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Alerting in Kubernetes

Alerting is one of the pillars of observability in DevOps, and is closely related to monitoring and logging. Even though monitoring and logging provide a way to actively view and get insight on the state of the system, any person cannot remain glued to the screen to keep a look out for an error level log statement, low memory issue or other troublesome event. We use alerting to let us know of events of interest, i.e. events that indicate issues or potential issues, as and when they occur.

The concept of alerting is simple. The system is continuously monitored, and when a predefined threshold of some metric is crossed, an alert is sent out to pre-configured recipients. Thresholds can be set to not only indicate the occurrence of an issue with the system but rather also proactively indicate that the system might be headed towards an issue. Alerting on such thresholds may give the stakeholders adequate indication and time to monitor the system more closely and even start some mitigation activities that will lower the probability of issue occurrence. The exact thresholds for alerting will no doubt have to be thought out, as having low thresholds that are reached frequently but have little impact, will lead to very noisy alerting; i.e. We will receive frequent alerts for events that do not require immediate attention. On the other hand, if the thresholds are too high, we may not receive alerts until the issue has already occurred, or it is too late to mitigate in any way. The monitoring data will of course all be there in the required fine-grained detail to allow for effective root cause analysis, but the alerts should only be triggered within the sweet spot of the threshold range that actually warrant attention from human stakeholders.

At Stakater we try to use open-source software throughout our deployment environment such as with Kubernetes because of the relevant benefits. This is also the case for our monitoring and alerting, for which we use a Prometheus-based stack.

Prometheus monitoring

Let’s take a quick look at how we can use Prometheus for monitoring on a Kubernetes cluster.

A convenient way of deploying Prometheus on Kubernetes is by using the Prometheus Operator. With Prometheus, there are a few components involved at the center of which we have the Prometheus Server. Prometheus server essentially scrapes metric data that other services expose. Each Kubernetes node exposes certain Services like Node Exporter & Kubelet, which contain system level metrics. Node Exporter collects OS level metrics of a node through Docker host and Kubelet contains cadvisor which collects container metrics from the Docker Engine. For Kubernetes monitoring, Prometheus scrapes metrics from each Kubelet and Node Exporter from all nodes.

There may be some services such as ephemeral and batch jobs that Prometheus server cannot reliably scrape because of their ephemeral nature. For such a case we have the Prometheus Pushgateway which is able to have such jobs or services push their metrics to it, and in turn Pushgateway exposes these metrics to Prometheus for scraping.

For visualization, we have Grafana which queries Prometheus and groups the results and displays it in Dashboards.

Prometheus Alert Manager

For alerting, Prometheus Server triggers alerts on Prometheus AlertManager based on the rules defined within AlertManager. The alert trigger sends notifications through a desired notification channel.

Prometheus Operator creates/configures/manages Prometheus atop Kubernetes and makes Kubernetes native Prometheus configuration in the form of Customer Resource Definitions (CRDs). Two of these CRDs are for PrometheusRule and AlertManager.

We can define multiple alerting rules using PrometheusRule which are actually Prometheus queries. When the rule query is satisfied, it fires the alert to AlertManager. Each rule can have labels. AlertManager has Routes, which can be defined using these labels and each Route can have multiple Receivers, and each receiver can send the notification to a specific app like Slack or email. We can also set a time period during which a rule is satisfied, for the alert to be triggered, e.g. we want the alert to trigger if Kubelet is down for 2 minutes.

Following is an example configuration which shows the configuration of 2 alerts based on the same metric, i.e. the number of responsive kubelets. The threshold for the percentage of kubelets however is different and are therefore labelled differently.

- alert: K8SKubeletDown
  expr: count(up{job="kubelet"} == 0) / count(up{job="kubelet"}) > 0.03
  for: 5m
    severity: warning
    kind: infra
    description: Prometheus failed to scrape {{ $value }}% of kubelets.
    summary: Many Kubelets cannot be scraped
- alert: K8SKubeletDown
  expr: absent(up{job="kubelet"} == 1) or count(up{job="kubelet"} == 0) / count(up{job="kubelet"}) > 0.1
  for: 5m
    severity: critical
    kind: infra
    description: Prometheus failed to scrape {{ $value }}% of kubelets, or all Kubelets have disappeared from service discovery.
    summary: Many Kubelets cannot be scraped

In the first alert configured above, if the percentage of unresponsive kubelets stays above 3% for 5 minutes, an alert of severity Warning is triggered. In second alert, if the percentage of unresponsive kubelets stays above 10% for 5 minutes, an alert of severity Error is triggered.

Uptime checker alerts

Apart from Prometheus which provides us monitoring from within our Kubernetes cluster, we also employ third-party cloud services for uptime monitoring such as Uptime Robot. Such a service allows monitoring of application connection from multiple locations across the globe, and additionally alerts in case the application is not reachable. Services like Uptime Robot also provide alerts using multiple notification channels such as Slack, email, etc.

For the purpose of easy automation of configuring monitors and alerts with the Uptime checker, we have developed an open-source Kubernetes controller, IngressMonitorController. The IngressMonitorController automatically adds/removes monitors and alerts against ingresses in the uptime checker such as UptimeRobot, Pingdom, Statuscake, etc.

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