Kubectl Conventions

Updated: 3/23/2017

Table of Contents


  • Strive for consistency across commands

  • Explicit should always override implicit

    • Environment variables should override default values

    • Command-line flags should override default values and environment variables

    • --namespace should also override the value specified in a specified resource

  • Most kubectl commands should be able to operate in bulk on resources, of mixed types.

  • Kubectl should not make any decisions based on its nor the server’s release version string. Instead, API discovery and/or OpenAPI should be used to determine available features.

  • We currently only guarantee one release of version skew is supported, but we strive to make old releases of kubectl continue to work with newer servers in compliance with our API compatibility guarantees. This means, for instance, that kubectl should not fully parse objects returned by the server into full Go types and then re-encode them, since that would drop newly added fields. (#3955)

  • General-purpose kubectl commands (e.g., get, delete, create -f, replace, patch, apply) should work for all resource types, even those not present when that release of kubectl was built, such as APIs added in newer releases, aggregated APIs, and third-party resources.

  • While functionality may be added to kubectl out of expedience, commonly needed functionality should be provided by the server to make it easily accessible to all API clients. (#12143)

  • Remaining non-trivial functionality remaining in kubectl should be made available to other clients via libraries (#7311)

Command conventions

  • Command names are all lowercase, and hyphenated if multiple words.

  • kubectl VERB NOUNs for commands that apply to multiple resource types.

  • Command itself should not have built-in aliases.

  • NOUNs may be specified as TYPE name1 name2 or TYPE/name1 TYPE/name2 or TYPE1,TYPE2,TYPE3/name1; TYPE is omitted when only a single type is expected.

  • Resource types are all lowercase, with no hyphens; both singular and plural forms are accepted.

  • NOUNs may also be specified by one or more file arguments: -f file1 -f file2 ...

  • Resource types may have 2- or 3-letter aliases.

  • Business logic should be decoupled from the command framework, so that it can be reused independently of kubectl, cobra, etc.

    • Ideally, commonly needed functionality would be implemented server-side in order to avoid problems typical of “fat” clients and to make it readily available to non-Go clients.
  • Commands that generate resources, such as run or expose, should obey specific conventions, see generators.

  • A command group (e.g., kubectl config) may be used to group related non-standard commands, such as custom generators, mutations, and computations.

Create commands

kubectl create <resource> commands fill the gap between “I want to try Kubernetes, but I don’t know or care what gets created” (kubectl run) and “I want to create exactly this” (author yaml and run kubectl create -f). They provide an easy way to create a valid object without having to know the vagaries of particular kinds, nested fields, and object key typos that are ignored by the yaml/json parser. Because editing an already created object is easier than authoring one from scratch, these commands only need to have enough parameters to create a valid object and set common immutable fields. It should default as much as is reasonably possible. Once that valid object is created, it can be further manipulated using kubectl edit or the eventual kubectl set commands.

kubectl create <resource> <special-case> commands help in cases where you need to perform non-trivial configuration generation/transformation tailored for a common use case. kubectl create secret is a good example, there’s a generic flavor with keys mapping to files, then there’s a docker-registry flavor that is tailored for creating an image pull secret, and there’s a tls flavor for creating tls secrets. You create these as separate commands to get distinct flags and separate help that is tailored for the particular usage.

Rules for extending special resource alias - “all”

Here are the rules to add a new resource to the kubectl get all output.

  • No cluster scoped resources

  • No namespace admin level resources (limits, quota, policy, authorization rules)

  • No resources that are potentially unrecoverable (secrets and pvc)

  • Resources that are considered “similar” to #3 should be grouped the same (configmaps)

Flag conventions

  • Flags are all lowercase, with words separated by hyphens

  • Flag names and single-character aliases should have the same meaning across all commands

  • Flag descriptions should start with an uppercase letter and not have a period at the end of a sentence

  • Command-line flags corresponding to API fields should accept API enums exactly (e.g., --restart=Always)

  • Do not reuse flags for different semantic purposes, and do not use different flag names for the same semantic purpose – grep for "Flags()" before adding a new flag

  • Use short flags sparingly, only for the most frequently used options, prefer lowercase over uppercase for the most common cases, try to stick to well known conventions for UNIX commands and/or Docker, where they exist, and update this list when adding new short flags

    • -f: Resource file
    • also used for --follow in logs, but should be deprecated in favor of -F
    • -n: Namespace scope
    • -l: Label selector
    • also used for --labels in expose, but should be deprecated
    • -L: Label columns
    • -c: Container
    • also used for --client in version, but should be deprecated
    • -i: Attach stdin
    • -t: Allocate TTY
    • -w: Watch (currently also used for --www in proxy, but should be deprecated)
    • -p: Previous
    • also used for --pod in exec, but deprecated
    • also used for --patch in patch, but should be deprecated
    • also used for --port in proxy, but should be deprecated
    • -P: Static file prefix in proxy, but should be deprecated
    • -r: Replicas
    • -u: Unix socket
    • -v: Verbose logging level
  • --dry-run: Don’t modify the live state; simulate the mutation and display the output. All mutations should support it.

