Managing Kubernetes without losing your cool


2022-07-15: Added tweet from Ian Coldwater with nsenter example

This post is based on a webinar i've previously given where I go through some of my favourite tips for working with Kubernetes clusters all day long. The goal of all of these techniques is to make my life easier and (hopefully) less error prone. I start off with the first 5 tips being applicable to anyone working with Kubernetes and can be picked up right away. From there I move on to a couple that would benefit from having some old-skool Linux sys-admin experience. Finally I finish of with some more advanced techniques that require some previous programming experience.

#0 - Pay someone else to do it

Yeah, ok, this one is a little tongue-in-cheek as this is what we provide at Giant Swarm but it is worth thinking about.

If you have dozens or even hundreds of clusters, on-top of standard development work, you’re going to be stretched thin. Getting someone else to manage things while you focus on what makes your business money can often be the right choice.

#1 - Love your Terminal

It doesn’t matter if your shell of choice is Bash, ZSH, Fish or even Powershell you’ll benefit greatly from learning the ins-and-outs of your terminal of choice.

Many shell implementations have some variation of “rc” files - often referred to as “dotfiles”. In bash, it’s a file called .bashrc, in ZSH it’s .zshrc. Generally these are found in your users home directory. These files are interpreted by your shell each time a new session (tab/window) is opened and allows you to set up defaults and customisations. One of my favourite uses for these session files is to create custom aliases for functions (or groups of functions) that I use often to help me (try to) avoid typos and “fat fingering” when typing out long commands.

Many people share their custom “dotfiles” on GitHub or similar and are a great source of neat tricks and handy shortcuts. My dotsfiles can be found on GitHub at AverageMarcus/dotfiles.

#2 - Learn to Love kubectl

Everything you might want to do with a Kubernetes cluster can be acomplished with the help of kubectl. Learning how to master this handy little CLI can go a long way to mastering Kubernetes cluster management.

The official documentation offers a single page view of all built in commands that is a great place to start if you’re not sure of a command: kubectl-commands.

Building on tip #1, my most used command is k, an alias I have set up for kubectl to save on keystrokes. Add the following to your relevant ‘rc’ file:

alias k='kubectl'

Once this is in your terminal session, you can do something like the following:

k get pods

(You’ll see more of this alias in the other examples used in this post)

kubectl even has a very handy command to find out everything you need to know about the properties of any Kubernetes resource - kubectl explain

# k explain pods.spec.containers

RESOURCE: containers <[]Object>


I find this most useful when you can’t access the official docs or your know exactly the field you’re interested in.

#3 - Multiple Kubeconfigs

When dealing with multiple Kubernetes clusters your kubeconfig file can very quickly become an unwieldy mess.

Thankfully there are some tools available to make it more manageable by making it quick and easy to switch between cluster context.

kubeswitch is my current favourite as it supports loading kubeconfigs from a directory of yaml files, allowing me to export the kubeconfig of each cluster to their own file. I had previously had this same multi-file setup with just kubectl by combining multiple files in the KUBECONFIG environment variable with a : (see below) but I found that many tools didn’t support this and attempted to treat the value as a single file path.

Multi-file kubeconfig hack, expecting files to be in the ~/.kube/clusters directory:

## Merge multiple kubeconfigs
function join_by { local d=$1; shift; echo -n "$1"; shift; printf "%s" "${@/#/$d}"; }
OTHER_CLUSTERS="$(join_by :$HOME/.kube/clusters/ $(echo $HOME/.kube/clusters/$(/bin/ls $HOME/.kube/clusters)))"

I recommend using one of the tools listed above rather than this shell hack.

#4 - k9s

k9s is one of my favourite tools when working with clusters. It provides an interactive terminal that supports all resource types and actions, lots of keybinding and filtering. Once you learn all the shortcuts and features, this handy tool will save you a lot of time when working with problematic clusters.

Preview of k9s in action, showing a few of the actions available

k9s in action!

#5 - kubectl plugins

Just like Kubernetes itself, kubectl can be extended to provide more powerful functionality via a plugin mechanism, there’s even a package manager available to help discover plugins - Krew.

But you don’t need a package manager, or really anything too fancy, to add plugins to kubectl. Any executable in your $PATH that is prefixed with kubectl- becomed a kubectl plugin.

