Revisiting Rancher

Several years ago, when we started our first adventures in the wonderful world of IoT, we created an application for visualizing real-time streams of sensor data. The sensor data came from custom-built devices that used 2G for connectivity. IoT networks and protocols such as SigFox, NB-IoT or Lora were not mainstream at that time. We leveraged what were then new and often preview-level Azure services such as IoT Hub, Stream Analytics, etc… The architecture was loosely based on lambda architecture with a hot and cold path and stateful window-based stream processing. Fun stuff!

Kubernetes already existed but had not taken off yet. Managed Kubernetes services such as Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) weren’t a thing.

The application (end-user UI and management) was loosely based on a micro-services pattern and we decided to run the services as Docker containers. At that time, Karim Vaes, now a Program Manager for Azure Storage, worked at our company and was very enthusiastic about Rancher. , Rancher was still v1 and we decided to use it in combination with their own container orchestration framework called Cattle.

Our experience with Rancher was very positive. It was easy to deploy and run in production. The combination of GitHub, Shippable and the Rancher CLI made it extremely easy to deploy our code. Rancher, including Cattle, was very stable for our needs.

In recent years though, the growth of Kubernetes as a container orchestrator platform has far outpaced the others. Using an alternative orchestrator such as Cattle made less sense. Rancher 2.0 is now built around Kubernetes but maintains the same experience as earlier versions such as simple deployment and flexible configuration and management.

In this post, I will look at deploying Rancher 2.0 and importing an existing AKS cluster. This is a basic scenario but it allows you to get a feel for how it works. Indeed, besides deploying your cluster with Rancher from scratch (even on-premises on VMware), you can import existing Kubernetes clusters including managed clusters from Google, Amazon and Azure.

Installing Rancher

For evaluation purposes, it is best to just run Rancher on a single machine. I deployed an Azure virtual machine with the following properties:

  • Operating system: Ubuntu 16.04 LTS
  • Size: DS2v3 (2 vCPUs, 8GB of RAM)
  • Public IP with open ports 22, 80 and 443
  • DNS name: somename.westeurope.cloudapp.azure.com

In my personal DNS zone on CloudFlare, I created a CNAME record for the above DNS name. Later, when you install Rancher you can use the custom DNS name in combination with Let’s Encrypt support.

On the virtual machine, install Docker. Use the guide here. You can use the convenience script as a quick way to install Docker.

With Docker installed, install Rancher with the following command:

docker run -d --restart=unless-stopped -p 80:80 -p 443:443 \
rancher/rancher:latest --acme-domain your-custom-domain

More details about the single node installation can be found here. Note that Rancher uses etcd as a datastore. With the command above, the data will be in /var/lib/rancher inside the container. This is ok if you are just doing a test drive. In other cases, use external storage and mount it on /var/lib/rancher.

A single-node install is great for test and development. For production, use the HA install. This will actually run Rancher on Kubernetes. Rancher recommends a dedicated cluster in this scenario.

After installation, just connect https://your-custom-domain and provide a password for the default admin user.

Adding a cluster

To get started, I added an existing three-node AKS cluster to Rancher. After you add the cluster and turn on monitoring, you will see the following screen when you navigate to Clusters and select the imported cluster:

Dashboard for a cluster

To demonstrate the functionality, I deployed a 3-node cluster (1.11.9) with RBAC enabled and standard networking. After deployment, open up Azure Cloud shell and get your credentials:

az aks list -o table
az aks get-credentials -n cluster-name -g cluster-resource-group
kubectl cluster-info

The first command lists the clusters in your subscription, including their name and resource group. The second command configures kubectl, the Kubernetes command line admin tool, which is pre-installed in Azure Cloud Shell. To verify you are connected, the last command simply displays cluster information.

Now that the cluster is deployed, let’s try to import it. In Rancher, navigate to GlobalClusters and click Add Cluster:

Add cluster via Import

Click Import, type a name and click Create. You will get a screen with a command to run:

kubectl apply -f https://your-custom-dns/v3/import/somerandomtext.yaml

Back in the Azure Cloud Shell, run the command:

Running the command to prepare the cluster for import

Continue on in Rancher, the cluster will be added (by the components you deployed above):

Cluster appears in the list

Click on the cluster:

Top of the cluster dashboard

To see live metrics, you can click Enable Monitoring. This will install and configure Prometheus and Grafana. You can control several parameters of the deployment such as data retention:

Enabling monitoring

Notice that by default, persistent storage for Grafana and Prometheus is not configured.

Note: with monitoring enabled or not, you will notice the following error in the dashboard:

Controller manager and scheduler unhealthy?

The error is described here. In short, the components are probably healthy. The error is not related to a Rancher issue but an upstream Kubernetes issue.

When the monitoring API is ready, you will see live metrics and Grafana icons. Clicking on the Graphana icon next to Nodes gives you this:

Node monitoring with Prometheus and Grafana

Of course, Azure provides Container Insights for monitoring. The Grafana dashboards are richer though. On the other hand, querying and alerting on logs and metrics from Container Insights is powerful as well. You can of course enable them all and use the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

We briefly looked at Rancher 2.0 and how it can interact with a existing AKS cluster. An existing cluster is easy to add. Once it is added, adding monitoring is “easy peasy lemon squeezy” as my daughter would call it! 😉 As with Rancher 1.x, I am again pleasantly surprised at how Rancher is able to make complex matters simpler and more fun to work with. There is much more to explore and do of course. That’s for some follow-up posts!

Dashboard your TimescaleDB data with Grafana

In an earlier post, I looked at storing time-series data with TimescaleDB on Azure Database for PostgreSQL. To visualize your data, there are many options as listed here. Because TimescaleDB is built on PostgreSQL, you can use any tool that supports PostgreSQL such as Power BI or Tableau.

