Getty Images

IT pros size up Microsoft Radius app developer platform

As the platform engineering era dawns, enterprises seek better ways to tie apps to distributed infrastructure across clouds. But can Azure's owner build multi-cloud consensus?

Microsoft's take on a multi-cloud app developer platform, submitted to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation last month, has drawn early interest from enterprise IT pros, but faces questions about contributions from cloud competitors long term.

Microsoft's Azure Incubations Team publicly launched Radius Oct. 18 and demonstrated the project at the Linux Foundation Member Summit Oct. 23. The project combines existing open source utilities created or contributed to by Microsoft, including Kubernetes container orchestration, Dapr microservices orchestration and Bicep infrastructure as code, alongside planned support for third-party tools such as HashiCorp Terraform.

While Radius uses Kubernetes annotations in its initial release to bind application definitions to what the project calls infrastructure recipes, maintainers ultimately want to support non-container workloads. The project also supports multiple programming languages and will expand to include cloud providers such as Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Alibaba Cloud, according to the summit presentation. Radius documentation also indicates that integration with the Spotify Backstage developer portal is being explored, along with serverless cloud application platforms.

"Kubernetes has become the de facto cloud application infrastructure ... [but] Kubernetes only solves part of [a customer's] problem," said Mark Russinovich, CTO of Microsoft Azure, during the Linux Foundation Member Summit presentation. "They've got to turn to a ton of other tools to finish out what it means to create a cloud-native application ... tied together with baling wire and duct tape through bash scripts and PowerShell scripts. Creating an application has become just a jury-rigged kind of exercise."

This isn't Microsoft's first open source project contribution, Russinovich emphasized. It also created the now-graduated Cloud Native Computing Foundation Kubernetes Event-Driven Autoscaling project and donated Dapr, which is incubating in the CNCF. Another tool, Project Copacetic, which handles container image patching, is a CNCF Sandbox project.

Still, the ambition to create a multi-cloud app development platform will be a difficult one to achieve, according to industry analysts.

"Radius attempts to address a multi-cloud environment with an open application platform where Red Hat OpenShift is already a leader," said Larry Carvalho, an independent analyst at Robust Cloud. "With Microsoft as the sole [cloud provider] organization developing and promoting Radius, it is unlikely to gain traction for AWS or GCP customers, [who] will likely stay with tried-and-proven services from the respective vendors."

Open source, multi-cloud draw early enterprise interest

It's also very early for the Radius project, which has a long to-do list already, including basic infrastructure support for all major cloud providers. But it has already drawn some interest from enterprise IT organizations that have signed on as early contributors to Project Radius, such as financial services firm BlackRock, cable provider Comcast and Millennium BCP, a Portuguese bank.

Our engagement with the Radius team stems from our advocacy for open source solutions within our own technology platform, Aladdin. We believe this approach holds significant potential to resonate with the cloud-native community.
Ryan UmsteadVice president and senior engineer, BlackRock

These companies have begun to experiment with Project Radius because of Microsoft's interest in letting the project be governed by the CNCF and its flexible approach so far, according to reps at the Linux Foundation Member Summit and in interviews afterward.

"Our engagement with the Radius team stems from our advocacy for open source solutions within our own technology platform, Aladdin," said Ryan Umstead, a vice president and senior engineer on BlackRock's platform engineering team, who demonstrated Radius infrastructure recipes during the summit presentation. "We believe this approach holds significant potential to resonate with the cloud-native community."

Another IT pro who has experimented with Radius said it appears to be more flexible than existing app development platforms, such as VMware's Tanzu, which prepackages many elements of its platform, such as a developer portal, and predesignates underlying Kubernetes clusters for web, server and worker workloads.

"We need to meet developers where they are -- [let them] 'choose [their] own journey' with respect to the capabilities and abstractions that make sense for them," said Greg Otto, executive director of developer experience platforms at Comcast, in an online interview this week. "Not all dev teams and apps are at the same point. There's a lot in the Tanzu box for both platform engineering teams to swallow, but also devs. [Radius offers] more control over abstractions and which to choose or not."

Radius vs. Tanzu, Acorn, Azure Arc and more

Microsoft's fledgling app development platform has plenty of company, as several vendors and open source communities large and small devise improvements to the "baling wire and duct tape" cloud-native app orchestration described by Azure's Russinovich.

Rancher's co-founders, for example, launched Acorn Labs, which uses its own application and infrastructure definition templates, and claims similar flexibility and multi-cloud portability for apps. Red Hat OpenShift and VMware Tanzu have been promoted as multi-cloud app developer platforms for years; newer development platforms have also emerged over the last year with Cosmonic's WasmCloud and HashiCorp's Waypoint. Within Microsoft, Azure Arc is sold as a unified multi-cloud management experience, albeit based solely on Azure management tools rather than a mix with third parties.

Radius documentation includes a detailed FAQ section that explains how it compares with a list of other projects and products, including Tanzu, Waypoint, Crossplane, Azure Arc and Acorn.

Among the most noteworthy differences between Radius and projects such as Acorn is its strong separation of concerns for developers and operations, said Donnie Berkholz, founder and chief analyst at Platify Insights, a tech industry analysis firm.

"There's some similarity in that they both have ways to define an application deployment, where Acorn uses Acornfiles, [but] Radius [keeps] a distinction between application and environment definitions," he said. "And Acorn is a cloud provider as well, of course."

The chief differentiation for Radius in the long run might come from how it sets up cloud-native applications for long-term operations with its application graph feature, according to Berkholz.

Radius' recipes correlate application definitions with infrastructure as they're created, according to the project's Linux Foundation Member Summit demo, which later feeds the application graph. This could prove useful beyond the app development platform in the future, Berkholz said.

"Many different vendors track application topology, such as monitoring and observability vendors, as well as ITSM [IT service management] vendors, [but] in most cases it's either manually input or auto-discovered," he said. "The former is always going to be out of date and inaccurate, while the latter cannot understand application boundaries because it only looks at network traffic. There's a lot of potential for something like Radius to serve as an input into other tools that benefit from knowing the application topology."

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

Dig Deeper on DevOps

Software Quality
App Architecture
Cloud Computing
Data Center