Misunderstanding the behaviour of one templating line — and the pain it caused our k8s clusters

How an assumption about the behaviour of a single line led to problems for all of the services receiving traffic through the ingress layer of our Kubernetes clusters

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Kubernetes (often shortened to k8s) is Greek for ‘helmsman’ - the k8s logo is a ship’s wheel. Pictured: the sun setting behind an actual ship’s wheel in Marseille, France


Misunderstanding the behaviour of a single line of templating led to unexpected behaviour and a significant degradation in experiences for users of our k8s clusters.

Progress with ingress

Kubernetes uses an object known as ‘ingress’ to expose HTTP and HTTPS routes from outside a cluster to services running within a cluster.

To control this resource, it’s necessary to deploy one of a number of ingress controllers - in our case we use the open source HAProxy ingress controller partially supported by the maintainers of HAProxy. This project consists of a golang wrapper around the HAProxy binary. The wrapper is responsible for watching the Kubernetes API server for new pods and services, generating the HAProxy config file, and reloading HAProxy to use the new config. The generated config creates an HAProxy backend for each service in the cluster.

The controller generates this HAProxy config from a template file (lightly modified by us from the upstream codebase) and the golang text/template library. Where it can it will dynamically reload the config - however this isn’t always possible, and the controller will sometimes need to restart the HAProxy process. This means that any round robin load balancing will start from the beginning of the list of servers/pods.

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Backends/Pods sorted alphabetically by Pod IP as seen in HAProxy’s stats screen in a staging environment

We run the ingress controllers as a daemonset, meaning that we run a pod on each worker in the cluster. In the case of our largest clusters this means we have around 80 instances running at any time, with the ELB in front of them load balancing across them equally (assuming that all are healthy).

Hot-podding, a problem, and a patch

We’d previously had users of our clusters report issues with the ingress layer: whilst running v0.3 of the ingress controller their pods would experience a phenomenon we dubbed “hot podding” . This meant they were seeing uneven distributions of requests across their pods, with some pods consistently seeing a higher rate of requests than others. The fact they’d only see this with traffic coming through the ingress layer suggested the cause, as well as a possible workaround.

After some digging into the code we realised that the data structure storing the servers/pods for each backend was sorting the pods, and therefore the servers for each backend would always be sorted identically in each HAProxy pod. This meant that if an event occurred where the HAProxy process could not be gracefully reloaded, all HAProxy instances would begin round robin load balancing from the start of the sorted list again. We created a workaround for this by adding a default annotation to all services deployed to our clusters to use upstream Service VIPs rather than individual pod IPs. This allowed us to let Kubernetes take care of the load balancing across each service’s pods rather than HAProxy, albeit with a number of significant trade-offs (e.g. HAProxy was no longer able to mark individual servers/pods as unhealthy).

Due to the drawbacks of this approach we always intended for this to be a temporary workaround and to keep our eyes on the upstream project in the hope that it would address this shortcoming.

The documentation for version v0.5 of the ingress controller introduced a flag called sort-backends, and clarified that the default behaviour was that this was false, i.e. that the servers for each backend would be randomly shuffled by default. Members of our squad went through the changes to the code and thought we understood what the code was doing to shuffle or sort backends depending on the flag, so after some brief testing we went ahead with upgrading to v0.6.

One shortfall of our testing at this point was that we load-tested a fairly static cluster, not the more dynamic clusters we have in production, thereby missing the regular config rewrite and HAProxy non-graceful restarts which were at the root of our problem.

However, all seemed fine until, once again, a user appeared, drawing our attention to unusual request distribution across their pods. We filed this away as a curiosity, but we were fairly confident given our testing, reading of the code, and the fact that only one squad had reported the behaviour, that this wasn’t a priority.

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What the uneven request distribution looked like from the perspective of one service

That held true until one fateful Sunday…

“A spiral of failures”

A user of one of our clusters manually paged the out-of-hours support for k8s as they were seeing elevated latency, especially at the p90 and max levels. After some collaborative digging and a few false starts we found that this could be explained by the fact that the request queues of some pods were being filled and refusing to take any more requests. With some more Prometheus querying we then managed to track this to the same sorting of backends leading to hot-podding, which in this case was leading to a “spiral of failures”. This included some of our ingress containers becoming so overloaded with requests that they were OOMKilled, putting the others under even more stress.

