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VMware's managed Kubernetes service enters a crowded race

VMware Kubernetes Engine is the latest service from vendors that want to jump into the container business, and it's another signal of VMware's changing take on cloud.

VMware's addition of managed Kubernetes to its growing list of cloud-native services steers the company further from its on-premises heritage and into an unsettled market, where it faces stiff competition.

VMware Kubernetes Engine (VKE) is a managed Kubernetes service in beta that abstracts away the infrastructure and control plane for its users. Its role is to support the operation of consistent, container-based environments across regions and cloud providers. VKE is part of the company's growing list of SaaS applications to operate on multiple clouds, and it will be initially available only on AWS.

VKE joins a crowded market, where nearly every major tech vendor has tried to tether support for Kubernetes -- the open source container orchestration software, which continues to grow rapidly, but is notoriously difficult to manage at scale.

"The race is on right now, because Kubernetes adoption is exploding faster than any of us anticipated," said Dave Bartoletti, an analyst at Forrester Research. "The initial Kubernetes interest was really high, so now we have the secondary rush of every tech vendor to make Kubernetes easier."

With VKE, VMware must find a way to stand out from the major public cloud vendors -- namely Amazon Elastic Container Service for Kubernetes, Google Kubernetes Engine and Microsoft Azure Kubernetes Service. There are also companies -- Red Hat, Docker and Rancher, to name a few -- that offer managed Kubernetes to run on premises or on multiple clouds.

Dave Bartoletti, analyst, Forrester ResearchDave Bartoletti

Still, most managed Kubernetes services that have gained traction come directly from the cloud providers and only work in those environments. So, VMware could have an advantage with some of VKE's functionality.

"The way they've done it where it's basically a file-folder, directory tree structure and how you can make clusters and policies that can be across regions and clouds ... that can make things a lot easier when you're talking about having a global control plane," said Gary Chen, an analyst at IDC.

VMware will manage the infrastructure for the VKE clusters, which include the nodes, networking and storage configurations. Users choose between clusters that are tailored for development or production, with set policies for security, health and cluster size.

VKE is more of a service than an engine that customers set up and run themselves. But VMware already has a container engine service, Pivotal Kubernetes Service, which is a joint venture with Pivotal that's targeted more at on-premises deployments. Semantics aside, VMware appears to have fleshed out a container strategy that provides a single interface to address multiple layers of container abstraction, on premises and on multiple public clouds.

Though many companies have tested Kubernetes, it remains a tiny fraction of overall IT deployments, and it's unclear how far up the stack most users want to extend their control of the technology. As large enterprises commit to run Kubernetes at scale, they'll want a vendor to offer consistency across the different environments. But we're not at that point yet.

"Everyone is searching for what's the differentiator [with Kubernetes] and making sure they get here first," Chen said. "I don't think VMware expects massive adoption at first with this, but they want to say, 'We're staking a claim and have something to build on.'"

VMware bills VKE as a multi-cloud tool to run Kubernetes on potentially any public cloud, despite starting out solely on AWS. VMware said it plans to expand to Microsoft Azure and other clouds in the future, though it did not mention a timeline. VMware likely wants to establish a foothold on AWS before it expands to other environments, which requires investments in staffing and expertise to handle the management behind the scenes.

Everyone is searching for what's the differentiator [with Kubernetes] ... I don't think VMware expects massive adoption at first with this, but they want to say, 'We're staking a claim and have something to build on.'
Gary Chenanalyst, IDC

VMware has not disclosed its prices, though it said the service will have a feature to help right-size usage to control costs and determine best fits across clouds. Pricing details are important for enterprises that want to choose between a native cloud service and VKE. Some cloud vendors already offer free Kubernetes management, as users ultimately pay for underlying compute, storage and networking services that support their Kubernetes environments.

VMware must work through other issues to succeed. It must build an ecosystem around VKE to connect with third-party developer tools and features native to the major public clouds and determine its plans to integrate VKE with VMware Cloud on AWS or other similar infrastructure services.

And, unlike VMware Cloud on AWS, VKE won't target someone who primarily deploys applications with vSphere, so it must prove its mettle in the emerging Kubernetes management market, Forrester's Bartoletti said.

"It's hard to write off VMware's reputation with existing customers and how their existing customers like to rely on tools from VMware to create consistency across platforms," he said. "[But] VMware doesn't have any more expertise or reputation as an expert in Kubernetes than AWS or Google or Docker or Rancher."

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