SUSE's acquisition of the open source Kubernetes startup Rancher Labs closed earlier this month, and the German company that's behind the SUSE Linux distribution might be the hybrid cloud company to watch in 2021.
SUSE is about a year older than Red Hat. At the turn of the century, it was considered the Cadillac of Linux distros, but the company has been playing catch-up for much of this century, struggling under a series of corporate owners who did little to help it prosper.
In 2018, however, after it gained independence via acquisition by the Stockholm-based private equity investor EQT Partners -- just months before Red Hat lost its independence by selling to IBM -- things started turning around for SUSE. It's been redefining itself in an apparent effort to differentiate from competitors, primarily from Red Hat, a fellow enterprise Linux distro giant, but also from VMware and the big public clouds.
About six months after the EQT deal, in a surprise move, SUSE dropped its OpenStack project -- which had been front and center in its lineup of offerings -- to focus on the SUSE Cloud Application Platform and its CaaS container platform. It dumped OpenStack only two years after it acquired HPE's OpenStack and Cloud Foundry portfolio in a deal that made SUSE HPE's preferred Linux partner.
Along with Rancher's customer base, SUSE's latest acquisition appears to support the decision to exchange OpenStack private cloud for a cloud-native paradigm, setting it up to become a top-shelf name in the Kubernetes arena.
"With the close of our acquisition of Rancher Labs, we are releasing the power to innovate everywhere – from the data center, to the cloud, to the edge, and beyond," SUSE's CEO, Melissa Di Donato, wrote in a blog post on the day the deal closed.
Di Donato said Rancher came to the table with 37,000 active deployments, making it "the most widely-adopted Kubernetes management platform."
Like most Kubernetes platforms, Rancher's stack is all about simplifying the container environment for users. About a year ago, Rancher's co-founder and then CEO Sheng Liang told DCK that upstream Kubernetes is much too difficult for DevOps and CI/CD teams to manage, and that Rancher saw its job as creating tools to make it easier to use. He stressed that Rancher was seeking to be all-inclusive, to leave no holes DevOps teams or sysadmins would have to fill.
Rancher's software can deploy clusters on bare metal, public and private clouds, and on platforms such as VMware's vSphere; it supports all CNCF-certified Kubernetes distributions, including Microsoft AKS, Google GKE, and Amazon EKS.
It's also pioneered bringing Kubernetes to edge deployments. In 2019, it introduced a minified version of Kubernetes, K3s, for resource-cramped edge and IoT deployments. It supplies nearly full Kubernetes functionality, while weighing in at only 40MB and able to run in 512MB of memory. Other edge-ready features that Rancher launched early, such as single-node deployments, are just now making it into Red Hat's OpenShift Kubernetes platform.
Having Rancher on board and focusing on cloud-native technologies will help level the playing field for SUSE in its competition with Red Hat and the public clouds. In this regard, Rancher Labs' employees, who are now onboard as part of the SUSE crew, are most important. That includes Liang, who has switched hats from Rancher CEO to SUSE's president of engineering and innovation.
The Rancher acquisition also brings a great deal of open source cred to the table (the same way VMware earned some cred with its purchase of Heptio, a Kubernetes startup founded by Kubernetes' original creators). Rancher and Liang are widely respected and trusted in open source circles for their commitment to open source principles.
Perhaps, Liang was thinking of this as he was writing his blog post for the day the deal closed, saying, "SUSE and Rancher remain fully committed to the open source community. We will continue contributing to upstream open source projects. This will not change. Together, as one company, we will continue providing true 100% open source solutions to global customers."