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Acorn Labs: Rancher Co-Founders' New Kubernetes Startup

With Acorn Labs, it appears that four ex-founders of Rancher Labs are offering a lesson on how to sell your startup and own it, too.

Only four weeks after stepping down as president of engineering and innovation at the pioneer Linux company SUSE, Sheng Liang announced on LinkedIn that he and three partners have launched Acorn Labs. The new company has made a working preview of its open-source eponymous platform for Kubernetes available to download and install.

Starting in December 2021, his "new" partners had one by one left positions at SUSE, which represents a not insignificant brain drain for the German company. Shannon Williams had been SUSE's chief revenue officer; Will Chan was the company's vice president of engineering and enterprise container products; and Darren Shepherd was its chief architect. Along with Liang, they'd all started at SUSE in December 2020, which is when SUSE completed its acquisition of Rancher Labs (reportedly for $800 million), where they had all been co-founders.

This was something of a wash-rinse-repeat performance for the four. They had worked together at the cloud and virtualization company Citrix in 2014 when they left to start Rancher.

"I plan to get back to my entrepreneurial roots," Liang said, when he announced he had left SUSE (he remains a SUSE board member). "I look forward to my next endeavors."

What Is the Acorn Labs Platform?

That next endeavor, Acorn Labs, appears to be the next logical step for the four Rancher Labs co-founders. In a nutshell (no pun intended), while Rancher focused primarily on getting clusters up and running, the Acorn platform is an application packaging and deployment framework for Kubernetes to help developers deploy their applications once those clusters are operational.

"We're kind of moving more towards the user, which is more where we always wanted to be, but what was needed at the time we started Rancher was cluster administration," Darren Shepherd, Acorn's chief architect told ITPro Today. "Now we really want to address the problem that we see today, which is bringing workloads onto Kubernetes. We see there's a huge amount of friction for onboarding teams and just people consuming Kubernetes."

In a blog post explaining the software, Shepherd said that the need for a platform like Acorn became evident when he built a game server for his son. He built the game server for his son to play video games online with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. After easily spinning up a Kubernetes cluster, he wrote, "I went to craft my Kubernetes deployment and immediately started hating my life. I gave up, switched to docker-compose, and started writing Acorn."

Shepherd said that the new platform will make it easier for developers to package applications because they won't have to deal with many of the complexities of Kubernetes. Just as importantly, Ops and security teams won't have to worry about the developers introducing security vulnerabilities or creating other bugs in the process.

"When we were designing Acorn and decided that developers will write the Acorn file, my first thought from a production perspective was that you don't want the developer writing something that is going into production," he said. "The counter to that was, 'Well, why not? Why can I not trust that?' If the reason why I can't trust that is because they could do something really stupid, then how do we build the framework in a sandbox that basically prevents them from doing ridiculously bad things? That's the idea of Acorn – in a package so you can trust this."

"We're very close to getting to that point," he added. "It's already largely there today."

Liang and Shephard told ITPro Today that they released the Acorn platform now as sort of an alpha or beta release so that users can play around with the software, kick its tires, and offer feedback on potential bugs and suggestions on how to make it more useful.

Getting Acorn Ready for Prime Time

When asked how long it will be before Acorn is ready for use in production, Liang replied, "I think realistically it'll probably take another six to nine months, maybe even a little longer."

He pointed out that even after the platform is stable, well documented, and easy to use, there will still be more development necessary to bring it to market for enterprise adoption.

"There's Kubernetes, and there's enterprise Kubernetes," Liang said. "You still have to build an enterprise platform around that. We have to take care of things like authentication. We've got to be able to register users and manage policies. Honestly, for enterprise customers to be able to use it in production, I think there's a lot more work we can do to make its integration more seamless."

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