Kubernetes Gated Deployments

10 min read
Jacob BrooksSatish RaviSteven Fu

At GoDaddy, teams perform continuous deployments of their services dozens of times a day to Kubernetes. Changes to a service may cause unintended effects that unit and integration tests do not catch, resulting in a negative impact on the customer experience. For example, an engineer might introduce a performance regression that increases page load time. In this case, it is important to mitigate the impact on customers by promptly removing the change from production. Measuring the impact of a change and making a quick decision to roll back can be challenging in an environment where there are many deploys each day. Existing tools that facilitate this process require a more complex infrastructure than our current setup that primarily uses native Kubernetes resources and operations. For example, Kayenta requires teams to onboard to Spinnaker, which is useful in some cases, but does not work well for all our DevOps patterns; Flagger requires setting up an additional service to route traffic and a webhook for custom metrics. To help address this challenge, we designed, implemented, and open sourced an extension for Kubernetes, called Kubernetes Gated Deployments, that automates regression testing and canary analysis, and rolls back the changes if they cause undesirable behavior. Getting started with Kubernetes Gated Deployments is a lightweight process, and it does not require engineers to deploy or configure additional services on their Kubernetes cluster.

Challenges in analyzing application metrics

When changes impact application metrics, engineers need to consider if rolling back is necessary. However, it is difficult to make data-driven decisions that are statistically sound, and that process is often time-consuming, leading to prolonged customer impact. Common techniques for assessing the impact of changes on key metrics of an application’s functionality and performance include pre-post analysis, load testing and benchmarking, and canary deploys with manual inspection of metrics. There are several drawbacks with these approaches:

  • They are laborious, and do not isolate and measure the impact of the change itself: Manual assessments are time consuming and not scalable when teams are making a large number of deployments throughout the day, which also makes it challenging to determine the specific change that resulted in the impact on key metrics.
  • They are prone to human error: Human analysis inherently leads to a subjective decision that can result from error or bias, and it is difficult to consistently determine if the metric deviations are due to random chance or from a deployed change.
  • They are not representative of the system under realistic circumstances: For example, engineers might choose to load test using synthetic models for user requests, but it is difficult to ensure that those synthetic models produce a traffic pattern similar enough to real production traffic to guarantee the load test captures what engineers intend to measure.
  • It is difficult to monitor and respond to regressions in key metrics in a timely manner: Teams may rely on monitors to show increased response times or complaints from users, but at this point the change has already adversely affected the customer experience, and engineers must roll back the change.

Kubernetes Gated Deployments

To solve the problems described above, we’ve created Kubernetes Gated Deployments, which we use in place of manual analysis of metrics and intervention. It enables our engineering teams to run each deployment as a controlled experiment. Just as teams run experiments on product metrics to test client-side changes, they can use this Kubernetes extension to run experiments on infrastructure and code changes to assess the impact of those changes and detect issues by analyzing key metrics associated with the application’s functionality and performance. This system automatically analyzes the metrics specified by engineers for the current and new versions of the application, and either rolls back the change or promotes it to take all production traffic. Kubernetes Gated Deployments does not require any application code changes, and relies on native Kubernetes resources to route traffic and manage the deployed application. It adds a new object type, called a GatedDeployment, that allows engineers to specify metric sources and analysis techniques, which the controller will use to compare versions. We designed this system to augment existing deployment processes by comparing the deployed versions to validate that the new one does no harm to the metrics specified in that object.

How it works

The controller relies on Kubernetes Deployments to split traffic and manage versions. Teams should configure their application as two Deployments and one Service that routes requests to the pods of the two Deployments:

  • A control Deployment that takes all traffic when no experiment is running
  • A treatment Deployment that teams deploy new versions to, and that Kubernetes distributes traffic to when the experiment is running

The current implementation allows the native Kubernetes resources to perform this traffic split, but we plan to allow for a more flexible configuration of traffic flow in the future. As shown in the diagram below, the Kubernetes Service that exposes the pods of the two Deployments will automatically load balance and distribute traffic among them; this means that the number of replica pods in each Deployment determines the split percentage of traffic in the experiment. For example, if teams desire a 20% traffic split to the new version of the application on every deployment, they might specify a configuration of eight control replicas and two treatment replicas.

When the controller detects that the treatment Deployment is eligible for analysis, it will start the experiment. A treatment Deployment is eligible when it meets the following conditions:

  • It has a different pod spec than the control Deployment
  • It has at least one replica

To deploy a new version and start an experiment, teams simply need to deploy to the treatment Deployment with a new pod spec, which might contain a new image tag, and the number of replicas corresponding to the proportion of traffic they want the treatment to receive. We designed this to be similar to how teams normally deploy their application in the absence of Kubernetes Gated Deployments, so that they only need to make small changes to their deployment infrastructure to support it. One limitation is that if multiple deployments occur during an experiment, the control deployment could be multiple versions behind the treatment; to avoid this, teams should ensure that a single deployment and its corresponding experiment finish before a subsequent deployment occurs.

