Can AWS ECS Battle EKS or KOPS?

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Containers have revolutionized the industry by making it easy to deploy applications to production. They do this by providing process separation, which makes it easy to run your applications as independent components and embrace a microservice architecture. Because of this, many organizations running their workloads on AWS today are looking for the best solution for container orchestration.

In this article, I’ll dive into the pros and cons of three container orchestration solutions—ECS, EKS, and KOPS—and help you make the right decision for your container-based deployments. Plus, I’ll discuss multiple use cases to help you choose the best option for your enterprise.

An Overview of ECS, EKS, and KOPS

Each one of these container orchestrator solutions leverages the breadth of AWS’ service offerings and offers an easy integration set-up. In this section, I’ll briefly review the details for ECS, EKS, and KOPS.

Amazon Elastic Container Service (ECS) 

Amazon’s container orchestrator simplifies the management of your containers running on a cluster of Amazon EC2 instances. With ECS, you don’t have to install, configure, or operate the underlying EC2 infrastructure, and you can run containers at scale with no additional complexity. Amazon ECS also quickly integrates with many Amazon services such as IAM, CloudWatch, Route 53, Auto Scaling, ECR, or Load Balancers.

Figure 1: Amazon ECS high-level overview (Source: AWS)

Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS) 

EKS lets you run Kubernetes on AWS by offering a fully managed service, eliminating the need to self-host and manage your Kubernetes clusters. Amazon EKS provisions, installs, and scales the K8s master, removing the burden of managing the K8s master components, plus it provides automated health checks that can patch or replace unhealthy master instances. Additionally, EKS offers automatic version upgrades and rich integration with many AWS services like IAM, ELB, VPC, and CloudTrail.

Figure 2: Amazon EKS high-level overview (Source: AWS)

Kubernetes Operations (KOPS) 

Here, you have an open-source tooling library that allows you to create, upgrade, delete, and maintain a Kubernetes cluster using the command line. KOPS is the easiest and fastest way to spin up a Kubernetes cluster, allowing you to configure both the master and worker nodes and providing you with fine-grained control over your cluster. KOPS also offers step-by-step tutorials and documentation to help you set up your clusters. As a prerequisite, you do need to install AWS CLI, KOPS, and kubectl. 

KOPS vs. EKS: The Comparison Challenge

You can create a Kubernetes cluster on AWS via one of two ways: KOPS or Amazon EKS. Amazon EKS is a more recent service provided by AWS, but both solutions have their pros and cons. Depending on your use case, you can decide which tooling makes more sense for you. 

In the section below, I provide an overview of some of the comparison highlights between KOPS and EKS, explaining why Amazon EKS seems to be the superior solution for K8s in AWS.

 

KOPS

EKS

Best tool for developers for small Kubernetes clusters; can play around with CLI commands and learn on your own without any dependency

Preferred for large clusters

More fine-grained control over the K8s control plane

Cannot modify the control plane configuration

Need manual action

Stands out for features like K8s version upgrades, patching, cluster scaling, self-healing control plane

Prone to errors when manually setting up and managing a large K8s cluster in a production environment

AWS takes care of setup, no manual errors

Considerable effort required to achieve the same

AWS manages master node components (API server, scheduler, etc.), ensuring high availability

Might introduce security loopholes when deploying a K8s cluster using default settings

Fewer security concerns due to AWS team’s expertise

On your own for monitoring and fixing issues with master nodes

Better observability (monitoring, logging, and troubleshooting) due to integration with AWS CloudWatch and CloudTrail

No such integrations

Makes more sense if majority of workloads are on AWS because of out-of-the-box integrations

You can read more about Kubernetes  here.

Amazon ECS

I’ve shown the reasons for preferring AWS-managed K8s over a self-managed solution, but what about ECS? ECS comes with its own set of advantages as well as downsides, which I will review here below. I’ll also explore some key use cases and explain why some enterprises are choosing to stay with ECS.

Benefits

First, what are the pros of going with ECS?

