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SUSE Rancher Kubernetes regroups amid platform trend

It's been a year of seismic shifts for SUSE's Rancher Kubernetes management products as market buzz shifts to platform engineering, forcing changes in strategy heading into 2024.

SUSE's Rancher underwent multiple overhauls this year, with further expansions planned for 2024, but Kubernetes management tools generally face challenges as industry focus moves up the stack to platforms.

Platform engineering emerged from the cloud-native technologies, including container and Kubernetes management, that went mainstream in the era of Agile and DevOps approaches to software development. But especially in the last two years, the focus of enterprise IT has shifted from the notion of a full-stack developer that manages both microservices applications and infrastructure to platform engineering, a discipline in which DevOps teams maintain a centralized set of resources for app developers.

Kubernetes is frequently among those resources, but is no longer on the leading edge of technical innovation. The thornier issue of connecting Kubernetes management with other areas of cloud-native infrastructure within internal development platforms is now more frequently discussed at conferences such as KubeCon + CloudNativeCon.

"Platform engineering is the new IT," said Rob Strechay, lead analyst at enterprise tech media company TheCube. "Nobody dreams of being a VMware admin, a container admin, a network admin or a storage admin anymore ... Most people look at Kubernetes as being almost solved at this point."

Against this backdrop, enterprise Linux vendor SUSE's Rancher Kubernetes management subsidiary has been challenged to adapt. SUSE has also faced stalling revenue growth overall, and as a result was taken private by its majority shareholder in August.

As [with] SUSE's organization overall, the growth hasn't been what we'd like it to be. Going private, we get back to the basics ... [and] focus on the long-term strategy.
Peter SmailsGeneral manager of enterprise container management, SUSE

"As [with] SUSE's organization overall, the growth hasn't been what we'd like it to be" since SUSE bought Rancher in 2020, said Peter Smails, general manager of enterprise container management (ECM) at SUSE in an interview earlier this year. "Going private, we get back to the basics ... [and] focus on the long-term strategy."

SUSE Rancher catches up, plans edge expansion

SUSE's ECM team stayed busy both before and after the private equity deal in a bid to improve that growth. In April, SUSE expanded Rancher's main UI into areas of Kubernetes management beyond clusters with a new UI extension framework released with Rancher 2.7.2. It also rolled out pre-built UI extensions for open source projects including Kubewarden policy lifecycle management, Elemental edge OS management and Harvester hyperconverged infrastructure, but users can build their own UI extensions.

With the April release, SUSE updated the Rancher Prime commercial support program to include service-level agreement backing for the Kubewarden and Elemental extensions and access to a support platform dubbed SUSE Collective. Also in April, SUSE added courses covering multi-cluster management and container security to its free Rancher Academy training program. In June, it added a generative AI assistant to Rancher Prime.

In November, SUSE launched Rancher Prime 2.0 and Rancher 2.8, continuing the theme of expansion beyond Kubernetes cluster management. This release tightened integrations with the NeuVector container security software SUSE acquired in late 2021 and added a customizable API to the UI extension framework. SUSE also introduced the Rancher Prime Application Collection, a curated library of applications built on SUSE Linux Enterprise base container images to shore up software supply chain security.

At KubeCon + CloudNativeCon in November, SUSE detailed its plans to expand Rancher's edge computing support in 2024. These include trusted container registry support for its SUSE Linux Enterprise Micro OS, designed to support resource-constrained IoT and air-gapped environments; planned work with Linkerd vendor Buoyant to expand service mesh support to noncontainer workloads; and a partnership with networking vendor Synadia on a cloud-to-edge infrastructure messaging system.

The November update also included some focus on the basics of the Rancher business. SUSE began providing documented performance benchmarking for Rancher Prime customers, along with new a Long Term Service Support (LTSS) version that extended Rancher Kubernetes Engine version 2 support for up to two years over previous versions. And it disclosed plans to offer NeuVector and Rancher on the AWS and Azure marketplaces.

"I was shocked they were not in the AWS nor Azure marketplaces before this," Strechay said. "This seems like a Hail Mary to capture some spend that would move to the cloud orchestration [services] or [Red Hat] OpenShift."

Many of those cloud services and OpenShift already offered features similar to those Rancher has just added, from service mesh integration to edge support with Red Hat's MicroShift, Strechay said.

Rancher Prime updates might address anecdotal reports Strechay said he heard about support issues immediately following the SUSE-Rancher acquisition, but he took a skeptical view of the LTSS version.

"It means that folks are staying on older versions longer, so [SUSE] is looking to extract money from those customers by providing security patches, etc., for a longer period of time," he said. "This kicks the can down the path a bit if it is more cost-effective [for customers] to pay the fee versus transitioning to a different distribution."

