Cloud-native computing is an architectural pattern for developing applications to exploit the capabilities offered by cloud platforms. These green-field applications are designed to take advantage of the cloud’s elasticity, horizontal scaling, and programmability features.

Thanks to the momentum around containers and microservices, cloud-native computing is gaining industry attention. From traditional platform vendors to early-stage startups, many companies have joined the bandwagon.

VMware’s cloud-native computing group announced in December 2015 that it is making brisk progress in this space. VMware is a founding member of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, which is managed by the Linux Foundation. It’s also a member of the Open Container Initiative, which aims at standardizing the runtime and format of containers. At DockerCon Europe in November 2015, VMware announced that it is open sourcing Photon Controller, a container orchestration engine.

Here is a closer look at the key cloud-native investments made by the virtualization giant.

AppCatalyst: A desktop hypervisor for developers

VMware’s vSphere hypervisor runs enterprise applications. Its desktop products, Fusion and Workstation, are aimed at end users running virtual machines (VMs) on their desktops.

Developers testing microservices and containerized applications need a lightweight hypervisor to bring up VMs that encapsulate containers. Oracle VirtualBox is the most preferred environment for developing and testing virtualized and containerized applications.

Vagrant, an open source tool to manage the lifecycle of VMs, works very well with VirtualBox, making it a great platform for developers. Though Vagrant works with VMware Fusion and Workstation, developers need to buy the licenses separately. HashiCorp, the company that develops Vagrant, sells commercial drivers for VMware. This is a barrier for developers who prefer using VMware for developing and testing the new breed of microservices. Microsoft ships its hypervisor, Hyper-V, with Windows 10 and Windows Server.

To encourage usage of its tools and environment during development and testing, VMware has announced a free, lightweight, desktop hypervisor called AppCatalyst. Unlike its commercial counterparts, AppCatalyst doesn’t have the GUI or rich management tools to tackle virtualization. It comes with a basic command line interface and a REST API for managing the VM lifecycle. Available only for Mac OS X, AppCatalyst is currently in preview.

Photon: The lean and mean OS for vSphere

With the heavy lifting moving from the OS to the containers, there is an emphasis on running microservices in minimalistic operating systems. The rise of CoreOS, RancherOS, Red Hat Atomic Hosts, and Microsoft Windows Nano Server prompted VMware to build a lightweight, minimalistic Linux OS that’s optimized to run containers.

Dubbed as Photon OS, VMware’s new OS has a small footprint that boots in just a few seconds. Though it’s optimized for vSphere, the OS can be run on Google Compute Engine and vCloud Air. VMware is positioning Photon OS for developing green-field, microservices-based applications deployed on its virtualization platform. The source code and ISO can be downloaded from GitHub.

Photon Controller: An open source container orchestration engine

Though the OS and container engine are essential elements of a cloud-native platform, the orchestration engine plays a significant role in bringing the pieces together. It orchestrates and coordinates the provisioning, scheduling, monitoring, and managing the lifecycle of applications. Docker Swarm, Kubernetes, and Mesosphere are examples of container orchestration platforms.

Having invested heavily in the container stack, VMware wants to build the essential component of cloud-native applications: the orchestration engine. Announced at DockerCon Europe, Photon Controller is an open source control plane that manages the host environment running vSphere and the containers deployed in Photon OS. Though it’s a full-blown orchestration engine, customers can configure Photon Controller to work with Docker Swarm, Kubernetes, and Mesos.

Lightwave: An identity manager for microservices

Cloud-native applications are composed of smaller, modular components packaged as microservices. These composable units are autonomous and are designed to perform one task at a time. Each microservice follows its own authentication mechanism, forcing developers to deal with different security schemes and protocols.

VMware Lightwave is an open source identity and access management service designed to provide a unified layer for handling critical security, governance, and compliance challenges involved in developing microservices. It works with Photon OS to serve use cases such as single sign-on, authentication, authorization, and a certificate authority, as well as certificate key management services across the entire infrastructure and application stack.

vSphere Integrated Containers: Virtualization meets containerization

Enterprise customers run many mission-critical, line-of-business applications that cannot be run in containers. But these applications need to interoperate with the contemporary microservices.

To enable portability of traditional applications to containers, VMware has built vSphere Integrated Containers, a technology that encapsulates containers in highly optimized VMs that run side-by-side with microservices. Since it’s highly compatible with Docker and exposes the same API, each VM would be treated as a container. This enables the broad ecosystem of Docker to interoperate with vSphere Integrated Containers. Customers can mix and match virtualized workloads with containerized workloads.

My take

Traditionally, enterprises are slow in adopting cutting-edge technologies — they follow a wait-and-watch strategy before investing in the shiny new things. But containerization seems to catch the attention of CIOs. With the majority of workloads already running in VMs and developers embracing agile methodologies, enterprises are evaluating cloud-native applications for their newer projects.

Interestingly, traditional platform vendors have a miniscule role to play in the new world of cloud-native applications. With the focus shifting to Docker and Kubernetes, their stack is getting marginalized to commodity infrastructure. This trend is forcing platform vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Red Hat, and VMware to offer an integrated virtualization and containerization stack to customers. VMware’s attempt to build integrated containers and the Photon platform is a step towards that.

Will VMware continue its dominance in the era of containers? Let’s wait and watch.