Kubernetes: A Rusty Friendship

A few days ago, we introduced Krustlet, a WebAssembly focused Kubelet implementation in Rust. If you are not familiar with Rust, it is a systems programming language focused on safety, speed, and security. We chose to use Rust for two main reasons: 1) Rust has some of the best support for WebAssembly compilation (more on this later) and 2) We wanted to demonstrate Rust and its strengths could be applied to the Kubernetes ecosystem. This post is meant to show what we learned and why we think Rust is a great (and sometimes better) choice for writing a Kubernetes focused application.

An easier developer experience

Dependency Management

Before even talking about the good coding experience, let’s talk about dependency management. As a bit of background, I am also one of the core maintainers of Helm and have participated in adding new Kubernetes library dependencies or upgrading the existing ones in almost every release since Helm 2.3. As someone who has developed many large projects against the Kubernetes libraries/API, I can tell you it is an absolute nightmare to upgrade or add any library dependency. Several of them have different versioning schemes (such as client-go) and you have to go figure out specific hashes or branches to get everything to compile, particularly if you have dependencies on multiple libraries. With Rust’s powerful dependency and build management tool cargo, things become much more simple:

kube = "0.31.0" 
k8s-openapi = { version = "0.7.1", default-features = false, features = ["v1_17"] }

That is all that is required to pull in most of the same functionality that is spread across multiple dependencies in Kubernetes Go projects (and sometimes you don’t even need k8s-openapi if you aren’t constructing the objects). But what is even more powerful and important here is the ability to conditionally bring in specific parts of a dependency using features. In the example above, you can see us disabling all of the default features and only pulling in the generated objects for version 1.17. We also use this in the kubelet crate so that users of the crate only pull in a flag parsing library if they explicitly want to do so.

Ease of coding

Beyond the dependency management, we found that our Rust code was much cleaner than other code we have written for Kubernetes. Two specific examples of this are the use of macros (one of the metaprogramming features of Rust) and how Rust deals with error handling. Macros allow you to automatically generate some code at compile time using the given parameters. Error handling in Rust uses a type called Result, which is an enum that indicates whether there was an error or not. Unhandled Results will result in a compiler warning. These Result types come with powerful matching and chained method expressions to handle things properly. Let’s use a concrete comparison of creating a pod to show the difference:

let json_pod = serde_json::json!(
    {   
        "apiVersion": "v1",
        "kind": "Pod",
        "metadata": {
            "name": name,
            "labels": user_labels
        },
        "spec": {
            "containers": [
                {
                    "name": name,
                    "image": image
                }
            ]
        }
    }
);

let data = serde_json::to_vec(&json_pod).expect("Should always serialize");
let pod = match client.create(&name, &PostParams::default(), data).await {
    Ok(o) => o,
    Err(e) => {
        error!("Pod create failed for {}: {}", name, e);
        return
    },
}
// Do stuff with pod

This example is using the json! macro that relies upon the popular Rust deserialization library Serde. This macro allows us to inline a JSON object using previously defined variables. The let data = line shows us the use of one of the chainable methods on Result called expect. This function will panic with the given message if the Result is not an Ok variant. But most powerfully, we see the use of a match statement when we try to patch the status with the API. This match lets us handle the result and unwrap the data inside, performing a different branch of logic based on the result.

Now let’s look at the same functionality in Go:

pod := &v1.Pod{
    Metadata: metav1.Metadata {
        Name: name,
        Labels: userLabels,
    },
    Spec: v1.PodSpec {
        Containers: []v1.Container{
            v1.Container{
                Name: name,
                Image: image,
            },
        },
    },
}

pod, err := client.Create(context.Background(), pod, metav1.CreateOptions{})
if err != nil {
    log.Error("Pod create failed for %s: %s", name, err)
    return
}

// Do stuff with pod

Now, these are somewhat similar, but we can see that reading through a pod definition is much more difficult and it gets more difficult the more there are. Yes, I know there are several methods to manage this (like a default pod you run a DeepCopy on), but the Rust version reads like an actual pod JSON/YAML you are used to seeing in the Kubernetes world instead of having to manually specify all of the types. The same thing goes for the error handling. A single err != nil doesn’t look too different here, but once we start handling multiple API calls, these err != nil blocks keep multiplying and they can’t be chained like Results can.

A concrete example of this can be found in the unit and integration tests for Krustlet. Without an assert library (like the wonderful testify), Go quickly becomes stacks of if err != nil. With Rust, tests are much cleaner and use a simple my_function().expect("oh noes").

