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Pivotal takes the reins for VMware containers with PKS

Pivotal Container Service, a product of VMware's recent partnership with Pivotal and Google, could potentially displace other VMware container infrastructure management tools.

If you attended either VMworld 2017 U.S. or Europe, you might have noticed there was no mention of Photon Platform,...

despite a great deal of chatter around VMware containers. Photon Platform was set to be VMware's platform for cloud-native applications and received quite a bit of attention at VMworld conferences past, including a version 1.0 release on GitHub. To my knowledge, VMware was working on a Kubernetes-as-a-service capability for Photon Platform, but there was no word of it at VMworld 2017. Instead, we heard a great deal about Pivotal Container Service, the product of VMware's partnership with Pivotal Software, Inc. to bring Kubernetes support to vSphere. Since Pivotal isn't part of VMware, this development left attendees to speculate: Is VMware conceding the point on containers?

Run container-based apps with PKS

Spun out of EMC Corporation, Pivotal offers a number of developer-focused tools, such as SpringSource and Cloud Foundry. Pivotal Container Service (PKS) addresses the need to deploy and operate Kubernetes for enterprise applications. Kubernetes is an open source system that automates deployment scaling and management of containerized applications. The result is that PKS will help enterprise organizations run container-based applications. PKS can run in public cloud, such as Google Cloud Platform, or on premises on top of a VMware vSphere environment. It seems likely that PKS will be available on other public and private cloud infrastructure at some point in the future.

VMware halts Photon Controller development

PKS can run in public cloud, such as Google Cloud Platform, or on premises on top of a VMware vSphere environment.

Photon Platform combines a special build of the ESXi hypervisor -- one intended to run VMware containers as VMs -- with Photon Controller, an application that manages Photon ESXi servers and their containers as VMs. Photon Controller is an open source project, hosted on GitHub and run primarily by VMware. At present, the GitHub repository says that VMware no longer maintains Photon Controller. I take this to mean VMware has decided not to continue development for Photon Controller and that the Photon Platform is, essentially, dead. It's worth noting that VMware continues to develop and support its Linux distribution, Photon OS. Since vCenter 6.5 runs on Photon OS, VMware needs to keep it alive.

VIC manages containers that run inside VMs

VMware still has a container infrastructure product in its lineup. VSphere Integrated Containers (VIC) runs VMs as containers, just like Photon Platform; however, rather than use a custom ESXi and controller, VIC uses vSphere with vCenter. VIC was designed for enterprise customers who use vSphere for their infrastructure and need to run VMware containers alongside normal VMs. VMware built VIC with the concept of containers as VMs in mind, with each container instance receiving its own VM with some clever resource management. It remains unclear whether the on-premises version of PKS uses VIC; I haven't been able to find any suggestion that the two are connected. I did, however, see that a recent release of VIC adds support to manage containers that run inside VMs, rather than the usual containers-as-VMs construct. This seems to indicate that PKS will use Linux inside VMs as a container host and that multiple containers will run inside each VM.

Are VMware containers an infrastructure issue?

It would appear that VMware and Pivotal have made the joint decision that containers should run inside VMs on vSphere, the same as they do on bare metal and in public cloud. From an infrastructure perspective, this means a container platform is just a bunch of VMs. In light of this, VMware doesn't need a container-specific product, such as Photon Platform; it needs integration between the container orchestration and VM orchestration platforms. Kubernetes needs to integrate with vRealize Automation to drive vSphere. This is part of the role PKS plays in the on-premises deployment. When PKS decides that a new Kubernetes cluster is necessary, it drives vRealize to create the container host VMs, networking and storage. When an existing cluster needs to grow, shrink or be destroyed, PKS again drives vRealize to do the work.

Pivotal Container Service makes it seem as though VMware is no longer trying to be the company that manages your container infrastructure. Since containers enable developers, it only makes sense that Pivotal would be the home of container services for enterprise organizations. After a few years of confusion over VMware containers, vSphere administrators can return to provisioning VMs. Hopefully, automation tools like vRealize will do the actual provisioning.

Next Steps

PKS raises questions about VMware container projects

Compare VMware's multiple container platforms

Why does Photon Platform matter?

This was last published in November 2017

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