Industry Voices: Kubernetes reigns — Observations from KubeCon

As the curtains closed on the KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America 2023, the bustling energy of 14,000 attendees, split between 9,000 in-person and 5,000 virtual participants, lingered in the air. This event, under the aegis of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF, part of the Linux Foundation), showcased the continued popularity of Kubernetes in the cloud-native landscape — and Kubernetes continues to lead the charge into cloud-native, attracting new developers. 

Open-source business sustainability

Our team at AvidThink, attending both KubeCon 2023 and the earlier WasmCon 2023, gleaned several key insights from a variety of conversations with end-users, developers, vendors and other ecosystem players.

Before delving into the crux of our findings, it’s essential to address the rumblings of concern that percolated through the event.

The open-source community recently witnessed two significant upheavals: the Centos/OpenELA saga and the emergence of OpenTofu, a fork of Hashicorp Terraform. These incidents sparked debates about the long-term viability of open source as a sustainable business model.

Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation was quick to downplay these as isolated instances, pointing to the vibrant activity around other projects as evidence of the continued health of the open-source ecosystem. Yet, the questions linger, demanding a more in-depth examination, which we intend to pursue in future analyses.

Maturation of the cloud-native ecosystem

Turning our focus to the broader cloud-native ecosystem, we see a maturation process in full swing. Since the inception of CNCF and the open-source release of Kubernetes by Google in 2015, Kubernetes has grown to be CNCF’s most significant project, bolstered by over 3,000 contributors.

This maturation is not just a numbers game; it’s about the evolution in ease of use, reliability, scalability and adaptability to unique use cases. With 173 open-source projects under its umbrella, today’s CNCF is more than a repository of technologies; it’s a dynamic, growing community eager for more educational resources and certifications, especially at the foundational levels.

However, this growth spurt has its challenges. The complexity of CNCF projects is a growing concern, and there’s a risk of overwhelming users and exceeding their “complexity budgets.” There’s an urgent need for enhanced usability, better documentation and more accessible adoption pathways.

The ecosystem’s expansion also extends to its end-user community, actively contributing to shaping recommended architectures and best practices (e.g., via the recently announced end-user Technical Advisory Board). However, engaging new contributors remains a hurdle, necessitating more effective on-boarding processes and mentorship programs to convert interest into meaningful contributions.

WASM and the edge

At the conference, another critical area of focus was the intersection of Kubernetes and edge computing, with emerging technologies like WebAssembly (WASM) and projects like Wasmtime and WasmCloud gaining attention. Chris Aniszczyk, CTO of CNCF, is particularly bullish on WASM. The community is actively working on the WebAssembly System Interface (WASI), a modular interface for WebAssembly.

These could offer alternatives to traditional container-based approaches, especially at the edge. Startups like Cosmonic and Fermyon and established companies like Microsoft, Fastly, and NGINX/F5 drive the standards here through a parallel organization called the Bytecode Alliance.

Developer experience and productivity

The event also underscored the importance of developer experience, which goes beyond code creation to encompass the broader context of security, operations and product teams. There’s a growing recognition of the need for better collaboration across teams and leveraging community-driven patterns to avoid redundant efforts. A significant gap identified was the need to make infrastructure more invisible to developers, allowing them to focus more on strategic aspects of their work. This gap drives the popularity of CNCF projects like Backstage.

Abstractions and infrastructure management

Regarding infrastructure management, the conversation revolved around the inevitability of multi-cluster Kubernetes environments. The emphasis here was on raising the abstraction level to allow seamless workflows across clusters, a nod to the maturing landscape of platform engineering.

This thinking ties into another theme, independent of multi-cluster, of abstractions on abstractions — the standard means of solving any complex problem in computer science. We saw multiple projects and companies looking to provide managed solutions or abstraction layers on top of multi-cloud Kubernetes (public services like AKS, EKS, GKE, and private cloud solutions from SUSE/Rancher, Red Hat and VMware). The premise is that directly interfacing with Kubernetes is too complex and developers would prefer simpler opinionated abstractions to work on.

One example we saw is Acorn, from the founders of Rancher, which aims to simplify application packaging, sharing and scaling.

Observability and security

Security naturally took center stage on the show floor, with the consensus leaning towards zero-trust models and embedding security early in the development lifecycle (constantly shifting left). The importance of supply chain security was highlighted, especially in light of events like the SolarWinds attack, bringing Software Bills of Materials (SBOMs) into sharp focus. Associated with security is the trend towards driving increased observability and here, eBPF is a rising star.

eBPF showed up across the show floor and in presentations. Many companies and projects have leveraged eBPF’s capability to attach generalized yet safe code to kernel operations for high-speed networking, security and observability.

As proof of its popularity, the associated Cilium project made the recent list of CNCF hot projects. Also on the top five list are OpenTelemetry (another crowd favorite) and Prometheus, all playing critical roles in providing visibility into the underlying infrastructure and application for troubleshooting, spotting security anomalies and improving application and user experience.

Cost, sustainability and AI/ML

On the sustainability front, the cloud-native community is starting to integrate environmental considerations into their discourse, with projects like Kepler for energy monitoring emerging as CNCF sandbox projects. The rise of Kepler and other similar initiatives marks a significant step towards incorporating energy metrics into cloud computing.

Unsurprisingly, AI and machine learning also formed a substantial part of the conversation. The CNCF ecosystem is expected to evolve to support AI/ML workflows at an unprecedented scale. CNCF projects are becoming the backbone for modern AI workloads, with Kubernetes-based tools like Kubeflow gaining traction for running frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow.

Generative AI was spotlighted for its transformative potential, though with cautionary notes on security and governance. Large language model (LLM)-powered code generation can help developers with learning and reviewing, thus enabling them to focus on strategic work. LLMs can benefit senior and junior developers — senior developers may get productivity boosts while junior coders can accelerate their learning. But care needs to be taken that junior developers don’t use them as a crutch.

In conclusion, KubeCon 2023 presented a vibrant tapestry of an evolving cloud-native ecosystem, grappling with its growth pains while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of innovation and inclusivity.

The road ahead is challenging but undeniably exciting, with Kubernetes still the helm of this transformative journey.

Roy Chua is founder and principal at AvidThink, an independent research and advisory service formed in 2018 out of SDxCentral’s research arm. He was previously co-founder at SDxCentral where he ran both the research and product teams. Roy was formerly a management consultant working with both Fortune 500 and startup technology companies on go-to-market and product consulting. Roy has 20+ years of experience in telco and enterprise cloud computing, networking and security, including founding several Silicon Valley startups.

He would like to thank the Linux Foundation CNCF for their support in making AvidThink’s attendance at WasmCon 2023 and KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America 2023 possible.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors — often industry experts or analysts — who are invited to the conversation by Silverlinings' editors. They do not represent the opinions of Silverlinings. Read all of our Industry Voices here.