Linkerd vs. COVID-19: Addressing the pandemic with a service mesh

July 22, 2021

In his KubeCon keynote, Buoyant CEO, William Morgan, highlights four organizations that used Linkerd to address the COVID pandemic. NCBI, Clover Health, Penn State University, and H-E-B all built something important to accomplish something critical for their customers, students, researchers, or employees. William also shares what he learned from talking to these users and their experience with the CNCF service mesh.


(Note: this transcript has been automatically generated with light editing. It may contain errors! When in doubt, please watch the original talk!)

Hi there, my name is William Morgan and I’m one of the creators of Linkerd. Today, I’m going to be talking about how Linkerd has been used to address the global COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Linkerd

First, let’s start with what Linkerd is. Linkerd is an ultralight, ultra-fast service mesh for Kubernetes with a strong focus on simplicity. Linkerd was the fifth project ever accepted into the CNCF and has been in production at organizations around the world for over five years.

Linkerd has a very healthy and active community, many GitHub stars, many contributors, weekly edge releases (almost every week), and of course open governance and a neutral home in the CNCF. Linkerd has recently been proposed for CNCF graduation.

The Linkerd community

Most of the talks I give about Linkerd discuss its features or its roadmap. In this talk, I want to discuss the community. Linkerd has always been a community project. Since its donation to the CNCF in 2017, hundreds of contributors from around the world have made Linkerd better through docs, code, giving talks, or simply helping each other out. One of the most personally gratifying aspects of helping to build Linkerd has been watching this community grow. In fact, the community has grown even more. By watching this talk, you are now a member of the Linkerd community — welcome!

Linkerd helped address COVID-19 challenges

In late 2019 and extending into 2020, and to today, the Linkerd community, much like the entire world, was affected by the COVID 19-global pandemic. Many of us had friends or family who fell ill and sometimes whose lives were tragically cut short by the virus. For many of us, beyond grief, our feelings included frustration and helplessness. Especially early on in the pandemic, it was terrible to feel like we couldn’t do anything to help. After all, we weren’t doctors or emergency medical personnel, or virologists. But, as we learned, addressing the COVID 19 pandemic wasn’t just something for doctors and medical researchers, and one thing that was profoundly gratifying was learning that Linkerd was, in fact, being used by members of our community to help combat the virus.

In this talk, I’d like to highlight four different ways that Linkerd has been used. These examples are just a sample of the many ways that Linkerd has been used to address COVID-19 and they range from public sector to private sector, from education to healthcare to retail. And while I’ll be highlighting Linkerd, Linkerd, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. Every example I give is a testament not just to the Linkerd community, but to the entire cloud native community and its ability to make possible these applications.

United States National Center for Biotechnology Information

The very first example I’d like to point out is one of the earliest adopters of Linkerd: the United States National Center for Biotechnology Information or NCBI, part of the National Institute of Health. Several NCBI websites are powered by Linkerd and have been for years, including the core COVID 19 webpage, as well as website for searching over 32 million biomedical research citations. These tools are critical clearinghouses for COVID-19 research and are powered by Linkerd.

Clover Health

The next example comes from the private industry: Clover Health, a Linkerd adopter, built a tool to help its employees and the families of its employees find eligible vaccines. This vaccine finder is powered by Linkerd, as well as by Kubernetes and a host of other cloud native and open source tools.

Penn State University

My third example comes from Penn State University. At the zero-day ServiceMeshCon earlier this week, Dom DePasquale and others from Penn State described how they used Linkerd to build and power a COVID test scheduling system for all incoming students. In the spring 2021 semester, almost 70 000 students were required to be tested within 72 hours of returning to campus, and again within the first 10 days after return. Linkerd was a critical part of the rapid rollout of this system which was crucial for protecting, not just the health and safety of Penn State students, but that of faculty and staff.


Finally, right here in Texas H-E-B, a 100-year old grocery store chain that operates in over 150 communities and 300 stores across Texas and other states used Linkerd to rapidly roll out curbside and home delivery services to allow their customers to get their groceries safely during the pandemic. The H-E-B team was able to roll out these services dramatically faster than anticipated in light of the COVID- 19 pandemic by using Linkerd. This story was detailed at last November’s KubeCon NA by H-E-B team members Justin Turner and Garrett Griffin.

The H-E-B team said we went from being a nice-to-have convenience to a critical resource for slowing the spread of COVID in Texas. And especially, a lifeline for immunocompromised customers who did not want to reduce the risk associated with grocery shopping. After trying several meshes, Linkerd was the simplest one and gave them everything they needed out of the box. It was simple to get started with, to understand, did not introduce performance problems, gave them exactly the features they needed, and the resilience and confidence to move forward.

Lessons learned: the virtue of Linkerd’s simplicity

From these examples, I draw three concrete lessons. The first lesson, of course, is about the virtue of simplicity. Simplicity has been a core part of Linkerd’s value proposition and is one of its design principles.

Each of these community members was able to solve critical problems around reliability and security and observability for their applications at a time where speed especially was of the essence. They didn’t use Linkerd because they thought service meshes were cool or because they read a blog post or wanted to try it out. They were trying to build something important and to accomplish something critical for their customers, for their students, for their researchers, or for their employees. And one thing that I’m particularly proud of in Linkerd, is that in the face of a very marketing-driven ecosystem around the service mesh, Linkerd has stayed strong and continued to focus on simplicity.

Lessons learned: the Linkerd community made this possible

The second lesson I draw is about community. We’ve worked hard to make Linkerd a welcoming and encouraging place and, because of that, the Linkerd project has seen incredible examples like the ones I described today. The code and the docs and the energy that everyone has invested in the project, even though this very abstract thing called a service mesh that’s difficult to explain to a person outside of our cloud native bubble, and sometimes difficult to explain to people inside our cloud native bubble.

All that has actually made a difference to real people in a very concrete and very real way. Whether it’s by helping them find vaccines or get their groceries safely or find the research they need or get tested when they need to. That, to me, is a tremendous demonstration of the power of community.

Lessons learned: gratitude to the Linkerd community

The third and final lesson for me especially is one of gratitude. I am profoundly grateful to our amazing Linkerd community and I’m grateful to the teams that NCBI and Clover Health and Penn State and H-E-B and in all the other organizations around the world that are building on top of Linkerd and using it to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

As every open source community member knows, the best reward in open source is seeing others use a project, especially for something that you yourself feel proud of and, so on behalf of the Linkerd open source community, I’d like to say thank you — thank you!