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Is Kubernetes a database? CRDs explained in 5 minutes

· 6 min read
Juraj Karadža


When you touch on containerized apps today, Kubernetes usually comes up as their orchestrator. Sure, Kubernetes is great for managing your containers on a fleet of servers and ensuring those are running over time. But today, Kubernetes is more than that.

Kubernetes allows you to extend its functionality with your logic. You can build upon existing mechanisms baked into Kubernetes and build dev tooling like never before - enter Custom Resource Definitions (CRDs).

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Kubernetes components

Before diving into CRDs, let's take a step back and look at Kubernetes control plane components, specifically Kubernetes API and its ETCD database. We made a blog on each one of those components previously, so feel free to check it out for more details.

You will likely talk to your Kubernetes cluster using the command-line tool kubectl. This tool allows you to create, read, and delete resources in your Kubernetes clusters. When I say “talk” to a Kubernetes cluster, I mean making requests against the API. Kubernetes API is the only component we, as users, ever interact with.

Each time we create or update a K8s resource, the Kubernetes API stores it in its database — etcd. etcd is a distributed key-value store used to store all of your resource configurations, such as deployments, services, and so on. A neat feature of etcd is that you can subscribe to changes in some keys in the database, which is used by other Kubernetes mechanisms.

Kubernetes control plane

What happens when we create a new K8s resource? Let's go through the flow by creating a service. To create it, we need a file called service.yaml

# service.yaml

apiVersion: v1
kind: Service
name: my-service
selector: MyApp
- protocol: TCP
port: 80
targetPort: 9376

and apply it to the cluster using kubectl:

kubectl apply -f service.yaml

service/my-service created

kubectl read our file and created a request against the Kubernetes API. API then makes sure our service configuration is valid (e.g., all the necessary fields were there, fields were of the correct types, …) and stores it to etcd. Now etcd can utilize its watch feature mentioned previously and notify controllers about a newly created service.

CRDs and how to create one

With the basic flow covered, we can now extend it. We can apply the same process of validating, storing, and watching resources to custom objects. To define those objects, we will use Kubernetes’ Custom Resource Definitions (CRD).

CRD can be a YAML file containing the schema of our new object - which fields does our custom object have, and how do we validate them. It will instruct the Kubernetes API on how to handle a new type of resource.

Let’s say your company is in the fruit business, and you are trusted with the task of automating the deployment of apples to your Kubernetes cluster. The example, of course, has nothing to do with a real-life scenario to show that you can extend the Kubernetes API however you see fit.

Apples have a color that can be either green, red, or yellow, and each apple has its weight. Let’s create a YAML to reflect that on our Kubernetes API:

# apple-crd.yaml

kind: CustomResourceDefinition
kind: Apple
listKind: ApplesList
plural: apples
singular: apple
scope: Namespaced
- name: v1alpha1
type: string
type: string
type: object
- green
- red
- yellow
type: string
type: integer
type: object
type: object
served: true
storage: true

We defined two properties for version v1alpha1 under .properties.spec:

  • color (which can take one of the values in the enum)
  • weightInGrams

To tell the Kubernetes API, there is a new type of object, we can just apply the previous file to the cluster:

kubectl apply -f apple-crd.yaml created

Kubernetes API is now ready to receive Apples, validate them, and store them to etcd.

Don’t take my word for it, you can create a Kubernetes object that satisfies the schema from the CRD above:

# green-apple.yaml

kind: Apple
name: green-apple
color: green
weightInGrams: 200

and apply it to the cluster:

kubectl apply -f green-apple.yaml created

Now, your cluster can handle one more type of resource, and you can store and handle your custom data inside the same Kubernetes cluster. This is now a completely valid command:

kubectl get apples

green-apple 6s

Can I then use Kubernetes as a database?

Now that we know we can store any type of object in our Kubernetes database and manage it through the K8s API, we should probably draw a line on how far we want to abuse this concept.

Obviously, your application data (like fruits in the example) would fall into the misuse category when talking about CRDs. You should develop stand-alone APIs with separate databases for such cases.

CRDs are a great fit if you need your objects to be accessible through kubectl and the API to the object is declarative. Also, another great use case for extending the Kubernetes API is when you are implementing the Kubernetes Operator pattern, but more on that in future blog posts 😄

On the other hand, if you decide to go the CRD route, you are very much dependent on how K8s API works with resources, and you can get restricted because of its API groups and namespaces.

Kubernetes CRDs are a powerful tool and can help you build new developer platforms and tools. We at Cyclops develop on top of our CRDs so feel free to check them out on our repository.