Cloud Foundry makes its mark on the enterprise

Today, more than ever, it’s open source projects that are leading the charge in how modern software is developed, deployed and managed. There’s Kubernetes for containers and OpenStack for running enterprise-grade infrastructure, for example. But over the course of the last few years, another platform — Cloud Foundry — has changed the way enterprises are developing their internal and external services.

Cloud Foundry falls under the “platform-as-a-service” (PaaS) umbrella, which essentially makes it the PaaS counterpart to OpenStack’s “infrastructure-as-a-service.” The promise of Cloud Foundry is that it abstracts all of the grunt work of running the infrastructure and more high-level services like databases away and gives developers a single platform to write their applications for.

The premise here is that what sits underneath Cloud Foundry shouldn’t have to matter to the developer. That can be an on-premises OpenStack cloud or a public cloud like AWS, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Bluemix or Azure. This also means that companies get the ability to move their applications from one cloud to another (or use multiple clouds simultaneously) without having to adapt their code to every cloud’s peculiarities. As Cloud Foundry Foundation CTO Chip Childers told me, the project wants to make developers happy (and productive).

While Cloud Foundry’s history dates back to 2011, when VMware launched the first version, the Cloud Foundry Foundation that now shepherds the project with the help of the Linux Foundation, only launched in 2015. While the project saw its fair share of success before this, it’s really come into its own since. Half of the Fortune 500 now use Cloud Foundry in some for or another.

Because enterprises move slowly and often have to keep a lot of older software around, many haven’t made the full switch yet but plenty of them are now building all of their new software on top of Cloud Foundry. Even some of the biggest users may only run 10 percent of their applications on Cloud Foundry, but going forward, that’s the platform they are betting on.

“A lot of them are focused on their path forward,” Cloud Foundry Foundation executive editor Abby Kearns told me. “For many of them, their digital transformation is also early days and I think we all know that for an enterprise transformation can take seven to eight years — and for some of them it can take longer.”

To help company employees make the switch easier, Cloud Foundry gives them the ability to write in the language of their choosing. “The goal of Cloud Foundry is to put more of the controls back in the hands of developers so they can self-provision, so there aren’t a lot of roadblocks in their way. But it gives a lot of guardrails.”

In addition, the Foundation also now offers a certification program that trains developers in both using the platform and cloud-native development patterns in general.

This week, Cloud Foundry hosted its annual developer conference and speakers there ranged from Allstate and Liberty Mutual to Ford, Home Depot, Google, Microsoft, SAP, IBM and plenty of startups that are now offering their own services to these companies. All of these companies are Cloud Foundry Foundation members and it’s a sign of the times that Google, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, VMware, Cisco, DellEMC, Pivotal and others are all coming together here to build this project.

With Microsoft and Google on board, the company that’s obviously missing from this lineup is Amazon with its AWS cloud. I don’t expect they’ll sign on anytime soon. Its users, however, are deploying Cloud Foundry on AWS already so it would probably be in their best interest to have a word in how the platform evolves.

As Childers stressed, the project isn’t so much about open source as it is about shared research and development. That makes the project’s philosophy at bit different from that of other open source projects (and its governance model is also a bit different from other Linux Foundation projects), though at the end of the day, the result is very similar.

Looking ahead, Childers argued that the foundation is obviously not a product company, so its roadmap is very much up to the members and various sub-projects — and because many of the commercial vendors that are part of the overall effort have their own roadmaps, it’s hard to really predict where exactly the project is going.

One of the more hyped concepts in the enterprise space right now is serverless computing, for example. The Cloud Foundry foundation hasn’t quite jumped on this bandwagon yet. Childers argues that’s because enterprises aren’t really looking at this year but he also acknowledges that there may come a time when the project will look at this. “We’re in a weird place where we want to install innovation in the ecosystem,” Childers said. “Sometimes it makes sense to do a directed push to say ‘this makes sense — there are a lot of options out there but we think this is the right one that makes sense in the overall platform we’re releasing. We’re not at the time where we think that’s the right answer. […] We don’t chase squirrels.”

Another area the project is actively looking at is unikernels — a concept that’s slowly bubbling again, especially after Docker’s acquisition of Unikernel Systems. In addition, the group is also looking at how Cloud Foundry can play a role in the recent push to bringing more compute power to the edge of the network (which in itself is an interesting shift after years of working to bring compute to centralized clouds).

“Innovation is hard. And we — as a community — are going to explore thing,” Childers said. “Sometimes they are going to bear fruit and sometimes, maybe they don’t.” Now that Cloud Foundry has a stable core in place, we’ll likely see more of these explorations in the coming months and years, especially as enterprises are looking how they can not just leverage the cloud in general but also how they can work with the best of breed services from multiple cloud vendors simultaneously.