While the experiment is active, the controller periodically polls a set of decision plugins that contain the logic for fetching and performing analysis on functionality or performance data to determine if the treatment version is doing harm to the metrics measured. If it is, the controller will either roll back the treatment Deployment by setting the number of replicas to zero, or it will promote the treatment by updating the control Deployment’s pod spec to match that of the treatment and then scale down the treatment to zero replicas. The controller will also set an annotation, gatedDeployStatus, on the treatment Deployment to specify what the decision was. Teams can use this to observe the outcome of the gated deployment or in CICD pipelines to programmatically halt the deployment process on a failed experiment. A sample deployment process might look like:

kubectl apply -f treatment-deployment.yaml

  gatedDeployStatus = kubectl get deploy treatment
                      -o jsonpath='{.metadata.annotations.gatedDeployStatus}'
while gatedDeployStatus == 'notSignificant'

if gatedDeployStatus == 'harm' then

Decision plugins

Kubernetes Gated Deployments supports an abstraction of decision plugins, which encapsulate the logic for fetching a metric from a backend, as well as the analysis for that metric. We designed the system to be extensible so teams can add their own backends, e.g., New Relic, Elastic APM, CloudWatch, or pod logs, with their own analysis and judgement logic. Each GatedDeployment object that teams set up contains at least one decision plugin, and the object contains the configuration for those plugins.

The controller will query each plugin on a configurable polling interval that defaults to 30 seconds. Each plugin can be configured with an experiment time limit and returns one of three values:

  • WAIT: if the analysis cannot make a conclusion about the metric yet, e.g., it requires a minimum amount of time or if the result is not yet statistically significant
  • PASS: if the treatment version does no harm to the metric analyzed, or if the experiment time exceeds the configured limit
  • FAIL: if the treatment does harm to the metric analyzed

Teams can configure multiple plugins for a single deployment. For example, a team might want to measure response time and error rate for multiple endpoints in a single application. In this case, all plugins must return PASS for the controller to decide that the experiment is a success; if any plugin returns FAIL, it will decide that the experiment is a failure. Otherwise, the controller will continue polling the metrics until the plugins satisfy one of the two conditions above. Once the controller makes a decision for the experiment, it will take action to roll back or continue deploying the treatment version.

See here for a list of the decision plugins available, and here for a guide on how to contribute more.

Usage of the New Relic decision plugin

A decision plugin that we implemented and have been using at GoDaddy is a newRelicPerformance plugin, which analyzes response times to determine if the newly deployed version is performing worse than the current version. Shown below is a sample configuration of the plugin in the GatedDeployment object:

apiVersion: 'kubernetes-client.io/v1'
kind: GatedDeployment
  name: example-rest-service
    name: example-rest-service-control
    name: example-rest-service-treatment
    - name: newRelicPerformance
      accountId: 807783
      secretName: newrelic-secrets
      secretKey: example-rest-service
      appName: example-rest-service
      minSamples: 50
      maxTime: 600
      testPath: /shopper/products

This plugin retrieves response times from New Relic for the control and treatment versions, and tests if they are statistically significantly different using the Mann-Whitney U test. Because statistical significance does not necessarily imply practical significance, the plugin exposes a threshold setting before it marks the treatment version as causing harm to the metric of response time. This is useful in the case when the application does not receive much traffic, as small sample sizes can result in erroneous statistically significant results. Depending on the traffic patterns and response time distribution of the application, teams can also configure a minimum number of samples before analyzing the response times, and a maximum amount of time in seconds that the experiment will run for before automatically deciding that it is a success.

Kubernetes Gated Deployments in production

We have replaced log analysis of a single canary pod that some of our services used with Kubernetes Gated Deployments, and we have been using the New Relic response time decision plugin for a while with some production services. It has already detected and rolled back a performance regression that resulted from calling a new API with increased response times and has given engineers more confidence in their deployed changes.

Learn more and get started

With Kubernetes Gated Deployments, engineers are able to perform automated regression testing and canary analysis with their continuous deployments, and limit any negative impact resulting from their changes. By configuring this Kubernetes extension with the functionality and performance metrics associated with their application, they can rely on the controller to measure and analyze those metrics in a statistically sound way, and automatically mitigate any negative impact. Kubernetes Gated Deployments does not require any application code changes, making it simple to apply to existing deployment pipelines.

If you want to learn more about or get started with Kubernetes Gated Deployments, please visit https://github.com/godaddy/kubernetes-gated-deployments. We welcome contributions and would love to expand the decision plugins available to support other metric backends and analysis techniques.

Our team of engineers and full-stack data scientists builds experimentally validated services. Come join us and contribute to services that help us leverage experimentation services and machine learning models to improve the GoDaddy customer experience. We’re looking for a principal and a senior back-end software engineer.