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Google Cloud exhibit at the 2019 IAA Frankfurt Auto Show in September 2019 Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Google Cloud exhibit at the 2019 IAA Frankfurt Auto Show in September 2019

Autopilot: Google Cloud’s Managed Kubernetes With More Management

The cloud provider’s new managed service for the container orchestration engine it created promises customer node management by its own SREs.

Google is probably not a name that comes to mind when you think of managed service providers. But at least in the realm of Kubernetes, Google now wants to offer managed services -- including but not limited to node management by real, live Google SREs.

That’s one of the takeaways from the company’s announcement today of Autopilot, a new operational mode for Google Kubernetes Engine, or GKE.

The Multiple Meanings of Managed Kubernetes

You may be thinking: “Isn’t GKE already a managed Kubernetes service?” You’d be right: GKE is marketed as a managed Kubernetes platform.

The tricky thing about managed Kubernetes platforms, however, is that the vendors behind them tend to use the term “managed” loosely. To date, GKE, Amazon EKS, and Microsoft Azure AKS (all marketed as cloud-based managed Kubernetes services) have provided only basic management features, mostly in the form of automation tooling for provisioning Kubernetes nodes and deploying and updating clusters.

They offer an experience that is simpler and more convenient than building your own clusters entirely from scratch, but they fall short of delivering the type of hands-off solution that “managed service” typically implies. They’re like services that deliver the ingredients you need to cook a meal to your house but leave the cooking, serving, and cleaning up to you.

Autopilot: Managed Kubernetes, Now With More Management

With Autopilot, which Google publicly announced and made generally available today, the company is not just delivering the ingredients for a Kubernetes cluster. It’s providing a collection of managed services that prepare and serve them, too.

Autopilot provides all of the automation tooling that comes with standard GKE. But it goes a step further by performing cluster design, security, and node management services as well. According to Google, these services are based on Kubernetes best practices that the company’s own engineers have identified in their years of working with Kubernetes (which was invented at Google, as the company was keen to emphasize in its Autopilot announcement).

For now, it’s unclear to what extent the Autopilot management services are delivered via automated tools versus hands-on intervention by human engineers. However, Google promises that “with Autopilot, Google SREs manage your nodes...including provisioning, maintenance, and lifecycle management.” It would appear, then, that Autopilot is more than just another layer of automation on top of GKE. Actual Google engineers play a role in managing clusters.

If you don’t want that level of hands-on oversight, you can still opt for standard GKE without the Autopilot features.

Autopilot and the Kubernetes Management Market

For Google, whose cloud strategy has historically focused on IaaS and has included few real managed services, providing end-to-end management solutions for Kubernetes nodes and clusters is a big deal.

From the perspective of the Kubernetes market as a whole, though, it’s less novel. In a lot of ways, Autopilot sounds similar to solutions like Platform9 and Rackspace’s Kubernetes-as-a-Service platform, both of which pair hands-on management with software-based automation to simplify Kubernetes deployments.

Of course, the difference between Google and companies like Rackspace and Platform9 is that Google is a major public cloud vendor and they are not. By rolling out this service, Google places more pressure on other major cloud vendors -- namely, AWS, and Azure -- to up their Kubernetes management game. Don’t be surprised if EKS and AKS add similar management options in the future.

Google is also using the Autopilot announcement to play up GKE’s integrations with third-party solutions, like logging and monitoring tools and CI/CD platforms. These types of integrations were already supported by GKE before the Autopilot announcement, but the company is promising that “many more integrations” are on their way as it expands GKE partnerships.

Going forward, the question to answer will be whether the managed services and integrations that Google has added to GKE are enough to give the company a lasting leg up in the Kubernetes market, which has become tremendously competitive. With managed services for Kubernetes that go beyond the basics, Google is finally in a position to capitalize on its status as the company that created Kubernetes and that theoretically knows it best -- strengths that other cloud vendors can never match.

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