Rancher founders’ new venture recasts Kubernetes management

Three years after selling their Kubernetes management company to SUSE, Rancher Labs co-founders are unveiling a new venture — one that hides Kubernetes within a developer-friendly package.

Acorn Labs, launched as an open source project last year, abstracts Kubernetes resources within a Dockerfile-like construct so that cloud infrastructure and applications can be deployed and shared between environments using a single hyperlink. This week, the company launched a free public sandbox on AWS that it hopes will function for cloud-native apps the way GitHub does for software code — making runnable apps easily sharable between developers. It’s an on-trend approach, as app-centric developer platforms supplant raw Kubernetes management tools among forward-thinking enterprise IT organizations.

TechTarget Editorial caught up with Shannon Williams, president and co-founder of Acorn, and Sheng Liang, CEO and co-founder of Acorn, to learn about their views of Kubernetes management in the era of platform engineering.

What is Acorn Labs? What products does it have available?

Shannon Williams: It’s a framework that provides a developer experience for building and running applications that doesn’t require you to have a deep understanding of Kubernetes — something you would be comfortable with if you are comfortable with Docker. We built this as an open source project last year, but our real goal has been launching a public cloud service. And that’s what we’re announcing this week — the opening of a beta phase for our new cloud service called Acorn Platform.

The goal of Acorn Platform is to do for cloud computing what GitHub did for software development and code development, which is make it something that everyone can access quickly; everyone can share what they’re working on with anyone they want; and the free experience is universally valuable. Without having to give a credit card or pay anything, you can do a lot.

Rancher was also meant to make Kubernetes easily consumable. So how is this different?

Williams: It’s different in the audience. Rancher’s goal was to make Kubernetes easily manageable for organizations that wanted to run Kubernetes and manage infrastructure in the cloud. … It was an operational tool first, and then a developer experience tool second. You were writing Kubernetes YAML files, using Helm, and you had to learn Kubernetes. At most organizations, developers never learned Kubernetes. They stayed in Docker-land and DevOps teams learned to translate everything they did into Kubernetes.

How Acorn works from a user perspective is, anything can be packaged as an Acorn Image, described in an Acornfile. It includes Docker images as well as all the configuration. Docker Compose and Helm are frameworks that have done this for Docker and for Kubernetes, but the two could never work together. Acorn bridges that gap in that it creates something that feels like Docker but runs against Kubernetes. You don’t need to learn Helm, you don’t need to learn Docker Compose, you don’t need to learn Terraform. You just need your Docker images. You describe how you want them to run, and then you push them directly to the Acorn Platform.

What’s the Acorn Platform? How does that work?

Williams: The Acorn open source project creates a framework that does all of that translation work, and then the cloud platform exposes that open source project to anybody, to make it easy for them to deploy and run their apps directly in the cloud.

One of the other things that has proven to be popular during the private beta we’ve run is the ability to take anything you create and share it with people. So any app, whether it’s a gaming server, software I’ve written or a new open source database, Acorn attaches the idea of a cloud to the idea of an application image, and then you can generate what we call an Acorn Link, which is an HTML URL that will create an instance of an app in the cloud for others to use inside of their own personal sandbox.

It’s not just for the developers who happen to work at a large financial services company or the government … if you want to run a Minecraft server, or you want to build a Ruby on Rails application, or you want to go and just host a WordPress environment, you can do that in your own personal sandbox for free, use it for up to two hours, run it as often as you like, share it with whomever you like. If you want to run it longer, you push that application into a Pro environment, and you pay for the resources that are deployed in the background to run your application, like you do any other cloud.

Is there a plan to target enterprises as well? Or is this going after more of a consumer audience?

Williams: Right now, the core focus with this platform is for anyone to use it, but it has Teams and Enterprise versions. In the same way that GitHub is valuable if you’re an individual, but it’s just as valuable if you’re a team, Acorn Platform gives you a standard way of creating apps and sharing them, and a way of managing infrastructure and sharing it. We want to validate all of that before we even try to sell this to the enterprise. During the beta, the Pro and Teams versions are also free.

Long-term, we also think it’s got great enterprise applicability. If you’re a larger team or a larger company, you can use your own AWS credentials, or Azure accounts or Google accounts in the future. We see two big sets of users: the development teams writing applications and the IT organization that wants to define the infrastructure that organizations use and cares about things like access control, security, compliance and policy management. We’re building all of that into our Enterprise version.

What exactly is an Acornfile? What language is an Acornfile written in? Is it a YAML thing? Is it JSON?

Williams: An Acornfile  is basically its our own language. But it is a YAML file effectively. So it’s going to feel familiar to anybody who has written in Docker Compose.

Sheng Liang: It’s very similar to Docker Compose, just modernized. Any developer who’s familiar with that Docker experience would find it intuitive.

If users already have Dockerfiles or Terraform, do they have to convert them to this type of file?

Liang: Yeah, that’s right. There’s probably less of a conversion from Terraform. Because Terraform really deals with a lot of the low-level provisioning of infrastructure, whereas an Acornfile runs more at the Docker Compose level. We’re thinking of maybe building a tool where you can automate the conversion of Docker Compose from an Acornfile. We will probably build it someday.

There are tons of these YAML-like application description things out there, but Acorn, as far as I know, is the only technology that builds an artifact. We build an image for the whole application that is self-contained coupled with the fact that we provide a sandbox, or we allow customers to provide their own sandbox, to run this stuff. Those two things come together and make this experience possible.

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.


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