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Blog: Bring your ideas to the world with kubectl plugins

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Author: Cornelius Weig (TNG Technology Consulting GmbH)

kubectl is the most critical tool to interact with Kubernetes and has to address multiple user personas, each with their own needs and opinions. One way to make kubectl do what you need is to build new functionality into kubectl.

Challenges with building commands into kubectl

However, that's easier said than done. Being such an important cornerstone of Kubernetes, any meaningful change to kubectl needs to undergo a Kubernetes Enhancement Proposal (KEP) where the intended change is discussed beforehand.

When it comes to implementation, you'll find that kubectl is an ingenious and complex piece of engineering. It might take a long time to get used to the processes and style of the codebase to get done what you want to achieve. Next comes the review process which may go through several rounds until it meets all the requirements of the Kubernetes maintainers -- after all, they need to take over ownership of this feature and maintain it from the day it's merged.

When everything goes well, you can finally rejoice. Your code will be shipped with the next Kubernetes release. Well, that could mean you need to wait another 3 months to ship your idea in kubectl if you are unlucky.

So this was the happy path where everything goes well. But there are good reasons why your new functionality may never make it into kubectl. For one, kubectl has a particular look and feel and violating that style will not be acceptable by the maintainers. For example, an interactive command that produces output with colors would be inconsistent with the rest of kubectl. Also, when it comes to tools or commands useful only to a minuscule proportion of users, the maintainers may simply reject your proposal as kubectl needs to address common needs.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t ship your ideas to kubectl users.

What if you didn’t have to change kubectl to add functionality?

This is where kubectl plugins shine. Since kubectl v1.12, you can simply drop executables into your PATH, which follows the naming pattern kubectl-myplugin. Then you can execute this plugin as kubectl myplugin, and it will just feel like a normal sub-command of kubectl.

Plugins give you the opportunity to try out new experiences like terminal UIs, colorful output, specialized functionality, or other innovative ideas. You can go creative, as you’re the owner of your own plugin.

Further, plugins offer safe experimentation space for commands you’d like to propose to kubectl. By pre-releasing as a plugin, you can push your functionality faster to the end-users and quickly gather feedback. For example, the kubectl-debug plugin is proposed to become a built-in command in kubectl in a KEP). In the meanwhile, the plugin author can ship the functionality and collect feedback using the plugin mechanism.

How to get started with developing plugins

If you already have an idea for a plugin, how do you best make it happen? First you have to ask yourself if you can implement it as a wrapper around existing kubectl functionality. If so, writing the plugin as a shell script is often the best way forward, because the resulting plugin will be small, works cross-platform, and has a high level of trust because it is not compiled.

On the other hand, if the plugin logic is complex, a general-purpose language is usually better. The canonical choice here is Go, because you can use the excellent client-go library to interact with the Kubernetes API. The Kubernetes maintained sample-cli-plugin demonstrates some best practices and can be used as a template for new plugin projects.

When the development is done, you just need to ship your plugin to the Kubernetes users. For the best plugin installation experience and discoverability, you should consider doing so via the krew plugin manager. For an in-depth discussion about the technical details around kubectl plugins, refer to the documentation on kubernetes.io.

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