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SAP to the fore as Cloud Foundry grows into the preferred platform for cloud-native enterprise apps

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko June 19, 2017
Cloud Foundry has emerged as a catalyst for next-generation enterprise applications. Here's what happened at this year's Cloud Foundry Summit. Check out the surprise - SAP, much more mature in its approach than I expected.

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For those that haven't been paying attention, (and I for one certainly don't blame you!) Cloud Foundry might seem to be just another niche software product hatched by a consortium of companies seeking to simplify application development while conveniently promoting their products (from VMware, and to a lesser extent EMC, in this case) as the preferred foundations for next-generation applications.

However, as with many projects that are opened up to a community of contributors, Cloud Foundry has evolved into something far more significant than if had it remained a proprietary software development product.

Under the auspices of the Linux Foundation, Cloud Foundry has amassed an army of developers, spawned scores of sub-components, enlisted many important technology partners and subsequently earned the trust of half the Fortune 500, all of whom were out in force at the organization's annual Summit this month. With over 100 sessions and 1600 attendees, the Cloud Foundry Summit has grown into a notable technology event.

Now under an independent foundation with a dedicated staff, multiple sponsors and a formal governance structure, Cloud Foundry has emerged as a catalyst for next-generation enterprise applications and associated agile development processes. Cloud Foundry Foundation executives are fond of touting the project's growth, citing over 64 member companies and 2,400 contributors making 51,000 code commits as proxies for its waxing influence on business IT.

Cloud Foundry means business

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While its annual Summit is still dominated by sessions probing the depths of Cloud Foundry plumbing, tutorials designed to bootstrap new developers and news about the continuing work to extend and improve the project, there was a significant subtext of enterprise adoption for large-scale production that made the Summit more than just a geek fest.

Like all PaaS stacks, Cloud Foundry is designed to abstract infrastructure deployment details from the application code and implementation. It does so by automatically spinning up VMs and containers, connecting to storage volumes and databases and dispatching application workloads to the appropriate resources at run time.

Originally built by VMware as a way to simplify application development for its VM platform, Cloud Foundry was later spun into a new Pivotal subsidiary of VMware and EMC. Still, the VMware roots remain strong, since observations at the Summit including comments from the reference customers provided by the Foundation, mentions in several presentations and conversations with attendees show that most Cloud Foundry implementations still reside on VMware internal infrastructure.

That said, an important theme of the Summit was the desire by users to incorporate public cloud services for Cloud Foundry deployments and the efforts by major cloud providers to improve Cloud Foundry support.

A significant announcement at the opening keynote was Microsoft's joining the Foundation as a Gold member, matching Google which was already had Gold status. AWS was a notable, but unsurprising no show, although Cloud Foundry already has a reference architecture and installation instructions and AWS is widely used as a Cloud Foundry target.

While IBM already provides a packaged Cloud Foundry offering as a service in Bluemix, the other clouds make users deploy and manage the infrastructure as compute, storage and database instances. Indeed, the lack of fully managed Cloud Foundry offerings to match services like Google App Engine or Azure App Service is a significant gap in Cloud Foundry's public cloud story.

SAP embraces Cloud Foundry

Although SAP isn't the first name you think of in public cloud, it has thoroughly embraced the SaaS delivery model with SAP Cloud. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to see SAP as the company with the most expansive and mature multi-cloud strategy using Cloud Foundry.

SAP wants to completely isolate developers and IT operations teams from the nuances of deploying the Cloud Foundry platform and associated applications to their infrastructure target of choice, whether that's an internal VM server farm or the major public cloud services like AWS, Azure and GCP.

Better still, SAP is more than just another Cloud Foundry platform broker, but integrates Cloud Foundry with its SAP cloud and internally-deployed SAP resources. The goal, as Floyd Strimling, head of SAP Cloud Platform Strategy and Dan Lahl, head of SAP Cloud Platform Marketing explained it in a briefing, is to enable enterprise developers to seamlessly use SAP resources along with Cloud Foundry features to integrate existing business services with new cloud-native applications.

The beauty of such hybrid applications is their ability to be spread across multiple deployment platforms including internal SAP, hosted SAP cloud, internal Cloud Foundry on VMware or hosted Cloud Foundry on a public cloud, while tapping into existing enterprise data residing in SAP.

SAP Cloud Foundry multi-cloud

SAP presented details of its Cloud Foundry integration at a Summit session outlining its journey to building a public PaaS that nicely illustrated the company's commitment to and expertise with Cloud Foundry internals.

Although Cloud Foundry integration to the SAP Cloud just debuted to customers in May, the speaker, Bernd Krannich, said it had already attracted 4,000 internal developers to the Cloud Foundry platform and received strong interest from several major customers, particularly for IoT and machine learning scenarios.

Indeed, the integration of smart sensors with backend data analytics and ML services is a compelling use case that led Siemens to incorporate Cloud Foundry into its MindSphere platform and enable data from sensors and SAP resources to feed cloud analytics and AI services that will generate and run predictive maintenance models.

My take

Cloud Foundry Summit is still a coders conference focused on expanding the developer community, open source project participation and overall user engagement with the platform.

While the track on enterprise case studies, which SAP lobbied for and helped organize, was a promising addition, the conference writ large had an unfortunate dearth of information about tightening public cloud integration.

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Cloud Foundry executive director Abby Kearns

Indeed, during an analyst briefing, Cloud Foundry executive director Abby Kearns was notably vague on what she thought the Foundation needed to do to improve and facilitate the use of public cloud services as a co-equal Cloud Foundry deployment platform with on-premise VMware.

Although Foundation participation by Google and Microsoft is promising, I question how deeply they will integrate Cloud Foundry into their service portfolios. Indeed, a recurring theme during the Summit was the merit of Kubernetes versus native Cloud Foundry Diego container management system.

A promising sign was the announcement that the Kubo project to enable the Cloud Foundry BOSH deployment engine to manage Kubernetes container clusters has been donated to the Foundation. While the project is still in the early stages of development, its goal is "the ability to provision dedicated clusters through a Cloud Foundry service broker."

Since both the Azure and Google Cloud container services (but not, AWS ECS...note a pattern here?) support Kubernetes, Kubo could let Cloud Foundry users to automatically deploy workloads to either internal servers running the Cloud Foundry container scheduler (Diego) or a public cloud using a common management platform (BOSH).

AWS is clearly not interested in promoting Cloud Foundry except to the extent that it helps sell EC2 usage. Surely, it would rather move users to its application-layer services like ECS, IoT Platform, Lambda, Redshift and others to keep customers from easily migrating applications elsewhere; i.e. the chief and oft-cited benefit of using a cross-platform PaaS like Cloud Foundry.

Likewise, Microsoft has a separate PaaS and hybrid cloud strategy with Azure and Azure Stack, making it unclear how deep its commitment to Cloud Foundry will be.

Large vendors like Microsoft aren't above weakly supporting a competing technology for existing customers that want it while placing the bulk of their efforts behind a proprietary strategy that offers tighter integration with the rest of its software portfolio. Thus, we'll have to see if Microsoft and Google follow up their Cloud Foundry detente with significant software and service development efforts.

SAP has the broadest vision and is using Cloud Foundry to help customers better exploit, and thus make greater use of, existing SAP products. Should its strategy resonate with customers, SAP could emerge as the preferred gateway to public cloud services for cloud-native enterprise applications.

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