The coming of the Kubernetes distributions

Very few people today start using Linux by downloading the linux kernel and starting from scratch. Most people start with a Linux distribution; for instance Debian, Ubuntu or CentOS. These distributions provide some opinions, some central infrastructure, a brand, strong versioning for the entire ecosystem and a bunch of other things. I posit that we’ll see the same pattern emerge with Kubernetes.

What even is Kubernetes?

I’ve seen Kubernetes described as all of the following:

I think all of these descriptions point to the developers intent that Kubernetes is something to build upon, rather than a simple out-of-the-box experience. It’s predominantly about building agreement on the primitives/APIs of distributed systems.

A name for a thing

I’ve not seen much discussion of this in general yet, I think because it’s early days and many of the people looking at Kubernetes today are either developers or early adopter types. These people have been “downloading the kernel and starting from scratch”, even until recently most likely running from source downloaded directly from GitHub. If the Kubernetes ecosystem is to grow then that’s not how more mainstream IT will adopt Kubernetes.

The reason for discussing this now is that I think a name is useful. That way we can talk about Kubernetes (singular, the software) separate from distrubutions of Kubernetes (many of them, from different vendors and communities). I’d be happy to see a different name, but I think distribution probably fits best.

Any evidence?

Absolutely. A range of software vendors are providing what I’m calling Kubernetes distributions. Here is a sample, I’m sure there are and will be more. I’m also sure over time some will disappear or maintain only a niche audience.

Note that Canonical are already using the term distribution in the name. I’ve seen it used in passing in CoreOS, OpenShift and Apprenda press materials too.

What can we expect from Kubernetes distributions?

Running with the analogy that Kubernetes is “an operating system for your datacenter” and that we’ll have a range of competing Kubernetes distributions, what else can we expect over the next few years?

Package repositories (aka. app stores)

One of the things provided by the traditional Linux distributions has been a central package repository. Most of the packages you’re installing from apt or yum are coming from that currated set of available packages. Not to mention community efforts like EPEL. We already have two package concepts within the Kubernetes ecosystem - container images (often from Docker Hub today, or from internal repositories) and Charts, part of the Helm package management tool (now a CNCF project).

In the short term expect the shared public Charts repository and Docker Hub to dominate. But over time different vendors will launch there own repositories. Partly this will be about building a trusted ecosystem, partly about limiting permutations for support and testing, and partly about control. The prize here is to be “the enterprise app store” and no vendor in this space isn’t going to at least try to own that as part of their platform.

Kubernetes standards and compliance

In an environment with many distributors of core software, it’s common for people to emphasise portability. As vendors extend their distribution (to provide higher level, but potentially proprietary features) this can become muddier. Some level of certification is often the answer. See CloudFoundry or OpenStack for recent examples. Kubernetes is already part of the CNCF, part of the Linux Foundation. I’d expect to see the works standards and certification eventually float around, but my guess is not in the short term.

A fight over who is the most open

Much of the container conversation recently has centered around a weaponisation of open. I think as the different distributions try and take the community with them at the same time as trying to scale sales this will continue. This will be an irritation and is probably best avoided.

Pressure for AWS to offer Kubernetes as a service

I would presume AWS has a very good idea of how many people are actually using Kubernetes on it’s platform. I think as that grows, and as other vendors efforts mature, they will come under pressure to offer the Kubernetes API as a service. I’m still split on whether that will actually happen but that’s a longer blog post about economics.

Differentiating features

Ultimately vendors will try and differentiate themselves in this new market. To begin with the majority of business will be targetting the container-curious and mainly talking up the benefits of containers and Kubernetes. But some potentialy customers are going to insist on comparing Kubernetes distributions and winning there is going to be about clear differentiation. Do you want to be the budget offering or the provider with the unique selling point?

Interesting questions

An observation at the moment is that all the current Kubernetes distributions I’m aware of are vendor-owned. Whether Open Source or not, they are driven by a single vendor (CoreOS, Red Hat, Apprenda, etc.) It’s interesting to see whether, in the current climate, we see a genuinely free and open source Kubernetes distribution emerge, similar to the role Debian plays in the Linux distribution world.