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What a difference a year makes.

Kubernetes has been one of the most prominent open-source projects in cloud computing over the last several years, sparking its own conference that more than 8,000 people are expected to attend this week in Seattle, more than double the attendance at last year’s event in Austin, Tex. But it’s not clear if the container-orchestration project will be the hottest topic of discussion this year at KubeCon, given the number of companies introducing managed services around Istio.

Google plans to announce Tuesday at KubeCon that Istio, one of the most prominent examples of service-mesh technology, is now available in beta as a managed service on Google Cloud. Companies such as VMware and F5 Networks are also introducing managed Istio services this week, and Portland’s Twistlock announced Monday that its flagship security product would now support Istio.

Istio is an open-source project developed by Google, IBM, and Lyft that was designed to help companies adopting a microservices architecture for app development deal with the networking complexity that comes along with that move. It helps companies manage how traffic flows between the microservices used to build an app and also improves security and visibility into how those applications are performing.

Microservices allow companies to break their applications down into smaller, specialized packages of code that can be independently tweaked and updated as needed. Older applications were built as “monolithic” applications with one gigantic block of code, and while that’s plenty fine for some types of apps, it’s easy to break such apps when trying to update them at the speed demanded by modern distributed applications.

“A lot of our banking customers are saying they want to develop mobile banking applications faster,” said Jennifer Lin, engineering manager with Google Cloud. “But they don’t want to figure out the security and monitoring later.”

In an interview in November of last year, Google’s Urs Hölzle told me that he thinks Istio “may actually turn out to be more important that Kubernetes itself.” About a month later at KubeCon 2017 in Austin, it became clear that service meshes were going to become the next important area of focus after the cloud world settled on Kubernetes as the de facto standard for container orchestration.

“We are hearing (from customers and partners) that 90 percent of applications are being written as containerized microservices applications,” Lin said.

But while Google and IBM are keen to see Istio become the Kubernetes of the service mesh, in public and private developers and operators have grumbled about the top-down approach that Istio backers — which include some of the biggest corporations on the planet — have marshaled in what appears to be hopes of creating another de facto standard.

Istio is a control plane layer that sits above a data plane layer that is also known as a proxy, somewhat akin to how Kubernetes is a control plane for Docker containers. Istio is linked with Envoy, a data plane also developed at Lyft that is part of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, but there are several approaches that have emerged to manage the service mesh.

Last year two former Twitter engineers launched Buoyant, a startup based around the linkerd data plane proxy that is also part of the CNCF, sponsors of KubeCon. Solo.io emerged from stealth mode this week with $11 million in backing from Redpoint Ventures and True Ventures for its Gloo product, which also works on top of Envoy and coordinates traffic flowing between microservices and other parts of the cloud-native toolkit.

A visualization of all the microservices Twitter was using around 2013; each line represents one microservice needing to talk to another. (Buoyant Photo)

HashiCorp just raised $100 million to work on service-mesh technologies (among other things) through its Consul product. And even the 800-pound gorilla of the cloud, Amazon Web Services, launched a service mesh product around Envoy at its re:Invent 2018 conference.

Istio’s pitch is that it can manage whatever data plane you choose to use when linking microservices, from Envoy (which enjoyed its own side conference Monday at KubeCon) to linkerd to others, and that it plays very nicely with people who are using Kubernetes to manage their container deployments. Yet there was a sense among the KubeCon kickoff cocktail parties Monday evening that most enterprise computing customers are still coming to grips with the cloud era, let alone the microservices era.

Like Kubernetes in 2015, serious traction around Istio is likely several years out, as relatively few companies face the challenges that massive webscale operators like Google face in delivering their distributed microservices. Still, the concept could gain speed as a key link that enables multicloud deployments if more and more companies back up their talk of multicloud operations with actual production deployments across vendors.

The true sign that the service-mesh era has arrived will come when another major cloud provider, such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft, releases a managed Istio service to compete with Google’s service. The two cloud leaders adopted managed Kubernetes services just a few months apart in 2017 as momentum behind that project became clear, leading to its establishment as a de facto standard in a world of many competing services.

As such, Istio’s traction in cloud computing will be an interesting test of the marketing power behind corporate-driven open-source projects, a topic that is not going to fade into the background. Assuming it’s still available, trademark IstioCon while you can.

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