The Anatomy of Kubernetes ListWatch(): Prologue

When I was in high school, I took languages (German, English) as my major classes. Reading, interpreting and writing about literature, i.e. books, became a daunting task. And to be honest with you, I don’t recall much from the Shakespeare’s and other legends of past centuries. But there was one book which I still remember.

Perhaps you have heard about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and one of the most famous books in German literature: Faust: A Tragedy. In this book, Goethe describes the restless pursuit of knowledge and the never-satisfied desires of a person who is dissatisfied with his life. In order to satisfy his need for knowledge and pleasure, Faust dedicated himself to the devil and to the life (and love) of a person.

Dr. Faust (Source: Britannica)

With the ever increasing rate of innovation in information technology, many of us have a desire to continuously learn and grow, seeking for answers to small and big questions, like Dr. Faust. Reflecting on myself, this part of a monologue by Faust became a theme throughout my whole career (and still is).

β€žTo enlighten me more, What holds the world together at its innermost coreβ€œ

(Faust, J. W. Goethe)

Whenever I am confronted with a complex problem space or piece of technology, I try to distill it to its essence, its core. What are the building blocks (atomic units)? How are they assembled to form a more complex structure? What are the decisions and tradeoffs the architects had to make? How did these influence the overall design?

Not only does this help me to better understand whether and how to optimally use a certain technology. I also became a better software engineer, standing on the many shoulders of the giants in our industry.

Since my early days with Kubernetes, my inner Dr. Faust pushed me to learn more about the core concepts, e.g. how the (many) autonomous and stateless controllers (control loops) react to state changes (events) without a central orchestrator. I wrote a couple of blog posts1 2 and gave presentations3, to answer the same questions many of you also had, doing my best to educate and grow our great community.

Even though over time I developed a good understanding and mental model on the Kubernetes architecture, I still had the feeling to not fully grok certain details how these events are generated, propagated and reliably consumed throughout the various Kubernetes components and actors. The ListerWatcher interface in the client-go SDK, used in all Go-based Kubernetes controllers, plays a critical role here:

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// ListerWatcher is any object that knows how to perform an 
// initial list and start a watch on a resource.
type ListerWatcher interface {
  Lister
  Watcher
}

It all started with a simple question: how does ListerWatcher work? As you see from this series, it turned out to be another journey into a fascinating and deep rabbit hole.

For example, is there a canonical definition of a state change event4 in Kubernetes? How is the level-triggered state change notification implemented? Why do I always get ADDED events from an initial kubectl or controller WATCH, when the object’s last state is actually MODIFIED? How is the resourceVersion, which is critical for optimistic concurrency control5 in such an asynchronous system, generated? And if it’s so important, why is resourceVersion not explicitly persisted in the persistence layer etcd then?

Speaking of etcd, how is the Kubernetes object registry physically represented? What is a “flat binary key space” (to quote from the docs) anyways? And what’s the difference between a compaction and defragmentation operation related to resourceVersions?

Lastly, how does an end-to-end event notification WATCH stream work under the covers, e.g. when using client-go or controller-runtime (kubebuilder)? How can a collection6 (“LIST”) have a resourceVersion, if the latter is based on individual object-level changes? What are all these Indexers and Queues used for in the controller SDKs? And why don’t we see ADD/UPDATE/DELETE events anymore in the Reconcile() handler of controller-runtime?

The list goes on…in fact, it looks like I am not the only one with these questions πŸ˜„

To be fair, some of these questions are answered in various blogs, talks and the official Kubernetes documentation7. To keep the documentation concise, implementation details or parts which are not relevant for all personas, are left out though. Sometimes, the information is partially repeated or spread over different pages and Git repositories, making it hard to get a complete picture of how all the pieces fit together.

So Dr. Faust, err I, decided to describe the end-to-end flow of the event notification mechanism in Kubernetes, also known as the ListerWatcher interface in the controller SDK.

End-to-End Communication Flow of ListWatch

Initially I wanted to start at the client (controller) layer. But I quickly realized, that in order to understand certain concepts, like resourceVersion, a fundamental understanding of the Kubernetes data model is required. Or more specifically, how resource objects are persisted in and projected from the database (etcd).

Thus, we will work us backwards through this rabbit hole, starting with etcd in the first part of this series. Our journey starts here…

Part 1: Onwards to the Core: etcd
Part 2: Source of Truth: The API Server
Part 3: Informers, Controllers, Reconciliation…oh my

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."

(John Anster, inspired by Goethe’s Faust)

As a final note, I cannot thank the creators and community enough for how much I learned from the Kubernetes system architecture. πŸ™ πŸ™ πŸ™


  1. Reconciliation in the Kubernetes scheduler. ↩︎

  2. Events, the DNA of Kubernetes ↩︎

  3. Inside Kubernetes Resource Management ↩︎

  4. Note that I am not talking about the event log in Kubernetes. For a better understanding of the differences see this talk ↩︎

  5. Kubernetes API Conventions ↩︎

  6. A LIST is returned from GET operations on collections, e.g. kubectl get pods ↩︎

  7. The Life of a Kubernetes Watch Event is a great talk describing the end-to-end WATCH flow. But since Kubecon talks are time-constrained, the presenters had to omit certain details which I wanted to explore deeper. ↩︎