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Managed container services face-off: Enterprise PKS vs. OpenShift

VMware Enterprise PKS and Red Hat OpenShift are two leading container platforms with many differences. Assess the technologies in terms of hybrid cloud support, tool ecosystems and more.

Integrated packages of essential container components are gaining traction with enterprises that want to minimize container deployment and management challenges.

Two popular managed container services are Red Hat OpenShift and VMware Enterprise Pivotal Container Service (PKS), initially a joint product with Pivotal and renamed VMware Enterprise PKS in February 2019. (VMware officially acquired Pivotal in December 2019.) Both PKS and OpenShift are available in several versions with specific feature sets. This comparison of Enterprise PKS vs. OpenShift will help clarify which of these managed container services is the best option for your IT organization.

The container contenders

Red Hat is known for open source software. The company has a formal release discipline that ensures all the integrated pieces of a given Red Hat offering are fully compatible -- no mean feat given how often open source distributions change. Red Hat OpenShift takes a Kubernetes container orchestration baseline and turns it into a hybrid cloud container platform.

VMware offers its Enterprise PKS jointly with Pivotal, a cloud-native platform provider. VMware holds a strong position in data center virtualization with ESXi and vSphere and virtual networking via NSX, which is among the most advanced virtual network technologies available and is, therefore, a major aspect of VMware's hybrid cloud strategy.

The cloudy battleground

Enterprises are likely to adopt Enterprise PKS or OpenShift managed container services in the context of hybrid cloud. Rather than migrate an application completely to the public cloud, enterprises can use the public cloud as a flexible, scalable front end to traditional business applications that, for security or compliance reasons, remain in the data center on a private cloud. This hybrid cloud model relies on data center application integration with an open public cloud framework.

In terms of hybrid cloud integration, OpenShift offers multiple options for networking, load balancing and service mesh. It supports Istio, as does PKS. OpenShift is somewhat easier to integrate across all public clouds, whereas PKS is most closely tied to AWS. The two products continue to converge in terms of integration features overall, though PKS is preferred at the moment for hybrid configurations that involve multicluster integration.

Both Enterprise PKS and OpenShift face competition from public cloud providers' managed container services and from container deployments that treat the data center and the cloud as loosely coupled, rather than as integrated, resources.

A closer look at OpenShift

Red Hat OpenShift addresses hybrid cloud requirements with a trio of offerings. The first two -- OpenShift Online and OpenShift Dedicated -- focus on public cloud container deployments that are loosely coupled with the data center, while the third -- OpenShift Container Platform -- focuses on full integration of public cloud and data center hosting:

  • OpenShift Online is a hosted Kubernetes system, operated by Red Hat, to deploy and manage containers for testing and trial runs.
  • OpenShift Dedicated, also managed by Red Hat, runs a private Kubernetes cluster on AWS.
  • OpenShift Container Platform is hosted in the data center and, from there, extends across public cloud infrastructure.

Red Hat also offers OpenShift for IBM and Microsoft Azure Red Hat OpenShift.

OpenShift includes all the necessary elements of the Kubernetes ecosystem or software framework for container management, and its roadmap suggests that will continue. The platform supports a range of popular container runtimes, as well as models for data storage, networking and CI/CD. Furthermore, Red Hat provides enterprise support with a set of standard releases that align the software versions and dependencies across all its container tools to simplify integration.

The fully hybrid version of OpenShift, OpenShift Container Platform, enables IT admins to implement infrastructure as code, and Red Hat Ansible is available on all versions for automation -- via Ansible Operators for OpenShift 4 and integration with Ansible Automation for previous versions. Additionally, the platform includes what users say is adequate or better support compared to industry averages or support for the open source distribution -- for every class of Kubernetes tool. This scope of capabilities, created by the broad integration of OpenShift with other open source components in the Kubernetes ecosystem, accounts for the platform's greatest strength: its breadth of tools and features.

Market factors

Some IT pros expressed uncertainty about Red Hat's future with the IBM acquisition. Would IBM try to direct Red Hat's hybrid cloud vision more toward IBM's own cloud?

Since the deal closed, Red Hat and IBM have established themselves as a strong player in hybrid cloud, combining Red Hat's open source street cred with IBM's strength among large enterprise accounts and IT spenders. Recent executive changes at IBM show the company's desire to sustain both its own and Red Hat's users. To do so, IBM must boost Red Hat and OpenShift within the IBM customer base and also preserve Red Hat's broader base.

The key to that is hybrid cloud -- and the mechanism to implement this new hybrid cloud direction likely involves three things:

  • hybridization of OpenShift and IBM Kabanero;
  • packaging versions of OpenShift for IBM-dominated data centers; and
  • the addition of new packages for other environments, such as VMware's vCloud base.

Furthermore, Red Hat supplies so many of the container tools related to Kubernetes, users can deploy almost any reasonable combination of open source extensions in a Red Hat distribution, with managed version control and dependencies. That's another benefit of using Red Hat, as is the support for Kubernetes console operations.

On the other hand, while users familiar with Kubernetes won't find OpenShift difficult to use, the platform's rich set of options for container hosting and operations creates what some see as a complex environment -- especially when compared to public cloud providers' native managed container services.

Overall, OpenShift is the natural choice for organizations already committed to Red Hat and, in particular, to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

A closer look at VMware Enteprise PKS

Red Hat OpenShift approaches data center and cloud operations with relatively equal attention, but VMware Enterprise PKS is more data center-centric. Enterprise PKS offers more for high availability data center hosting and on-premises virtualization than OpenShift. It also has a dozen container tools and features to integrate VMware hosting with the public cloud for hybrid deployments. VMware Cloud Foundation, an integrated set of data center resources and cloud management services, is the essential element of the vendor's hybrid cloud play. From this software-defined data center base, VMware not only extends hosting to containers in the cloud, but also to VMs. Users also have a virtual networking model via VMware SD-WAN by VeloCloud, software-defined WAN technology VMware acquired in 2018.

There are multiple versions of Cloud Foundation and also multiple versions of its storage, networking and operations tools. VMware provides each combination as a fully integrated and vendor-certified software stack, but the variety of options is a facet some users find confusing. Another common objection to VMware Enterprise PKS is that it's more like a proprietary product, with a closed ecosystem, than an open source framework.

VMware Enterprise PKS appeals to IT organizations with long-standing commitments to VMware's vSphere. These users find PKS easy to use and integrate with data center operations and, overall, the most convenient option for managed container services. Enterprises with no previous VMware investments are less likely to find PKS intuitive and might also see limitations in the open source tools and Kubernetes ecosystem extensions that PKS supports.

The winner

In this Enterprise PKS vs. OpenShift face-off, the open source giant is the winner. Red Hat continues to grow its hybrid cloud support, improve ease of use, broaden its cloud management tool set and provide the mix of open source with enterprise support for which it's best known.

But stay tuned, especially as VMware strengthens its position and other developments change the landscape for hybrid cloud. For example, Google released Anthos in 2019 to create a hybrid cloud platform, intended to run anything -- containers are an obvious choice -- anywhere. AWS and Microsoft Azure have similar offerings. Market competition could force both Red Hat and VMware to rethink and expand their Kubernetes product stories. The hybrid cloud and container market is just getting started, and many things could change, including leadership in managed container services.

Editor's note: This product comparison was updated to reflect changes in the market and product releases since its initial publication in May 2019.

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