Everything you need to know about Kubernetes, the Google-created open source software so popular even Microsoft and Amazon had to adopt it (GOOGL, GOOG, AMZN, MSFT)

It started off as a side project by a group of Google engineers as a way to expand upon Borg — the search giant’s infrastructure management software, named after the infamous “Star Trek” baddies.

It ended up becoming a massive phenomenon among software developers, with tens of thousands of code contributions from programmers across the planet, and users at companies like Ticketmaster, Spotify, Pizza Hut, Lyft, the New York Times, eBay, and even “Pokémon Go” developer Niantic. In fact, it’s used by at least 54% of the Fortune 500.

This project, which only started in 2014, is called Kubernetes, an ancient Greek word for “pilot.” and it’s one of the fastest-growing open source projects in history.

“As humans, we’re really bad at understanding large numbers,” says Heptio co-founder Joe Beda, who co-founded the Kubernetes project during his time at Google, told Business Insider. “At some point, it becomes numbers on a page…It continues to grow where the number of people using it is something I can personally wrap my head around. It’s always great to see Kubernetes in ways we could have never envisioned.”

Google uses Borg to manage its computing infrastructure, which is hosted at massive data centers like this one.
AP Images

Essentially, what Kubernetes does is help developers run their applications at massive scales, taking advantage of lessons learned at Google. Because Kubernetes is open source, the code can be used, downloaded or changed by anyone for free.

As a result of that freedom, it’s expanded well beyond what Google originally intended, and taken on a life of its own — Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and a host of smaller startups all use Kubernetes as the core for commercial software products and services. Now, as Kubernetes only gets more popular, the tech giants have started to snatch up those smaller companies.

Microsoft acquired Deis, a Kubernetes-based startup founded by members of the original Google team that created it, in 2017. Oracle bought Wercker, while Red Hat snapped up CoreOS. Most recently, Beda’s own startup Heptio got acquired by VMware. Even IBM is slated to pay $34 billion for Red Hat, which was one of the first big tech companies to embrace Kubernetes.

This demand has even touched the job market, with Kubernetes becoming a high-demand skill. Since September, job postings for Kubernetes have grown 230%, according to an report from job-hunting site Indeed.

“[Kubernetes] is by most accounts one of the most active open source software projects in history,” Tim Hockin, a Google software engineer who helped start Kubernetes, told Business Insider. “You get a sense of how wide this it. As somebody who started this project with a small group of people, it floors me that we got here.”

What is Kubernetes, anyway?

The rise of Kubernetes has everything to do with the previous success of a technology called containers, popularized by a startup called Docker. Essentially, a software container lets a developer package their app up with everything it needs to run, so an app works the same way on their laptop as it does in Amazon’s or Microsoft’s cloud.

While Docker’s brand of containers provides the tools for packing up the apps, developers needed a way to coordinate these containers to work with each other across servers and clouds, at massive scales. That’s where Kubernetes comes in — and how it got to be so popular.

“Containers are one of the fastest growing technologies we’ve tracked at RedMonk, and Kubernetes has become a key infrastructure component for many mainstream Fortune 100 companies,” KellyAnn Fitzpatrick, an industry analyst with RedMonk, told Business Insider.

There are three main ways of using Kubernetes. The most popular way is to run it from a major cloud provider like Amazon, Microsoft or Google, all of whom offer hosted Kubernetes services. The second way is to buy a customized, fine-tuned version of Kubernetes from a company like VMware’s Heptio to install it on your own server. The third way is to just download and run the free project yourself — the trickiest, but also cheapest, way to get going.

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Kubernetes organizes these containers in a structural, consistent way. The smallest unit, containers, each have packages of code and what’s needed to run it, so that each container could run on its own on any machine. The containers are organized into “pods.” Each “pod” of one or more containers gets clumped together into a “node,” which is then placed under the virtual oversight of “master node.”

Kubernetes is able to manage all these clusters at once, and keep the code running continuously even as it organizes and re-organizes these containers on the fly. The end result is that developers can build, test, host and run large-scale applications on the cloud, with the Kubernetes software doing much to keep everything running smoothly.

As an added benefit, Kubernetes users get one more key advantage from all of this: Because Kubernetes runs on just about any kind of server, and most of the major cloud platforms, it’s easier for users to take their application and move it from one to the other, or just write their software to run on multiple clouds at once.

How it started

The origins of Kubernetes trace back to Google’s own infrastructure management tool.

