Unmanaged vs managed Kubernetes

All information is accurate as of February 19, 2024

Kubernetes is an open-source container orchestration system that simplifies the management of massively scaled container deployments. Kubernetes automates container operations including deployment, networking, load balancing, scaling, failovers, and more to achieve consistent operations across container clusters, and is now the second-largest open-source project in the world after Linux. According to Gartner’s "The CTO’s Guide to Containers and Kubernetes," by 2027, over 90% of companies worldwide will run containerized applications in production. However, there are multiple ways those looking to leverage the power of Kubernetes can deploy it, most notably, though an unmanaged or open-source version or by using a managed Kubernetes provider. In this article, we will dive deeper into what exactly constitutes unmanaged and managed Kubernetes, their respective pros and cons, and guideposts to pick the right path forward.


  1. Unmanaged Kubernetes requires substantial operational overhead, technical skills, and resources to handle manual infrastructure management. This complexity can impede innovation velocity for startups.

  2. Managed Kubernetes services provide automated deployment, scaling, maintenance, and high availability which simplifies usage so that startups can focus on creating business value, not managing infrastructure.

  3. DigitalOcean Kubernetes (DOKS) delivers resilient and innovative application platforms with autoscaling, integrated disaster recovery, and transparent usage-based pricing. By leveraging DOKS, startups, and digital businesses can accelerate time-to-market and optimize costs.

Understanding Kubernetes clusters

Before we delve into the comparison between unmanaged and managed Kubernetes, it’s crucial to first understand the fundamental components of a Kubernetes cluster. This understanding serves as a strong foundation for evaluating the benefits and trade-offs between these two approaches to Kubernetes cluster management. Kubernetes clusters consist of several essential components working together to manage containerized applications seamlessly. The four major components in a Kubernetes cluster are as follows:

1. Master node

Master nodes control and manage the overall cluster. They run the controller manager, scheduler, and Kubernetes API server which oversees deploying applications, maintaining desired state, scheduling, and exposing APIs for cluster interactions. In short, the master node is considered the brain of the Kubernetes cluster, responsible for overseeing operations and managing the overall state of the cluster.

2. Worker nodes

Worker nodes are individual machines within the cluster where containerized applications are deployed and executed. Each worker node hosts multiple pods and provides the necessary computing resources for running them. These run containerized applications using the agent and provide compute capacity. Worker nodes execute workloads assigned by the master node.

3. Pods

Pods are the smallest deployable units in Kubernetes, encapsulating one or more containers that share networking and storage resources. Pods represent the fundamental building blocks of applications, allowing them to be easily scaled and managed. These are abstractions that represent containerized application instances running on nodes. Pods contain one or more tightly coupled, closely related containers.

4. Services

Services are an abstraction layer that enables communication between different parts of an application running within the cluster. Services provide a stable endpoint for accessing application components, facilitating seamless connectivity and load balancing. These enable loose coupling between microservices/containers by providing named lookup and load balancing to access a set of pods. Moreover, services expose applications running in pods to be discoverable and reachable by other components.

What is unmanaged Kubernetes?

Unmanaged Kubernetes (also known as Vanilla or open source Kubernetes) refers to installing, deploying, and operating Kubernetes yourself in your environment or on the infrastructure you control. With unmanaged Kubernetes, you handle the end-to-end lifecycle which involves the process of installing, setting up the cluster, integrating adjacent systems, managing the entire Kubernetes infrastructure, and keeping everything updated and running smoothly. This offers more control but adds complexity.

Pros of unmanaged Kubernetes

Complete control

Organizations have the freedom to configure the cluster according to their unique needs and preferences, without relying on predefined settings or limitations imposed by managed services.

Enhanced security

With full control over security configurations, organizations can implement stringent measures to protect sensitive data and applications.


