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AWS managed Kubernetes service intrigues, vexes IT pros

Amazon EKS generated curiosity among attendees at the AWS Summit in New York. But AWS' long-term container plans could change and alter how it packages the service to users.

NEW YORK -- AWS finally released its managed Kubernetes service to general availability, and reactions from IT and development teams are all over the spectrum.

Kubernetes, the open source container orchestration platform, continues to win over enterprise customers. Seeking to meet demands to simplify Kubernetes cluster management, Amazon Elastic Container Service for Kubernetes (EKS) was released to general availability in June.

EKS debuted in an increasingly crowded market. Google Kubernetes Engine, the earliest market entrant, more deeply integrates with the Kubernetes orchestration platform, while Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) seeks to entice Microsoft and multi-cloud users. Even VMware entered the fray to court those workloads.

Even prior to the introduction of EKS, more Kubernetes workloads ran on AWS than any other cloud provider, according to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation*. Much of EKS' early customer base -- such as GoDaddy, Intuit and Snap -- ran Kubernetes on EC2 instances. Increasingly, users wanted to simplify cluster management, yet retain the use of other Amazon services, said Deepak Singh, AWS' director of compute services.

"People don't run Kubernetes in a vacuum," Singh said. "It's part of a broader set of services that they consume."

But organizations that turn to a managed Kubernetes service also accept tradeoffs. These services come with costs, and EKS' high-availability control plane always runs, which some see as a deterrent due to the ongoing charges it accumulates. However, Singh said it is "quite a bit cheaper" to run containers via EKS than on EC2 or via a consultant.

Additionally, some worry a managed Kubernetes service negates one of the hallmark container benefits: portability.

"One of the problems that these cloud providers have is they go too native on their container services. They don't maintain that level of connection [to Kubernetes]," said Mike Dorosh, analyst at Gartner. Platform migrations are rare, but as customer contracts expire, it's important to keep your options open. "Everybody looks at container as an antilock-in device or portability device, on top of all the other things they're getting from it right now," he said.

Getting their feet wet

As experienced shops sew up their managed Kubernetes services, container newcomers and smaller businesses still mull their options.

In an overflowing workshop at last week's AWS Summit about how to build a Kubernetes cluster in Amazon EKS, attendee reactions were mixed.

Ronald Koehler, a software engineer at FactSet, a financial data and analytics applications provider based in Norwalk, Conn., said his team currently uses AKS for orchestration, but also runs on AWS. He said he can't speak for his organization's container preferences as a whole, but his team chose Kubernetes to containerize a monolithic command-line interface application, so it runs in the cloud more easily. "In case we want to start moving or duplicate the project on both cloud providers, I'm looking at EKS as an option," he said.

Others seemed less convinced. Ralph Jackson, a DevOps engineer for Lilly Pulitzer, a women's clothier based in King of Prussia, Pa., said his team uses Docker Swarm as a proof of concept to rip out and containerize parts of their monolithic app. But he said he sees Kubernetes as more of an "enterprise-ready" option.

Jackson has unanswered container needs, however. AWS Fargate aims to abstract server and cluster management, but it doesn't go far enough for him. "You still have to tell [Fargate] how much RAM," Jackson said. "But how do I know until I run it? It's a lot of trial and error there."

Integrators prefer to push clients to Kubernetes, as well. Logicworks, an AWS and Microsoft consulting partner based in New York, likely will move clients' workloads from AWS' proprietary Elastic Container Service (ECS) to EKS and set up newcomers with the service, said Curtis Johnson, a solutions architect at the company. And Logicworks, an early EKS tester, might even move some of its own workloads from ECS to EKS, he said.

"Kubernetes won so much of the market share that it's become, in many ways, a more robust [technology]," he said.

And if AWS pushes even 10% of its customer base to EKS, it would be bigger than GKE, Gartner's Dorosh said.

AWS Summit conference show floor.
At the AWS Summit in New York, customers flocked to AWS' EKS workshop.

EKS' future: Read the tea leaves

In case we want to start moving or duplicate the project [to containerize a monolithic application] on both cloud providers, I'm looking at EKS as an option.
Ronald Koehlersoftware engineer, FactSet

In the short term, AWS aims to integrate EKS with the rest of its portfolio. Fargate support for EKS will be available sometime this year to further abstract container management, Singh said, which would likely attract large organizations with many containers in production. Singh's team is also working to improve EKS' role-based access control, as well as deepen integration with databases, security services and load balancers.

Kubernetes' open source nature adds hurdles that might otherwise be lower with a proprietary service, but that's true for any managed open source project on AWS, Singh said. "We want it to be part of AWS' set of services and make sure that it doesn't feel like it's an add-on," he said.

AWS customers can run a service mesh proxy, such as Envoy, on ECS and EKS, but some IT professionals envision deeper integration with container orchestration services. "We are just watching and seeing from our customers, how are they going to use service mesh, what it means for them," Singh said. "Where it goes, we'll see."

Gartner's Dorosh speculated that EKS could be a one-way on-ramp to serverless technology, which has been an ongoing focal point for AWS, including the upcoming release of Aurora Serverless databases. Benefits to the cloud provider would be twofold: Reduce infrastructure overhead consumed by client VMs and containers and eliminate the portability of containers.

"[AWS is] looking at containers as kind of a gateway to serverless in some ways, a pathway to serverless," he said. "Containers are transitory, VMs can be rebuilt, but lots of code is proprietary to AWS."

* - Edited after publication to include the CNCF study.

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