Inside of Google, engineers had been building an infrastructure management system called Borg — a hat tip to “Star Trek,” popular among Googlers. Well before Docker came onto the scene, Borg was using containers to help Google keep pace with its massive, global growth.

Borg was destined never to leave Google. But a group of Googlers, including Beda and his Heptio co-founder Craig McLuckie, wanted to take at least some piece of Borg and release it as open source for the rest of the world to use.

“When we listen to our customers, they say, ‘all we use are open source technologies,'” Google’s Hockin said. “[Open source] has completely changed the world in ways nobody could have predicted, and we wanted to be part of that.”

With that in mind, the group got to work on a brand new project. It was inspired by Borg, but didn’t use exactly the same code. Without any of Google’s code, it could be released for anybody to use for their own projects, and contribute code back to the mothership. Besides, Beda says, as an open source project, it would belong to the community, and wouldn’t be subject to Google’s often-slow code approval processes.

KubeCon 2018, a conference dedicated to Kubernetes with some 8,000 attendees.
Cloud Native Computing Foundation

This project was originally given the name “Seven of Nine,” another “Star Trek” joke — Seven of Nine was a heroic member of the otherwise-villainous Borg empire.

As it got closer to release, it was given the slightly more formal name of Project 7. Beda says that he got some static from higher-ups, who thought it should be called Google Project 7 — but the team didn’t want “Google” in the name. It was important to the team that it wasn’t seen as a Google-owned project, regardless of its origins.

So they started brainstorming names, and they came across kubernetes, an ancient Greek word for pilot, which is why the logo for the software is a ship’s steering wheel even today. But that logo also pays tribute to its roots as Project 7, with a little in-joke: The steering wheel has seven sides and seven spokes.

Google still benefits from Kubernetes

In 2014, the team officially launched Kubernetes as open source, with Red Hat quickly jumping on as a partner. In 2015, Google officially gave up any claims of controlling Kubernetes by donating it to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, a nonprofit industry group, for them to oversee.

Now, it seems unlikely that Kubernetes would have taken off in the way it did without making this move. Competitors like Amazon and Microsoft may not have been so hot to adopt Kubernetes, if it had remained under Google’s sole oversight.

“The biggest benefit is that a neutral home increases contributions,” Dan Kohn, executive director of the CNCF, told Business Insider. “When you look at Google’s top competitors out there, they may not have been willing to adopt and maintain Kubernetes if it had been under the control of others.”

Today, the main project has nearly 2,000 contributors, according to GitHub. There’s even a conference called KubeCon that’s specifically all about Kubernetes. The most recent event, held in Seattle this past December, had 8,000 attendees — twice the amount from the previous conference.

Still, Google is a major contributor to Kubernetes, with 40% of its open source code contributed by employees of the search giant.

Aparna Sinha, Google’s group project manager for Kubernetes
Google

That connection is important, because it raises the profile of Google’s other work — namely, its cloud computing platform, which is widely seen as a third-place player to the leading Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. Because Google is associated so tightly with Kubernetes, it can help the company win cloud deals.

“With Kubernetes, users view Google as experts and the origin,” Aparna Sinha, Google’s group project manager for Kubernetes, told Business Insider. “People ask us what’s the best way to run Kubernetes. It gives us that connection.”

The future of Kubernetes

The consensus in the industry is that Kubernetes is only going to keep getting more popular.

In general, the software is expected to keep maturing in ways that make it better-suited for those large businesses, many industry analysts and CEOs told Business Insider.

Furthermore, you can expect that even more startups and other software companies will make their own big bets on helping customers run Kubernetes, says Dan Hubbard, chief product officer of cloud security company Lacework.

“A general anecdote is that almost every vendor, they are either deploying Kubernetes or in the midst of researching it,” Hubbard told Business Insider. “It’s very early. It certainly has not reached any peak.”

Of note is that open source ccontributions to the main Kubernetes project actually slowed down in 2018. But some, including Heptio’s Beda, point out that this is actually a good thing — as Kubernetes itself matures and becomes more stable, the attention is going to other software that integrates with the main platform.

“Rather than saying that innovation would slow down or come to an end, the innovation has been moving to other projects that sit on top of Kubernetes,” CNCF’s Kohn said.

Beda says that with Kubernetes, the industry is nearing to the “end of the beginning,” and it’s about to enter a new phase. In fact, he looks forward to the day that the main Kubernetes project itself becomes “boring.”

“Boring is good, boring is reliable,” Beda said. “There has been a goal to make the core of Kubernetes be as boring as possible. We want to provide outlets for people to continue to evolve and do interesting things on top of Kubernetes.”

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