kubectl debug + Nixery = SUPERPOWERS!!

Use case: You have a FROM scratch or otherwise really locked down Docker image running in Kubernetes. How do you debug it?

Like this:

kubectl debug my-mongodb-pod -it --image nixery.dev/mongosh -- mongosh

It’s like, how did I not find this earlier!?

What is kubectl debug

The kubectl debug command adds an ephemeral container to a Kubernetes Pod. Either by adding the container to an existing Pod (default), or by creating a duplicate Pod with the added container (if using --copy-to=new-pod-name flag).

“Ephemeral container” is different than regular app- and init-containers:

  • No health checks
  • Will not restart the Pod if it crashes
  • RAM & CPU usage are not affected by the resource limits/requests set on the other containers
  • Does not get counted in kubectl get pods output
  • Uses equivalent of RestartPolicy: Never

Read more: https://kubernetes.io/docs/tasks/debug/debug-application/debug-running-pod/#ephemeral-container

What is Nixery

NixOS, a GNU/Linux distro, has a very efficient package management system, that keep a very good track of dependencies.

Nixery is independent from NixOS itself, and adds Nix packages to Docker image layers on-demand when you pull them.

For example:

# Starts a container with only the meta-package shell (Bash+coreutils), Git, and htop
podman run --rm -it nixery.dev/shell/git/htop bash

# Starts a container with only curl
podman run --rm -it nixery.dev/curl curl http://whatthecommit.com/index.txt

# Starts a container with only the mongosh binary
podman run --rm -it nixery.dev/mongosh mongosh -u mongoadmin -p secretpassword

It’s THE solution for “oh I just need an image with ‘those’ packages real quick, but who got time to upload some temp Docker images to Quay/Docker Hub??”

Read more: https://nixery.dev/

Accessing files from main app container

The ephemeral debug container is after all it’s own container, so accessing files from the main app container gets weird. But there’s a trick!

First, you need to target the main app container when starting the debug container, like so:

# "some-name" being the Pod's main app container's name
kubectl debug my-pod -it --image nixery.dev/shell --target some-name -- bash

Inside /proc/${ some process ID }/root is the root filesystem of a given process. It gets weird as that file says it’s a symlink pointing towards /, so stuff that resolves paths for you sometimes gets confused. E.g:

# The PID (Process ID) of main app container entrypoint command will always be 1
$ realpath /proc/1/root

But in that directory you’ll find the filesystem of the app container, instead of the debug container’s files. With this you can do some funky stuff like attaching a tmux session from a different container! For example:

  1. You have a Pod running with a tmux session, e.g like this which will start the Pod my-tmux with a container also named my-tmux:
kubectl run my-tmux --image nixery.dev/shell/tmux --rm -it -- tmux
  1. Launch an ephemeral debug container, overriding the tmux socket path to use the socket of the app container:
kubectl debug my-tmux -it --image nixery.dev/shell/tmux --target my-tmux -- tmux -S /proc/1/root/tmp/tmux-0/default attach
  1. Do some inputs in the terminal and see they output from both terminals. They are running in separate containers! :D This also shows that the filesystems are not only accessible between each other, but that even special file types like sockets also work

Read more: https://iximiuz.com/en/posts/kubernetes-ephemeral-containers/#using-kubectl-debug-with-a-shared-pid-namespace


  1. Do memory dumps of applications running in production, e.g via dotnet-dump collect, without the container getting OutOfMemory killed by Kubernetes because it’s reaching the RAM resource limits
  2. You can start using “Distroless images”, as you can always add the Bash shell later via debug container. Stop shipping debug apps in your Docker images, as this is a major vector for hackers. Like remote code execution vulnerabilities could give them a shell inside the container, but if there’s no other programs there, not even a bash, then that plugs that security hole.
  3. Collect diagnostics of running Go program via gops


You can actually also use kubectl debug to target the nodes themselves, and a lot of other fun stuff. Do check out the links above, because there’s a lot of fun to learn.

Also, if you need this kind of access for locally running Docker containers, check out https://github.com/iximiuz/cdebug

(Cover photo by cottonbro studio)