Equinix Expanding Capabilities of Its Open Source Bare Metal Automation Platform Tinkerbell

More enterprises are said to be taking interest in the platform now that it's been open sourced as a Cloud Native Computing Foundation project.

Christine Hall

April 7, 2021

4 Min Read
Equipment at Equinix's PA8 data center in Paris during a french economy minister (unseen) visit in 2019
Equipment at Equinix's PA8 data center in Paris during a french economy minister (unseen) visit in 2019JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images

Here's a company name you didn't use to hear in conjunction with open source software release cycles but now increasingly will: Equinix.

When the colocation giant acquired Packet, a bare metal cloud provider, last year, the crown jewel was Packet's infrastructure automation technology, which made the experience of provisioning bare metal servers similar to that of provisioning VMs in a public cloud. The platform, called Tinkerbell, is open source, and Equinix says it uses it to provision thousands of servers daily for its bare metal-as-a-service business, now called Equinix Metal.

The company open sourced the software under the "permissive" Apache 2.0 license last May, allowing it to be included in proprietary commercial projects. In November, the software came under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation as a Cloud Native Computing Foundation project.

According to Mark Coleman, director of developer relations at Equinix Metal, there's been growing interest in Tinkerbell from enterprise users since the project became part of the CNCF.

"Before we went into the CNCF we had a lot of people kicking the tires, but the impression I got was that they were home-lab people," he said. "They were looking for a way to run a small number of servers at home or maybe in small companies. Since we joined the sandbox, the type of conversations we're having are much, much larger. You can see that in the dev stats about all the different companies that are contributing to this now. You've got VMware in there, Alibaba Cloud, and all sorts of larger companies starting to look at this more seriously.

"I think it's because of joining the CNCF... If you're going to install someone else's tool in such a critical area of your stack, you want to know that there's open governance and that you can get a seat at the table to make roadmap changes."

There is currently no commercial "enterprise" version of Tinkerbell, although that remains a future possibility. If that happens, however, it probably won't be coming from Equinix.

"There are no plans at the moment for any commercial side to this," Coleman said. "It's already hugely valuable to us and to the community anyway."

This week Equinix announced new Tinkerbell features and capabilities. The announcement was more of a progress report than a new release. Although all of the new features are functional, none of them have had enough battle testing to be considered production-ready. Equinix presented them as something akin to a beta release, or proof of concept, to spark developer interest.

Some of the new features are quite ambitious.

Hook, for example, is a new in-memory operating system installation environment intended to eventually replace OSIE (Operating System Installation Environment), one of the five microservices that makeup Tinkerbell. According to Coleman, Hook will reduce the time needed to deploy operating systems other than the ten or so that Tinkerbell is configured to support out-of-the-box.

"Hook helps us to do an awful lot of things," he said, "but one of the things that it has helped us do is add new operating systems more easily."

He said it can reduce the time it takes to add an unsupported operating system from a couple of weeks down to a couple of hours, and that Equinix expects to be using it by default sometime during the second quarter.

"It's a pluggable alternative, so you can use OSIE or Hook," he added. "Hook is a lot faster, but it hasn't yet been put under the kind of load that OSIE has. We're doing testing internally right now, and we expect that it's going to perform well under load."

Another new feature is Action Hub, for sharing "actions," or steps in the procurement process, by taking advantage of CNCF Artifact Hub, a CNCF project that allows projects to create hubs for sharing various types of software. This makes it possible for users to share and reuse common workflows.

"What we've wanted to do for a while is to make it possible for other people to consume our actions a bit like on the Docker Hub," Coleman said. "You can use anyone else's work, you can download it, you can inherit from it, you can change it, and then you can push up your version again if you want to. That's what we're doing with the Action Hub." 

Tinkerbell also now has tentative support for Cluster API -- Kubernetes-style APIs for cluster creation, configuration, and management.

"In this release, we've just put out the proof of concept for the custom API for Kubernetes," he said. "What you can now do with Tinkerbell is say, 'Here's a whole bunch of servers that I'm managing and I'd like to install a Kubernetes cluster on them.' The cluster API implementation will talk to Tinkerbell to get all those servers to a certain state, and then install Kubernetes on it."

"But that's very proof-of-concept now," he added. "We've added a bit of the interface so that people can go and test it, and then we're going to figure out exactly how that fits into the paradigm a little bit later, but there seems to be quite a lot of interest in going further than just provisioning and actually going all the way up to the full running stack, whatever that might be."

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About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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