Helm 3 – Sans tiller – Really?

Helm has recently announced it’s much-awaited version 3. The surprise factor in this release is that the server component added during Helm 2 release is missing. Yeah, you got it right – Tiller – is missing in Helm 3 which means we have a server-less Helm. Let us check out in this post why it was missing and how it matters?

As an introduction, Helm, the package manager for Kubernetes, is a useful tool for: installing, upgrading and managing applications on a Kubernetes cluster. Helm has two parts: a client (helm) and a server (tiller). Tiller runs inside of your Kubernetes cluster as a pod in the kube-system namespace onto current context specified in your .kubeconfig (can be manipulated using –kube-context flag). Tiller manages both, the releases (installations) and revisions (versions) of charts deployed on the cluster. When you run helm commands, your local Helm client sends instructions to tiller in the cluster that in turn make the requested changes. So Helm is our package manager for Kubernetes and our client tool. We use the helm cli to do all of our commands. Tiller is the service that actually communicates with the Kubernetes API to manage our Helm packages.

Helm packages are called charts. Charts are the Helm’s deploy-able artifacts. Charts are always versioned using semantic versioning, and come either packed, in versioned .tgz files, or in a flat directory structure. They are abstractions describing how to install packages onto a Kubernetes cluster. When a chart is deployed, it works as a templating engine to populate multiple yaml files for package dependencies with the required variables, and then runs kubectl apply to apply the configuration to the resource and install the package.

As we already mentioned Tiller is the tool used by Helm to deploy almost any Kubernetes resource. Helm takes the maximum permission to make changes in Kubernetes in order to do this. Because of this, anyone who can talk to the Tiller can deploy or modify any resources on the Kubernetes cluster, just like a system-admin (Think as ‘root’ user in a Linux host). This can cause security issues in the cluster if Helm has not been properly deployed, following certain security measures. Also, authentication is not enabled in Tiller by default, so if any of the pod has been compromised and has permission to talk to the Tiller, then the complete cluster in which tiller is running has been compromised. This stands for the main reason for the removal of Tiller.

The Tiller method:

Tiller was used as an in-cluster operator by the helm to maintain the state of a helm release. It’s also used to save the release information of all the releases done by the tiller — it uses config-map to save the release information in the same namespace in which Tiller is deployed. This release information was required by the helm when it updated or when there were state changes in any of the releases. So whenever a helm update command was used, Tiller used to compare the new manifest with the old manifest of the release and made changes accordingly. Thus Helm was dependent on the Tiller to provide the previous state of the release.

The Tiller less method:

The main need of Tiller was to store release information, for which helm is now using secrets and saving it in the same namespace as the release. Whenever Helm needs the release information it gets it from the namespace of the release. To make a change Helm now just fetches information from the Kubernetes API server, makes the changes on the client-side, and stores a record of the installation in Kubernetes. The benefit of tiller less Helm is that since now Helm make changes in the cluster from client-side, it can only make those changes that the client has been granted permission.

Tiller was a good addition in helm 2, but to run it in production it should be properly secured, which would add additional learning steps for the DevOps and SRE. With Helm 3 learning steps have been reduced and security management is been left in hands of Kubernetes to maintain. Helm can now focus on package-management.

Data courtesy : Medium, codecentric, Helm

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