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K3s vs K8s: The Best Kubernetes Home Lab Distribution

Kubernetes, a project under the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, is a popular container orchestration platform for managing distributed systems. Many who are running home labs or want to get into running Kubernetes in their home lab to get experience with modern applications may wonder which Kubernetes distribution is best to use. Today, we will compare the certified Kubernetes distribution known as k3s vs k8s, the original “stock” Kubernetes version. Which is the best home lab Kubernetes distribution? Let’s compare and contrast these two distros and see.

K3s vs. K8s: The Key Differences in Kubernetes Distributions

In the world of Kubernetes, k3s and k8s are both prominent players. However, they cater to different usage scenarios. K8s is an open-source platform known for its robust feature set and complex deployments, making it suitable for large-scale and cloud deployments.

On the other hand, k3s, a lightweight Kubernetes distribution developed by Rancher Labs, aims to simplify running Kubernetes in resource-constrained environments like edge computing or IoT devices.

The Design of k3s: Lightweight Kubernetes for Edge Computing

K3s has been crafted with a unique goal: to offer a lightweight Kubernetes solution for edge computing and IoT devices. It encapsulates the core functionality of Kubernetes into a tiny binary. This, in my opinion has opened up a world of possibilities for the home lab environment.

This tiny binary reduces resource usage and dependencies, making it an excellent fit for edge devices with limited resources, remote locations, and home labs.

To achieve this streamlined architecture, k3s removed certain features and plugins not required in resource-constrained environments. It also combines the control plane components into a single process, providing a minimal attack surface.

Note the architecture overview of K3s below:

Architectural overview of K3s distribution
Architectural overview of K3s distribution

The resulting binary weighs significantly less than k8s, leaving fewer unused resources and enhancing performance.

Understanding k8s: Kubernetes for Large Clusters and Advanced Features

K8s, the upstream Kubernetes, is more feature-rich and suited for production environments, cloud provider integrations, and large-scale deployments. It supports a full range of Kubernetes API and services, including service discovery, load balancing, and complex applications.

While it may have a steep learning curve compared to k3s, it provides advanced features and extensibility, making it ideal for large clusters and production workloads. And, honestly, with the right guides and using tools like kubeadm, you can easily spin up a full K8s cluster running on your favorite Linux distro.

Its control plane operates as separate processes, providing more granular control and high availability. However, this also means it can be more resource-intensive than k3s, requiring more computing power, memory, and storage.

K3s vs k8s: Resource Consumption

When running Kubernetes in environments with limited resources, k3s shines. Its lightweight design and reduced resource usage make it ideal for single-node clusters, IoT devices, and edge devices. By default, this makes it a perfect candidate for home lab environments. Running k3s on Raspberry Pi devices works very well and is perfectly suited for labs.

K3s is also an excellent choice for local development and continuous integration tasks due to its simplified setup and lower resource consumption.

While k8s has a more substantial resource footprint, it’s designed to handle beefier production workloads and cloud deployments, where resources are typically less constrained. It’s an ideal fit for complex applications that require the full Kubernetes ecosystem.

Ingress Controller, DNS, and Load Balancing in K3s and K8s

The lightweight design of k3s means it comes with Traefik as the default ingress controller and a simple, lightweight DNS server. In contrast, k8s supports various ingress controllers and a more extensive DNS server, offering greater flexibility for complex deployments.

Installation and Setup: K3s vs k8s

K3s offers an easier installation process, needing only a single binary file, making it compatible with existing Docker installations and ARM architecture, as mentioned earlier with Raspberry Pis. It also supports running batch jobs and worker nodes more efficiently, thanks to its fewer dependencies and more straightforward declarative configuration.

In comparison, setting up k8s can be more complex, especially for large clusters and virtual machines, as it provides more advanced features, control plane components, and cloud provider integrations.

I want to specifically call out a few projects and tools that I have used in the home lab that allow you to install k3s very easily, and these are:

  • K3D

  • k3sup

  • kubevip

Below is a screenshot of spinning up a new k3s cluster using K3D. You can read my blog post covering the topic here: Install K3s on Ubuntu with K3D in Docker.

Creating the Kubernetes cluster with K3D and K3s
Creating the Kubernetes cluster with K3D and K3s

Viewing the k3s nodes running in Docker containers.

Viewing K3s nodes running in Docker containers
Viewing K3s nodes running in Docker containers

K3sup is another awesome project you can use in conjunction with K3s. Check out my blog post covering this here: K3sup – automated K3s Kubernetes cluster install.

K3sup installing K3s cluster using automation
K3sup installing K3s cluster using automation

You can use Kubevip in conjunction with K3sup to have a highly available Kubernetes API. Check out the project here: Documentation | kube-vip.

Using Kubevip with K3s
Using Kubevip with K3s

Also, you can easily use kubeadm, as mentioned earlier, to spin up a full k8s cluster which isn’t too difficult either. All-in-all, you will find more community-based projects that support k3s and use this project as opposed to k8s.

Running the kubeadm command
Running the kubeadm command

Kubespray is another awesome project that will take much of the heavy lifting out of creating your Kubernetes cluster. It uses Ansible to deploy your cluster. Check out my write up here: Kubespray: Automated Kubernetes Home Lab Setup.

High Availability

High availability is a crucial aspect of any Kubernetes distribution. K8s shines here, with native support for complex, high-availability configurations. It provides advanced features like load balancing, distributed databases, and service discovery, making it a great choice for production workloads in the cloud and large-scale deployments.

Contrastingly, k3s takes a simpler approach. While it still supports high availability through a distributed database (SQLite by default), it aims at reducing resource usage by minimizing control plane components and focusing on resource-constrained environments.

