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Compare 3 managed Kubernetes service providers

Kubernetes can be difficult for an enterprise to handle on its own. However, there are a slew of managed service options -- but which one to choose?

If you want to run Kubernetes, but not manage the infrastructure or install the platform from scratch, you're in luck: There are a variety of managed Kubernetes services available today that handle these tasks for you.

However, managed Kubernetes service providers vary greatly in terms of what they offer. To understand the differences, let's compare three major managed Kubernetes service providers: Red Hat OpenShift, Rancher and DigitalOcean Kubernetes.

OpenShift vs. Rancher vs. DigitalOcean

Before diving into their differences, it's worth noting what makes them similar: They all offer Kubernetes platforms that simplify cluster setup and management. But their features vary considerably, as do their pricing and the deployment modes they support.

Red Hat OpenShift

In many ways, OpenShift is the most unique managed Kubernetes platform available. That's due mostly to how modern OpenShift evolved out of a PaaS platform Red Hat announced in 2011. At that time, Kubernetes didn't exist, and OpenShift was based on original technology developed by Red Hat. That remained the case until 2016, when Red Hat announced that OpenShift would become a Kubernetes-based orchestration platform.

Although OpenShift is similar to generic, open source Kubernetes, its origin as a non-Kubernetes-based PaaS remains evident through its unique features, such as:

  • A special administration tool called oc. This tool replaces kubectl, the standard Kubernetes command-line interface management tool. Although most oc commands are similar to those available from kubectl, oc provides additional tooling, such as the ability to initiate a new application deployment using oc's new-app command.
  • The ability to operate as a complete CI/CD platform with the OpenShift Pipelines feature. This means OpenShift can manage all aspects of application delivery and deployment, as opposed to only managing deployments, as most Kubernetes installations do.
  • Support for a broad selection of deployment modes. OpenShift is available as a managed service on all major public clouds. Red Hat also provides its own version of managed OpenShift, called OpenShift Online. OpenShift can be deployed on premises, although that approach would not meet most definitions of managed Kubernetes.

Pricing for OpenShift depends on where you deploy it and the size of your workloads, but Red Hat customers see rates around $263 per cluster, per year to run OpenShift on major public clouds.

OpenShift is, in many respects, the most flexible and extensible managed Kubernetes service. It provides several notable features that extend beyond those available in Kubernetes itself, and can be deployed in almost any type of environment.

Rancher

Rancher, similar to OpenShift, was not created for Kubernetes originally, but pivoted to a Kubernetes-centric architecture in 2016.

Also like OpenShift, Rancher provides several important add-on features separate from Kubernetes itself, such as:

  • Integration with Lightweight Directory Access Protocol and Active Directory. This makes it easy to manage access control policies based on external frameworks instead of using native Kubernetes role-based access control (RBAC) alone.
  • Tools to simplify management of Kubernetes RBAC policies, network policies and pod security contexts. Although all of these frameworks are available for generic Kubernetes, Rancher makes them easier to manage.
  • Simplified DNS management. This eliminates much of the hassle required to manage network configurations for public-facing applications deployed on Kubernetes.

Rancher is similar to OpenShift because it can run on all major public clouds, as well as via Hosted Rancher, which Rancher offers. Rancher can also run on premises.

Rancher doesn't disclose specific pricing information but offers quotes upon request.

The major difference between OpenShift and Rancher is that OpenShift turns Kubernetes essentially into a PaaS that manages all stages of application delivery and deployment, while Rancher is just an orchestrator. Rancher offers a few PaaS-like features, but it's a stretch to call it a complete PaaS.

DigitalOcean Kubernetes

Compared to OpenShift and Rancher, DigitalOcean Kubernetes looks more similar feature-wise to generic Kubernetes. It doesn't try to be a PaaS in any way -- although it does offer a CI/CD integration based on GitLab.

Instead, where DigitalOcean's platform stands out is its management and monitoring services, which include:

  • Fully automated upgrades. Most other managed Kubernetes services can automate aspects of Kubernetes version upgrades but require more manual oversight than DigitalOcean's platform.
  • Configuration guidance. Arguably, DigitalOcean provides one of the easiest setup processes to create a Kubernetes environment. Platforms such as OpenShift and -- to a higher degree -- Rancher also offer some guidance, but installation is more complex than it is on DigitalOcean.
  • Managed services. Usually, managed Kubernetes consists vendors supplying software tools that automate some aspects of Kubernetes management. DigitalOcean goes further by providing optional managed Kubernetes support services from human beings -- a feature that might be beneficial for smaller organizations that lack extensive in-house Kubernetes expertise.

DigitalOcean promises remarkably low prices for its managed Kubernetes service. A managed Kubernetes cluster from DigitalOcean can cost as little as $10 per month, although the exact price varies based on resource consumption.

Unlike the other managed Kubernetes platforms, DigitalOcean Kubernetes can be deployed only one way -- within the DigitalOcean cloud.

Key takeaways: OpenShift vs. Rancher vs. DigitalOcean

Here are the main use cases for the three managed Kubernetes platforms we've compared:

  • OpenShift is great for organizations that want a managed Kubernetes platform that is also a PaaS and can run virtually anywhere. However, pricing will generally be higher for OpenShift.
  • Rancher is a good option for businesses that want the simplest Kubernetes administration experience, while also enjoying flexible deployment options.
  • DigitalOcean Kubernetes stands out for its support and management services, but doesn't try to be a complete PaaS.

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