November 21, 2023

KubeCon Chicago: familiar faces, fresh conversations

Cornelia Davis
Cornelia Davis
VP, Product

It's been nearly half a year since I shared with you my excitement at being back in the cloud native space. Doesn’t time fly? 

Now that I’m back home from KubeCon Chicago, you could say my reintegration is complete.

But while I still have the benefit of my outsider’s eye, it’s time for some observations.

A community busy building the future

My last KubeCon was in Los Angeles in 2021, back in the muted and masked-up days of Covid. Fair comparison or not, what a difference two years makes. Chicago was hopping

We put together a little video to give you a sense of the atmosphere, for those of you who weren’t there:

The pre-conference day, home to the colocated events, felt as busy as any I’ve seen. There were half- and full-day tracks on graduated CNCF projects like Istio, Cilium and Argo, hot techs like Wasm and Backstage, and still-evolving spaces such as AI and edge (we again were Diamond sponsor for Edge Day, and shared some interesting new research data as well as demos of our 2 node architecture).

This year’s structuring of the pre-conf day, where a full conference pass gave attendees entrance to any of the colocated events, seemed to have increased the cross-pollination — which can only be a good thing for learning and innovation. 

Hustle, bustle and sell-out sessions

The rest of the week, I spent time on the show floor reconnecting with my industry colleagues, and the crowds never once let up. The hallways were full of people queuing for oversubscribed sessions.

I had the great honor to support one of those sessions. In fact, it was so popular that we not only filled the first room, we also sold out an “encore session” on the Thursday, with over 900 people in total attending. 

What was it that grabbed the community’s attention so dramatically? Well, a real-world user journey, of course. 

Justin Head, VP of DevOps at Super League Gaming, told the story of replatforming SLG’s Minecraft hosting service from bare metal, to the cloud and Kubernetes, and then back to bare metal. (In these days of cloud bill shock, it’s a story that many of you may find relevant).

The clever part is that SLG didn’t give up any of the goodness they had gained in the cloud on their way back to bare metal. They kept their containerized architecture, API-driven provisioning and lifecycle management of Kubernetes, and resource elasticity, all while saving 65% on their monthly infrastructure spend.

A moment of surprise for me came when I queried the audience as to their familiarity with two of the key technologies that power this solution: 

  • Bare metal as a service (BMaaS) providers like Equinix Metal, Cox Edge and PhoenixNAP, which support the Canonical MAAS API protocol.
  • The CNCF Cluster API (CAPI) project, which turns API-served machines into Kubernetes clusters, via an open source MAAS CAPI provider (which we’re proud to maintain here at Spectro Cloud).

Based on show of hands, only about 20% of the audience reported having any experience with either of these technologies — the Kubernetes community is far, far from being done with innovation. And of course new people are entering the fold all the time. More than half of the attendees at the show were first-timers. Can we blame them for not knowing every project in the vast CNCF landscape?

If you’d like to watch the session with Super League Gaming, check it out on the CNCF YouTube channel.

Or catch the slides here:

Enterprise ♥️ OSS 

KubeCon Chicago marked a new chapter in the evolving relationship between open source and the enterprise.

Cloud-native has had enterprise involvement from the earliest days, at least on the tech vendor side. Of course, Kubernetes itself was donated by Google, and even as far back as 2016, KubeCon was sponsored by big guns like IBM, Samsung, Cisco and Intel. 

It took a few years for a wider range of enterprises to truly get on board as users of the cloud native ecosystem. But those that did really adopted “Open Source”, with capital letters. They drank from the upstream firehose, they built their own tooling, they rolled up their sleeves. Organizations like retailer Zalando were building their own cluster lifecycle managers in 2018. 

Fast forward to now and enterprises from all the supposedly slow-moving, risk-averse industries are at KubeCon en masse. I personally spoke with folks coming from telco, pharma, healthcare, and manufacturing. For example, after seeing him on the main stage on day one, I had the pleasure of spending an hour catching up with Mike Bowen, Director of the Open Source Program Office at BlackRock. I saw another dear friend and former colleague, Damani Corbin, who launched Boeing’s Open Source Program Office in the last year or so. 

Suffice it to say, when investment houses and aviation manufacturers are running OSS offices and sending big-hitters to the event, the CNCF’s work to bring end-user organizations to the show has succeeded in style.

These enterprises are not only adopting open source, but increasingly see it as strategic and are building programs around it. But that no longer means a whole lot of tooling development in-house. They are now actively looking at commercial offerings that allow them to get the best of OSS, while relieving them of the significant burden that DIY approaches require. 

Thanks to their investment in OSS over the last few years, enterprises are older and wiser — with tougher expectations of vendors. Namely, they are looking for commercial offerings that stay true to the principles of the OSS community that these enterprises have helped to shape. 

These organizations have become cynical enough to spot when a vendor is embedding OSS, but have modified it without contributing back to the upstream, effectively making their offering proprietary. End users are okay with a vendor delivering value in addition to the OSS they embed, but they are absolutely not okay with a solution that locks them into using only that vendor’s solution. That’s not truly OSS.

A new chapter in the platform engineering story

Searching for the term “platform engineering” in both last year’s North America schedule and this year’s European event shows a half dozen or so sessions. Chicago’s schedule? No fewer than thirty

Okay, so I’m cheating a little here because there is now a dedicated track for platform engineering, but this is, in fact, my point — platform engineering is getting a lot of attention. 

I wrote about this trend earlier this year and not only is it demonstrated with the new track, but also everyone at the conference was talking about the two white papers that the App Delivery TAG has produced in the last year: the CNCF Platforms White Paper and the Platform Engineering Maturity Model.

In another nod to the elevation of the topic, platform engineering and developer experience permeated many of the keynotes. On opening day, a panel of active CNCF community members from large organizations paid homage. In one of the closing keynotes, one of the founders of Kubernetes, Tim Hockin, spent significant time talking about the developer experience while talking about “the things we’ll need for the next decade.”

His themes had all of us at Spectro Cloud nodding along. Stuff like this:

…is, frankly, the reason we’re here. When 56% of Kubernetes adopters have more than 10 clusters, you need that higher level management capability. You need a platform that makes serving developers with clusters repeatable, consistent, and easy — not risky.

The CNCF community has been talking about the need to serve the developer experience for some time, but until now the App Delivery TAG yielded little. The two well-received papers and the buzz around this topic in Chicago has me hopeful that the time has come.

New frontiers, new opportunities

I can’t end this writeup without talking about AI, of course. 

AI was all over the conference, including a full day unconference called AI Hub that I will definitely prioritize in Paris. 

But one of my favorite sessions was Priyanka’s opening keynote where she live-demoed AI inference on her laptop. 

Well, almost. 

She attempted to demo it live, but after waiting on her machine for a bit she fell back to a recorded demo. The inference had happened on her machine by the time she had finished showing the recording. 

Why did I love this so much? Because she was showing AI on smaller compute — something that is at the core of the emerging market category of Edge AI

But more than that, I loved the conversation that she kicked off around Kubernetes itself evolving to serve this new category of workloads. 

Kubernetes was originally built when microservices were on the rise, and was optimized for those use cases, but with the work that is happening in the ecosystem now, Kubernetes is showing itself to be quite adaptable to this new world.

Oh, and I just love live demos — even when they don’t work as planned. We’ve all been there, Priyanka. 

See you in Paris?

We’ve already secured our sponsorship for KubeCon Europe in Paris next Spring, both for the main event and for Edge Day. Keep an eye on our socials or subscribe to our newsletter for all the details as they emerge. Hopefully see you there?

Thought Leadership
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