Kubernetes and OpenShift: Discerning the Differences

At VSHN and APPUiO.ch we rely on OpenShift as our Kubernetes distribution of choice. What a Kubernetes distribution is, why we use it and what the differences are to “plain” Kubernetes are will be explained in this article.

What is Kubernetes?

The official description of Kubernetes is this:

DevOps Dozen 2023

Kubernetes is a portable, extensible open-source platform for managing containerized workloads and services, that facilitates both declarative configuration and automation.”

The most important part of this description is the fact that Kubernetes is a platform and not a ready, off-the-shelf product. This is an important piece of information for understanding this article.

What is a Kubernetes Distribution?

To understand the differences between Kubernetes and OpenShift, we first have to clarify the term “Kubernetes distribution.” If Kubernetes is installed directly from the open source Kubernetes project, you get just the core components (API server, controller manager, scheduler, Kubelet, kube-proxy). However, for Kubernetes to be really usable, you need a lot of other components, such as etcd, ingress controller, logging server, metrics collector (for example Prometheus), software-defined network (SDN) and many more. This is very similar to Linux: The Linux kernel alone does not help much; you need a whole Linux distribution which provides a shell, package management, boot process and much more.

OpenShift is a Kubernetes distribution and makes Kubernetes a product.

A minimum viable Kubernetes distribution requires the following additional components and tools for productive operation:

  • Installation and upgrade mechanism: for an automated installation of all involved components.
  • SDN (software defined network): pods must be able to communicate with each other no matter where they are running, and the SDN ensures that.
  • Ingress controller: to allow user access to applications running on the cluster.
  • Authentication: a central user and group database provides the authenticated and authorized access.
  • Security: Kubernetes executes containers via Docker or CRI-O. The security on the host system must be ensured accordingly.
  • Persistent storage: stateful applications such as databases require persistent storage.
  • Monitoring: of all cluster components and applications.
  • Backup: of cluster components and persistent data.

Optionally, further components are recommended:

  • Central logging with graphics and searchability.
  • Application and cluster metrics including alerting.

OpenShift as Kubernetes Distribution

Essentially, OpenShift relies 100% on Kubernetes, but as a Kubernetes distribution, it comes with everything needed for a Kubernetes cluster. To name just the most important functions:

  • Operations tools: an official and supported way via Ansible allows the entire life cycle of OpenShift to be executed. This includes the automated installation as well as upgrades to newer versions of OpenShift.
  • Router: the OpenShift router (ingress controller)—based on HAProxy—ensures that access to applications within the cluster is made possible via HTTP(S).
  • Multi-tenancy: multi-tenancy is built-in the core on OpenShift projects, RBAC and other concepts to allow the use of the platform by various stakeholders.
  • Authentication: the most different authentication backends are supported, above all LDAP, Active Directory (AD) and others.
  • Metrics: the bundled metrics component collects all available data (RAM, CPU, network) of the applications running on the cluster and visualizes them in the web console.
  • Central logging: all lines logged by the application on stdout are automatically collected by the central logging component and are made available to the user via the web console.
  • Security: the platform is designed for maximum security. For example, security measures in the kernel of Red Hat Enterprise Linux such as SELinux ensure that the security of the containers is guaranteed. Further measures such as security context constraints (SCC) and the prevention of root containers ensure further security.
  • Builds and pipelines: directly in the cluster integrated build and pipeline capabilities enable a fully integrated CI/CD workflow.
  • Web console: all operations on the cluster are visually displayed to the user of the platform in a web console and allow an easy and quick access to the use of Kubernetes.
  • SDN: the included software defined networking provides connectivity between the pods running on the platform and for an adequate network security with network policies.
  • Container registry: Docker/container images are stored in the bundled registry and used for deployment onto the worker nodes.

