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February 18, 2021

What Is Rancher?

Containers
Open Source

For companies considering container and container orchestration solutions, Rancher provides an attractive option. In this blog, we give an overview of the Rancher platform and features as well as available Rancher software. Lastly, we discuss when companies should consider Rancher, and when they should pursue other options.

What Is Rancher?

Rancher is a software product to manage Kubernetes clusters. This includes not only managing existing clusters, but building new clusters as well.

About Rancher Labs

Rancher Labs is the software company behind Rancher, along with several other products. They created the Rancher console to manage Kubernetes clusters, and created some Kubernetes distributions themselves, such as RKE and K3s. They were purchased by SUSE in late 2020, so they have some good corporate support.

Rancher Platform Features

Rancher makes it easy to provision and manage Kubernetes clusters. You can import existing clusters, either custom or managed clusters like EKS and GKE, or define and deploy your own with RKE or K3s.

Rancher allows you to manage security across clusters easily. You can define users, even using external authentication methods like LDAP, assign these users permissions, and assign them to resources across any cluster managed by Rancher.

Infrastructure Orchestration

With Rancher, you can manage a Kubernetes cluster right from the console. This includes backups and restores of etcd, upgrading Kubernetes versions, recovering degraded clusters, and even adding and replacing nodes.

Container Orchestration

All the features of Kubernetes are available with Rancher with an easy to use console. You can create projects, manage workloads, define replicas, load balancer configurations, and other features of containers.

By using the security features, you can define areas that users can access, giving them the ability to manage their workloads and projects without having to know more in-depth about Kubernetes and the CLI tools. The tools can still be used for automation or scripting, but using the console may be easier for end-users.

The Application Catalog

The Application Catalog (or Marketplace in Rancher 2.5+) is a list of applications that have been configured and verified to run in Kubernetes.  The applications are Helm v3 charts, with some Rancher extensions to make customization easier. These can be easily installed using the console.

There are also several other repositories included, and you can add your own to be able to easily deploy apps to your cluster. Deploying an app runs helm commands behind the scenes, so you don’t have to worry about missing parameters or getting values wrong. Many applications are available, including complete monitoring using Prometheus and Grafana.

Rancher Software

The Rancher software is itself run in a Kubernetes cluster, either a full cluster using RKE for high availability, or in a docker container using K3s. It provides a web UI and proxy for accessing and managing Kubernetes clusters.

RKE / Rancher Kubernetes Engine

RKE is a CNCF-certified Kubernetes distribution that runs entirely within Docker containers. This makes it easy to prepare a host and install because the only thing you need to do is run a supported Docker version.

K3s: The Lightweight Kubernetes Distribution

K3s is a lightweight certified Kubernetes distribution. It is a single binary that is less than 40MB, and contains everything needed to run a Kubernetes cluster. This includes etcd, nginx, and all the Kubernetes components. It is designed to run resource constrained, remote locations or inside IoT appliances.

When to Use Rancher

Rancher is a good tool to use if you have a lot of clusters to manage, with users that are in multiple projects across clusters. This allows you to manage the users in one location and apply to all the projects. It also provides a “single pane of glass” for looking at clusters and configurations.

When Not to Use Rancher

If you only have one cluster, with only a few users, or it is only managed with CLI tools, Rancher may not be an appropriate tool. It adds a little bit of complexity, in addition to at least one more node for the Rancher cluster, plus its infrastructure such as load balancers, DNS entries, backups, and others.

Final Thoughts

Rancher is a good tool for managing Kubernetes clusters. It makes creating clusters easier, and provides a handy UI for monitoring and managing. It is easy to use, has a good interface, and provides a lot of features, including a separate Kubernetes dashboard for looking at the internals of individual clusters.

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