Grafana is a bit of a special case because TimescaleDB engineers actually built the data source, which is designed to take advantage of the time-series capabilities. For a detailed overview of the capabilities of the data source, see the Grafana documentation.

Let’s take a look at a simple example to get started. I have a hypertable called conditions with four columns: time, device, temperature, humidity. An IoT Simulator is constantly writing data for five devices: pg-1 to pg-5.

On a multi-tier deployment of Grafana, I added the PostgreSQL data source:

PostgreSQL data source in Grafana

One setting in the data source is particularly noteworthy:

TimescaleDB support in the PostgreSQL datasource

Grafana has the concept of macro’s such as $_timeGroup or $_interval, as noted in the preceding image. The macro is translated to what the underlying data source supports. In this case, with TimescaleDB enabled, the macro results in the use of time_bucket, which is specific for TimescaleDB.

Creating a dashboard

Create a dashboard from the main page:

Creating a new dashboard

You will get a new dashboard with an empty panel:

Click Add Query. You will notice Grafana proposes a query. In this case it is very close because we only have one data source and table:

Grafana proposes the following query

Let’s modify this a bit. In the top right corner, I switched the time interval to last 30 minutes. Because the default query uses WHERE Macro: $_timeFilter, only the last 30 minutes will be shown. That’s another example of a macro. I would like to show the average temperature over 10 second intervals. That is easy to do with a GROUP BY and $_interval. In GROUP BY, click the + and type or select time to use the time field. You will notice the following:

GROUP BY with $_interval

Just click $_interval and select 10s. Now add the humidity column to the SELECT statement:

Adding humidity

When you click the Generated SQL link, you will see the query built by the query builder:

Generated SQL

Notice that the query uses time_bucket. The GROUP BY 1 and ORDER BY 1 just means group and order on the first field which is the time_bucket. If the query builder is not sufficient, you can click Edit SQL and specify your query directly. When you switch back to query builder, your custom SQL statement might be overwritten if the builder does not support it.

When you save your dashboard, you should see something like:

Pretty boring temperature and humidity graphWi

Now, let’s add a few gauges. In the top right row of icons, the first one should be Add panel. Choose the Gauge visualization and set your query:

Temperature Gauge

In Visualization, set Stat to Current:

Stat field on current

When the panel is finished, navigate back to the dashboard and duplicate the gauge. Modify the duplicated gauge to show humidity. Also change the titles. The dashboard now looks like:

Conditions dashboard

Grafana can be configured to auto refresh the dashboard. In the image below, refresh was set to every 5 seconds:

Setting auto refresh

Your dashboard will now update every 5 seconds for a more dynamic experience.

Joins

You can join hypertables with regular tables quite easily. This is one of the advantages of using a relational database such as PostgreSQL for your time-series data. The screenshot below shows a graph of the temperature per device location. The device location is stored in a regular table.

Join between hypertable and regular table: they are all just tables in the end

Here is the full dashboard:

Conclusion

Grafana, in combination with PostgreSQL and TimescaleDB, is a flexible solution for dashboarding your IoT time-series data. We have only scratched the surface here but it’s clear you can be up and running fast! Give it a go and tell me what you think in the comments or via @geertbaeke!

Multi-Tier Bitnami Grafana Stack on Azure

After seeing some tweets about Bitnami’s multi-tier Grafana Stack, I decided to give it a go. On the page describing the Grafana stack, there are several deployment offerings:

Grafana deployment offerings (Image: from Bitnami website)

I decided to use the multi-tier deployment, which deploys multiple Grafana nodes and a shared Azure Database for MariaDB.

On Azure, the Grafana stack is deployed via an Azure Resource Manager (ARM) template. You can easily find it via the Azure Marketplace:

Grafana multi-tier in Azure Marketplace

From the above page, click Create to start deploying the template. You will get a series of straightforward questions such as the resource group, the Grafana admin password, MariaDB admin password, virtual machine size, etc…

It will take about half an hour to deploy the template. When finished, you will find the following resources in the resource group you chose or created during deployment:

Deployed Grafana resources

Let’s take a look at the deployed resources. The database back-end is Azure Database for MariaDB server. The deployment uses a General Purpose, 2 vCore, 50GB database. The monthly cost is around €130.

The Grafana VMs are Standard D1 v2 virtual machines (can be changed). These two machine cost around €100 per month. By default, these virtual machines have a public IP that allows SSH access on port 22. To logon, use the password or public key you configured during deployment.

To access the Grafana portal, Bitnami used an Azure Application Gateway. They used the Standard tier (not WAF) with the Medium SKU size and three nodes. The monthly cost for this setup is around €140.

The public IP address of the front-end can be found in the list of resources (e.g. in my case, mygrafanaagw-ip). The IP address will have an associated DNS name in the form of
mygrafanaRANDOMTEXT-agw-dns.westeurope.cloudapp.azure.com. Simply connect to that URL to access your Grafana instance:

Grafana instance (after logging on and showing a simple dashboard

Naturally, you will want to access Grafana over SSL. That is something you will need to do yourself. For more information see this link.

It goes without saying that the template only takes care of deployment. Once deployed, you are responsible for the infrastructure! Security, backup, patching etc… is your responsibility!

Note that the template does not allow you to easily select the virtual network to deploy to. By default, the template creates a virtual network with address space 10.0.0.0/16. If you got some ARM templating skills, you can download the template right after validation but before deployment and modify it:

Downloading the template for modification

Conclusion

Setting up a multi-tier Grafana stack with Bitnami is very easy. Note that the cost of this deployment is around €370 per month though. Instead of deploying and managing Grafana yourself, you can also take a look at hosted offerings such as Grafana Cloud or Aiven Grafana.