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HashiCorp Waypoint public beta adds fresh take on PaaS

The sales pitch for HashiCorp Waypoint sounds a lot like traditional PaaS, but its technical approach may be uniquely well-suited to the recent rise of DevOps platform engineering.

LOS ANGELES -- HashiCorp Waypoint reached public beta on the HashiCorp Cloud Platform this week, putting a flexible and highly abstracted spin on the notion of platform as a service.

On the surface, however, tech industry long-timers heard a familiar set of messages around Waypoint at HashiConf Global this week as vendor execs unveiled the new release: Developers don't care about infrastructure and just want to deploy their applications. This new tool condenses a too-complex workflow down to a single command.

Fifteen years ago, that single command was "Heroku run." A little over a decade ago, it became "cf-push" with the introduction of Cloud Foundry. When Docker first emerged in 2013, "docker run" was meant to be that central command, one that promised to carry applications from developer workstations all the way through to production environments.

Now, it's "waypoint up."

"With Waypoint, you can use one waypoint.hcl file where you specify your build, your deploy and your release [configurations], and that waypoint.hcl file will live in the same repo as your source code," Bukky Adebayo, product manager for Waypoint at HashiCorp, said during a HashiConf session presentation. "[Rather than] fumble around to find the right commands to be able to apply that deployment, releasing is as easy as a 'waypoint up.'"

PaaS history repeating? Or an evolution?

While the messaging sounds like previous generations of PaaS products, there are some differences that may have HashiCorp Waypoint emerging with the right abstraction layer for PaaS at the right time.

Earlier forms of PaaS, such as Heroku and Cloud Foundry, were highly prescriptive about the infrastructure and tools used behind that single command to deploy applications.

The rise of Kubernetes prompted a general rethink about PaaS, and a newer generation of application deployment platforms, such as Red Hat's OpenShift, VMware Tanzu and online alternatives such as GitLab and GitHub Actions spawned from developers' desires for extensibility and flexibility. Cybersecurity teams also entered this picture with a mass movement toward DevSecOps over the last five years.

In the last two years, enterprise DevOps platforms and the term platform engineering began to take the place of previous catchphrases such as full-stack engineer. Site reliability engineering (SRE) became a prized skill set, and developer experience a renewed area of focus as enterprises began to treat DevOps platforms as their own products serving internal customers.

"With DevOps, you had two names in the word -- 'dev' and 'ops,'" said Mitchell Hashimoto, co-founder of HashiCorp, during a conference Q&A session. "I think we're hitting a mature phase of its adoption, which is recognizing that there are a lot more people involved in this work, and we need to do this in a more systematic way."

Mitchell Hashimoto, HashiConf 2022
HashiCorp co-founder Mitchell Hashimoto fields questions from attendees at HashiConf Global 2022.

HashiCorp Waypoint caters to this new era of enterprise DevOps and what it means for PaaS. It doesn't take the place of CI/CD pipeline tools that coordinate pre-deployment code pushes to repositories, various forms of automated testing, or assembling pipelines. In other words, HashiCorp isn't entering into direct competition with OpenShift, Tanzu and the rest.

Rather, Waypoint -- like Terraform before it -- acts as the glue between these systems, a systematized approach to creating developer self-service workflows that many enterprises still write their own scripts to automate.

This represents a subtle but distinct departure from even the most recently rolled out Kubernetes-based DevOps platform stacks. But it's also not completely unique. Rancher's co-founders, for example, have now founded a startup called Acorn Labs based on similar principles. And the creators of another startup, low-code/no-code release orchestration specialist ReleaseIQ, were just acquired by enterprise Jenkins vendor CloudBees and placed at the center of its latest plan for growth.

'Scripts I've written a thousand times'

As with the rest of HashiCorp's products, Waypoint was initially released as an embryonic open source project. As it becomes a beta-stage cloud service two years later, it hasn't yet won over all, or even most, of HashiCorp's target audience.