All these built-in functionalities can be added to any Kubernetes cluster, but only with a lot of effort—comparable to building your own Linux distribution, as for example Linux From Scratch demonstrates. Kubernetes has a similar guide called “Kubernetes The Hard Way.”

OpenShift as PaaS

The strength of Kubernetes lies in the container orchestration. In addition, OpenShift offers classic platform-as-a-service (PaaS) functionalities. One of these is the automatic building and deployment of application code directly from a Git repository. Nevertheless, as a user of the platform and thanks to its great flexibility, you always have the choice of whether you want to use the integrated build functions or rather build outside the cluster. This can be chosen for each deployment, so both types can be used on one cluster.

OpenShift as Upstream to Kubernetes

Many developments in Kubernetes originally came from OpenShift. The best example is RBAC (role based access control). This feature has been part of OpenShift since the first release and has been gradually integrated into Kubernetes. RBAC has been an integral part of Kubernetes since Kubernetes version 1.6. The OpenShift Route or the DeploymentConfiguration object also played a key role in the Ingress and Deployment objects in Kubernetes.

Since OpenShift is 100% based on Kubernetes, all Kubernetes-native workloads are also supported, such as the Deployment or the Ingress object.

If you look more closely at the contributor statistics, you’ll find that Red Hat is one of the top three contributor companies, so Red Hat is crucial in the development of Kubernetes. With the purchase of CoreOS, Red Hat acquired formidable Kubernetes know-how. The merger of OpenShift and Tectonic will be the next milestone of the Kubernetes distribution OpenShift.

Alternatives to OpenShift

OpenShift is not the only Kubernetes distribution on the market. A quick comparison shows the differences:

  • Cloud-vendor Kubernetes: the big clouds offer their own Kubernetes distributions as a service. These are tailored to the respective cloud and are maintained by the providers. Installation on your own private cloud or on other public clouds is not possible.
  • Rancher: since version 2.0, Rancher focuses 100% on Kubernetes and offers a multi-cluster management function as a major strength. With Rancher, Kubernetes clusters in the cloud (for example, on Amazon or Google) can be managed centrally, as well as Kubernetes clusters with the Rancher Kubernetes Engin’ on your own VMs. With the web interface, setting up a new cluster is very easy and application deployments using Helm are also directly available.
  • Tectonic: this distribution places great importance on cloud-native automation. Through Red Hat’s acquisition of CoreOS, Tectonic will be merged with OpenShift and many of its features will inserted into OpenShift.
  • Canonical/Ubuntu Kubernetes: a platform based on Ubuntu, which uses Juju as installation tool. In partnership with Google and Rancher, a hybrid cloud solution will be offered in the future.
  • SUSE CaaS platform: a very new platform based on SUSE MicroOS. Salt is used to ensure configuration management. Using this link, you can participate in the beta program: SUSE CaaS Platform Beta.

Further Kubernetes distributions include:

One very important aspect to consider is the cloud and/or vendor lock-in. Many of the Kubernetes distributions have their own characteristics which may not be compatible with each other. Using the example of cloud vendor distributions: These can only be used in the corresponding cloud. However, if you want to pursue a hybrid cloud approach, this is not possible due to the lock-in. In contrast, a self-installable distribution such as OpenShift makes this option possible.

Pure open source distributions without manufacturer support are not recommended for productive environments, as this is of great advantage for a complex platform like Kubernetes.

To Learn More About Kubernetes and OpenShift

At the Cloud Native Meetup Aug. 28, 2018. in Zurich, we talked about Kubernetes distributions. You can find the slides on Speaker Deck. Another recommendable blog post on this topic by Tomasz Cholewa: “10 most important differences between OpenShift and Kubernetes.”

To learn more about containerized infrastructure and cloud-native technologies, consider coming to KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Barcelona, May 20-23 in Barcelona.

Tobias Brunner

Tobias Brunner is head of DevOps & Partner at VSHN - The DevOps Company. He has been working in computer science and in the internet space for almost 15 years.

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