For example, assume we wanted to make a simple “hello, world” style plugin, we just need to create an executable somewhere in our path and name it something like and then we automatically have the kubectl hello command available to us.

echo "Hello from kubectl"


> kubectl hello
"Hello from kubectl"

This example uses a shell script but your plugins can be built in any language you like as long as it’s executable and has the needed prefix.

One thing to note with plugins though - if you use tabcompletion / autocomplete in your shell with kubectl it generally wont work with the plugin commands.

If you want to get started with some kubectl plugins you can take a look at the Krew plugin directory to see if a plugin already exists for your needed task. Some of my favourite plugins are:

  • stern - Multi-pod/container log tailing
  • tree - Show hierarchy of resources based on ownerReferences
  • outdated - Find containers with outdated images
  • gs - Giant Swarm’s plugin for working with our managed clusters

#6 - kshell / kubectl debug

There are many times where I need to launch a temporary pod in a cluster to aid with debugging, usually related to networking issues. To help with this I have a handy Bash alias to easily launch a temporary pod and drop me right into its shell.

alias kshell='kubectl run -it --image bash --restart Never --rm shell'

Now I can run kshell to get a new debugging pod running the bash container image. Need more tools then available in the bash image? Replace bash with something like ubuntu.

# kshell
If you don't see a command prompt, try pressing enter.
bash-5.1# nslookup

Non-authoritative answer:

This is great for more general debugging of a cluster, especially with networking issues such as DNS resolution or network policies.

This is great for more general debugging but what about debugging a specific pod? Well we’ve got a couple tools we can use depending on the situation - kubectl exec or kubectl debug.

kubectl exec lets up drop into the shell of a running container, just like we do with kshell above, but this isn’t always possible.

# kubectl exec my-broken-pod -it -- sh
error: Internal error occurred: error executing command in container: failed to exec in container: failed to start exec……

The container needs to have a shell we can drop into which isn’t always the case and we’ll be presented with something similar to the error above.

Similarily, if our pod is CrashLooping we’ll only be able to have access to the shell until the pod is restarted again, at which point we’ll be kicked out back to our local shell session.

Thankfully, if running Kubernetes 1.23 or later we can make use of kubectl debug to potentially investigate these problem pods.

# kubectl debug -it --image bash my-broken-pod
Defaulting debug container name to debugger-gprmk. If you don't see a command prompt, try pressing enter.

This injects an Ephemeral Container into our chosen pod that can then run alongside our broken container.

kubectl debug has a few different modes:

  • The default launches an “ephemeral container” within the pod you’re debugging

    kubectl debug
  • The copy-to flag creates a copy of the pod with some values replaced (e.g. the image used)

    kubectl debug –copy-to
  • Specifying the node launches a pod in the nodes host namespace to debug the host machine

    kubectl debug node/my-node

There are some limitations though, for example kubectl debug can’t access the whole filesystem of our failing pod, it’ll only be able to access mounted volumes if specified.

When to use what:

kshell kubectl exec kubectl debug
Multiple workloads experiencing network issues
Workload not running as expected but not CrashLooping and isn’t a stripped down image (e.g. not Scratch / Distroless)
Workload not running as expected but not CrashLooping and has an image based on Scratch / Distroless or similar
Workload is CrashLooping

#7 - kube-ssh

Sometimes investigating the cluster isn’t enough to find the cause of a problem. Sometimes the host machines hold the answer. If we have ssh access to our machines, this is a simple task, but that’s not always the case. It’s a common practice to disable ssh and similar services on a cluster and treat all machines as immutable and replaceable. This is great from a security perspective but not so much when trying to debug a problem that seems limited to a single (or subset) of nodes.

If our cluster is running Kubernetes 1.23 or later then we can make use of the kubectl debug command as described above with the node we want to debug.

But if we aren’t yet running 1.23 there are some alternatives.