Tyler Kellen, co-founder, Scaleout LLCTyler Kellen

"In the past when I've read about Waypoint, my immediate reaction has been, 'This abstraction is one level higher than is necessary,'" said Tyler Kellen, co-founder of IT consulting and services company Scaleout LLC, based in Boston. "The idea of trying to create something that can transparently deploy to any platform, I believe, eliminates all of the platform-specific features that somebody might choose a platform for, so I have a lot of skepticism."

But after seeing this week's keynote presentation about Hashicorp Waypoint's public beta on the HashiCorp Cloud Platform (HCP), Kellen said he became more willing to suspend that skepticism and try out the tool.

"There are aspects of it that are definitely codifying Bash scripts I've written a thousand times," Kellen said.

That's been a part of his livelihood as a consultant as well, but externally developed standards can help there too, he said.

"It is sometimes easier, I have found, to point to some external vendor or some external source to say, 'Here, they already have solved these problems,'" Kellen said. "That's sometimes an easier sell than, 'I know how to solve these problems.'"

Based on demonstrations in the keynote, it appears that Waypoint's domain-specific language, HashiCorp's HCL, is simpler than teaching software developers to write their own Bash scripts, or YAML-based Helm and Kubernetes configuration files, Kellen said.

"If you want to rally a dev team around the infrastructural side of stuff they don't care about, it's great to have them learn HCL, because they're going to find it elsewhere [with tools such as Terraform] if they try to get involved," he said. "Teaching Bash is a lifelong thing -- HCL has better guardrails."

Early adopters share HashiCorp Waypoint challenges

Speaking of guardrails, at this stage, there are still plenty of those that could be added to Waypoint, both in the cloud and in open source, according to IT pros who have experimented with its early versions.

Until the 0.10 version of Waypoint open source, released last month, for example, the software didn't support custom deployment pipelines where testing or approval steps were required prior to release. Support for complex pipelines and a code block specifically for pipeline configurations were also added to the HCP Waypoint public beta release as of this week.

"They have addressed one big issue with pipelines," said Saiyam Pathak, director of technical evangelism at cloud hosting company Civo Cloud. An open issue in GitHub for Waypoint leads Pathak to believe the project will also address a current lack of support for Kubernetes resources, such as StatefulSets.

But there are other features that haven't been publicly discussed as part of the Waypoint roadmap, such as the kind of infrastructure provisioning guardrails that might be required to maintain production resiliency, Pathak said. For example, it's possible with Waypoint for a developer to set the number of replicas for an application in production that isn't sufficient for its traffic needs, which Waypoint doesn't yet natively address. That could cause the production app to crash.

With DevOps, you had two names in the word -- 'dev' and 'ops'. I think we're hitting a mature phase of its adoption, which is recognizing that there are a lot more people involved in this work.
Mitchell Hashimoto Co-founder, HashiCorp.

There are other ways SREs create such a scaffolding. HashiCorp could also potentially bring its privileged access management features in HCP Boundary to bear on this problem for SaaS customers, Pathak said, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen.

Similar questions remain for now about how to create audit logs on Waypoint deployments for governance; specify dependencies between linked microservices deployed via separate Waypoint files; and share access to Waypoint file repositories among multiple development teams. HashiCorp officials said this week that they would be watching beta customer feedback to guide their next steps in these areas, but nothing more specific.

Meanwhile, although Waypoint can ease the application deployment burden for developers, the burden of storing and managing associated Waypoint files -- like Helm charts and Kustomize files before them -- will fall to SRE teams.

It will take time for Waypoint to convince enterprise SRE teams to swap it into existing workflows, Pathak said.

"When you have complex pipeline already written, you need to justify to your business that you need to switch the tooling to Waypoint," he said. "Why would you do that? You need to spend your SRE time and your SRE budget for that -- for enterprises it's difficult, but for new companies and projects, you can go with newer things."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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