To put it succinctly, when writing large Kubernetes projects in Go, the code quickly becomes unwieldy and hard to read. Whereas with Rust, the code stays much cleaner and more readable.

Extensibility

Another thing we loved about using Rust with Kubernetes was its generics and powerful trait system, especially when creating a Kubelet implementation that others can use and extend. These two features resulted in less code that was also easily extensible by others. Although what we did is partially replicable using Go interfaces, it would have been more code across more files (e.g. you can’t create default implementations of functions for an interface) and a whole lot more dynamic dispatch. With generics in Rust, we could write a Kubernetes client that accepts any type, and interact with it in the same manner regardless of type. Contrast this to client-go’s PodInterface, which would limit us only pods, or we’d need to accept (and implement) the kubernetes.Interface, which is quite massive.

In Krustlet, this allowed us to have a function that could accept any type that can represent a file path (anything from a bare str type all the way up to something more advanced like a PathBuf) or accept any type of Reader, while still having concrete types instead of a bare interface. Another good example of this comes from Matt Butcher’s post on writing controllers in Rust. As he concluded in his post:

That is all there is to creating a basic controller. Unlike writing these in Go, you won’t need special code generators or annotations, gobs of boilerplate code, and complex configurations. This is a fast and efficient way of creating new Kubernetes controllers.

We observed the same benefits in Krustlet. Having these generics and traits available to us in Rust allowed us to create software that was much more easily extensible by developers. This empowers people to extend the Kubernetes control plane in new ways with ease.

Safety

One of the most touted features of Rust is its safety guarantees. During our time developing Krustlet, as much as we cursed the borrow checker (sometimes fighting with it for hours when we were first learning the language), it kept us from exposing possible null pointers, thread safety issues, and other overlooked bugs. This was particularly helpful as we created the handling for different Kubernetes Pods.

If you aren’t familiar with Kubernetes, a node can run multiple pods, which in turn can run multiple containers. This means that there was a lot of concurrency and parallel computing going on. Several times, as we wrote the features for managing pods and “containers” (you don’t actually have a container if you are running WebAssembly module), the borrow checker caught cases of us passing a data structure between threads that would have resulted in unsafe or concurrent data access problems. It also prevented us from using objects that could have already been accessed by previous parts of the code.

For comparison, last week we caught a significant race condition in Helm that has been there for a year or more, and which passed the --race check for Go. That error would never have escaped the Rust compiler.

The Microsoft Security Research Center wrote a great blog post on why Rust eliminates, or greatly reduces the chances of, whole classes of bugs from other languages. Having this kind of safety built into the language gave us more confidence as the codebase grew. It did not eliminate all bugs, but we no longer had to worry as much about null pointer exceptions, concurrency problems, etc. that plagued us in other Kubernetes projects.

WASM and WASI support

This was a small but important consideration for our use case since we were targeting running WebAssembly and WASI compatible workloads. At this point only a few languages have WASI support built in, and Rust has some of the best support for WASI workloads right now. It is as simple as adding the build target like so:

$ rustup target add wasm32-wasi

After that, Rust can build WASI compatible WebAssembly modules with ease. Because of this, many of the WASM runtimes (such as wasmtime, one of the runtimes we used) are built using Rust, so we could embed them within Krustlet.

If you are considering jumping into WASM/WASI right now, we highly recommend giving Rust a shot.

The downsides

With all of that said, things aren’t always greener on the other side of the fence. There were a few things we observed that you should be aware of if you decide to do a Kubernetes project in Rust:

  • The Rust Kubernetes client library is lacking some of the advanced Go library features (e.g. patching, building from a stream of manifests, etc.), and likely will be missing those for the next little while.
  • Async runtimes are still a bit of a mess in Rust. There are currently 2 different options (tokio and async-std) that have different tradeoffs and problems. Documentation, especially examples, is a bit lacking as well. Whereas Go has excellent and easy-to-use concurrency primitives right now.
  • Rust has a logarithmic learning curve that takes several weeks to get through.

Conclusion

Although there are a few rough edges, Rust has proved itself as an excellent alternative candidate for Kubernetes projects. It results in cleaner, more manageable, and easily extensible code that takes advantage of the added safety benefits provided by the Rust compiler.

If you’d like to give Rust + Kubernetes a whirl, feel free to come check out and/or help with Krustlet; we’d love to see you there!

Taylor Thomas
@_oftaylor