From our perspective this meant that a few pods received enough requests to fill their queues, at which point they (correctly) marked themselves as unready and therefore unwilling to take more traffic. Unfortunately, this meant that they then were taken out of the list of servers for the backend they belonged to, leading to a config reload, and the next pod in the list being overloaded. Happily, we still had our previous stop-gap solution to fall back on: we could patch the affected service’s manifest to disable default use of the pod IPs and revert to using the Service VIP. This only required a simple config change to Slingshot, our internal deployment tool. Given it was a Sunday and multiple engineers had spent multiple hours diagnosing and mitigating the issue it was decided the diagnosis of why the hot-podding had occurred could wait until the next day.

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Can you guess where we switched to Service VIPs?

The mother of all mistakes

We started off confused as to why this was happening — we’d read the docs, even looked at the code, and could see how the map of backends was sorted if the relevant sort-backends option was set. What had we missed?

After some testing and debugging we realised that the random ordering of servers/pods in each backend was being maintained in the Go code right up until it got templated into the config file actually used by HAProxy.

It was at this point we realised that one major assumption we’d made regarding consistency had come back to bite us. None of us had extensively used the text/template library before, but it was just using range to iterate over each list of backends, after the code had already taken care of whether or not to sort, and we knew how using range worked, didn’t we…?

Since version 1.0, Golang’s behaviour when iterating over a map using the range keyword has been that iteration order is not guaranteed to be the same as insertion order.

However, the templating library does not behave in the same way. Instead, the text/template library’s documentation explicitly states that:

If the value is a map and the keys are of basic type with a defined order (“comparable”), the elements will be visited in sorted key order.

This has been the case since the release of Go 1.0. This difference confused us at first, and that’s not surprising when you consider that neither the issue linked to above, or the commit resolving the issue, explain why the maintainers of Go think this behaviour is desirable. However, you can see why deterministic behaviour is probably what you want out of a templating library - you’d certainly be confused if every time you ran through a template you got a different ordering of rows in a table!

So how does this difference in behaviour lead to us “hot-podding” some service containers with more traffic than others?

Well, the template shipped with the pod, and used by ourselves in slightly modified form, iterates over a map where the keys are of the form pod_ip:port. Given the behaviour of the templating library above, this meant the pods always ended up ordered by pod IP in ascending order. We now just needed to find a way to ensure that the templating library didn’t perform unexpected re-ordering of the pods at templating time.

After a bit of reading we realised we could work around this with some minimal patching of the controller; we used a slice to maintain the order of insertion to the map of backends for each server. We could then modify the template to iterate over this slice instead, and lookup the elements in the map by key. We quickly threw together the required changes to both the codebase and config template to enable this, and tested it in our sandbox clusters. Once we had begun rolling it out to production clusters we checked the same graphs we had been looking at above which showed up the hot-podding, and lo and behold:

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Request distribution for the same service post patching

This led to us raising a GitHub issue with the upstream project and a corresponding pull request. Unfortunately the project doesn’t currently have anything in the way of a test suite (plans are afoot for a major rewrite which is intended to solve this shortcoming) so we hadn’t realised that our patch would break functionality we weren’t using. The maintainer however quickly picked up on this and pushed an alternative fix to the next release, as well as offering to backport it if we needed to continue running the v0.6 release.

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Randomly sorted backends in the same staging environment as above — Perfect for a good even request distribution

We’ve now been successfully running with the patch internally for a number of months, gaining all of the benefits of returning to using pod IPs by default for backends.

Lessons learned

We have been forcibly reminded that when we change the components in our cluster we need to test those changes with specific behaviour and conditions in mind.

We already knew about the risks of hot-podding and the link with sorted lists of backends but failed to test the new flag enough to realise that it wasn’t working as expected.

Never assume you know how something is going to behave due to the behaviour of the same word in another part of the language - this is the core assumption that hurt us when we examined v0.5 of the controller.

As others have documented time and time again, changes in one small component of your k8s cluster can have outsized negative impacts on users of your clusters, and ultimately, on your customers.

We’re hiring

If solving complex problems like the one above and working on cloud-native systems appeals to you, we’re currently looking for systems engineers to join Skyscanner’s Platform Tribe.

We’re currently hiring in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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We’re hiring!

About the author

My name is Guy Templeton, a Software Engineer working in the Argo Squad in Glasgow. We’re a developer enablement squad spread across 3 offices who aim to facilitate the adoption of Kubernetes within Skyscanner. Outside of work, I love Munro bagging, gig-going and using half marathons as an excuse for visiting cities.

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Guy Templeton (author)

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