VMware has been involved with Kubernetes before, but in buying Heptio it made a huge down payment on Kubernetes influence.
The currency of open source is code. If you want influence, you contribute code. If you want the ability to speak authoritatively about a given open source project, and support it well, you contribute code. As such, VMware's decision to acquire Heptio and, with it, two of the co-creators of Kubernetes, is perhaps the smartest move the virtualization giant has made in a long, long time.
No, Heptio doesn't give some sort of overlord position with Kubernetes but, yes, it does immediately make VMware a significant player, along with Google and Red Hat (IBM).
Leading by example
No, Heptio isn't one of the denial (i.e., "containers aren't a threat to VMware's virtualization business"), haphazard embrace (Kubernetes-on-BOSH, anyone?), and largely ineffectual coping with the reality that enterprise workloads have rapidly "adjust[ed] their orbits around" the container, and really, around Kubernetes, the community darling for container orchestration.
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Hence, for those that were surprised to see VMware veteran Scott Lowe bolt for Kubernetes cool kid Heptio, well, they shouldn't have been. Fortunately for the VMware faithful, the company wasn't slow to realize that greener pastures for Lowe might well also be greener pastures for it, and a deal was announced.
Finally buying a clue
This was a critical step for VMware's future but, again, it's not so much a matter of buying into this or that technology that Heptio sells as it is about the people. As Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady has written, "containers broadly and Kubernetes specifically [are] becoming the next Java," not because they're programming languages (they're not) but because "from a workload portability standpoint their functional jobs to be done are on a converging path." This is why Red Hat paid a premium for CoreOS despite its limited bank balance. It's why VMware paid a reported hefty premium for Heptio despite it, too, not yet having turned its code influence into cash.
Kubernetes is the future, and it's being written by people. Having key members of the Kubernetes "Klub" is a big deal. Again, O'Grady: "VMware is a company with immense weight and inertia within the datacenter, but it is also a company that would benefit from both a platform more relevant to developers and a team capable of attracting them. Hence, this acquisition and, presumably, the valuation."
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This is, after all, about developers. That may seem weird to say about VMware, which hasn't traditionally cared much about developers, preferring to get paid by cash-rich operations. This is changing, however, and through Heptio VMware gets a necessary (and compelling) developer story, as O'Grady has concluded: "[I]f developers loved containers enough that operations was forced to find a way to run and manage them in production, at some point this presumably would begin to impact adoption of virtual machine based technology and thus VMware. The company therefore had two approaches: fight the tide, or embrace and extend it."
It's cool to see a somewhat cumbersome beast like VMware make a savvy bet on people, as this Heptio acquisition shows. It indicates that old virtualization vendors can learn new tricks, the most important one being that to make a big splash in open source, it's all about people.
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