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Demystifying Kubernetes Cloud Cost Management: Strategies for Visibility, Allocation, and Optimization

Kubernetes cloud cost management is the process of tracking, attributing, and reducing the expenses associated with running clusters in the cloud. Although Kubernetes can improve DevOps operational efficiency, it’s often challenging to control costs across multiple apps and teams. Using Kubernetes in conjunction with dedicated cost management tooling solves this problem.

Cost management enables a data-driven approach that provides real-time visibility into your cloud computing spending. This ensures costs can be accurately allocated to different tenants and resources, as soon as they’re accrued. In this article, we’ll explain the problems associated with Kubernetes costs, then share strategies for implementing an optimized cost solution that’s fully integrated with your cluster management processes.

Challenges in Managing Kubernetes Cloud Costs

Kubernetes is a dynamic system: its highly available architecture means resources are often ephemeral, existing only briefly before they’re stopped or replaced. For example, auto-scaling can address utilization spikes by provisioning new cloud compute nodes, but those nodes could be destroyed minutes later if demand subsides.

This flexibility is key to the popularity of Kubernetes. However, it’s problematic from a cost management perspective because it’s frequently unclear which resources are running, who created them, and whether particular costs will recur in the future. In its 2023 Kubernetes FinOps survey, the CNCF reported that 49% of teams say their cloud costs increased after adopting Kubernetes, suggesting potentially endemic cost management issues.

Here are some of the main cost challenges that Kubernetes operators face:

1. Lack of Granular Cost Insights

Kubernetes doesn’t include any tooling for tracking costs associated with individual workloads. This makes it hard to understand where costs are being incurred, particularly for busy multi-tenant clusters that are shared among several apps and teams.

Accurate cost allocation to individual tenants is important to reveal the true nature of your expenses. You can attribute direct costs by labeling objects like Deployments, Services, Pods, and Volumes with the identity of the tenant they belong to, but allocation also needs to fairly account for use of shared resources like external load balancers. This can require more sophisticated tracking to assign costs based on the utilization proportion that each tenant’s responsible for.

2. Complicated Management of Multiple Tools

Multi-cloud cluster deployments can be an invaluable way to improve operating efficiency and capitalize on the broadest range of cloud capabilities. But with each cloud provider and cluster platform having its own pricing structure, costs can be opaque and difficult to predict. You’ll usually need to switch between cost management tools for each service that you use, making it hard to holistically manage your spend.

AWS EKS integrates with the AWS Billing Console, for example, while Google GKE offers an API that can be used to retrieve detailed cost allocation data. When both services are used, it’s up to you to develop tooling that’s capable of reconciling your total Kubernetes costs.

This problem is best mitigated by adopting an external cost management platform. Use dedicated tools to collate all costs from across your cluster deployments, then holistically identify potential optimizations and savings. This provides maximum transparency even where resources are distributed across several cloud providers.

3. Unclear Cost Forecasting and Budgeting

Kubernetes costs can be troublesome to budget for. As we alluded to earlier, correct use of Kubernetes benefits like auto-scaling leads to inevitable variations in your monthly bill. When you’re operating large services at scale, these changes can have significant absolute values that cause concern to financial stakeholders.

Cost management tools facilitate more accurate forecasting by providing detailed visibility into your current resource utilization and historical spending trends. Using these insights, you can make an informed estimate of possible future costs, based on your typical workload utilization.

Cost management solutions can also suggest possible savings options, such as by right-sizing resources or switching to different cloud instance types. This can achieve an immediate cost reduction midway through a billing cycle, helping mitigate any occasions where accrued expenses rise more quickly than anticipated.

Strategies for Optimizing Kubernetes Cloud Spend

Optimizing Kubernetes spending demands a pragmatic approach to cost management that provides real-time visibility, accurate allocation, and unified budgeting. Reducing costs always starts with knowing what you’re currently spending on, but thereafter you need processes and tooling that support you in making informed savings decisions.

