Red Hat, the 800-pound gorilla of the open source software world, bought CoreOS at the end of January. That was important for anyone interested in containers, and here's why: by combining the two companies Red Hat hoped to consolidate its position as one of the leading players providing useful software based around Kubernetes, the open source container management system.
You'll recall that CoreOS developed Tectonic, an entire container management platform built around Kubernetes, and has been a champion of the software for some time. Since then, the CoreOS team at Red Hat has been hard at work, and at the beginning of May it introduced what it is calling an "Operator Framework" for building Kubernetes applications.
Before going on, let's be clear what an Operator is. Introduced back in 2016, an Operator is a method of packaging, deploying, and managing a Kubernetes application. (A Kubernetes application is an application that is both deployed on Kubernetes and managed using the Kubernetes APIs and kubectl tooling.)
Perhaps a better description of an Operator is provided by Brandon Philips, CoreOS's CTO at the launch. "An Operator is an application-specific controller that extends the Kubernetes API to create, configure, and manage instances of complex stateful applications on behalf of a Kubernetes user," Phillips says. "It builds upon the basic Kubernetes resource and controller concepts but includes domain or application-specific knowledge to automate common tasks."
Operators, in other words, are very convenient. They also provide automation in application management, and automation generally makes applications more secure.
Simplifying the Process of Building Operators
But here's the problem: building Operators is far from easy. That's where the Operator Framework comes in: it has been designed to simplify the matter.
A key part of the Framework is the Operator SDK, which enables developers to build Operators without requiring knowledge of Kubernetes APIs. That means a developer can build an Operator, resulting in an application that can be packaged together with a number of "smarts" such as load balancing or usage metering, according to Rob Szumski, a Red Hat product manager. (In fact, usage metering, which can be used for charging as well as for license enforcement or remote telemetry, is not quite available yet but will be in a few weeks.)
He said the key users of the SDK will likely be ISVs and the like who may previously have packaged their product as a VM, large organizations with complex applications running in different environments, and companies offering software as a service (SaaS).
"The SDK helps you get connected in the Kubernetes API and will save you a ton of time," he said.
The Operator Lifecycle Manager
The other part of the Framework is the Operator Lifecycle Manager, which helps administrators manage Operators in a Kubernetes cluster, control what Operators are available in what namespaces, and specify who can interact with running Operators. Administrators can also manage the overall lifecycle of Operators and their resources, such as triggering updates to both an Operator and its resources or granting a team access to an Operator for their slice of the cluster.
Szumski says that at the moment many organizations are managing their Kubernetes apps on an ad-hoc basis, possibly using container scanning technology. "We have been working on getting automated ops ingrained, and we think it is extremely critical," he said. "Security is a big part of this: if you don't have automated management then you are just trusting your app teams to keep you secure," he added.
The entire Framework is an open source project, and Szumski says Red Hat is committed to ensuring that the Kubernetes community as a whole is involved in it. To this end, Red Hat has proposed the formation of a platform development Special Interest Group, but it's too early to know if this will ever come into being.
CoreOS made some big waves in the container space in its short history, and now that it's part of Red Hat it's likely to make some even bigger ones. The Operator Framework is definitely something to keep an eye on if you're active in this space.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.