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Cloud Foundry PaaS undergoes seismic shifts as IT evolves

Cloud Foundry undergoes drastic changes as infrastructure automation technology develops, to the point where some industry experts see more erosion than evolution.

PHILADELPHIA -- Maturity for Cloud Foundry PaaS technology, and the natural lifecycle of open source projects, have brought the technology and its devotees to a crossroads.

At the Cloud Foundry Summit last week, IT pros from large corporate enterprises demonstrated how they use Cloud Foundry PaaS. The companies included household names, such as The Home Depot, Nasdaq, Dick's Sporting Goods, Liberty Mutual Insurance, T-Mobile, Charles Schwab and American Airlines. About half the Fortune 500 use Cloud Foundry, according to Abby Kearns, executive director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation, citing the foundation's latest user surveys. Approximately half of this year's attendees were contributors, as opposed to users, she estimated.

But attendance appeared to have dropped significantly since last year's event. IT pros interested in cloud-native technologies have many conferences from which to choose, including one event hosted by Pivotal, Cloud Foundry's chief commercial distributor. But to some observers, the decline in conference attendance reflects a decline in interest in Cloud Foundry PaaS overall.

Cloud Foundry Summit officials said online registrations for the April 2019 Cloud Foundry Summit totaled 1029, roughly 400 fewer than the previous year. The group did not disclose actual attendance figures.

Cloud Foundry Summit event hallway
Cloud Foundry Summit had 400 fewer online registrations to the conference this year than last year.

"The striking thing about this event is that there hasn't been a lot of focus on Cloud Foundry itself," said Tom Petrocelli, analyst at Amalgam Insights in Arlington, Mass. He also attended the Summit in 2018, and called the difference in attendance "stark."

"All the broad interest is in Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies," he said. "These are the Cloud Foundry faithful."

The Foundation plans to rethink the scope of its conference next year as a smaller event that focuses more on Cloud Foundry contributors, Kearns said.

"We're a four-year-old open source foundation and this is what happens," she said. "This may have been a smaller event, but we've never been part of the industry hype cycle."

Cloud Foundry PaaS looks to curate cloud-native tools

The technical underpinnings of Cloud Foundry PaaS are in flux amid broader industry technical innovations, especially in container orchestration. Flexible container orchestration platforms, most notably Kubernetes, began to overtake opinionated PaaS platforms in popularity three years ago. PaaS competitors such as Red Hat quickly accommodated the Kubernetes craze, and one of Cloud Foundry's earliest commercial champions, IBM, is about to acquire Red Hat and its Kubernetes-based OpenShift. IBM engineers also lead efforts to integrate Cloud Foundry more deeply with Kubernetes in Project Eirini.

The infrastructure shifts for Cloud Foundry don't stop at Kubernetes. Istio and other Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) projects were a strong focus of discussions at the Summit, and prominent upgrades included a public beta release of cloud-native buildpacks that will bring Cloud Foundry application automation up to speed with Open Container Initiative (OCI) standards.

What this means for Cloud Foundry as a stand-alone platform long term remains to be seen, but to some observers, it seems the writing is on the wall.

Cloud Foundry Summit show floor
With a noticeable drop in attendees, Cloud Foundry Summit sessions discussed how IT pros use Cloud Foundry PaaS.

"It's hard to project that Cloud Foundry will exist as Cloud Foundry in the future, rather than folded in to other cloud-native stuff," Petrocelli said. "I imagine things like Kubernetes will continue to gut Cloud Foundry stuff like Garden, and bits and pieces like the Application Runtime and BOSH survive."

The Cloud Foundry Foundation plans to work with CNCF, but there are no plans to merge the two communities, Kearns countered. She also disagreed that swapping in CNCF projects under the Cloud Foundry hood would erode it as a stand-alone platform.

"Cloud Foundry hasn't lost sight of its vision to pull those pieces into a larger puzzle and link it to the developer experience," she said.

Users weigh Cloud Foundry's future

Some Summit attendees expressed concern that the industry as a whole has lost focus on solving business problems with IT automation, and become distracted by the popularity of Kubernetes technology.

"Who cares about buzzword bingo?" said an executive director at a major media and entertainment company who requested anonymity. "How does Kubernetes solve my business problems? How does it improve the developer experience? I'm not sure throwing more flour around necessarily creates more bread."

Cloud Foundry PaaS must incorporate new technologies, but that's a far cry from being replaced by them, he said. For example, a new feature in cloud-native that patches operating system layers without application downtime is an example of what Cloud Foundry will bring to Kubernetes, not the other way around.

Cloud Foundry Summit vendors
Half of the Cloud Foundry Summit attendees were contributors as opposed to users.

"These problems have already been solved in Cloud Foundry," he said. "Developers really don't care about Docker images and shouldn't have to worry about how the pieces get swapped out -- the value of Cloud Foundry is in how it's transformed our mindset and culture to focus on business outcomes."

Other Cloud Foundry shops, however, predict a fragmentation of the platform over the next few years that's more in line with Petrocelli's view.

"I think it will become more componentized, where you can pick and choose the pieces you want to run," said Jay Piskorik, director of platform engineering at Dick's Sporting Goods, a sports equipment retailer based in Coraopolis, Pa. "People are always intrigued by new technologies, and Kubernetes isn't going to be the last thing that shocks the industry."

Dick's will evaluate Kubernetes to support Apache Kafka data pipelines in 2019, and will track Project Eirini as it develops.

"There's value in running Cloud Foundry and Kubernetes together, because it would give us one environment for our application teams to operate in, standardized around cf-push," Piskorik said. "But app transformations aren't going to happen in any one place -- I very much favor a componentized architecture to support new platforms as they pop up."

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