Portainer, Rancher, OpenShift
How does Portainer compare to Rancher? How about to OpenShift?
This is a question we get asked almost daily by people looking for a Kubernetes management platform. For a long time, the answer was "well, we are not really sure, as we don't use those tools day in, day out". So we've done the research and created a comparison table for Portainer vs Rancher vs OpenShift.
We've spent considerable time deploying and understanding Rancher and OpenShift to discover their strengths, weaknesses (or functionality they don't attempt to provide), and seeing how we compare. We took a non-biased view of this assessment, as being biased doesn't help us to learn (and we hope you appreciate the transparency).
1. Build Environments
Straight off the bat, Portainer and Rancher/OpenShift serve two very different needs. Rancher and OpenShift are both tools that you use to CONSTRUCT yourself a Kubernetes cluster, one that is self-managed (be that on prem or in-cloud).
Portainer as a company does not provide a Kubernetes distribution, and we have no mechanism to build an on-premises cluster in our app, so if this is your primary need, we won't help there, but we can help you to build
Kubernetes clusters through Cloud Provider KaaS offerings, which arguably is the most operationally efficient way of using Kubernetes anyway.
Summary: Portainer helps you deploy managed Kubernetes clusters, which is our recommended way of consuming Kubernetes unless you have a large dedicated team of Kubernetes experts.
2. Multi-Cluster Management
Secondly, the biggest difference we can see between both Portainer & Rancher vs OpenShift is that OpenShift is not a multi-cluster manager.
You use the OpenShift installer to build a (singular) OpenShift cluster against either on-premises equipment or in a select number of cloud provider IaaS offerings, and the cluster gets deployed with a Management UI for that cluster. There is no way to deploy any additional clusters and manage them from the one management UI.
Of course, RedHat has an additional product that does this (Redhat Advanced Cluster Management for Kubernetes), but this requires a dedicated cluster to run it, and it's a licensed product. If you can afford to pay for OpenShift, then paying an additional $800 per month for a dedicated management cluster and an extra license fee is probably okay.
Rancher and Portainer both let you (natively) deploy or import any number of existing environments under the one management server, which is great when you are operating at scale.
Summary: Portainer is a multi-cluster manager that is extremely lightweight and can provide centralized access control and governance at scale.
3. Platform vs Tool
It's important to note that all three products are aiming to be a complete "turn-key" platform to manage containerized applications, with the analogy "Kubernetes is the engine, we are the car" commonly used.
All three products aim to be much more than just an alternative to the Kubernetes Dashboard (or variants of it, like Mirantis Lens).
In reality, all these products aim to provide a comprehensive Kubernetes management platform that includes an intuitive UI that guides less experienced users, an integrated GitOps capability, integrated monitoring/ observability, and integrated alerting.
Because of this, all three offer either native capability or integrations with 3rd party open source components (such as ArgoCD).
Portainer made a decision to integrate with the Kubernetes Metrics API, which gives a good level of observability, rather than requiring all users to deploy the resource-heavy Prometheus and Grafana. That said, there is nothing stopping you from using Prometheus and Grafana, or ArgoCD alongside Portainer.
Summary: if you want a quick view of resource usage of your apps, and can't spare the additional resource overhead, Portainer is your only choice here.
4. Ease of Use
Really though, the most impactful difference between the products is the target user. Portainer and OpenShift both provide a management experience that applies safe/secure best practices, and does so to ensure that non-experts can operate in an environment that they might not fully understand.
With Portainer, the admin can easily disable Portainer's applied defaults and customize them to suit the skills of the team, whereas with OpenShift the defaults are enforced. If the defaults don't suit you, then OpenShift will cause friction.
Rancher however takes a very different approach. Rancher's product appears to be tailored to Kubernetes experts, who are expected to know how to secure the platform and applications correctly.
Summary: if you want a guided, intuitive, safe-by-default experience, with the ability for the admin to adjust the defaults, then choose Portainer.