After years of debate, Google Cloud is ready to submit Istio to the CNCF

Istio is the last major component of the Kubernetes ecosystem to sit outside of the CNCF. At one point, Google seemed unsure whether it would cede control of the service-mesh project, but things have changed.

Google's Thomas Kurian

Google’s announcement comes almost exactly two years after Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian told Protocol that the technology giant planned to donate Istio to a foundation.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google plans to announce Monday that it will submit the Istio open-source service mesh project and trademark to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

Google executives told Protocol that the Istio Steering Committee will ask for Istio to be admitted as an incubating project within the CNCF, the vendor-neutral home to several open-source enterprise tech projects including Kubernetes, the popular open-source container orchestration system originally developed by Google.

“We have seen the importance that Istio has to complement the rest of the cloud-native ecosystem…[including] Kubernetes, Knative and Envoy,” Chen Goldberg, Google Cloud’s vice president of engineering and leader of the cloud provider’s open-source work, told Protocol in an exclusive interview. “We feel it will make it easier for those communities to work together under the umbrella of the CNCF, which is the home of much of the cloud-native technologies today.”

First released in 2017 by Google, IBM and Lyft, Istio extends Kubernetes to establish a programmable, application-aware network using the Envoy service proxy. It provides a uniform way to connect, secure, manage and monitor microservices, an architectural approach to software development that allows developers to separate applications into smaller independent parts, making them faster to develop and easier to scale.

The news about its transfer to the CNCF is being announced today at IstioCon, the community conference for Istio that runs through Friday.

The Istio project reached v1.0 in July 2018, when it was being used at scale by eBay and The Weather Company. More than 20 providers now offer Istio as a managed or hosted service. Those services include Google Cloud’s Anthos Service Mesh, a set of tools that helps customers monitor and manage a reliable service mesh on-premises or on Google Cloud.

“It's been a long journey with Istio, and we're really proud of what the community has achieved with this project,” Goldberg said. “We see an amazing adoption by our customers and users throughout the world with different industries, and we believe this is an important step forward. It will allow us to continue the journey of extending Istio's ecosystem and really amplify the affinity and the importance Istio has as a component in the cloud-native ecosystem, in particular Kubernetes.”

Google, which initially released Kubernetes in 2014, handed it over to the CNCF soon after the foundation was formed in 2015. Google had continued to manage and fund the Kubernetes CI/CD processes, container downloads and other services such as the Domain Name System until 2018, when it finally ceded day-to-day operational control of the project to the CNCF and Kubernetes community. In March, the CNCF also took official control of the Google-developed Knative open-source project.

“One of the things we've learned at Google over time is software and capabilities really thrive at scale when you wrap ecosystems and communities around them,” Will Grannis, Google Cloud’s chief technology officer, told Protocol.

This, however, was not always Google’s mindset toward Istio. Industry sources told Protocol in late 2019 and early 2020 that Google had blindsided its partners by alluding during the early days of development that it would eventually submit Istio to a neutral foundation, only to backtrack on that promise amid internal debate over whether the decision to cede control of Kubernetes was a mistake.

It would appear that open-source advocates within Google Cloud just won an argument.

“You can look at the legacy of Google and our most successful products – whether on the consumer side, or even now with our cloud platform – once you get a community active and once you get the ecosystem active around it, it really takes off,” Grannis said.

Google’s Istio announcement comes almost exactly two years after Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian told Protocol that the technology giant planned to donate Istio to a foundation following the confusion about its plans for the project.

Google was a founding member of the CNCF and continues to support the foundation as partners and contributors, “so that seemed like the perfect home,” Goldberg said.

“I acknowledge that there's been some confusion about the intent and the journey, but frankly, what we have shared also in the past is that we wanted to achieve a certain level of maturity in the technology and in the community,” she said.

The first step toward that was improving the quality and predictability of Istio’s technology with investments in automation and testing. In 2020, Google began to focus on three other areas of investment: the simplicity and ease of use of Istio, its extensibility and interoperability and evolving Istio’s governance model.

“Today, the Istio community has, of course, a working group, a steering committee and a clear path for maintainers with contributions to become leaders in the community,” Goldberg said. “We feel that we have achieved this important milestone, and we would like to further this engagement with the community.”


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