I have a project called kube-ssh that gives “ssh-like” access to a nodes underlying host machine and Giant Swarm has a similar kubectl plugin, kubectl-enter.

kube-ssh uses a few of the tips already suggested in this post to launch a new pod in the cluster with elevated permissions and makes use of nsenter to switch to the hosts Linux namespace.

sh -c "$(curl -sSL"
[0] -
[1] -
[2] -
Which node would you like to connect to? 1

If you don't see a command prompt, try pressing enter.
[root@ip-10-18-21-234 ~]#

(Please don’t blindly execute a script from the internet like that, examine it first at least)

There are some caveats though:

  • The underlying host needs a shell just like we mentioned above with kubectl exec. (So this wont work if you’re running Talos for example)
  • You require enough permissions to launch pods with privileged securityContext - RBAC, PSPs and Admission Controllers could all potentially block this. (This could also be considered a benefit to this approach over traditional SSH)
  • Not a real SSH session

Shortly after I posted this blog post, Ian Coldwater tweeted out a version of this technique that's small enough to fit in a tweet! 🤯

Timely Tweet by Ian Colwater

#8 - Admission Webhooks

Kubernetes has two types of dynamic admission webhooks (there are also CRD conversion webhooks but we’re not talking about those here):

  • ValidatingWebhook - Ability to block actions against the API server if fails to meet given criteria.
  • MutatingWebhook - Modify requests before passing them on to the API server.

These webhooks allow you to implement more advanced access control that is possible with RBAC, PSPs, etc. as well as the ability to modify requests to the Kubernetes API on-the-fly. With this you can take more control over your clusters in an automated way, for example you could:

  • Add default labels to resources as they’re created.
  • Prevent the latest tag being used on images.
  • Enforce all pods have resource requests/limits specified.
  • “Hotfix” for security issues (e.g. mutating all pods to include a LOG4J_FORMAT_MSG_NO_LOOKUPS env var to prevent Log4Shell exploit).

With these webhooks you’re also able to do subtractive access control - take away a users ability to perform a certain action - something that isn’t possible with RBAC which is only addative. I have actually wrote about this previously where we needed to remove a specific permission from the cluster-admin role: Restricting Cluster Admin Permissions

There’s two general ways to go about implementing webhooks in your cluster, either you build something bespoke yourself with custom logic or you leverage a third-party tool that abstracts away from of the low-level details. I recommend starting with a third-party solution to start and if that doesn’t fulfil your needs then look at a custom implementation.

The two current most popular options are Kyverno and OPA Gatekeeper.

Example Kyverno policy taken from my Restricting cluster-admin permissions blog post:

kind: ClusterPolicy
  name: block-bulk-certconfigs-delete
  annotations: Block delete all bug in CLI
  - name: block-bulk-certconfigs-delete
      - resources:
          kinds: [CertConfig]
      - key: ""
        operator: Equals
        value: ""
      message: |
        Your current kubectl-gs version contains a critical bug
        - key: ""
          operator: In
          value: [DELETE]

There are some things to be aware of though. It’s completely possible (and frustratingly common) to take down a cluster with incorrectly configured webhooks.

Where possible, always try and exclude applying webhooks to the kube-system namespace to ensure critical components aren’t accidentally blocked by a webhook.

For example, i’ve dealt with cases where a validating webhook applied to all pods, in all namespaces, and during a cluster upgrade the pods that provided the logic for the webhooks weren’t yet running when the apiserver pod was being created. The webhooks pod was also blocked from launching because the webhook couldn’t run against the pod launch. The launching of this pod being blocked cascaded to more and more failures in the cluster until eventually manual intervention was needed.

On a similar note, be aware of the FailurePolicy property on the webhook resources. By default this is set to fail which will prevent whatever action is being targeted if the webhooks service is unavailable.

There is also a reinvocationPolicy property that can be set if changes made by a MutatingWebhook need to trigger a previously executed webhook to re-run with the latest changes. Use this sparingly as you don’t want to be continuously running webhooks all the time.

The last thing to be aware of - the order webhooks are executed isn’t guaranteed. The MutatingWebhooks are run before the ValidatingWebhooks but within those two phases there’s nothing to ensure a specific running order. In practice, they are run in alphabetical order but that shouldn’t be counted on.

Unfortunately these recommendations are rarely followed by the various open source project that make use of them so you need to be careful about how these applications are configured in your cluster. Oh, and if you have the bright idea like I did to implement a webhook that enforces these recommendations you can stop now. Webhooks aren’t performed against other webhook resources.