  • --local: Don’t contact the server; just do local read, transformation, generation, etc., and display the output

  • --output-version=...: Convert the output to a different API group/version

  • --short: Output a compact summary of normal output; the format is subject to change and is optimized for reading not parsing.

  • --validate: Validate the resource schema

Output conventions

  • By default, output is intended for humans rather than programs

    • However, affordances are made for simple parsing of get output
  • Only errors should be directed to stderr

  • get commands should output one row per resource, and one resource per row

    • Column titles and values should not contain spaces in order to facilitate commands that break lines into fields: cut, awk, etc. Instead, use - as the word separator.

    • By default, get output should fit within about 80 columns

    • Eventually we could perhaps auto-detect width

    • -o wide may be used to display additional columns

    • The first column should be the resource name, titled NAME (may change this to an abbreviation of resource type)

    • NAMESPACE should be displayed as the first column when –all-namespaces is specified

    • The last default column should be time since creation, titled AGE

    • -Lkey should append a column containing the value of label with key key, with <none> if not present

    • json, yaml, Go template, and jsonpath template formats should be supported and encouraged for subsequent processing

      • Users should use –api-version or –output-version to ensure the output uses the version they expect
  • describe commands may output on multiple lines and may include information from related resources, such as events. Describe should add additional information from related resources that a normal user may need to know - if a user would always run “describe resource1” and the immediately want to run a “get type2” or “describe resource2”, consider including that info. Examples, persistent volume claims for pods that reference claims, events for most resources, nodes and the pods scheduled on them. When fetching related resources, a targeted field selector should be used in favor of client side filtering of related resources.

  • For fields that can be explicitly unset (booleans, integers, structs), the output should say <unset>. Likewise, for arrays <none> should be used; for external IP, <nodes> should be used; for load balancer, <pending> should be used. Lastly <unknown> should be used where unrecognized field type was specified.

  • Mutations should output TYPE/name verbed by default, where TYPE is singular; -o name may be used to just display TYPE/name, which may be used to specify resources in other commands

Documentation conventions

  • Commands are documented using Cobra; docs are then auto-generated by hack/update-generated-docs.sh.

    • Use should contain a short usage string for the most common use case(s), not an exhaustive specification

    • Short should contain a one-line explanation of what the command does

    • Short descriptions should start with an uppercase case letter and not have a period at the end of a sentence

    • Short descriptions should (if possible) start with a first person (singular present tense) verb

    • Long may contain multiple lines, including additional information about input, output, commonly used flags, etc.

    • Long descriptions should use proper grammar, start with an uppercase letter and have a period at the end of a sentence

    • Example should contain examples

    • A comment should precede each example command. Comment should start with an uppercase letter

    • Command examples should not include a $ prefix

  • Use “FILENAME” for filenames

  • Use “TYPE” for the particular flavor of resource type accepted by kubectl, rather than “RESOURCE” or “KIND”

  • Use “NAME” for resource names

kubectl Factory conventions

The kubectl Factory is a large interface which is used to provide access to clients, polymorphic inspection, and polymorphic mutation. The Factory is layered in “rings” in which one ring may reference inner rings, but not peers or outer rings. This is done to allow composition by extenders.

In order for composers to be able to provide alternative factory implementations they need to provide low level pieces of certain functions so that when the factory calls back into itself it uses the custom version of the function. Rather than try to enumerate everything that someone would want to override we split the factory into rings, where each ring can depend on methods an earlier ring, but cannot depend upon peer methods in its own ring.

Command implementation conventions

For every command there should be a NewCmd<CommandName> function that creates the command and returns a pointer to a cobra.Command, which can later be added to other parent commands to compose the structure tree. There should also be a <CommandName>Options struct with a variable to every flag and argument declared by the command (and any other variable required for the command to run). This makes tests and mocking easier. The struct ideally exposes three methods:

  • Complete: Completes the struct fields with values that may or may not be directly provided by the user, for example, by flags pointers, by the args slice, by using the Factory, etc.

  • Validate: performs validation on the struct fields and returns appropriate errors.

  • Run<CommandName>: runs the actual logic of the command, taking as assumption that the struct is complete with all required values to run, and they are valid.

