For many organisations 2019 was the year that containers became mainstream. The widespread adoption of cloud technologies means businesses need to change the way they provision services. Containers have fundamentally changed the way applications are packaged, distributed and managed. Long gone are the monolithic applications of yesterday, replaced with a leaner and more agile approach, but where does this leave your existing virtual estate and the humble VM?

Evolutions rather than revolution

While virtual machines allow the functionality needed to execute an entire operating system and applications while being isolated from other virtual machines, cloud native applications require a more dynamic approach where components can be individually scaled. However, those individual components will, for the foreseeable future, be running as a virtual machine.

In 2018 DIAMANTI surveyed 576 IT leaders about container adoption, 71% of respondents had deployed containers on a virtual machine (largely due to the fact they have long established virtual estates with processes and procedures in place for managing and deploying VMs), while 35% have deployed them on a public cloud, and 34% have deployed containers on a private cloud. However, when looking to the horizon, things are not as simple, more than two fifths (44%) of respondents plan to replace some virtual machines with containers. This evolution however is not a new concept. The CTO of cloud provider Joyent spoke about the evolution of containers back in 2015 stating “We’re now doing to VMs what VMs did to physical machines.”

Looking to the future

Grand View Research valued the global container application market size at 1.5 billion USD in 2018 and is expected to register a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 22.5%. The main barrier to container adoption is seen as increased complexity, although container enablement allows a move away from traditional IT to an open source approach, how customers achieve this aim is a different matter altogether. The reality is that customers will still require a great deal of assistance to achieve this goal.

Through PKS Essentials (previously Heptio*) VMware provides professional services for enterprises that are adopting or already using Kubernetes, providing training, support and building open source projects for managing specific aspects of Kubernetes and related container clusters. PKS Essentials allows the use of upstream Kubernetes and open source technologies and at the same time providing the access and support required to run an enterprise grade multi cloud Kubernetes platform. This is unsurprising as businesses are shying away from vendor IT and are openly adopting Open Source technologies for container adoption. Commenting on the acquisition, Heptio founder Craig McLuckie said “VMware’s interest in Heptio is a recognition that there is so much more innovation happening in open source. We are jointly committed to contribute even more to the community – resources, ideas and support.”

This support for Kubernetes and open sources is growing increasingly from within VMware, in May 2019 for the first time VMware Kubernetes contributions rivalled that of Red Hat with VMware 9%, Red Hat 9% and Google 26%. This is impressive growth considering only twelve months earlier VMware accounted for only 2.7% of Kubernetes contributions. However, VMware isn’t finished, the acquisition of Bitnami whose packaged application catalogue enables developers to quickly and easily deploy open and closed source software can only open their open source credentials.

Bucking the open source trend

Reversing the trend toward open source is network virtualisation, VMware’s flavour of this is NSX which, now worth $1.4 billion USD has seen a year-on-year growth. NSX is a key enabler for container growth, reducing the challenges for provisioning containers while enhancing simplicity, security and automation. NSX-T allows customers to benefit from features such as native load balancers, providing high reliability, high performance to Kubernetes services and dynamically created micro-segmentation that it beyond anything provided by a current native container service. NSX also has the ability to create policies that secure traffic within and across the Kubernetes pods in the same namespace, the policies can cover VM’s and K8s pods allowing for a reduction in the number of applications needed to be administered and provides a more consistent approach across the whole SDDC. For VMware, NSX has become the cornerstone of virtual machine automation and security, this looks to continue with the growth of containers, further demonstrating VMware’s commitment to a containerised future.

Managing day-2 operations

Kubernetes objects are often seen as harder to operationalise than virtual machines with a common example being, Kubernetes clusters handle the scaling of the pods or services but lack the ability to scale master, worker or Etcd nodes. Pivotal Container Services (PKS) Enterprise is a VMware offering that aims to reduce that complexity and resolve those complex Day-2 challenges such as high availability, scaling, health checks, healing and lifecycle management which current container offerings lack.  VMware hope that by offering a simple and rapid deployment model with easy to scale, simple patch and upgrades performed through APIs and CLI, coupled with access to the latest Kubernetes offerings ad a secure container registry PKS will attract those customers wishing to maximise the current VMware estate investment for running containers. All at the same time as breaking down those important complexity barriers.

Conclusion

Container popularity will continue to rise but for the time being virtual machines will continue to rule. After what could be considered a slow start VMware are increasing their product portfolio and community support for containers enabling customers a wide range of choice that is hard for other vendors to match. Although Pat Gelsinger at the Barclays Global Technology, media and Telecommunications Conference has outlined containers as being one of VMware’s top three priories for 2019 alongside NSX and Cloud. The question remains “Can the king of virtual machines conquer containers”?


* Heptio was founded by Craig McLuckie and Joe Bada, both were founding engineers of the Borg Project at Google. Heptio were acquired by VMware in 2018 and rebranded PKS essentials.