Its simplistic architecture makes for a good entry point to the container orchestration space on AWS, and a smaller learning curve for development teams makes it easier to get started. Because it’s AWS-native, it’s easy to deploy containers as well. You also get fine-grained control of the underlying EC2 instances, plus seamless integration with other AWS services like CloudWatch and CloudTrail for monitoring and logging. Lastly, ECS is a free service—you only pay for the underlying EC2 infrastructure

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Limitations 

Unfortunately, there are some challenges that come with Amazon ECS.

As an AWS-native solution for container orchestration, there’s minimal integration with third-party tools. A large number of organizations are adopting cloud-native technologies for building their microservices architecture. So, again, vendor lock-in becomes an issue. ECS codebase is also not open-source, so it remains a black box to the developer community.

Furthermore, with a growing number of services, scaling your workload might get challenging. And if your use case involves migrating a large number of services to ECS, both scaling and troubleshooting may bring additional operational complexity. The underlying EC2 infrastructure might also get expensive as your application stack grows.

Use Cases

As an AWS-native service, there are several use cases for ECS where it is the preferred choice over a K8s-based solution.

ECS is the practical and convenient choice if you currently use Amazon EC2 instances, and it’s a good fit if you want to leverage the tight integration of ECS with other AWS services like IAM, Route 53, CloudWatch, and CloudTrail. If you don’t have a complex distributed architecture, ECS lets you keep it simple—it is straightforward to set up, and you can deploy services on it with minimal effort. ECS provides complete cluster management as well, so you don’t have to spend time on infrastructure activities. 

Developers might experience a steep learning curve when setting up Kubernetes, especially to get the needed hands-on experience using kubectl or CloudFormation for the infrastructure setup. ECS becomes the platform of choice in such scenarios, as you can get your development team up and running very quickly on its container orchestrator journey.

Key Considerations for Using EKS over ECS

Still, there are reasons why EKS shines brighter:

Kubernetes is a more modern and advanced platform for managing your distributed applications and brings with it a growing open-source ecosystem. Amazon EKS gives you the unique ability to leverage the power of this open-source community, as well as the K8s tooling and plugins built by it.

Additionally, there is no vendor lock-in, and you get multi-cloud compatibility, as you can deploy your applications on-premises or in private or public clouds. There is also the added flexibility in terms of tooling options. Because of all of this, the developer community more readily adopts open-source solutions like Kubernetes and avoids proprietary solutions like Amazon ECS. 

Amazon EKS — The Competitive Edge

As enterprises take further strides into their cloud-native journey, Kubernetes has proven to be the most popular container orchestration solution. 

I already mentioned that Kubernetes is open-source, so there is no vendor lock-in. This factor also helps you keep your infrastructure portable and lets you leverage the rich open-source K8s community and tooling for future developments. Kubernetes has thus gained a wider acceptance from the developer community, but it is still associated with a certain amount of complexity, which Amazon EKS does a great job of abstracting away. 

One of the most significant advantages of using Amazon EKS is the ease of migrating your existing K8s application without the need for additional code changes. If you have applications running on a K8s environment, either on-premises or in the cloud, it is automatically compatible with Amazon EKS. So the migration effort is minimal without any significant refactoring/re-architecting required. EKS provides flexibility and allows you to run your workloads in a cloud-agnostic manner.

Introducing Amazon ECS and EKS Anywhere

During re:Invent 2020, an extension of Amazon ECS was announced that will allow you to deploy ECS tasks in any environment—including traditional AWS-managed infrastructures as well as customer-managed infrastructures. Amazon EKS Anywhere was also introduced, which will allow you to manage Kubernetes clusters both on-premises and on other clouds. Both of these features will be released sometime this year and will provide a lot of flexibility to customers to run their workloads outside of AWS Regions.

Takeaways

Containers are here to stay, and having an efficient container orchestrator solution that suits your workload is a necessity when running your applications in the cloud. In this article, I explained the critical differentiators between Amazon ECS, EKS, and KOPS to help you make the right decision when selecting a suitable container orchestrator on AWS. 

Depending on your project’s size and nature, you can now hopefully better choose the appropriate container orchestrator to fit your given use case. 

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