KubeCon Chicago: Maturity Arrives just in time for the AI Takeoff

KubeCon Chicago: Maturity Arrives just in time for the AI Takeoff

Here we are with our semi-annual critique of KubeCon. We do it for Europe and we do it for North America and we don’t pull our punches. If you don’t believe us, check out our write up on Detroit. 

This year is very different. Chicago had some sizzle to it. There was buzz. There was unseasonably beautiful weather. There was, gasp, maturity - and it was pretty cool to see. Even the show food, borderline inedible at most CNCF functions, was surprisingly palatable.

Here are our big takeaways from our time at the McCormick Center:

Kubernetes: Not Just Growing, But Maturing

We commented previously that Detroit was borderline boring. Chicago had buzz, but ironically it was because the maturity model had improved considerably. The conversations were more intelligent. The messaging was more intelligent. While we loved the geeky early days, this felt like a crew of seasoned professionals - on both the vendor and enterprise side. The conversations and talks reflected a deep, comfortable understanding of Kubernetes and were more focused where you went from there - to secure, observe and protect your workloads. For example:

  • Security was a major focal point, reflecting the shift from mere adoption to scaling and refinement. Talks delved into best practices for securing Kubernetes environments, emphasizing the importance of developer efficiency. As Kubernetes becomes more embedded in the tech ecosystem, the emphasis has shifted from just getting things to work to making them work securely and efficiently.

  • Another prominent theme was observability. We still think there are too many observability startups in the space, but we do see some specialization, a sign that the market might be deeper than we had anticipated. As Kubernetes environments grow in size, the need for sophisticated monitoring tools becomes crucial. Chicago was all about optimizing for that scale and the attendant complexity.

  • You know you are far down the maturity path when folks are talking about testing, CI/CD and GitOps and that was exactly what was happening at the show. Our friends at LakeFS were there and this post on AI and Git-like functionality is a great summary of the trend we are seeing. 

  • Developers consuming or building with Kubernetes-native software want to be sure that they “just work.” We saw quite a few products focused solely on abstracting away the complexity of deployment and management, another great sign of maturation in the space. As expected, the companies behind these products already have a keen sense of what kind of Kubernetes-native tools developers are building with technologies like MinIO (as evidenced in this cool Northflank video they were showing).

The Authentic Rise of AI

The buzz around AI at KubeCon was interesting in that, yes - everyone is hyping this wave of technology, but that it felt oddly authentic. The conversations and messaging were rooted in operational realities rather than marketing buzzwords, focusing on the practical challenges of AI: managing data, scaling infrastructure, and ensuring reliability.

One of the key insights was how AI impacts the infrastructure as code movement. AI isn't just another workload; it's a transformative force that requires rethinking how infrastructure is provisioned and managed. This shift is pushing companies to become more agile and innovative in their infrastructure management practices.

Object Storage: The Heart of Modern Enterprise Data Infrastructure

The central role of object storage in the Kubernetes movement has never been at issue. Developers understood that the cloud operating model could be summarized as follows: containerization, orchestration, automation and RESTful APIs and software-defined object storage. The maturation of the technology has simply canonized those pillars. It didn’t stop the storage interlopers from showing up, but they were largely ignored. We faced one of them and had another behind us. They were empty most of the day despite the tired raffle of headphones and/or Lego kits. The message is clear: in the cloud-native world, POSIX is legacy.Kubecon is an object storage conference. Special shout out to Justin Head over at Super League for his presentation highlighting how they use MinIO in a burstable hybrid cloud architecture (3K player to 12K, instantaneously). 

Scaling Up

The emphasis on object storage is closely tied to the theme of scale. As data volumes explode, traditional storage solutions tap out. SAN/NAS taps out at around 1PB. That’s generally where object storage starts. 

The Enterprise Enters the Chat

There have always been enterprises at Kubecon, but they were generally represented by devops types and developers, our kind of people by the way. What we saw this year, however, was a shift toward enterprise architects and engineering leadership. There were still plenty of hands-on types, but this reflects the maturity and importance of Kubernetes in the modern organization. I use the term “organization” intentionally, because there were a LOT of government types there. Lots of “Govt” badges or “N/A” badges. Lots of National Labs. Another pleasant surprise was the range of use-cases we were being asked about. Whether it was for an on-premise data center or a hardened single node on-the-edge, organizations were eager to utilize high performance object storage.Either way, it felt a little more senior this year and that is a good thing.  Interestingly, you had CDW, Palantir and Intuit on the show floor as exhibitors. Not your San Diego-era companies. 

The conversations with enterprise architects revealed a deep engagement with Kubernetes. These weren't superficial discussions about whether to adopt Kubernetes; they were strategic discussions about how to leverage Kubernetes to drive business transformation.

Onto SLC

KubeCon North America in Chicago was a nice reminder that Kubernetes is still growing and maturing. Detroit felt a little stagnant. This was better by orders of magnitude. I think we will look back and see this as a turning point for when Kubernetes went from promising technology, to the mature foundation upon which the future of tech is being built. The excitement for AI, the acknowledgment of object storage’s pivotal role, and the deep engagement of enterprises all signal a bright future for Kubernetes and the ecosystem it supports.

Next up Paris. That won’t suck. Then comes Salt Lake City. I actually think it will be great. If you haven’t been there (or just passed by on the way to the slopes) SLC is pretty happening. We are psyched. 

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