VMware Responds to Existential Kubernetes Fears


By: Michael Vizard

LAS VEGAS -- VMworld 2018 -- Depending on how you look at it, the rise of containers and the Kubernetes clusters used to deploy them represent either an existential threat to VMware’s dominance of enterprise IT or a major opportunity to extend the reach of its management software into so-called cloud native applications.

It's clear that VMware is taking notice. At the VMworld 2018 conference this week VMworld pledged to make Kubernetes a first-class citizen across its complete range of hypervisor, storage, networking, security, and IT management software.

At the core of the VMware approach to Kubernetes is Pivotal Container Service (PKS), a distribution of Kubernetes that VMware is curating alongside sister company Pivotal Software. In addition to a distribution of Kubernetes, PKS also includes a Bosh tool to automate deployments of Kubernetes along with other Pivotal Network application development tools and the NSX-T version of VMware’s network virtualization software. Other key components are the open-source Project Harbor container registry and a control plane that makes it simpler to enable IT organizations to provide a self-service capability to developers looking to spin up Kubernetes clusters.

As VMware likes to point out, most containers and distributions of Kubernetes are deployed on VMs, particularly in on-premises environments. But even though they may be running on VMware VMs, most of those Kubernetes instances are not based on the distribution of Kubernetes being curated by VMware and Pivotal in PKS. The reason Kubernetes winds up being deployed on virtual rather than physical machines are manifold. Virtual machines provide greater isolation between Kubernetes clusters. Most IT organizations don’t have the tooling to manage Kubernetes on bare-metal servers. VMware is betting that the complexity associated with managing Kubernetes will push IT organizations to rely on VMware tools to manage those deployments.

VMware contends PKS provides a simpler way to manage multiple Kubernetes clusters as they scale up and down and that the networking product NSX provides a more accessible overlay for connecting Kubernetes clusters to each other as well as external systems. VMware also notes the frequency of updates being made to Kubernetes occur at a pace most enterprise IT organizations can’t absorb without help from IT vendor with extensive enterprise experience. Earlier adopters of PKS include Priority Payment Systems, Swisscom, and the National Bank of Jamaica.

However, there’s also an effort in some Kubernetes circles to deploy Kubernetes on bare metal servers for a variety of reasons, including achieving better application performance, reducing guest operating system overhead and eliminating the need to pay for commercial virtual machine software. Deployment of containers and Kubernetes on virtual machines is viewed in some quarters as a way station on a way to a larger cloud-native computing goal that doesn’t include virtual machines.

At VMworld this week Sanjay Poonen, chief operating officer for VMware, acknowledged both the opportunity and threat Kubernetes represents.

“We think it’s a headwind that’s about to become a tailwind,” says Poonen.

Those headwinds, however, may be gaining in strength. Bosh, for example, was developed under the auspices of The Cloud Foundry Foundation (CFF). But as members of the CFF moved deploy the Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service (PaaS) environment on top of Kubernetes, they have replaced Bosh with a rival automation tool called Fissle developed by SUSE.

VMware executives have made it clear the only distribution of Kubernetes they will support will be PKS. That could go either way. It may encourage customers to embrace PKS in the name of consistency with other VMware management platforms. Or it may result in a large number of IT organizations that have deployed other distributions of Kubernetes on VMware to look at other ways to manage those clusters.

It's an important market for VMware to win. IDC has forecasted there will be over 1.8 billion enterprise container instances deployed by 2021. The percentage of those containers running on PKS might represent the difference between eventual obsolescence and the company's ability to remain relevant in a cloud-native world.