Agile Snowball


Building a Kubernetes cluster on DigitalOcean to host websites and backend services

By Richard Thombs on 5/30/2019


Last year Zeit changed direction on their now service, deprecating their excellent Docker support in favour of serverless. I'd been using now since their early days, but it was obviously time to move on...

The obvious choice seemed to be a Kubernetes cluster and after a bit of hunting around, I found that DigitalOcean now offer reasonably priced Kubernetes support. Getting the cluster deployed was the easy bit, getting it configured to provide the same platform I was used to with now was the hard part...

How it works

A nginx instance is configured to act as a frontend for all incoming HTTP and HTTPS requests. This is provided by a Kubernetes ClusterRole called nginx-ingress which also monitors the cluster waiting for new or changed Ingress resources.

Ingress resources are a standard Kubernetes resource type which define how a web request should be forwarded to a backend service. For example you might specify that requests to "" are routed to a "mysite-website" service but anything to "" should go to a "mysite-webapi" service in a different container.

Typically each website hosted in your cluster will have an Ingress definition, so you might end up with 100s of Ingress resources. Watching over them will be a single instance of nginx-ingress which takes care of ensuring that the routing rules they specify are implemented correctly.

nginx-ingress also takes care of HTTPS termination so your individual websites don't have to worry about HTTPS at all - they just serve everything over HTTP and the nginx-ingress proxy takes care of turning it into HTTPS. A plugin for nginx-ingress called cert-manager can also take care of requesting HTTPS certificates from Let's Encrypt when a new Ingress resource is created and will automatically renew them too.

There are of course many other ways to configure Kubernetes to obtain the same result, but this is quite cost effective as it only requires a single DigitalOcean load balancer no matter how many services I deploy.

Speaking of costs, this cluster can be configured for as little as $30 a month - $10 for each node in the cluster and $10 for a load balancer. That is twice what I was paying for with now, but has several upsides:

  1. Not limited by the number of instances I can run. With now I could only run 10 containers.
  2. I can add persistent volumes for in-cluster database support. now made me connect to external services which added noticeable latency to my APIs.
  3. In control of my own destiny, nobody can decide to drop Docker support on me again, and I can pick up and move my cluster to any Kubernetes service with little disruption.

You could probably save $10 by only having a single node in the cluster too if you don't mind a little downtime.

Configuring the cluster

Software to install

  1. nginx-ingress - This sits in front of all incoming HTTP & HTTPS requests to your cluster and takes care of routing them to the right containers. You can have multiple containers hosting completely unrelated websites and have them all routed by a single installation of nginx-ingress.
  2. cert-manager - This integrates with nginx-ingress to automatically provision and renew HTTPS certificates.

Installing nginx-ingress

There are helm packages to help with the installation of nginx-ingress. I had problems getting the 'tiller' portion of helm installed on my cluster and so I opted to use the alpha of Helm 3 which does away with tiller entirely. I downloaded the alpha onto my local PC and then ran the following command to install nginx-ingress:

helm install nginx-ingress stable/nginx-ingress

As part of the installation, a DigitalOcean load balancer is automatically created. The IP address of this load balancer is where the DNS records for all of your websites should point. It might take a minute or two for DigitalOcean to complete the deployment of the load balancer, you can check on progress through the DigitalOcean website or by running:

kubectl get services nginx-ingress-controller

Once this shows that an External-IP has been allocated, your ingress controller is available publically. Check that it is working:

curl -http://<endpoint-ip-address>

You will get a response from the nginx-ingress-default-backend service saying default backend - 404 which means that the ingress controller couldn't figure out which website to route your request to, which isn't suprising seeing as nothing has been configured yet.

Installing cert-manager

There are helm packages for cert-manager too, but I couldn't get them to work, maybe because I was using the helm 3 alpha. Instead I followed the instructions on installation using regular manifests:

kubectl create namespace cert-manager
kubectl label namespace cert-manager
kubectl apply -f

cert-manager must be told how to issue certificates. There are many ways to obtain and issue certificates, I opted to have a single ClusterIssuer which will issue certificates for any Kubernetes Ingress resource created on my cluster, regardless of the namespace it is in. This is because I've chosen to separate my websites into different Kubernetes namespaces.

To configure cert-manager we have to create a ClusterIssuer resource which tells it how to obtain a certificate from Let's Encrypt and what kind of issuing policy to use.

   kind: ClusterIssuer
     name: letsencrypt-prod
       email: # <-- CHANGE THIS!
         name: letsencrypt-prod
       http01: {}

Save this as production-issuer.yaml and then apply it:

kubectl apply -n cert-manager -f production-issuer.yaml


At this point, the cluster should be ready to host websites and automatically provision an HTTPS certificate for them.

To test it, we are going to provision a test website and point a domain name at it. Firstly make sure your domain name is pointing at the External-IP of your nginx-ingress service. Obtain the IP address as follows:

kubectl get services nginx-ingress-controller

Wait until your DNS changes have propagated before continuing, because certificate provisioning will not work until the Let's Encrypt website can reach our cluster via the domain name we have requested the certificate for.

Now we can create the yaml that defines the website:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Service
  name: kuard
  - port: 80
    targetPort: 8080
    protocol: TCP
    app: kuard
apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Deployment
  name: kuard
  replicas: 1
        app: kuard
      - image:
        imagePullPolicy: Always
        name: kuard
        - containerPort: 8080

This creates a deployment of kuard and a service that exposes it within the cluster. Save this as kuard.yaml.

Now we can create the Ingress resource which tells nginx-ingress how to reach the service we just created.

apiVersion: extensions/v1beta1
kind: Ingress
  name: kuard
  annotations: "nginx" "letsencrypt-prod" http01

  - hosts:
    -        # <-- CHANGE THIS!
    secretName: mysite-tls
  - host:    # <-- CHANGE THIS!
      - path: /
          serviceName: kuard
          servicePort: 80

This creates an ingress for the website. Make sure to update it to reflect the domain name you are using and save it as ingress.yaml.

In order to keep things tidy, we will put this all into a namespace so that we can delete everything easily later.

kubectl create namespace kuard
kubectl -n kuard apply -f kuard.yaml -f ingress.yaml

Open your browser and check to see if the website is working. Initially you might get an invalid certificate warning because provisioning the certificate sometimes takes a minute or two. You can check on the progress of the provisioning like this:

kubectl -n kuard get certificates

When the "Ready" column shows as "Yes", then the certificate has been provisioned successfully. If your browser still shows the certificate as invalid, even though kubectl shows it as ready, close your browser and re-open it. I had problems with Chrome not updating the warning icons even though the dummy certificate had been replaced with a valid one.

At this point you should have a working instance of kuard which you can reach via HTTPS using a Let's Encrypt certificate.

To tidy up:

kubectl delete namespace kuard


It is easy and cost-effective to configure a DigitalOcean Kubernetes cluster to host multiple websites and backend services.