Why investors are starting to make big bets on Spinnaker, a Netflix-started software project that could be the next big thing in cloud computing (NFLX)
Category : entrepreneur
- Spinnaker, originally developed at Netflix, is emerging as one of the next big things to watch in the world of open-source software.
- It’s still early, but Spinnaker is roughly mirroring the path taken by Kubernetes — a Google-created open-source project that’s since become a standard in the cloud.
- Spinnaker makes it easier to quickly and automatically deploy software across its own servers and multiple clouds, like those of Amazon or Microsoft.
- Spinnaker-based startups like Armory and OpsMX are starting to build traction and attract venture-capital investment.
- They say that they’re benefiting from an increased understanding from large companies that they can’t bet on one cloud provider.
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The first wave of cloud-computing startups focused on helping companies simply figure out how to operate in this new world of servers, rented from megaplayers like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure.
Early-stage investors believe the next wave will focus on helping companies maximize their potential across different cloud providers.
Originally developed at the cloud pioneer Netflix, Spinnaker is one such emerging open-source technology that is buzzing around the halls of enterprise-focused investors and WeWork lounges alike. Spinnaker is attracting a growing cast of large and small backers for its continuous integration and deployment technology, which helps software developers quickly and more easily push changes to apps running on a wide variety of cloud or on-premises servers.
According to project backers and venture capitalists, Spinnaker appears to be on the same trajectory that Kubernetes — the Google-created open-source technology that’s become something of a standard in the cloud — was on just a few years ago.
Startups built around containers and Kubernetes have raised billions over the past several years, which has resulted in several prominent exits, such as CoreOS, which was acquired by Red Hat for $250 million; Twistlock, which was acquired by Palo Alto Networks for $410 million; and Heptio, which was acquired by VMware for around $500 million, according to several sources familiar with the deal.
It’s still early for Spinnaker, but startups based around the technology, like Armory and OpsMX, have received serious funding in the past 12 months, and infrastructure-oriented founders are starting to realize the potential of the technology. As software becomes even more entrenched as the engine of the modern economy, tools that help big companies build, fix, and deploy software, like nimble startups, become must-haves.
“An increasingly large percentage of what [all companies] are is an entity that builds software: Its core DNA is becoming a software business,” Lonne Jaffe, the managing director at Insight Partners, said. “If it’s not doing that, it’s getting replaced by some company in the same industry that is doing that.”
Spinnaker was born from Netflix’s own struggle
Spinnaker was born from Netflix’s internal struggle to manage and deploy software changes across a huge swatch of its Amazon Web Services infrastructure.
Netflix is a cloud-computing legend, having built its massive video-streaming operation entirely on AWS very early in the game, and it needed a tool to help it roll out new changes to its software without taking down the entire operation.
Speed has become an extremely important part of modern software development, given the pace of technology development we’ve seen over the past 10 years. But when you move fast, you break things, and so a lot of software-development teams use tools that allow them to test application changes on a small pool of users before rolling those changes out to all of their customers.
“A typical software company is releasing new software a few times a month. A company like Netflix is releasing software many times a day,” Jaffe said.
Managing this process within your own data centers is one thing, but Netflix and other companies quickly learned that managing it in the cloud was far more complex. Netflix built an earlier open-source project called Asgard to handle that complexity — but Asgard worked only with AWS, and the open-source community liked the bulk of its features and wanted a way to use it with other clouds or on individual servers.
“We believed that if we created a pluggable platform, other people and companies could extend Spinnaker to work with other clouds and in ways we never would have imagined. The community that has emerged around this common platform has delivered on this bet with a variety of innovations that benefit everyone,” Andrew Glover, the director of delivery engineering at Netflix and leader of the team that created Spinnaker, told Business Insider in a statement.
Google gets involved
Still, putting a complex open-source project at the heart of your software-development production process is not for the faint of heart. Companies that can’t afford to hire or keep the talent needed to maintain those projects within their ranks often look to third-party vendors that are building tools around interesting open-source projects, and that’s where Armory comes in.
In August, the Silicon Valley-based Armory raised a $28 million Series B funding round led by Jaffe of Insight Partners to build tools around Spinnaker. In an interview, Armory CEO Daniel Odio said customers were looking for a tool that could help them change the culture of their software development toward rapid but safe deployment.
Potential customers are “terrified of deploying software because they are terrified of breaking customer trust” with showstopper bugs or outright outages, Odio said. This creates a huge opportunity for companies like Armory to build tools around Spinnaker that help those customers realize the benefits of continuous deployment without having to do as much work to fit it into their regular workflow, he said.
Spinnaker can also help customers future-proof decisions they are making about building applications around containers, Kubernetes, or serverless technologies by providing a way to deploy those apps on many different clouds and platforms, Odio said.
“I see Fortune 500 CIOs just starting to realize, it used to be the case you could make bets on specific infrastructure technologies, and it’s like that for a decade,” Odio said. “You need to be able to make bets on whatever the infrastructure layer is going to be for the workload’s specific performance needs.”
Google has contributed a substantial amount to Spinnaker’s development since it left Netflix and hopes it can be another tool to wring workloads out of the cloud leader Amazon Web Services and on-premises data centers. As big companies decide how to modernize their software practices, a lot of them will need to maintain on-premises applications while keeping a handle on their cloud efforts, Andrew Philips, a product manager with Google, said.
“You can write a lot of scripts to do that, but it’s brutal, and each team winds up doing it their own way,” Philips said.
A growing ecosystem
Other startups working on Spinnaker tools include Palo Alto, California-based OpsMx, which has more than 50 employees around the world. OpsMx has received a modest but undisclosed amount funding from Foundation Capital — one of the original investors in Netflix — and Dell Technologies Capital, as well as several prominent cloud-computing executives such as Adrian Cockcroft, a 10-year veteran of Netflix’s cloud build-out and vice president of cloud-architecture strategy at AWS; Scott Johnston, the chief operating officer at Docker; and Guido Appenzeller, the former longtime chief technology officer at VMware.
Kubernetes introduced the world to the notion of “declarative infrastructure,” OpsMX CEO Gopal Dommety said. Declarative infrastructure is the idea that the computing resources that software needs to run can be described in the code, and the underlying system automatically makes it happen.
“Declarative application delivery is the next thing that makes sense, and Spinnaker makes the most sense for that,” Dommety said. In other words, he sees a trend toward software like Spinnaker that automates the process of packaging up and releasing the code into one or multiple clouds, he said.
As more and more companies look for flexibility when they consider where to run the next generation of their critical business applications, businesses built around Spinnaker could turn into massive opportunities.
One key factor in the rise of Kubernetes was the backing of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, an organization that was formed with the release of Kubernetes in 2015 and has helped the backers of more than two dozen Kubernetes-adjacent open-source projects develop their ideas. The Linux Foundation, the umbrella organization above the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, created the Continuous Delivery Foundation earlier this year to accelerate the development of Spinnaker and several other projects tied to this area.
Foundations are controversial in the open-source world because they appear to pick and choose their winners based on the interests of their major corporate backers, but they also help promote key open-source projects like Kubernetes and Spinnaker, and by association, the startups built around those projects.
That’s one key reason why investors like Insight Partners’ Jaffe are very interested in Spinnaker, he said.
“One of the nice things about Netflix being one of the core players is that they are not a software company in the traditional sense, they’re not conflicted,” he said. “They actually care about Spinnaker getting better more quickly because they use it.”