Sample command skeleton:

// MineRecommendedName is the recommended command name for kubectl mine.
const MineRecommendedName = "mine"

// Long command description and examples.
var (
  mineLong = templates.LongDesc(`
    mine which is described here
    with lots of details.`)

  mineExample = templates.Examples(`
    # Run my command's first action
    kubectl mine first_action

    # Run my command's second action on latest stuff
    kubectl mine second_action --flag`)

// MineOptions contains all the options for running the mine cli command.
type MineOptions struct {
  mineLatest bool

// NewCmdMine implements the kubectl mine command.
func NewCmdMine(parent, name string, f *cmdutil.Factory, out io.Writer) *cobra.Command {
  opts := &MineOptions{}

  cmd := &cobra.Command{
    Use:     fmt.Sprintf("%s [--latest]", name),
    Short:   "Run my command",
    Long:    mineLong,
    Example: fmt.Sprintf(mineExample, parent+" "+name),
    Run: func(cmd *cobra.Command, args []string) {
      if err := opts.Complete(f, cmd, args, out); err != nil {
      if err := opts.Validate(); err != nil {
        cmdutil.CheckErr(cmdutil.UsageError(cmd, err.Error()))
      if err := opts.RunMine(); err != nil {

  cmd.Flags().BoolVar(&options.mineLatest, "latest", false, "Use latest stuff")
  return cmd

// Complete completes all the required options for mine.
func (o *MineOptions) Complete(f *cmdutil.Factory, cmd *cobra.Command, args []string, out io.Writer) error {
  return nil

// Validate validates all the required options for mine.
func (o MineOptions) Validate() error {
  return nil

// RunMine implements all the necessary functionality for mine.
func (o MineOptions) RunMine() error {
  return nil

The Run<CommandName> method should contain the business logic of the command and as noted in command conventions, ideally that logic should exist server-side so any client could take advantage of it. Notice that this is not a mandatory structure and not every command is implemented this way, but this is a nice convention so try to be compliant with it. As an example, have a look at how kubectl logs is implemented.

Exit code conventions

Generally, for all the command exit code, result of zero means success and non-zero means errors.

For idempotent (“make-it-so”) commands, we should return zero when success even if no changes were provided, user can request treating “make-it-so” as “already-so” via flag --error-unchanged to make it return non-zero exit code.

For non-idempotent (“already-so”) commands, we should return non-zero by default, user can request treating “already-so” as “make-it-so” via flag --ignore-unchanged to make it return zero exit code.

Exit Code Number Meaning Enable
0 Command exited success By default, By flag --ignore-unchanged
1 Command exited for general errors By default
3 Command was successful, but the user requested a distinct exit code when no change was made By flag --error-unchanged


Generators are kubectl commands that generate resources based on a set of inputs (other resources, flags, or a combination of both).

The point of generators is:

  • to enable users using kubectl in a scripted fashion to pin to a particular behavior which may change in the future. Explicit use of a generator will always guarantee that the expected behavior stays the same.

  • to enable potential expansion of the generated resources for scenarios other than just creation, similar to how -f is supported for most general-purpose commands.

Generator commands should obey the following conventions:

  • A --generator flag should be defined. Users then can choose between different generators, if the command supports them (for example, kubectl run currently supports generators for pods, jobs, replication controllers, and deployments), or between different versions of a generator so that users depending on a specific behavior may pin to that version (for example, kubectl expose currently supports two different versions of a service generator).

  • Generation should be decoupled from creation. A generator should implement the kubectl.StructuredGenerator interface and have no dependencies on cobra or the Factory. See, for example, how the first version of the namespace generator is defined:

// NamespaceGeneratorV1 supports stable generation of a namespace
type NamespaceGeneratorV1 struct {
  // Name of namespace
  Name string

// Ensure it supports the generator pattern that uses parameters specified during construction
var _ StructuredGenerator = &NamespaceGeneratorV1{}

// StructuredGenerate outputs a namespace object using the configured fields
func (g *NamespaceGeneratorV1) StructuredGenerate() (runtime.Object, error) {
  if err := g.validate(); err != nil {
    return nil, err
  namespace := &api.Namespace{}
  namespace.Name = g.Name
  return namespace, nil

// validate validates required fields are set to support structured generation
func (g *NamespaceGeneratorV1) validate() error {
  if len(g.Name) == 0 {
    return fmt.Errorf("name must be specified")
  return nil

The generator struct (NamespaceGeneratorV1) holds the necessary fields for namespace generation. It also satisfies the kubectl.StructuredGenerator interface by implementing the StructuredGenerate() (runtime.Object, error) method which configures the generated namespace that callers of the generator (kubectl create namespace in our case) need to create.

  • --dry-run should output the resource that would be created, without creating it.