Living in a Kubernetes world

A little over three years ago, Jim Zemlin stood up at Google’s Next conference and made an assertion: “Kubernetes,” he said, “was the Linux of the cloud”.

Zemlin is Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, so knows a thing or two about the power of open-source. He was speaking at a time when Kubernetes was still finding its enterprise feet after being released in 2014.

Move forward to 2020 and we live in a post-pandemic world where public cloud application deployments are soaring. It’s safe to say that Kubernetes – as an open-source container orchestration system – is fulfilling the potential outlined by Zemlin. With the container application market expected to grow 30% year-on-year by 2025, Kubernetes is now locked into the mainstream.

This is a view backed up by Gareth Workman, who as Head of Cloud Practice for digital transformation specialist Kainos sees first-hand the efficiencies that Kubernetes can drive for technology teams. He believes that two factors lie behind its rise.

“The community building real things with it has been instrumental; you’re able to point to real-life, national-scale services that are running off the back of the platform,” he tells Digital Bulletin. “Then there are the cloud providers themselves, who have developed their own specific offerings. Microsoft, Amazon and Google all provide Kubernetes-as-a-service now, and they’ve put their weight behind it and rapidly developed its capabilities.”

Workman, who has been with Kainos for more than 15 years, has kept a close eye on Kubernetes’ maturation. The platform was birthed by Google six years ago, as an open-source version of its Borg System for large-scale, internal cluster management. Within a matter of months, some of industry’s heavyweights, including Microsoft and IBM, had joined the Kubernetes community.

Gareth Workman, Head of Cloud Practice, Kainos

While it was Docker that first transformed the application space with the release of its container platform in 2003, Kubernetes has taken things even further by offering the deployment and management of containers at an unprecedented scale. Workman refers to Kubernetes as the “Swiss Army knife of technology”.

“When Docker came out, it provided this fantastic run-time to be able to run containers on top of hardware or within virtual machines, but what it didn’t provide was a way to take those containers and orchestrate and distribute them at scale. It didn’t have an answer for that, and that’s where Kubernetes came in,” he explains.

“Kubernetes is that tool that allows you to distribute loads and gives you high availability out of the box. And that’s why it’s the Swiss Army knife – very few technologies would give you portability, scalability, high availability, and have been so battle-tested out of the box. Normally, you have to plug those gaps yourself as an IT department or a project team.”

It’s this versatility that has seen Kubernetes enjoy explosive growth in such a short space of time. A 2019 survey by the Cloud-Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), the vendor-neutral home of Kubernetes and many other open-source projects, revealed that 78% of respondents from primarily software and technology sectors were using Kubernetes in production, up from 58% the previous year.

The CNCF puts this down to rocketing cloud-native adoption and Workman agrees. As he alluded to previously, Workman believes the success of Kubernetes is closely tied with the surge in popularity of public cloud. According to RightScale data from before the coronavirus pandemic, the average business now runs 38% of workloads in the public cloud and spending on public cloud services is increasing three times faster than on private cloud.

“As an orchestration tool, Kubernetes helps take little tiny containers and effectively allows you to scale them up and give you a hyperscale capability. And in lockstep, cloud was the platform that allowed you to do it, public cloud in particular,” says Workman.

But the Kainos veteran is adamant the huge community behind this open-source project has been the biggest influence over Kubernetes becoming such a critical tool.

He traces the story back to the very beginning of Kubernetes’ short life so far, when it was unveiled as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) looking as he describes “rough around the edges”.

“It was very much an MVP back then. But it showed the art of what was possible,” he explains. “What happened was that, over time – and it was the same with public cloud – the more people who adopted, and the more people who contributed to that open-source project, the more it improved. Community members were filling in the gaps they had found.

“When something is driven by lots of individuals, that’s where adoption comes from. When it’s pushed by a vendor or provider, it doesn’t guarantee adoption. It’s the fact that people are actually using this and feeling passionate that they’ve contributed to this open-source project, that’s what’s really driving it forward.

“Then I think the final validation was all of the large cloud providers saying this was the answer to doing orchestration pieces. They were not going to create their own way of doing it – yes they tailor it to their own platform, but there’s a uniformity of engagement and usage of the product. That was the final validation that this is the one platform that is going to be invested in heavily.”

The concept of cloud-native software is now evolving into Kubernetes-native software as deployments continue to escalate. Kubernetes-first approaches are now viable, especially for developers demanding portability in hybrid environments across both public and private clouds.

Workman thinks this is a trend that will continue – and at an even faster rate given the impact of the coronavirus and the efficiencies that Kubernetes can deliver, both in terms of deployment speed and cost. Kainos has seen this value first-hand in the work it has done with NHSX (the digital unit of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service) and NHS Digital, helping them to deliver new healthcare solutions in response to COVID-19.

“I actually think the situation we find ourselves in now is going to drive that even faster,” Workman states. “Kubernetes provides that robust way to develop applications really quickly to get them out to end users. The pace at which you can develop on this platform is actually going to drive forward the Kubernetes-first software development piece, in my opinion.

“The other thing is that people are very cost-conscious, and even more so now. Kubernetes gives you just-in-time provisioning. User demand equals consumption cost, and that’s a very difficult thing, even at the IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) level, to get right. Kubernetes is a very lean thing to build and run.”

Native things are straightforward to build, it’s taking the old and adapting it to run on this type of platform, I think that’s going to be the next challenge for Kubernetes

Kelsey Hightower, one of the earliest published authors on Kubernetes and co-chair of KubeCon, the de facto Kubernetes user and developer conference, said in an interview with the All Hands on Tech podcast in January that 2020 was to be “the year of Kubenetes”.

While the pandemic has thrown up obvious challenges across all industries, what other possible hurdles does Workman believe might stop Kubernetes in his tracks? He brings up potential trickiness around legacy systems and the common issue of skills.

“Native things are straightforward to build, it’s taking the old and adapting it to run on this type of platform, I think that’s going to be the next challenge for Kubernetes,” Workman says. “It’s about taking older monoliths – and even microservices to break them down further – to give that light-run cost, along with true scalability, flexibility and portability.

“Skills are definitely an issue but less so in the building of the service, I think the biggest gap is the running and maintenance going forward. I think it is the same you see with the cloud providers, when they talk about cloud adoption frameworks. It’s almost like: what is the Kubernetes adoption framework?”

One drawback for the technology has been its complexity. The intricacies of Kubernetes have stumped many developers, especially those without an infrastructure speciality.

Workman believes that there is a gap in the market for Kubernetes migration tools – and that a simplification of the adoption process will be needed to achieve true ubiquity in a world where digital transformation has been hastened because of the effects of a pandemic.

“We’re going through faster change than ever – and the pace of change could in some ways prohibit and slow things down,” he concludes. “A lot of people have made a massive shift out from their data centre to running as IaaS on a public cloud platform. So for me I think the biggest challenge is going to be that step.

“It might not be the product itself, but there will be extensions around it. In the same way that cloud providers have migration tools, I think there will be tools to help guide and steer how you take something from legacy into a containerised world. There will be a lot around making the path to adoption a lot more straightforward for enterprise.”

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