Opting for unmanaged Kubernetes may often present as a cost-effective solution, primarily in terms of upfront costs. However, it is crucial to take into account the substantial indirect expenses associated with internal cluster management, such as staff resources and the time commitment required. Startups should carefully analyze the direct and indirect costs associated with both the approaches and then proceed with the approach that makes sense for them in the long-term.

Cons of unmanaged Kubernetes


Manual management of Kubernetes clusters can be complex and time-consuming. This requires expertise in various areas such as networking, security, and system administration which many smaller businesses and startups don’t have.

Operational overhead

Organizations must allocate resources and personnel for ongoing maintenance tasks, including software updates, monitoring, and troubleshooting. This may divert attention from core business objectives and may lead to delays in deploying updates.

Scalability challenges

Unmanaged Kubernetes require careful planning and coordination to ensure optimal performance and reliability. Because of this, scaling unmanaged Kubernetes clusters to accommodate growth might be challenging.

What is managed Kubernetes?

A managed Kubernetes service is one where a cloud provider provisions, configures, and maintains the Kubernetes cluster for you. With a managed Kubernetes offering, the operational burden of deploying and running Kubernetes is handled for you by the cloud provider. They take care of infrastructure provisioning, upgrades, security patching, and ongoing management. This approach simplifies the deployment, scaling, and maintenance of Kubernetes clusters with minimal involvement from the developers. This allows organizations to focus on their core business objectives.

Pros of managed Kubernetes

Simplified management

Managed Kubernetes services abstract away the complexity of managing infrastructure, allowing organizations to focus on their applications and business objectives without worrying about the underlying infrastructure.

Automatic provisioning

Service providers handle cluster provisioning automatically, reducing the time and effort required to set up and configure Kubernetes environments. This streamlines the deployment process and accelerates time-to-market for applications.


Managed Kubernetes services offer seamless scalability, enabling organizations to quickly scale resources up or down based on demand. Providers automatically allocate additional resources as needed, ensuring optimal performance and resource utilization.

Automated updates and maintenance

Service providers manage the entire lifecycle of the Kubernetes cluster, including updates, patches, and maintenance tasks. This ensures that the cluster infrastructure remains up-to-date, secure, and reliable without requiring manual intervention from the organization.

High availability

Managed Kubernetes services typically offer built-in redundancy and failover mechanisms to ensure high availability and uptime for applications running on the cluster. This plays a major role in minimizing downtime and ensuring the continuous operation of critical services.

Cons of managed Kubernetes


Managed Kubernetes services often come with a price premium compared to managing Kubernetes clusters manually. Organizations must consider the ongoing subscription costs of the service, which can add up over time, especially for large-scale deployments.

Limited customization

Managed Kubernetes services may impose certain limitations on customization and configuration options compared to managing clusters manually. Organizations may have less control over certain aspects of the cluster environment, which can be restrictive for specific use cases or requirements.

💡“Kubernetes works faster, works better, and we didn’t have to come up with a new system. It allows us to scale and focus on development. With DigitalOcean Kubernetes, we can grow faster and save money by fully utilizing our Droplets.” - Nir Borenshtein, COO, Bright Data (a web data platform that switched to DigitalOcean Kubernetes to scale up and optimize performance)

6 Deciding factors: Unmanaged vs managed Kubernetes

1. Cost considerations

Startups often need to carefully weigh the financial implications of managing Kubernetes clusters themselves versus opting for a managed service. While unmanaged Kubernetes may appear more cost-effective initially due to lower subscription fees, startups must factor in the indirect costs associated with manual management, such as staffing, training, and potential downtime-related expenses. On the other hand, managed Kubernetes services typically involve upfront costs but can offer long-term savings by minimizing operational overhead and optimizing resource utilization.

2. Uptime and reliability

Uptime and reliability are critical factors for startups, especially those running mission-critical applications. Managed Kubernetes services often provide built-in redundancy, failover mechanisms, and high availability guarantees, ensuring continuous operation and minimizing the risk of downtime. In contrast, maintaining high uptime levels with unmanaged Kubernetes requires meticulous planning, robust infrastructure, and proactive monitoring, which may pose challenges for startups with limited resources and expertise.

