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What is Kubernetes, and why is it so important?

Kubernetes is cloud-native computing's backbone, which makes it, in turn, critical for modern computing.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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Over the past 10 years, Kubernetes has become central to how modern computing is orchestrated. You won't see it, but there's very little you can do today with any sophisticated website or cloud service that doesn't have Kubernetes managing background work. So, what is it, and why does it matter so much?

The story starts with Docker making it easy to run applications in containers. Before that, companies ran most of their applications using virtual machines (VMs) on servers, data centers, and the cloud. 

Also: Kubernetes turns 10: How it steered cloud-native computing for the last decade

Containers meant businesses could run programs with far fewer resources, making them much cheaper. Containers also enabled companies to move their applications easily from one platform to another. Before this shift, programs were usually locked into their original foundations. With containers, they suddenly became portable.

This portability, as useful as it was, led to another problem -- managing all those containers and the services they needed. The solution was an orchestration program.

There were many orchestration programs, a handful of which are still around. Kubernetes, however, proved so successful and popular that all cloud-native computing is now essentially built on Kubernetes.

What is Kubernetes? 

Kubernetes coordinates the operation of all the parts in an application for maximum efficiency and smooth performance. In cloud-native computing, these parts are often distributed widely among several locations. An orchestrator assembles all the resources that applications require to perform.

Also: 5 ways to save your Windows 10 PC in 2025 - and most are free

That definition might make you think Kubernetes is a scaled-up operating system. It's not. Kubernetes is software that oversees infrastructure resources scattered across servers. It ensures applications get the processing power, memory, storage, and networking facilities to accomplish their tasks.

Kubernetes' top tech features

Kubernetes provides the following four key features:

  1. Automated scaling: Kubernetes can automatically adjust the number of running containers based on demand, ensuring optimal resource utilization.

  2. Self-healing capabilities: The platform can automatically restart failed containers, replace or reschedule containers when nodes die, and kill containers that don't respond to health checks.

  3. Service discovery and load balancing: Kubernetes can expose containers using Domain Name System (DNS) names or Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and distribute network traffic across multiple containers.

  4. Storage choice: Orchestration allows you to automatically mount storage systems of your choice, such as local storage, public cloud providers, or network storage systems.

Why is Kubernetes important?

Kubernetes is vital for business. More than half (56%) of enterprises have more than 10 Kubernetes clusters, according to Spectro Cloud's 2023 State of Production Kubernetes report, and 69% run Kubernetes in multiple clouds or other environments. As many as 80% of companies expect their Kubernetes clusters to scale further, and 85% of surveyed organizations are migrating existing VM workloads to Kubernetes.

Here are six reasons why Kubernetes is so important:

  1. Cloud-native enabler: Kubernetes is designed to support cloud-native applications, which are built to exploit the advantages of the cloud-computing delivery model. Kubernetes provides the tools and abstractions to build scalable, resilient, loosely coupled systems.

  2. Portability: Kubernetes can run on various platforms, including public clouds, private clouds, and on-premises infrastructure. This flexibility allows organizations to avoid vendor lock-in and move workloads between different environments.

  3. Ecosystem and community: The vibrant Kubernetes ecosystem has spawned many tools, extensions, and integrations. This rich ecosystem is coupled with a strong open-source community and ensures continuous innovation and support.

  4. Resource efficiency: By efficiently managing container placement and scaling, Kubernetes helps organizations optimize their infrastructure usage, potentially leading to significant cost savings.

  5. DevOps enabler: Kubernetes facilitates DevOps practices by providing a consistent platform for development, testing, and production. Kubernetes supports continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) workflows, enabling faster and more reliable software releases.

  6. Hybrid Cloud: Kubernetes helps businesses avoid cloud vendor lock-in by enabling them to build Kubernetes-based hybrid clouds. This approach can be a real money-saver for companies using more than one cloud.

The future of Kubernetes

As cloud-native technologies evolve, Kubernetes is poised to play an even more significant role. In the years to come, Kubernetes will continue to be at the heart of software creation and management.

The platform is already expanding beyond its initial focus of container orchestration. Kubernetes is becoming a foundation for emerging technologies, such as serverless computing, edge computing, and machine learning operations (MLOps).

Also: Locking down container security once and for all with Rust-based Edera

All that said, Kubernetes isn't without its problems. As the Spectro report suggests, Kubernetes is powerful and flexible to a fault. As one surveyed IT manager puts it, "Kubernetes is the most frustrating, painful, and beautiful thing I've worked with in my technology career." That's because the platform is very complex, and managing it in a secure and scalable way is hard work. 

ZipRecruiter reports that a Kubernetes engineer in the US takes home an average annual pay of $156,773. That's in part because Kubernetes engineers are hard to find. I've never known a company of any size using Kubernetes that wasn't always recruiting more engineers.

Kubernetes will undoubtedly continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of software development and deployment. That said, for it to continue to be such a dominant player, it will need to evolve. With the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and so many companies behind the platform, I expect the open-source project will overcome the challenge.

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