You can use the following strategies to take control of your Kubernetes costs:

1. Implement Cost Chargeback and Showback Models

Chargeback and showback are the two main ways to attribute costs to specific teams and operations within IT organizations:

  • Chargeback assigns a cost to each resource that a team uses, then charges the team for that usage. It’s a popular model within large enterprises where individual teams are expected to be accountable for their cloud expenses. Costs are precisely attributed to each team and deducted from their broader budgets.
  • Showback works similarly to chargeback, but teams aren’t held directly accountable for their bills. Showback still provides a full cost breakdown by tenant, project, and operation, but costs are settled directly by the IT department or finance team. It’s easier to implement and ensures all accounting is centrally managed.

Cost chargeback and showback implementations depend on precise visibility into cost allocation. To achieve this within Kubernetes, you’ll need to label your objects with the identity of the cost center they belong to. Depending on how you structure your clusters, this could be done individually using labels on every resource, or might be aggregated based on namespace–if all objects in a namespace belong to the same team or project, then your namespaces will effectively mirror your cost centers.

After attributing Kubernetes objects to cost centers, the next stage is configuring showback and chargeback for the associated operating costs. These include bandwidth, storage, and network ingress/egress fees, in addition to costs incurred through the use of any additional tools, platforms, or cloud services. If configuring your own platform, you could collect utilization data using an observability system like Prometheus, then analyze it alongside the real-time cost insights from a system like OpenCost.

2. Leverage Dedicated Cost Management Tools

Because Kubernetes lacks integrated cost management capabilities, dedicated tools are required to obtain real-time visibility and begin making savings. Without a cost management solution, it’s challenging to produce realistic budgets and identify which resources are behind the highest costs.

The CNCF’s FinOps survey highlighted the tooling challenges faced by respondents: 40% said their Kubernetes cost monitoring is actually based on estimates, while 38% indicated they have no cost monitoring at all. Only 21% have successfully implemented an accurate chargeback or showback regime.

Fortunately, there are platforms that can provide unified visibility into costs, allocation, and optimization opportunities, across all cluster environments. Kubecost is one of the most popular options; it uses the open-source OpenCost engine (originally developed by Kubecost) but layers additional features including automatic cost saving recommendations.

Other cost monitoring options including Cast, Finout, and Rafay allow you to optimize, automate, and standardize cost management policies for your entire Kubernetes infrastructure. You can consolidate spend analysis across clouds and enforce chargeback groups that ensure teams are billed for what they use.

3. Follow Resource Provisioning and Utilization Best Practices

Kubernetes costs are ultimately driven by the quantity and scale of the resources you provision. It’s therefore crucial to follow utilization best practices that maximize the effectiveness of your clusters, while minimizing waste. Any unused resources will increase your bill without delivering any value.

Techniques for ensuring proper provisioning include:

  • Right-size compute nodes to the workloads they run: Don’t pay for hardware tiers that your workloads don’t benefit from. It’s important to correctly assign workloads to the node types they require, such as by using node selectors to ensure only demanding apps access your expensive high-performance nodes. Similarly, ensure optimal payment plans are being used, such as reserved instances instead of spot instances.
  • Continually review resource requests and limits: Setting excessive Kubernetes resource requests and limits results in over-provisioned workloads that needlessly consume cluster capacity. Resource requests should be regularly reviewed based on actual utilization—for example, if your deployment never exceeds 60% of its allocated resources, then you should consider reducing the request and/or limit so other workloads can use the spare capacity.
  • Match auto-scaling conditions to your app’s performance: Premature scale-ups raise costs unnecessarily. You should measure how your app performs under load, then tune your auto-scaling conditions so new resources are only provisioned if they’ll have an immediate positive impact.
  • Identify and remove unused resources: Forgotten deployments are one of the most common causes of surprise bills, particularly in clusters shared between multiple tenants. Use of chargebacks can prompt teams to be more mindful of their usage, while automated tools that prune old resources can help ensure waste is cleaned up.
  • Configure resource quotas: Resource Quotas allow you to limit the total quantity of resources that a Kubernetes namespace can consume. In a multi-tenant cluster, correctly setting quotas helps ensure the available physical resources are fairly distributed among your tenants.
  • Don’t forget the network costs: Costs associated with cloud network bandwidth and data transfers can be one of the most substantial factors on your bill. You can sometimes minimize these by avoiding unnecessary inter-cloud transfers, such as by colocating related workloads in one cloud—cross-cloud ingress and egress fees are usually much higher than those for transfers within a single provider’s infrastructure.

