Demystifying Kubernetes Horizontal Pod Autoscaling

Demystifying Kubernetes Horizontal Pod Autoscaling
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As businesses scale their applications to accommodate a growing user base, maintaining high performance while keeping costs manageable becomes a balancing act. One term that frequently surfaces in this context is Horizontal Pod Autoscaling (HPA) in Kubernetes. Kubernetes has rapidly become the de facto standard for container orchestration, and HPA is one of its most powerful features. However, diving into HPA can feel like entering a maze if you’re not familiar with the subject.

This blog post aims to demystify Kubernetes Horizontal Pod Autoscaling by discussing five key aspects you should know. Buckle up; we’re about to make this complex topic a lot more approachable.

1. What Is Horizontal Pod Autoscaling (HPA)?

HPA is an automated system that adjusts the number of pod replicas in a Kubernetes Deployment or ReplicaSet. In simple terms, it scales the number of pods in or out, based on observed CPU or memory usage. By doing so, it allows applications to meet service requirements without manual intervention, freeing up devops teams to focus on other tasks.

HPA is just one part of Kubernetes’ broader autoscaling ecosystem. Kubernetes also offers Vertical Pod Autoscaling and Cluster Autoscaling, which focus on different scaling strategies. If you’re interested, you can find out more on autoscaling in Kubernetes here.

When you set up HPA, you define metrics and thresholds that determine when the system should scale your application. For example, you might specify that if the CPU usage goes above 80% for a certain period, Kubernetes should add more pod replicas to balance the load.

2. Metrics Types Supported

HPA can operate based on various types of metrics, not just CPU and memory. The supported metrics types are:

  • Resource Metrics: These are metrics related to resources used by containers, such as CPU and memory.
  • Custom Metrics: You can create custom metrics specific to your application, such as the number of requests per second.
  • External Metrics: These metrics are not associated with any Kubernetes object and are pulled from external sources like Prometheus.

Understanding the kind of metrics that are relevant to your application can help you set up a more effective HPA strategy.

3. The Control Loop

At the heart of HPA is a control loop that periodically checks whether pods should be scaled up or down. The control loop fetches the relevant metrics and compares them against the thresholds you’ve defined. If the metrics breach these thresholds, the control loop triggers scaling.

The frequency of this control loop can be configured, but remember that setting it too aggressively can result in frequent scaling events, which might destabilize your application.

4. The Kubectl Commands

To implement HPA in Kubernetes, you can use a series of kubectl commands. For example, to create an HPA object, you might use:

kubectl autoscale deployment <deployment-name> –min=2 –max=5 –cpu-percent=80

This will autoscale the specified deployment, ensuring a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 5 pod replicas, scaling up when the CPU usage goes above 80%.

You can also describe the HPA status with:

kubectl describe hpa <hpa-name>

These commands help you interact with the HPA system directly, making it easier to integrate into your existing workflows.

5. Limitations And Best Practices

HPA isn’t a silver bullet, and understanding its limitations can help you use it more effectively:

  • Cool-down periods: Implement cool-down periods to prevent the system from scaling too quickly and causing instability.
  • Minimum and Maximum Pod Counts: Always define sensible min and max values to prevent unwanted scaling.
  • Multiple Metrics: Using multiple metrics can offer a more balanced scaling strategy, but it also adds complexity. Be cautious when setting this up.
  • Metrics Collection: Ensure you have a reliable metrics collection system in place. Erroneous metrics can lead to ineffective scaling.


Horizontal Pod Autoscaling is a robust feature of Kubernetes that can greatly simplify the task of scaling your applications. It’s important to understand what HPA is, the types of metrics it supports, how the control loop works, and the relevant kubectl commands to make the most of it. Being aware of its limitations and best practices can also help you implement HPA more effectively.

So, there you have it—HPA demystified. Now, you can step into the world of Kubernetes autoscaling with confidence, better prepared to scale your applications efficiently and effectively.

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