CoreOS Continued: Fleet and Docker

This post is the third in a series of posts on CoreOS, this time focusing on the use of fleet and Docker to deploy containers across a cluster of systems. This post builds on my earlier introduction to CoreOS and the subsequent more in-depth look at etcd.

I’m assuming that you’re already reasonably familiar with CoreOS, etcd, and Docker. If you aren’t familiar with CoreOS or etcd, have a look at the links in the previous paragraph. If you need a quick introduction to Docker, check out this quick introduction to Docker. While the example I’m going to provide here is fairly simple, it should serve as a reasonable basis upon which to build later.

An Overview of Fleet

The GitHub page for fleet describes it as a “distributed init system” that operates across a cluster of machines instead of on a single machine. It leverages etcd, the distributed key-value store that ships with CoreOS, as well as systemd. Fleet combines etcd and systemd to allow users to deploy containers (configured as systemd units) across a cluster of CoreOS systems.

Using fleet, users can deploy a single container anywhere on the cluster, deploy multiple copies of the same container, ensure that containers run on the same machine (or different machines), or maintain a certain number of instances of a service (thus protecting against failure).

Note that even though fleet helps with scheduling containers across a cluster of systems, fleet doesn’t address some of the other significant challenges that arise from an architecture based on distributed micro-services in containers. Namely, fleet does not address inter-container communications, service registration, service discovery, or any form of advanced utilization-based scheduling. These are topics I hope to be able to explore here in the near future.

Now that you have an idea of what fleet does, let’s take a closer look at actually using fleet.

Interacting with Fleet

By default, the fleetctl command-line client that is provided to interact with fleet assumes it will be interacting with a local etcd endpoint on the loopback address. So, if you want to run fleetctl on an instance of CoreOS in your cluster, no further configuration is needed.

However, it may be easier/more effective to use fleetctl from outside the cluster. There are a couple of different ways to do this: you can tell fleetctl to use a specific endpoint, or you can tunnel the traffic through SSH. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages; I’ll leave it to the readers to determine which approach is the best approach for their specific configurations/situations.

Using a Custom Endpoint

This method is pretty straightforward and simple. Just set an environment variable named FLEETCTL_ENDPOINT, like this:


Obviously, you’d want to make sure that you have the correct IP address (can be any node in the etcd cluster) and port (4001 is the default, I believe). With this environment variable set, now anytime you use fleetctl it will direct traffic to the endpoint you specified. If that specific node in the etcd cluster becomes unavailable, then fleetctl will stop working, and you’ll need to point it to a different node in the cluster.

Tunneling Through SSH

The second way of using fleetctl remotely is to tunnel the traffic through SSH. This method may be a bit more complicated, but naturally offers a bit more security.

To make fleetctl tunnel its communications with etcd through SSH, set an environment variable called FLEETCTL_TUNNEL to the IP address of any node in the etcd cluster, like this:


However, the configuration involves more than just setting the environment variable. The fleetctl doesn’t expose any options to configure the SSH connection, and it assumes you’ll be using public key authentication. This means you’ll need access to a public key that will work against the nodes in your etcd cluster. If you followed my instructions on deploying CoreOS on OpenStack via Heat, then you can review the Heat template to see which key was specified to be injected when the instances were spawned. Once you know which key was used, then you’ll need to either:

  • place that key on the system where fleetctl is installed, or
  • install fleetctl on a system that already has that key present.

There’s still at least one more step required (possibly two). Because fleetctl doesn’t expose any SSH options, you’re going to need to run an SSH agent on the system you’re using. OS X provides an SSH agent by default, but on Linux systems you will probably have to manually run an SSH agent and add the appropriate SSH key:

eval `ssh-agent -s`
ssh-add ~/.ssh/keyfile.pem

Once the SSH agent is running and the appropriate key is loaded (you’d clearly need to make sure the path and filename are correct in the command listed above), then the last step is to configure your ~/.ssh/config file with options for the CoreOS instances. It’s possible you might be able to get by without this step; I haven’t conducted enough testing to say with absolute certainty one way or another. I suspect it will be needed.

In the ~/.ssh/config file, add a stanza for the system through which you’ll be tunneling the fleetctl traffic. The stanza will need to look something like this:

Host node-01
  User core
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/keyfile.pem

This configuration stanza ensures that when the system you’re using attempts to communicate with the IP address listed above, it will use the specified username and public key. Since the SSH agent is loaded, it won’t prompt for any password for the public key (even if the public key doesn’t have a password associated, you’ll still need the SSH agent), and the SSH connection will be successful without any user interaction. That last point is important—fleetctl doesn’t expose any SSH options, so the connection needs to be completely automatic.

