PaaS-y Days Are Here Again

New k8s on the block: enter ‘the unstructured PaaS’

Something else happened as the cloud ecosystem evolved: many companies found out they are not Netflix or Uber. Talent was one challenge, with the hyper-scale players and cloud providers offering almost un-matchable careers to the best engineers. Another was the hard reality of private- or hybrid-cloud operations.

In a much-circulated blog post, Boris Renski, co-founder of Mirantis, said: “Operational challenges stifled private cloud… To get adoption for private IaaS we made it DIY friendly with OpenStack. But then we stumbled with operations and surrendered to public cloud.” Renski’s post was meant to warn against similar dangers in the newer wave of innovation, Kubernetes (the de facto standard for container orchestration, open-sourced by Google and hosted by the CNCF).

Indeed, “operations hubris” is a dangerous phenomenon—most of us in the infrastructure business have seen firsthand how companies that tried to wrangle OpenStack without help, gave up and went all-in on AWS later on. Interestingly, Mr. Renski and others have defined Kubernetes as an “unstructured PaaS”, which implies a more optimized mix of abstraction and operational opinion, compared to traditional PaaS, potentially mitigating this hubris.

On top of this dynamic, since the above post’s publication, some fundamental shifts in the industry have taken place (the tech scene moves fast!). There are three which I would like to focus on:

1. Dominance of Kubernetes. All major players in the cloud world, including those backing rival orchestrators such as Mesosphere and Docker, have announced native support for Kubernetes, effectively anointing it as the industry standard. It’s easier to accept PaaS opinions if there’s a widely-agreed operating thesis in the base technology (Kubernetes) .

2. Fragmented project/vendor landscape. The CNCF solution landscape is a sprawling collection of member and project logos. Despite improvements to the GUI, just due to the size of the partner community, as an orientation and decision tool for cloud architects and developers, the CNCF Landscape can be quite intimidating to understand let alone use. To use one analogy from Gartner’s Gary Olliffe, the new cloud-native space is a bit like a multi-page menu at a Chinese restaurant—and IT teams are instead better off going for one of the set menus. In this kind of environment, the cost of choosing primitives over opinions rises exponentially—you’re essentially continually paying tuition.

3. Strategic acquisitions by PaaS vendors. Recent acquisitions in this space—e.g., Microsoft buying Deis, Red Hat buying CoreOS (and more recently, IBM announcing its intent to buy Red Hat)—show a clear intent to close the gaps in operations capabilities, and get closer to developer communities around containers. In addition, what is implied in these moves is an acceptance of the unstructured PaaS premise, and a move from the rigid, “take-it-or-leave-it” days of old. Red Hat describes its OpenShift as Kubernetes++, rather than use the term “PaaS”.  While the cost benefit of managing complexity decreases, on the other side of the equation, the benefits from and ease of using opinions increases dramatically.

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