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The Emergence of Kubernetes Control Planes

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This blog was also published on the Amalgam Insights website.

As is the case with all new technology, container cluster deployments began small. There were some companies, Google for example, that were deploying sizable clusters, but these were not the norm. Instead, there were some test beds and small, greenfield applications. As the technology proved itself and matured, more organizations adopted containers and the market favorite container orchestrator, Kubernetes. The emergence of Kubernetes was, in fact, a leading indicator that containers were starting to see more widespread adoption in real applications. The more containers deployed, the greater the need for software to automate their lifecycle. Even so, it was unusual to find organizations standing up many Kubernetes clusters, especially geographically dispersed clusters.

That is beginning to change. Organizations that have adopted containers and Kubernetes are starting to struggle with managing multiple clusters spread throughout an enterprise. Just as managing large amounts of containers in a cluster was the impetus for orchestrators such as Kubernetes, new software is needed to manage large scale multi-cluster environments. At the same time, Kubernetes clusters have been getting more complex internally. From humble beginnings of a handful of containers with a microservice or two, clusters now include containers for networking including service mesh sidecars and data planes, logging, app performance monitoring, database connectivity, and storage. All that is in addition to the growing number of microservices being deployed.

In a nutshell, there are now a greater number of larger and more complex Kubernetes containers clusters being deployed. It is no longer enough to manage the lifecycle of the containers. It is now necessary to manage the lifecycle of the cluster itself. This is the purpose of a Kubernetes control plane.

Kubernetes control planes comprise of a series of functions that manage the health and well-being of the cluster. Common features are:

  • Cluster lifecycle management including provisioning of clusters, often from templates for common types of clusters.
  • Versioning including updates to Kubernetes itself.
  • Security and Auditing
  • Visibility, Monitoring, and Logging

Kubernetes control planes are policy driven and automated. This allows operators to focus on governance while the control plane software does the rest. Not only does this reduce errors but allows for faster responses to changes or problems that may arise. This automation is necessary since managing many large multi-site clusters by hand would require large amounts of manpower and, hence, cost.

Software vendors have stepped with products to meet this emerging need. In the past year, products that implement a Kubernetes control plane have been announced or deployed by Rancher, Platform9, IBM’s Red Hat division (Advanced Cluster Management) , and VMware (Tanzu Mission Control) and more. All of these Kubernetes control planes are designed for multi-cloud, hybrid clusters and are packaged either as part of to a Kubernetes distribution or an aftermarket addition to a company’s Kubernetes product.

Kubernetes control planes are a sign of the normalization of container clusters. The growth both in complexity and scale of container clusters necessitates a management layer that helps DevOps teams to more quickly standup and manage clusters. This is the only way that platform operations can match the speed of Agile development and automated CI/CD toolchains. It is yet another piece of the emerging platform that will be where our modern cloud native applications will live.

Looking at Microservices, Containers, and Kubernetes with 2020 Vision

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Some years are easy to predict than others. Stability in a market makes tracing the trend line much easier. 2020 looks to be that kind of year for the migration to microservices: stable with stead progression toward mainstream acceptance.

There is little doubt that IT organizations are moving toward microservices architectures. Microservices, which deconstruct applications into many small parts, removes much of the friction that is common in n-Tier applications when it comes to development velocity. The added resiliency and scalability of microservices in a distributed system are also highly desirable. These attributes promote better business agility, allowing IT to respond to business needs more quickly and with less disruption, while helping to ensure that customers have the best experience possible.

Little in this upcoming year seems disruptive or radical; That big changes have already occurred. Instead, this is a year for building out and consolidating; Moving past the “what” and “why” and into the “how” and “do”.

Kubernetes will be top of mind to IT in the coming year. From its roots as a humble container orchestrator – one of many in the market – Kubernetes has evolved into a platform for deploying microservices into container clusters. There is more work to do with Kubernetes, especially to help autoscale clusters, but it is now a solid base on which to build modern applications.

No one should delude themselves into thinking that microservices, containers, and Kubernetes are mainstream yet. The vast majority of applications are still based on n-Tier design deployed to VMs. That’s fine for a lot of applications but businesses know that it’s not enough going forward. We’ve already seen more traditional companies begin to adopt microservices for at least some portion of their applications. This trend will accelerate in the upcoming year. At some point, microservices and containers will become the default architecture for enterprise applications. That’s a few years from now but we’ve already on the path.

From a vendor perspective, all the biggest companies are now in the Kubernetes market with at least a plain vanilla Kubernetes offering. This includes HP and Cisco in addition to the companies that have been selling Kubernetes all along, especially IBM/Red Hat, Canonical, Google, AWS, VMWare/Pivotal, and Microsoft. The trick for these companies will be to add enough unique value that their offerings don’t appear generic. Leveraging traditional strengths, such as storage for HP, networking for Cisco, and Java for Red Hat and VMWare/Pivotal, are the key to standing out in the market.

The entry of the giants in the Kubernetes space will pose challenges to the smaller vendors such as Mirantis and Rancher. With more than 30 Kubernetes vendors in the market, consolidation and loss is inevitable. Expect M&A activity in the Kubernetes space as bigger companies acquihire or round out their portfolios. Kubernetes is now a big vendor market and the market dynamics favor them. There’s plenty of value in the smaller firms but it will be too easy for them to get trampled underfoot.

If there is a big danger sign on the horizon, it’s those traditional n-Tier applications that are still in production. At some point, IT will get around to thinking beyond the shiny new greenfield applications and want to migrate the older ones. Since these apps are based on radically different architectures, that won’t be easy. There just aren’t the tools to do this migration well. In short, it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s a hard sell to say that the only choices are either expensive migration projects (on top of all that digital transformation money that’s already been spent) or continuing to support and update applications that no longer meet business needs. Replatforming, or deploying the old parts to the new container platform, will provide less ROI and less value overall. The industry will need another solution.

This may be an opportunity to use all that fancy AI technology that vendor’s have been investing in to create software to break down an old app into a container cluster. In any event, the migration issue will be a drag on the market in 2020 as IT waits for solutions to a nearly intractable problem.

2020 is the year of the microservice architecture. Even if that seems too dramatic, it’s not unreasonable to expect that there will be significant growth and acceleration in the deployment of Kubernetes-based microservices applications. The market has already begun the process of maturation as it adapts to the needs of larger, mainstream, corporations with more stringent requirements. The smart move is to follow that trend line.