#9 - Kubernetes API

All Kubernetes operations are done via the API - kubectl uses it, in-cluster controllers use it, the Kubernetes scheduler uses it and you can use it too!

Many agree that the API is what makes Kubernetes so powerful and successful. It provides a solid foundation with some core resources and functionality, then let’s others extend it and build on top more advanced and powerful features.

The API can be extended by either:

  • the creation of Custom Resource Definitions (CRDs) and controllers.
  • implementing an Aggregation Layer (such as what metrics-server implements). - I’ll not be talking about this in this post.

It’s easy to start experimenting with the Kubernetes API, kubectl actually exposes a --raw flag that we can use to perform an action against a raw API endpoint without having to worry about handling authentication as this will be pulled from your KUBECONFIG details. For example, the following is equivalent to kubectl get pods -n default:

# kubectl get --raw /api/v1/namespaces/default/pods

The following table shows which kubectl commands to use for the different HTTP method verbs.

HTTP Method Kubectl command
GET kubectl get --raw
POST kubectl create --raw
DELETE kubectl delete --raw
PUT kubectl replace --raw

There is even a kubectl command to list out the available APIs in a given cluster in case you weren’t sure.

# kubectl api-resources
NAME                              SHORTNAMES         APIVERSION                             NAMESPACED   KIND
apiservices                                              false        APIService
applications                      app,apps                    true         Application
applicationsets                   appset,appsets                   true         ApplicationSet
appprojects                       appproj,appprojs                   true         AppProject
bindings                                             v1                                     true         Binding
certificatesigningrequests        csr                       false        CertificateSigningRequest
clusterinterceptors               ci                  false        ClusterInterceptor
clusterrolebindings                                   false        ClusterRoleBinding
clusterroles                                          false        ClusterRole

Given the above results, the API endpoints are formatted like so:


If a resource isn’t namespaced (if its cluster-scoped), or if your wanted to perform the request across all namespaces, then you can remove the namespace/{NAMESPACE}/ from the URL.

Similarly, if you’re wanting to list resources rather than retrieve a single resource then you remove the /{NAME} from the end of the URL.

Be aware that the {API_VERSION} has a bit of a gotcha! If the APIVERSION column in the kubectl output just says v1 then this is one of the “core” resources and the API path will start with /api/v1/. But, if the resource is not one of the “core” ones, for example deployments are apps/v1, then the endpoints starts slightly differently: /apis/apps/v1. Take note that this path starts with apis (with an “s”) followed by the api version, whereas the core start with api (without and “s”).

You may be wondering why we’d want to use the API directly rather than making use of kubectl, well there’s at least a couple good reasons:

  • the API allows us to work with Kubernetes in any programming language we want and without the need for additional applications.
  • the kubectl tool is designed to be used by humans primarily meaning most of the output is best suited for a person to read, rather than a computer. Similarly, the commands available in kubectl don’t always map to a single API call, often there are several calls made “behind the scenes” before the result is returned to the user.

Generally its unlikely we’ll make raw HTTP requests to the Kubernetes API server and instead make use of a client library in our programming language of choice. For example:

#10 - Custom Resources and Operators

Custom Resource Definitions (CRDs) and Operators give us the ability to implement abstractions and higher-order representations of concepts. You can define your own resource types with CRDs that then can be handled just like any other resource in a Kubernetes cluster and you can implement the operator pattern to add logic to those custom (or default, built-in) resources.

This is a whole topic on its own and not something I can do justice here so I highly recommend taking a look at the Kubernetes Operators Explained blog post from Container Solutions. Below is a diagram from that blog post explaining the process of an operator.

Workflow diagram of the operator pattern in Kubernetes

Credit: Container Solutions

An operator implements the standard reconciliation loop logic, as found in almost all parts of Kubernetes, to watch for changes to resources or external factors and make adjustments accordingly - either to said resources current state or some external system in response to a change to a resource.

There are several popular frameworks available to handle most of the boilerplate logic needed to create an operator:

To learn more on this subject I can recommend the following YouTube videos:


Hopefully there has been at least something from these points that you can take away and make use of today. If you have any tips you rely on when working with Kubernetes I'd love to hear them, reach out to me on Twitter @Marcus_Noble_ or on Mastodon