This makes it ideal for edge computing, IoT devices, and single-node clusters where high availability is not the primary focus. Again, it is a great solution for home labs due to the footprint and simpler implementation.

You can also use Kubevip, mentioned above to create a highly available control plane IP.

Getting the daemon set showing Kubevip
Getting the daemon set showing Kubevip
Testing the Kubevip failover process
Testing the Kubevip failover process

Scalability: How K3s and K8s Manage Growing Workloads

In terms of scalability, both k3s and k8s have their strengths. K8s, designed for large-scale deployments, handle growth efficiently, scaling up to support thousands of nodes and complex applications.

It’s the go-to for cloud deployments and production environments that require robust scalability features.

K3s, on the other hand, is more suited to smaller-scale, resource-constrained environments. However, it can still scale to support Kubernetes clusters with hundreds of nodes, making it a viable option for robust Kubernetes use cases.

Ease of Use: The Learning Curve of K8s vs the Simplicity of K3s

The learning curve for k8s can be steep. With its rich features and advanced configurations, k8s requires a deep understanding of the Kubernetes ecosystem and its components to take full advantage of all that it offers. The upstream Kubernetes provides all the flexibility and complexity inherent in the original Kubernetes project.

K3s, as a lightweight Kubernetes distribution, simplifies the running of Kubernetes clusters. Its single binary file installation process and reduced dependencies make it an excellent choice for local development, continuous integration, and scenarios where a streamlined, easy-to-use Kubernetes solution is desired.

Ecosystem and Community: K8s’ Vast Resources vs K3s’ Growing Presence

The Kubernetes ecosystem and community are significant factors when choosing a Kubernetes distribution. K8s, being the original Kubernetes project, has a vast ecosystem of extensions, plugins, and a large, active community.

It’s backed by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and supported by multiple cloud providers, making it a rich resource for developers and operators.

K3s, while newer and smaller, has a growing ecosystem and community. As a certified Kubernetes distribution, it’s gaining recognition for its efficient use of resources and suitability for edge computing.

It may not have the vast resources of k8s, but its niche appeal and growing popularity provide a strong support network for users.

Choosing the Right Distribution for Home Labs: k3s or k8s?

When setting up a home lab Kubernetes cluster, k3s and k8s can serve your needs, but the choice largely depends on your specific requirements and available resources.

K8s is known for its rich features and high availability, making it an excellent choice if you’re looking to replicate a full production environment. The Cloud Native Computing Foundation backs it and offers robust support for complex deployments. However, running Kubernetes with k8s requires a few more resources and can have a steeper learning curve.

On the other hand, k3s is a lightweight Kubernetes distribution designed to be fast and efficient, making it well-suited to environments with fewer resources. Its simplicity, reduced resource usage, and single binary installation process make it a great home labs option.

With k3s, you can run Kubernetes in resource-constrained environments like old laptops, virtual machines, or even Raspberry Pi. Plus, k3s is a certified Kubernetes distribution, so you’ll still be working with a version of Kubernetes that adheres to standards set by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

For me, k3s wins the battle of best home labs Kubernetes distribution due to the characteristics we have described. It allows you to fully take advantage of the important things that Kubernetes offers while focusing on efficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Makes k3s an Ideal Choice for Edge Computing?

K3s is designed with a simplified architecture, making it a suitable edge computing option. It consolidates control plane components into a single process and comes in a single binary file, reducing resource usage. This makes k3s a perfect fit for environments with limited resources, like edge devices or IoT devices.

How Does k8s Support Large Scale Deployments?

K8s shines in large-scale deployments thanks to its robust feature set and support for high availability. It provides advanced features such as load balancing, distributed databases, service discovery, and complex applications. It can also scale up to thousands of nodes, making it ideal for production environments and cloud deployments.

Why Might k3s Be Preferred for Local Development and Continuous Integration?

K3s is easier to set up and requires fewer resources than k8s, making it an excellent choice for local development and continuous integration. Its single binary installation process, coupled with fewer dependencies, results in a quicker start-up and a smoother experience when running Kubernetes in these scenarios.

Can k3s Run on IoT Devices and ARM Architecture?

Absolutely. The lightweight nature of k3s makes it an ideal Kubernetes distribution for IoT devices. Its simplified installation process and compatibility with existing Docker installations also make it suitable for ARM architectures, often found in many IoT devices.

How Does the Control Plane Differ in k3s and k8s?

In k3s, control plane components are combined into a single process, which provides a minimal attack surface, an important aspect for edge computing and IoT devices. Conversely, k8s operates its control plane as separate processes, offering more granular control and high availability.

Can I Use k8s and k3s in the Same Environment?

Yes. Since both k3s and k8s are based on the same Kubernetes project, they can coexist in the same environment. This is beneficial for scenarios where different teams or projects within an organization have varying requirements. Some may need the advanced features and scalability of k8s, while others might prefer the simplified, resource-efficient approach of k3s.

What Role Do k3s and k8s Play in the Kubernetes Ecosystem?

K8s, the original Kubernetes project, is the backbone of the ecosystem, offering advanced features, scalability, and a vast community. K3s, on the other hand, brings the power of Kubernetes to resource-constrained environments and simplifies Kubernetes for developers and operators. Both play crucial roles, providing options for a variety of use cases.

Final Thoughts: Kubernetes Showdown – K3s vs K8s

Ultimately, the choice between k3s and k8s depends on your needs and environment. If you’re looking for a Kubernetes distribution that offers simplicity, reduced resource usage and is suitable for edge computing, IoT devices, or your home lab, k3s might be your go-to.

If your focus is on high availability, cloud deployments, and leveraging advanced features of the Kubernetes ecosystem, then k8s is likely your best bet. Whatever your choice, remember that both k3s and k8s are excellent Kubernetes options. Either way you go, you will have an excellent platform for modern applications.

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