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Loft Labs brings power of virtualization to Kubernetes clusters

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It may seem like a paradox to have virtualized Kubernetes clusters. They are, after all, an abstraction in themselves of virtual machines made popular by VMware in the early 2000s.

Loft Labs saw a similar problem with resource utilization in Kubernetes clusters that VMware saw with server utilization, and has built a virtualization tool to make them more efficient by sharing common underlying applications.

Today, the startup announced a $24 million Series A.

There are a set of applications that run with every single Kubernetes environment, like Istio, Rancher and Vault, and it gets expensive and unwieldy to manage and run these across multiple containers, especially as you scale. Loft Labs lets users share these common applications with multiple virtual clusters in the same way that VMs share server resources.

“We’re essentially turning many clusters into one cluster, and then have virtual clusters on top of the common applications,” CEO Lukas Gentele told TechCrunch.

So rather than running all your clusters as separate entities, you can just run a few — such as one for development, one for staging and one for production — and all of the relevant virtual clusters can live in each one.

“You get all this consolidation of the shared platform stack that is much cheaper, much more efficient, much more consistent because you only have maybe three instances of Istios running now instead of 5,000,” he said. And like virtual machines you get secure isolation to keep each one of these workloads and tenants separate, and Loft can handle management tasks such as shutting down clusters automatically that aren’t in use.

Investors have traditionally liked startups built on top of popular open source projects because they provide a ready top-of-sales funnel. But such startups must come up with a way to monetize that popularity.

Loft Labs has done both. Since releasing the open source version of the product, vCluster, in 2021, it has seen 40 million downloads and a million virtual clusters created, suggesting that a lot of people are interested in this concept.

It has also released vCluster Pro to monetize the idea in a novel way. Most open source startups add some enterprise features like security and authentication, or build a SaaS version to make it easier to install and manage. Loft has built a complementary product that helps companies manage high-volume Kubernetes cluster environments, which incentivizes their largest customers to buy the product.

It took the company some time to get to the point where it built this particular solution. In fact, it started with a Platform-as-a-Service product that attempted to provide an environment for developers to access shared multi-tenant clusters, but quickly realized that there was no way to do that. At the same time, it was finding it hard to convince enterprises to use the platform, and shut down.

But as the co-founders were doing a post mortem, they realized that they had stumbled across a good idea: “Okay, what did we actually learn here? And the thing that we learned was the problem of sharing Kubernetes clusters, isolating tenants in the cluster and how hard it is. And then we asked ourselves, don’t other people have that same problem internally, especially in larger organizations?”

They found their way to vCluster, first releasing another open source project to see if they were onto something. “We launched an open source project called Kiosk, a multi-tenancy extension to test the waters. And it got quite some traction pretty quickly,” he said. AWS even put it in their multi tenancy best practices guide, giving them more confidence in their idea. “And then because that experiment was successful, we became obsessed with solving this problem,” he said. The end result was vCluster, which they first released at the end of 2021.

Today’s round was led by Khosla Ventures with participation from existing investors Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, Emergent Ventures, Fusion Fund and Surface Ventures, with additional angel investment. The company has now raised a total of $28.6 million.

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