Once you have all these pieces in place, then you can simply run fleetctl with the appropriate commands (described in the next section), and the connection to the etcd cluster will happen over SSH via the specified host. Naturally, if that node in the cluster goes away or is unavailable, you’ll need to point your connection to a different node in the etcd cluster.

Using Fleet

Once you have access to the etcd cluster via fleetctl using one of the three methods described above (direct access via a CoreOS instance, setting a custom endpoint, or tunneling over SSH), then you’re ready to start exploring how fleet works.

First, you can list all the machines in the cluster with this command:

fleetctl list-machines

Note the “METADATA” column; this allows you to do some custom scheduling by associating systemd units with specific metadata parameters. Metadata can be assigned either via cloud-config parameters passed when the instance is spawned, or via modifications to the fleet config files.

To see the units about which the cluster knows, use this command:

fleetctl list-units

If you’re just getting your etcd cluster up and running, the output of this command is probably empty. Let’s deploy a unit that spawns a Docker container running the popular Nginx web server. Here’s a (very) simple unit file that will spin up an Nginx container via Docker:

(If you can’t see the code block above, click here.)

With this file in place on the system where you are running fleetctl, you can submit this to the etcd cluster with this command:

fleetctl submit nginx.service

Then, when you run fleetctl list-units, you’ll see the new unit submitted (but not started). Start it with fleetctl start nginx.service.

Where fleet becomes really useful (in my opinion) is when you want to run multiple units across the cluster. If you take the simple Nginx unit I showed you earlier and extend it slightly, you get this:

(Click here if you can’t see the code block above.)

Note the difference here: the Docker container name is changed (to nginx-01) and the filename is different (now nginx.1.service). If you make multiple copies of this file, changing the Docker container name and the unit filename, you can submit all of the units to the etcd cluster at the same time. For example, let’s say you wanted to run 3 Nginx containers on the cluster. Make three copies of the file (nginx.1.service, nginx.2.service, and nginx.3.service), modifying the container name in each copy. Make sure that you have the “X-Conflicts” line in there; that tells fleet not to place two Nginx containers on the same system in the cluster. Then submit them with this command:

fleetctl submit nginx.*.service

And start (launch) them with this command:

fleetctl start nginx.*.service

Give it a few minutes to download the latest Nginx Docker image (assuming it isn’t already downloaded), then run fleetctl list-units and you should see three Nginx containers distributed across three different CoreOS instances in the etcd cluster, all listed as “loaded” and “active”. (You can then test connectivity to those Nginx instances using something like curl.) Congratulations—you’ve just deployed multiple containers automatically across a cluster of systems!

(Want to see some of the magic behind fleet? Run etcdctl --peers <IP address of cluster node>:4001 ls / --recursive and see what’s displayed. You’re welcome.)

Admittedly, this is a very simple example. However, the basic architecture I’ve shown you here can be extended. For example, by using additional fleet-specific properties like “X-ConditionMachineOf” in your unit file(s), you can run what is known as a “sidekick container.” These containers do things like update an external load balancer, or register the presence of the “primary” container in some sort of service discovery mechanism. (In fact, as I alluded to in my etcd post, you could use etcd as that service discovery mechanism.)

Naturally, fleetctl includes commands for stopping units, destroying units, etc., as well as submitting and starting units. You can use fleetctl help to get more information, or visit the fleet GitHub page.

I hope you’ve found this post to be helpful. Feel free to post any questions, corrections, clarifications, or thoughts in the comments below. Courteous comments are always welcome.

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  1. Dmitri Kalintsev’s avatar

    > If that specific node in the etcd cluster becomes unavailable, then fleetctl will stop working, and you’ll need to point it to a different node in the cluster.

    Does it work via a Load Balancer? If yes, is there any specific health check that LB will need to use to see if an etcd node is alive and well?

  2. slowe’s avatar

    Dmitri, I haven’t tested it but it seems like it would work. etcd has a RESTful API that uses JSON encoding, so it seems like one could devise a health check that assessed the backend etcd cluster members.

  3. slowe’s avatar

    Dmitri, a quick follow-up: after some limited testing with HAProxy, I can make the RESTful API traffic for etcd work through a load balancer, but not the traffic from etcdctl. It’s probably a configuration error on my side, but keep that in mind as you consider the possibility of using a load balancer with etcd.

  4. snrism’s avatar

    In the above example after your first unit file, I guess we might have to use “fleetctl list-unit-files” to see the submitted unit files, which will be listed as “inactive” rather than use “fleetctl list-units”. Only when the containers are started using “fleetctl start file-name”, we can see them listed under “fleetctl list-units”?



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