These steps help reduce your Kubernetes cloud spending by improving utilization efficiency. The resources you provision should all be actively used, with any spare capacity limited to consciously allocated headroom that provides space for your services to scale.

Remember that these steps are not a case of set once and forget: cost optimization is a continual process that requires regular iteration. Keep reviewing your requests and limits, scaling settings, resource quotas, and cloud components to maintain an efficient balance between performance and cost.

Benefits of an Integrated Kubernetes Cost Management Solution

Kubernetes cost management is best implemented as a holistic solution that incorporates all the strategies we’ve outlined above. Dedicated cost management platforms are key to this approach. Solutions such as Rafay enable you to monitor your cluster expenditure in real-time, even when multiple cloud providers are used.

Adopting a cost management service delivers several tangible advantages:

  • Seamless integration with Kubernetes management platforms: Cost management solutions can integrate with other platforms to let you control costs in the same place that you administer your clusters. For example, Rafay’s Kubernetes automation solution incorporates cost management alongside self-service cluster access, isolated multi-tenancy, security policy enforcement, and more.
  • Streamlined cost management processes that are simpler to govern: A dedicated solution simplifies cost management processes by presenting all cost data within a single platform. This eliminates the need for multiple tools and enables consolidated insights to be generated, such as by comparing costs of equivalent resources in different cloud environments.
  • Unified view of all Kubernetes costs, facilitating informed decision-making: Cost management platforms deliver a unified view of Kubernetes costs and potential savings. This provides the vital context that’s missing from the default Kubernetes experience. The ability to clearly visualize which tenants are driving cost increases lets you make informed decisions when implementing changes to provisioning, resource quotas, and chargeback schemes.

Moreover, purpose-built cost management tools act in real-time and can alert you to overruns as they occur. By centralizing budget controls, the platform can detect overage risks and send notifications to relevant teams or administrators when costs spike. This enables more effective responses before excess charges accumulate on your bill.

Cost Management Tools and Shared Multi-Tenant Clusters

A Kubernetes-native cost management platform is particularly important when clusters are shared between multiple tenants such as development teams or customers. Platforms can automate the hard task of attributing costs to different tenants, then estimating their expected contribution to future bills.

No two organizations divide their Kubernetes resources equally, so it’s important that cost management solutions accommodate these variations. This is one of the benefits that dedicated platforms provide, compared to the limited visibility offered by provider-level billing dashboards. Rafay’s built-in support for customizable chargeback groups, with resources selected based on arbitrary cluster, namespace, or label identifiers, makes it possible to precisely attribute costs back to individual tenants, for example.

The ability for teams to monitor their own costs is also key to successful Kubernetes multi-tenancy. Exposing cost data directly to teams allows them to proactively optimize their usage and address problematic expenditure early, contributing to reduced tensions between developers and finance teams. Rafay integrates with your Kubernetes RBAC policies to provide self-service access to cost data, based on assigned roles.

Conclusion: Take Control of Kubernetes Costs With Visibility and Accurate Allocation

Kubernetes cost management can be a struggle. Many teams find it challenging to accurately attribute, analyze, and reduce cluster costs, but by implementing the strategies discussed in this article you can take actionable steps to optimize your spending. This enables you to benefit from the flexibility and resilience of Kubernetes with confidence that your operations will stay under budget, even when clusters are shared among multiple teams.

Adopting an integrated cost management solution is the most effective way to take control of your expenses. Purpose-built services like Rafay Cost Management let you track precisely where costs are being accrued, including who owns the relevant resources and why they’re in use. You can consolidate your cost monitoring across all the clusters you control with clear drill-down reporting and automated chargeback groups.

Get started with Rafay today or check out our solution brief to learn more about governing the costs of your Kubernetes cluster fleet.


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