The secret to Kubernetes’ success

Kubernetes adoption is happening even faster than you think. Credit the project’s unusual degree of openness

The secret to Kubernetes’ success
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It’s hard to believe Kubernetes didn’t hit 1.0 until mid-2015 (a year after its first commit), given that the container orchestration platform is now in production at 78 percent of enterprises surveyed by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). That’s crazy fast adoption. 

And if we’re going to talk about “crazy fast adoption,” it’s worth pointing out that just a year ago, 58 percent of enterprises were running Kubernetes in production, according to the CNCF’s 2018 report.

This speaks to the power of containers as enterprises look to improve how they develop applications. It also underscores just how critical open source has become to broad-scale technology adoption.

The Kubernetes kommunity

The secret to Kubernetes’ popularity is no secret: community. As I wrote in 2016, Kubernetes wasn’t first to market (Mesosphere and Docker get that honor). Nor was it the only open source container orchestration tool on the market. What it was, however, was open. It’s possible to be open source but have closed governance, thwarting would-be contributors (and competitors). Google, however, took a different tactic, as I wrote then:

What accounts for these wildly disparate community results [between Kubernetes, Docker, and Apache Mesos]? In a word: Google—or rather, the relative lack of Google. While each of the other orchestration projects comes with a heavy dose of single-vendor influence, Kubernetes benefits from Google’s hands-off approach to ongoing development, as well as its original engineering.

Five years in, Google remains the single-biggest contributor to Kubernetes, followed by VMware and Red Hat (measuring by last year’s contributions). But Kubernetes is no longer all about Google. Not even close. There are more than 35,000 contributors spread across more than 2,000 companies, yielding over 1.1 million contributions. It’s incredibly impressive.

That success didn’t come because Google invented cool container orchestration technology. After all, the company had been managing containers using an equivalent (Borg) for a decade. “In a world in which k8s wasn’t open source,” notes RedMonk analyst Steve O’Grady, “it’s a niche product and many, many more workloads are welded to AWS than is the case today.”

Google recognizes this, leading Tim Hockin to argue, “[N]obody is so naive as to think that a non-open source Kubernetes would be even remotely close to the same phenomenon.”

That phenomenon translates into an active development community, among other things. According to Marek Kuczyński, “It got significantly easier to deploy Kubernetes anywhere because of the broad adoption, and the community is developing/improving the project at very high speed.”

So let’s talk about that broad adoption now.

The Kubernetes klub

Each year the CNCF surveys its community. This year the organization received 1,337 responses, spread somewhat evenly across the globe. Respondents also work for organizations of all sizes, though the biggest percentage (30 percent) come from companies employing more than 5,000 people. Reasonably diverse sample set, right? Well, not quite. A whopping two-thirds of respondents work in the software and technology industries.

In other words, most of the respondents are in the business of technology, and so will tend to skew “early adopter.” This bias shows up in a few questions, like where respondents are running their applications. Sixty-two percent answered “public cloud” for this, despite the fact that most IT spending (as much as 97 percent of the $3.7 trillion global IT market) remains on-premises.

Even so, it’s still impressive just how fast containers and Kubernetes have taken off with this early adopter set, even as they steadily move into the mainstream. First, here’s container adoption since 2016:

cncf use of containers CNCF

Of those production workloads, organizations are increasingly comfortable running larger quantities of containers:

cncf containers in production CNCF

With this background, it makes sense that Kubernetes adoption would spike from roughly 50 percent in 2017, bumping to 58 percent in 2018, and leaping to 78 percent in 2019. Enterprises are embracing containers in a big way, and need powerful ways to scale them. Kubernetes provides these ways.

But it’s not really about technology. Or, rather, it’s not exclusively about technology. The biggest obstacle to container adoption, according to respondents to the CNCF survey, is culture change. To truly build in a cloud native way, companies need to change the way they think about applications and how to build, deploy and maintain them. Kubernetes, as a broad community safety net, arguably does more than mere technology ever could to provide assistance to would-be adopters.

Community, in short, is Kubernetes’ not-so-secret sauce, and is 100 percent dependent on Google’s early decision not only to open source the code, but also to embrace open governance thereof.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.