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Kubernetes on Azure hints at hybrid cloud endgame

Microsoft's Azure container strategy could take hybrid computing to an entirely new level and help launch both technologies into more mainstream waters.

Kubernetes on Azure's Container Service became generally available this week, as did some intriguing Kubernetes...

and Microsoft roadmap tidbits.

The general-availability release is big news for Microsoft shops that want to deploy containers. It may not be a technical first, but it's a sign the company is adapting containers to suit Windows shops that require ease of use.

"Microsoft is bringing containers into the mainstream," said Mike Owens, senior systems architect for Scientific Games Corp., a Las Vegas-based casino gaming company. Owens hasn't finalized the company's long-term container strategy, but initially, Kubernetes on Azure looks good, he said.

"We are already deeply embedded with Azure as an enterprise," he said. "As individual development teams move into containers for Windows, it is a natural progression for us to use the service."

Kubernetes on Azure has been in preview since last November, and the current release adds horizontal autoscaling and multimaster high-availability cluster support for production scalability and reliability.

Azure Container Service (ACS) is the only major public cloud container service to offer support for all of the major container orchestration engines: Docker Swarm, Kubernetes and Mesosphere's DC/OS. Customers are charged for the underlying compute, network and storage the service consumes, rather than the service itself.

"There's real value in having a choice of orchestrators as a service, because the orchestrators are still sufficiently different from each other to offer better support for particular use cases," said Richard Watson, an analyst at Gartner.

For example, DC/OS is still preferred for stateful workloads and apps that rely on big data frameworks, while Docker clusters are valuable for customers who wish to stay entirely within the Docker project set for consistency and simplicity reasons.

Industry watchers say the most notable feature of Kubernetes on Azure is the cloud federation that's already being demonstrated in some production environments.

Kubernetes on Azure portends hybrid cloud contention

Containers could also be uniquely suited to the hybrid cloud use case. After all, the ultimate promise of containers over VMs is portability between different systems. Docker Swarm and Kubernetes -- two of the container orchestrators that Microsoft supports -- already can manage containers that run in multiple clouds from one location. From there, it's a short leap to manage containers between private data centers and the public cloud.

"Where can they allow you to do configuration in one place and then deploy to multiple places?" asked Brandon Cipes, managing director of DevOps at cPrime Inc., an Agile consulting firm in Foster City, Calif. "Those are the kinds of changes that are starting to become very interesting."

That idea is not lost on Amazon Web Services (AWS), though its strength is on the public cloud side. Still, recent versions of OpsWorks and CloudWatch will work on private servers, as well.

"That's what some of these orchestration tools are getting to -- public cloud is still growing really, really fast," Cipes said -- though not at the pace of infrastructure that's been built out privately, he added. "If they can bridge that divide, that's a very compelling place to be."

While not part of Amazon's EC2 Container Service, Kubernetes is the closest thing to a de facto standard on the market for container orchestration, as it can be run on AWS infrastructure and both of the other "big three" cloud providers now support it. It's tricky to deploy Kubernetes in a private data center, but companies such as Heptio are trying to change that equation, too.

There's also an upstream project, known as Ubernetes, specifically developed for cluster federation with Kubernetes. It's still in early development stages, but is a part of the standard Kubernetes codebase.

"I'd be stunned if they didn't support Ubernetes," said a source close to the Kubernetes open source project who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's all raw Kubernetes, so they'd have to actively break [from the community] not to support it."

There's no question that a big part of the momentum with containers is hybrid cloud, said Jay Lyman, analyst at 451 Research.

"More enterprises are doing more with hybrid cloud, whether it's multiple public clouds or the classic public-private infrastructure," Lyman said. "Containers bring some portability and let you avoid having to rewrite an app for different platforms."

Azure Kubernetes roadmap has even more hybrid ambitions

An even more exotic hybrid container cloud is coming down the pike. A blog post by a Microsoft official this week references a GitHub page with instructions on how to "deploy a hybrid Windows / Linux Docker application" using Kubernetes.

The need to blend Windows and Linux stacks in the same app may not be widespread, but many users want complete app freedom from the underlying infrastructure -- whether it's public or private -- and no matter what hypervisor or OS it's based on, Lyman said.

Microsoft may have a unique position against rivals, such as AWS, as this technology becomes a reality as well, Cipes said.

"It's very hard to break into the Microsoft ecosystem because it tends to be so closed and proprietary; it's the defense mechanism Microsoft has that keeps their installation base so high, and what would prevent AWS from ever conquering everything," he said. "On the flip side, if Microsoft starts using that foothold to try to break into AWS' space, that's a very interesting shift."

Azure Kubernetes still waits on Windows support

To get to these advanced points of strategy, Microsoft first needs to nail down support for Windows Server 2016 containers with Kubernetes on Azure, which launched into preview this week.

Windows Server support in Kubernetes is still in alpha, only months old. There's still plenty of fine print attached to that support, including difficulty with shared networks.

Microsoft doesn't lend itself quite as well as Linux to the ability to spin up environments on the fly, connect them dynamically, and have elastic IPs that point and redirect very quickly, Cipes said. "That's where I've seen a lot of organizations struggle."

But there's plenty of pent-up demand for Windows containers, as the speed of this Kubernetes on Azure general availability indicates, Lyman said. So, the sooner Windows support on Kubernetes can be generally offered on ACS, the better.

Cipes agreed, adding that there's still a good window for this product rollout.

"We typically find that shops that are predominantly Microsoft are a little farther behind in the DevOps evolution curve," he said. "Now that Microsoft cloud is taking off, we're seeing a lot more interest in that area."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

Next Steps

Kubernetes pushes Docker portability with multicloud orchestration

IT pros get glimpse into Kubernetes for Windows

Learn more about containers as a service

Dig Deeper on Public cloud providers

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