3. Scalability and flexibility

Scalability is essential for startups as they aim to accommodate rapid growth and fluctuating workloads. Managed Kubernetes services typically offer seamless scalability, allowing startups to quickly adjust resource allocation based on demand without the need for manual intervention. Additionally, managed services often provide access to advanced scaling features, such as auto-scalers and horizontal pod autoscaling, enabling startups to efficiently manage peak loads and optimize resource utilization. However, startups requiring granular control and customization may prefer the flexibility offered by unmanaged Kubernetes, which allows for tailored configurations and optimizations to meet specific workload requirements.

4. Operational complexity

The operational complexity associated with Kubernetes management is another crucial consideration for startups. Unmanaged Kubernetes requires startups to handle various tasks, including cluster provisioning, configuration, monitoring, maintenance, and troubleshooting, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Managed Kubernetes services reduce much of this operational burden by automating routine tasks, such as infrastructure provisioning, software updates, and security patching, allowing startups to focus on core business activities and innovation.

5. Security and compliance

Security and compliance are paramount for startups, particularly those operating in regulated industries or handling sensitive data. Unmanaged Kubernetes offers greater control over security configurations, but startups must invest in implementing and maintaining comprehensive security measures, including network policies, authentication mechanisms, and vulnerability management, to mitigate risks effectively. Managed Kubernetes services often provide robust security features, such as encryption, identity and access management, and compliance certifications that are already built in, to ensure data protection and regulatory compliance.

6. Technical expertise and resource availability

Startups must assess their internal technical expertise and resource availability when choosing between unmanaged and managed Kubernetes. Managed Kubernetes services are designed to abstract away much of the complexity associated with Kubernetes management, making it accessible to teams with limited Kubernetes experience. However, startups lacking the necessary skills or dedicated resources may struggle to effectively manage unmanaged Kubernetes environments, potentially leading to performance issues, security vulnerabilities, and operational challenges.

Unlock agility, availability, and innovation with DigitalOcean Kubernetes

DigitalOcean Kubernetes (DOKS) empowers startups, ISVs, and digital businesses to build, scale, and optimize workloads rapidly with a developer-friendly managed Kubernetes service.

Simplify operations with a fully managed control plane

DOKS entirely manages the Kubernetes built-in control plane, freeing you to focus on your applications and business logic while relying on DigitalOcean for continuous monitoring, maintenance, and uptime. Additionally, DOKS provides a high-availability Kubernetes control plane at $40, which greatly helps in reducing downtime. The intuitive DigitalOcean API, CLI, and UI simplify infrastructure automation and software delivery without complex Kubernetes configuration.

Ensure maximum uptime

With advanced high availability, fault tolerance, and traffic management capabilities, DOKS safeguards application availability while allowing effortless and reliable scaling. Business owners gain peace of mind with a 99.95% uptime SLA on the high availability control plane.

Accelerate innovation with automated scaling

Startups can auto-scale clusters seamlessly based on demand using the DigitalOcean Cluster Autoscaler. You can also utilize SnapShooter disaster recovery for backups, so you can focus on building innovative applications instead of infrastructure management.

Optimize costs with usage-based pricing

Startups can save on data costs with DigitalOcean Kubernetes because there’s no cost involved in internal traffic between Droplets (DigitalOcean’s easily deployable Linux-based virtual machines). You only pay for the resources used with transparent usage-based pricing, without guesswork. This avoids overspending on fixed-cost alternatives.

Leverage the power of managed Kubernetes providers like DOKS to accelerate containerized application deployment, reducing time-to-market and gaining a competitive edge in the market. Let DigitalOcean handle the heavy lifting of managing Kubernetes clusters, freeing up your team to focus on innovation and delivering value to your customers. Take your startup or digital business to the next level with DigitalOcean Kubernetes, the agile, managed Kubernetes service purpose-built for your success.


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