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What are the differences between Helm and Operators?

Kubernetes

Kubernetes has become the de facto container orchestration platform, streamlining and simplifying container management. However, there is an additional complexity associated with setting up and maintaining Kubernetes clusters. One such task is deploying applications into a Kubernetes cluster.

The manual method of creating a YAML files for each deployment or configuration change is not a scalable option for most production environments. Helm Charts and Kubernetes Operators are two tools that aim to solve this problem by offering a simple application deployment and configuration process.

Helm and Operators

In this section, let’s go through these two tools as well as their features and functionality.

Helm

Helm is a tool that enables users to manage Kubernetes applications. It allows users to package and share Kubernetes applications, facilitating easy deployment, update, and maintenance of K8s applications.

Helm charts are the core component that facilitates this functionality. Charts are the packaging format used by Helm. A Helm chart contains configuration files and template files that define an application along with the corresponding Kubernetes resources. This approach eliminates the need for separate YAML configurations for different workloads, settings, or deployment environments. Helm charts can support applications at any scale, from a single container app to a complete solution stack.

Core concepts of Helm

  • Chart – bundle of information (templates, resource definitions, readme, etc.) required to create a Kubernetes application.
  • Config – The configuration details that can be merged into the packaged chart that will be used to create a releasable object.
  • Release – The running instance of the Helm chart.

Helm enables users to simply install, update, and uninstall Kubernetes applications effortlessly as with any other package manager.

Operators

Kubernetes operator is also a method used to package, deploy and manage Kubernetes applications using the Kubernetes API and kubectl tooling. It is built on top of the Kubernetes resource and controller concepts with the domain and application-specific information to automate the complete application lifecycle.

An operator is a custom controller that utilizes custom resources to manage applications. The custom resource (CR) is an API extension mechanism of K8s. It consists of all the configurations and settings provided by the user. The custom operator will take the CR and match the current state of the application to the desired state of the CR using the Kubernetes API.

Operators can be implemented using any programming language and runtime supported by Kubernetes (client libraries) and packaged as container images and deployed in K8s. These custom resources will be available to end-users simply as build-in resources such as Pods, Services leading to more granular control over the applications. Due to this native integration, operators can perform almost any kind of action, including custom scaling to managing kernel modules.

Use Cases for Helm and Operators

At a high level, both these tools simplify application deployment and management in Kubernetes. However, the exact use cases of these tools depend on the application and user requirements.

Helm is geared more towards day-1 operations with its aim to provide a simple application packaging, deployment, and management experience. Users can rapidly deploy applications in different Kubernetes environments with the ability to create reusable helm charts that bundle the application, configurations, and dependencies.

Helm’s ability to act as the package manager for Kubernetes allows users to easily manage the install, update and uninstall functions for applications. This way, Helm is the ideal tool for setting up a Kubernetes cluster to deploy applications. Creating helm charts is a relatively uncomplicated process that allows novice users to get started with Helm easily in their Kubernetes workflow. However, all this simplicity comes at the cost of less control when it comes to dealing with complex application requirements.

Kubernetes operators are well suited to handle complex application deployments with complicated requirements due to their direct integration with Kubernetes API. On top of that, operators can also be used to automate application tasks beyond what is provided by default with Kubernetes to include application-specific automation to the Kubernetes cluster. This is where application management comes into play by helping to deal with day-to-day operations.

Since operators act as the Kubernetes controller, they can manage the state of the applications and automatically carry out management tasks to preserve the application state. Depending on the operator, it can be used to handle tasks such as:

  • Backup and restoration of applications and dependencies.
  • Automated updates that include application updates with additional updates like database updates, dependency, and configuration changes, etc…
  • Automated application deployment to facilitate scaling.

Kubernetes operators are the best choice to manage applications when dealing with mature and complex Kubernetes clusters. Creating operators is a complex process, yet they offer unparalleled control over applications with near-native level integration with the cluster.

When to use Helm and Operators?

As described in the previous section, each tool excels at different use cases. Therefore, it comes down to the specific use case when choosing a tool.

  • Helm will be the better solution if you just want to install an application.
  • Use Helm if you are starting up with Kubernetes and need to manage a simple application life cycle (install, update, remove).
  • Use Helm to package and deploy if there are no special or complex configuration requirements. Go with Operators if there are Complex configurations.
  • Operators provide a better solution when dealing with mature clusters as they can be deployed later but still manage some application configurations.
  • Go with Operators if you need to automate mundane application-related tasks.

Another option is to use both these tools. Helm charts can act as the portable standardized deployment package in the operator, then use the operator to manage the additional configuration and Kubernetes resources.

Conclusion

Helm and Operators are tools that aid users to better manage their applications in a Kubernetes environment. What tool to use is up to the user and depends on the needs of the application. Helm offers a standardized way to package, deploy, update, and remove applications from Kubernetes clusters. At the same time, Operators aim to provide a platform to extend Kubernetes to support application deployments and lifecycle management at a native level with resource-level control over all aspects of the applications.

The manual method of creating a YAML files is not scalable. Helm and Kubernetes Operators are one of the tools you can use to make YAML and configuration management across clusters and environments easy. However, these tools need a considerable time to invest in learning them.

CloudPlex solves the problem of YAML scalability with a no-code approach. In contrast to the learning curve of Helm and Kubernetes Operators, CloudPlex approach makes managing YAML easier.

With CloudPlex, developers no longer need to write the manifest files, nor search for valid parameters and supported values. Developers just configure services using a visual interface, in a single view. The platform performs validation and generates all related manifest and config files, which can also be downloaded and used on any K8s cluster.

The screenshot is a visual interface used by the developer to create the same application as above. As you can see, the developer can create the application simply by dragging and dropping containers from a palette to the canvass and configuring the containers visually in the Config Panel:

Config Panel

Spend more time coding and less time managing YAML, and start using CloudPlex for free.

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