Rancher has happy users, but platform shift adds to churn

Container and Kubernetes management, now often synonymous, are fully mainstream, according to various industry surveys. Enterprises are still adjusting to cloud-native applications, however, according to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation's 2022 annual survey of more than 2,000 IT professionals worldwide.

"Just 30% of our respondents' organizations have adopted cloud native approaches across nearly all development and deployment activities," the CNCF survey report stated. "Still, 62% of organizations that do not regularly use cloud native techniques have containers for pilot projects or limited production use cases, indicating there is room for growth."

Beginning two years ago, IT pros at a division of auto manufacturer Toyota found that Rancher gave them a crucial leg up in this transition by reducing Kubernetes management overhead. Before engaging with SUSE Rancher, the company's infrastructure engineers had run upstream open source Kubernetes, and then VMware's Tanzu Community Edition. But upstream Kubernetes required too much manual deployment work, and Tanzu Community Edition was involved in an outage that sent the team looking for a paid alternative.

Michael Nichols, information security and compliance architect, Toyota Material HandlingMichael Nichols

"Up until then, we just really didn't have any support. It was all, 'What can we Google?'" said Michael Nichols, information security and compliance architect at Toyota Material Handling (TMH), a U.S.-based subsidiary of Toyota that specializes in industrial equipment such as forklifts.

The transition to Kubernetes and containers was originally prompted by TMH's move to CI/CD pipelines and DevOps practices; containers and Kubernetes could attach to those pipelines with a minimum of reconfiguration. Nichols and his colleagues also wanted to continue to use open source tools, and Rancher fit that bill, providing an easier-to-use interface than raw open source utilities and supported versions of VMware Tanzu.

Using Rancher, provisioning Kubernetes clusters went from a multiday process with self-managed Kubernetes to a 10- to 15-minute one, Nichols said.

After Nichols -- an infrastructure engineer for TMH at the time it bought SUSE Rancher -- transitioned into his current role in 2022, a colleague with less infrastructure experience was able to take over managing the Kubernetes environment.

Adam Woerz, application development engineer, Toyota Material HandlingAdam Woerz

"I just hit eight months at TMH and Rancher was given to me about two months ago, and I've been able to go from doing nothing with infrastructure to being able to deal with Rancher and understand what I'm doing," said Adam Woerz, an application development engineer at TMH, in a joint interview with Nichols. "That speaks to its ease of use and why it was a good decision to go with Rancher over something like Azure Arc ... We're trying to deploy to Kubernetes on Azure right now, and we're already talking about, 'How soon can we get Rancher to manage this?'"

However, on the other end of the cloud-native maturity spectrum, SUSE also lost one paying Rancher customer in the last two years as IT teams came up to speed on Kubernetes management and began work on developer platforms.

Here, Rancher's basis on open source cuts both ways, according to an architect for a Fortune 100 company who requested anonymity to speak about a specific vendor contract. Open source Rancher still plays an important role at the company in multi-cloud and multi-cluster Kubernetes management -- an area Rancher pioneered before the SUSE merger. But the company has stopped paying SUSE for Rancher support in recent years, the architect said.

Instead, the company has shifted its budget to vendors in other areas, such as cloud-native network management and developer portals.

"I would say that we've gotten really good and refined at running Kubernetes, and the need for outside support contracts to keep us going has dwindled over time," the architect said in a November interview. "The market's been flooded with different [Kubernetes] management plane providers, and Rancher is not the only one in the game anymore."

Kubernetes management at a crossroads

SUSE was not alone in reworking its Kubernetes management strategy this year. VMware reshuffled the products included in its VMware Tanzu product line in August ahead of its acquisition by Broadcom, prompting speculation that the reorganized business unit would be subject to a spinoff once the deal closed.

Elsewhere, Microsoft began work on an open source platform project called Radius separate from its existing Kubernetes management products under Azure Arc. Google rolled out a refresh of its Anthos Kubernetes platform called Google Kubernetes Engine Enterprise that includes built-in support for service mesh, a Kubernetes policy controller and configuration management for GitOps.

Container adoption has reached a saturation point, according to an October industry trends report on Kubernetes in the enterprise. In the industry survey on which that report was based, 87.9% of 103 respondents said they use containers -- a result that was slightly below the survey's previous high-water mark of 90% in 2020. Kubernetes and container management are also now "inextricably linked," according to the report.

Thus, for Kubernetes management vendors to differentiate themselves in 2024, they must solve the more pressing problem of integration with other cloud-native tools commonly used in enterprise environments, said David Sudia, director of developer relations at Ambassador Labs, a Kubernetes API gateway vendor that was among the sponsors of the report.

"Kubernetes is pretty stable [and] there are ways that you can now pretty successfully hide it from developers," Sudia said. "But at that middle layer, where platform people live, it's still a bit of a Wild West."

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.

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