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The Moving Target Platform Dilemma

tl;dr You want to gain flexibility by leveraging the K8s offerings from multiple hyperscalers (“cloud providers”) for your application. You gain a bunch of inflexibility by assuring your application behaves equally on all these K8s target platforms.

I remember the days as a Java developer when we had to ensure our applications (quite often pre-Spring applications on Tomcat, but not full-blown J2EE on WAS anymore) were able to run on different target operating systems.1

Wow! We found out that we had to be very defensive in programming all sorts I/O related (file paths, line breaks, Unicode, whatnot). Our integration tests normally ended in manual testing, thanks to a lack of servers for real test automation.
Which several times ended up in troubleshooting problems in production (sic).

Through such nasty experiences, I’m pretty cautious in regards of rolling out applications on multiple target platforms. In various ways, the software development and operating paradigms have changed since then.

And to the better: Many teams work interdisciplinary and with a scientific approach (DevSecGitXYZOps). There’s K8s, The Reactive Manifesto and Reactive Programming, DDD, Serverless, EDAs to name some buzzing few.

Nevertheless, I stumbled upon this basic problem when talking to customers. And I was surprised to see a lot of architects and developers have never even thought about it.2

The thing is, that allthough the K8s offerings claim to be the same, under the hood they are not.

K8s != K8s ->How to deal with that?

Consider you want to deploy your “Service A” to multiple hyperscalers and even to your DIY K8s in your enterprise’s data center.

If you look at the release information in this example (picture above), you might be surprised, that the K8s versions of your target platform are not the same:

“Ok, then we need to test for each offering, not such a big with all the automation and testing tooling we use. Even some kube-native!” I hear you say.

But it comes worse.

No K8s lives alone.

K8s is a platform for container orchestration. And as we know, a running container basically isn’t much more than a restricted Linux process.3

Did you consider that you not only need to ensure application consistency accross various K8s distributions, but also need to take into consideration stuff like…

  • different base operating systems
  • different base/OS libraries
  • different container runtimes
  • different components for K8s…
  • different versions/patches for all components…
  • different … (you name it)?

Here, some bring in the argument, a control plane product (that allows distributing workflow across multiple K8s clusters and control them in a unified way) will solve this problem.

The dodgy promise: “Support all the combinations!”

Honestly, such a product is not intended to solve your problem. It cannot streamline the underlying K8s offering, neither can it tweak the software pieces K8s is running on.4

It comes even worse: Whenever the K8s offering hyperscaler changes any component in the stack (think security fixes/patches) offering K8s, you cannot assume your service will behave the same. You need to re-test it.

So the target platform variety intended to give you flexibility becomes a moving target. It evolves to a Hydra that will cause you more work (thus, inflexibility), the more target platforms you plan to address.

This is what I call the Moving Target Platform Dilemma.

Especially when your enterprise needs to fulfill strict governmental regulations/policies5), this can become a nightmare: Companies often need to be able to reproduce/document the exact system state at a point A in production. How would you do that, if the application target platform is moving (and at least partially) out of your control?

In another article, I discuss how to escape from this…

(This article was first published at gresch.io).

  1. Namely RHEL (4/5) and Windows 2000 AS/Windows Server 2003 (R2). []
  2. You might have experienced such moments when asking “have you considered this?” and your audience stares at you with large eyes and frozen-for-a-minute faces, have you? 😀 []
  3. see above example from a great book that deserves an update []
  4. Actually the promise “we support all K8s” of some vendors sounds a bit dodgy to me: My understanding of good support is that in case of problems, the software vendor runs environments in the backend that easily allow to reproduce errors. Just the sheer amount of certified K8s distributions will make this a challenging task, not to speak about doing integration testing for the control plane software itself. []
  5. which b.t.w. often serve as market-entry barriers, i.e. the governments protect large companies by making it harder to establish new offerings (we, the people, actually want to use, think Uber, AirBnB, FinTechs []

One reply on “The Moving Target Platform Dilemma”

Nicely written and an excellent reminder of how often that old adage “the more things change, the more they say the same” can be true. Good lessons from the past I hope we can continue to apply.

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