration, in this case a patch of the deployment in someapp/base/deployment.yaml, modifying only the replicas count to handle production traffic.

The patch, being a partial deployment spec, has a clear context and purpose and can be validated even if it’s read in isolation from the remaining configuration. It’s not just a context free {parameter name, value} tuple.

To create the resources for the production variant, run

kustomize build someapp/overlays/production

The result is printed to stdout as a set of complete resources, ready to be applied to a cluster. A similar command defines the staging environment.

In summary

With kustomize, you can manage an arbitrary number of distinctly customized Kubernetes configurations using only Kubernetes API resource files. Every artifact that kustomize uses is plain YAML and can be validated and processed as such. kustomize encourages a fork/modify/rebase workflow.

To get started, try the hello world example. For discussion and feedback, join the mailing list or open an issue. Pull requests are welcome.