What’s up with the Kubernetes ecosystem

This week’s acquisition of Rancher Labs by the veteran enterprise Linux firm SUSE neatly illustrates the growing momentum of container-based application deployment. It also underlines the importance of Kubernetes as the orchestration tool of choice for managing all those containers.

So, what does this latest move mean for the broader Kubernetes ecosystem? When containers first garnered corporate attention six or seven years ago, Docker and its tools were the centre of attention. But the focus soon shifted to management frameworks capable of automating the deployment and scaling of containers, and Kubernetes, developed by Google from technology used in its cloud platform, quickly won out.

Like many open source tools, Kubernetes has its share of rough edges and does not necessarily provide all the capabilities that users need to build a functioning container-based infrastructure. Companies such as Rancher sprang forth to provide a complete software stack built around Kubernetes for those who didn’t want to build it all themselves.

Today, pretty much all the major platform providers have incorporated Kubernetes as the heart of their container strategies:

  • Red Hat moved to Docker-style containers and Kubernetes in version 3.0 of its OpenShift platform-as-a-service (PaaS), which is effectively tied to running on Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
  • VMware’s Tanzu fuses vSphere with Kubernetes, to manage both containers and virtual machines. The Tanzu Mission Control console allows users to manage Kubernetes clusters on-premises and in the cloud.
  • Canonical maintains its own build of Kubernetes, which it keeps up to date with the upstream release. The firm claims Ubuntu is the reference platform for Kubernetes on all major public clouds, including Google’s GKE, Microsoft’s AKS and Amazon’s EKS. Canonical will also manage Kubernetes clusters for customers.
  • Microsoft supports Kubernetes as part of its Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), but Kubernetes can also be used to manage workloads running in Windows Server Containers.
  • Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS) is a fully managed Kubernetes service available from AWS.
  • Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) is Google’s cloud-hosted managed Kubernetes service with four-way auto scaling and multi-cluster support.

Then there are numerous other companies which round out Kubernetes with capabilities such as enterprise-grade persistent storage. These include Portworx, whose platform runs on commodity servers and aggregates their storage into a virtual SAN with a global namespace for containerised applications to access. Another is StorageOS, which similarly aggregates storage from a cluster of servers into pools, served up to containers as virtual volumes.

But although Portworx claims 136 per cent growth in revenue year over year in Q1 2020, such companies account for a relatively small part of the Kubernetes market, since the major players typically feature storage support as part of their overall platform.

SUSE’s acquisition of Rancher Labs (for a reported $600m) can be compared with Red Hat or Canonical which likewise have an enterprise Linux platform and a Kubernetes platform. But the three propositions are all different: Red Hat OpenShift is a developer PaaS that hides the complexity of Kubernetes and containers from users, perhaps at the cost of some flexibility. And there has been no suggestion from SUSE that it would tie Rancher to its version of Linux, as Red Hat does.

Canonical does not tie its Kubernetes distribution to Ubuntu, but it is basically barebones Kubernetes, whereas Rancher is a Kubernetes software stack that provides a single suite of tools for managing clusters and simplifies complex Kubernetes operations.

Taking sides

However, the Kubernetes landscape can be viewed another way. Sacha Labourery, CEO of Cloudbees, a DevOps platform provider, points out that the enterprise software companies such as Red Hat and VMware are lined up on one side of a divide, with the cloud service providers such as Google and AWS on the other.

The first group delivers on-premises infrastructure, but at a price, while some are also able to manage cloud-based Kubernetes clusters. The cloud service providers offer Kubernetes as a service at little extra cost on top of the infrastructure customers pay for, with no need to worry about managing or maintaining Kubernetes.

As Labourery says, “this is going to be a very interesting situation to watch”, especially as the cloud providers are introducing services such as Google Anthos that can manage Kubernetes clusters on the customer’s premises as well as in the cloud.

But it is much to early to determine if the cloud giants will take all the spoils. And let’s not forget that many industry watchers predicted the demise of VMware once cloud-based virtual machines became widely available.

Yet the company retains its enterprise stronghold, partly because customers run legacy workloads on VMware, but also the company continues to update highly regarded management suites to bring cloud services and cloud-native technologies under the same umbrella.

To conclude, Kubernetes holds the promise of allowing enterprises to deploy workloads anywhere, on-premises or in more than one public cloud, but management tools that make it easier for customers to handle all the complexity are vital to success.