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When a disruptive technology comes on the scene, it often gives rise to other transformational technologies. Kubernetes use is transforming the enterprise, in part by driving Kubernetes as a Service.
The complexity of operating Kubernetes – the standard for managing containers in a way that is both dependable and secure – has meant that many companies are finding it more economical to let someone else maintain their Kubernetes infrastructure through a managed container service. Let’s call it Kubernetes as a Service.
Vladimir Galabov, head of the Cloud and Data Center Research Practice at Omdia, says the move to Kubernetes as a Service is part of a larger trend involving SaaS.
"It is clear that enterprises are more open to an as-a-Service model today than they were five years ago," he said. "I think COVID kind of created a logistical challenge in many cases for IT teams, and it made enterprises embrace different cloud services."
He said that cloud services experienced strong growth in 2020, which was something of a surprise to researchers who were expecting the growth curve to flatten as the SaaS market reached saturation.
"But 2020 was kind of similar to previous years," he said, "so we pushed out the saturation to the future."
"I think there are very clear signs that more enterprises are open to as-a-Service models," Vlad added. "They are clearly interested in Kubernetes, so Kubernetes as a Service or managed Kubernetes makes sense."
What's Driving Kubernetes as a Service
The reason why managed Kubernetes is now gaining traction is obvious, according to Brian Gracely, senior director product strategy for Red Hat OpenShift. He pointed out that containers and Kubernetes are relatively new technologies, and that managed Kubernetes services are even newer. This means that until recently, companies that wanted or needed to deploy containers and use Kubernetes had no choice but to invest their own resources in developing in-house expertise.
"Any time we go through these new technologies, it's early adopters that live through the shortfalls of it, or the lack of features or complexity of it, because they have an immediate problem they're trying to solve," he said.
Like Galabov, Graceley thinks that part of the move towards Kubernetes as a Service is motivated by the fact that many enterprises are already leveraging managed services elsewhere in their infrastructure, so doing the same with their container deployments only makes sense.
"If my compute is managed, my network is managed and my storage is managed, and we're going to use Kubernetes, my natural inclination is to say, 'Is there a managed version of Kubernetes' as opposed to saying, 'I'll just run software on top of the cloud.'" he said. "That's sort of a normal trend."
Another big driver is overcoming the difficulty of finding IT staff with Kubernetes skills during a time when Kubernetes use is exploding.
"For a lot of companies, the benefits they can get from containers and the benefits they can get from Kubernetes are very attractive," Graceley said, "but finding the skill set to be able to run environments is still sort of catching up. The idea that somebody else can manage highly automated environments is really attractive."
Jason McGee, VP and CTO at IBM Cloud Platform, pointed out that not only are Kubernetes as a service customers avoiding the expense of developing and maintaining an IT staff to manage their container infrastructure instead of having those IT pros working on compute unique to the businesses, the customers are getting a Kubernetes infrastructure that's built and maintained by container experts.
"At IBM Cloud you have a large organization that's running tens of thousands of Kubernetes clusters at scale," he said. "You're getting access to a skill base and a maturity level that would be hard for you to build yourself at lots of companies, so you're kind of tapping into this expertise by letting that team of people be responsible for running it for you."
Who's Offering Managed Kubernetes
Considering that containers and Kubernetes are the centerpiece of cloud-native technology, it's not surprising that all of the big clouds have their own Kubernetes-as-a-Service offering, including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Cloud, DigitalOcean, and Alibaba. While all of these services are at least somewhat tied to their respective clouds, most also have ways that their managed Kubernetes services can be leveraged on-premises or in multi-cloud environments.
In addition to their own home-grown managed Kubernetes services, AWS, Azure and IBM Cloud also allow their users to spin up Red Hat OpenShift managed cloud services, which is the only managed Kubernetes service that isn't directly tied to a cloud.
Gracely says that although Red Hat has been offering Kubernetes-as-a-Service for five or six years ("literally for as long as OpenShift is has been supporting Kubernetes," he said), it wasn't until it was available directly from the clouds that it began to take off.
The reason for this is threefold, he says, citing ROSA, Red Hat's managed OpenShift on AWS, as an example.
"One is that I [the customer] want the technology to be right there and I want it to be managed, so our AWS OpenShift service checks that box," he said. "The second thing is I don't want to have to create a different management security model for that service. Our service is a native Amazon service, so you don't have to do anything differently for security or management. The third piece is that our service bills directly into the Amazon bill, so you don't have to get a third-party bill for Red Hat and then have your accounting department justify this. It just bills directly in your Amazon bill, against whatever commitment you have."
Red Hat's position as the only vendor outside the big clouds offering a managed container service is likely to change, according to Galabov.
"Red Hat has figured out that enterprises need help with containerizing, but I would say that managed services is a broader paradigm than just them," he said. "I would expect that multiple vendors are going to offer very similar solutions. Some of the team that invented Kubernetes is at Vmware. SUSE also has some really good people, especially after the Rancher acquisition. And Mirantis has Docker, and Docker was synonymous with containers, so there are four very strong players in terms of knowledge of containers in the market today."