Mirantis Returns From Near Death With Massive AT&T Kubernetes Deal

Mitch Wagner
2/21/2019

2016–2017 was a lousy time for Mirantis. The company rode high on OpenStack's popularity bubble, and crashed hard on the backlash. From a peak staff of 900, payroll dropped to 450.

"This was at the top of 'OpenStack is crap' cycle," Boris Renski, Mirantis co-founder and chief marketing officer, tells Light Reading in an email exchange. "Our brand has been so tightly attached to OpenStack that it almost killed us. But it didn't. We came out of it, hired over 100 people back since then (including bringing back some of the old crew) and currently have over 50 open positions." The company now has "close to 550 employees," and is profitable and cash flow positive.

Mirantis is "expecting healthy 30% growth in the coming year, and aiming to still maintain profitability," Renski says.

A big chunk of that growth comes from AT&T, which this month signed an eight-figure multi-year deal to partner with Mirantis for building its 5G infrastructure on the Kubernetes container orchestration platform and OpenStack. It's a continuation of a long partnership between the two companies.

The deal validates Mirantis's comeback -- and puts a shine on OpenStack's tattered reputation too.

Launched in 2010, OpenStack is an open source project for running cloud infrastructure developed jointly by cloud hosting company Rackspace and NASA. Evangelists promoted it as an Amazon Web Services-killer, and for a while it looked like OpenStack might do just that. Mirantis, founded in 1999, jumped on OpenStack big, and rebranded itself as "the pure-play OpenStack company."

But OpenStack sputtered as it proved complex to configure and maintain. Mirantis pivoted in 2017 to embrace Kubernetes, and dropped its OpenStack-related slogan. On Mirantis's homepage today, it features Kubernetes more more prominently than the company name itself -- along with a seriously hardcore illustration of a bear clutching a salmon in its teeth. (The salmon is labeled "VTAX," a derogatory nickname for VMware licensing fees.) The website downplays OpenStack.

Mirantis's seriously hardcore mascot mocks derogates VMware licensing fees -- aka the VTAX.
Mirantis's seriously hardcore mascot mocks derogates VMware licensing fees -- aka the VTAX.


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In an interview discussing the AT&T deal this month, Renski seemed downright dismissive of OpenStack, saying it's supported in the AT&T deal because networking hardware vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia are still running OpenStack APIs in their Virtualized Network Functions (VNFs).

Does Mirantis view OpenStack as a legacy technology with a limited future? Says Renski, "The reality is not black or white here." All of Mirantis's customer projects have "at least some OpenStack in them," he says.

Renski says, "To us OpenStack is two things: a) an open API standard for VM orchestration; b) a collection of many open source projects that don't necessarily deal with VMs."

On VM orchestration: Telcos are looking to VMs to deploy NFV infrastructure, but other than that, only a limited number of companies are evaluating new VM orchestration technology, Renski says. "Most of the forward looking efforts are spent on public cloud and containers, not VMs," Renski says.

Renski continues, "When it comes to other projects that fall under the OpenStack umbrella, we are fairly bullish on some -- like Ironic and Airship -- and less bullish on others." Ironic is open source software for bare metal provisioning, and Airship is a set of tools for automating cloud provisioning and management.

As part of its new direction, Mirantis operates on a model it calls "Build - Operate - Transfer." It builds cloud infrastructure for its customers; operates the infrastructure while providing training to customer staff where needed and desired; and eventually turns the operations over to the customer, if that's the customer's desire. It's a core differentiator for Mirantis against VMware and Red Hat, which also have strong Kubernetes support, Renski says.

Mirantis's model allows organizations to "take advantage of open source software innovations with zero lock-in," Renski says. "AT&T and all other customers we work with have the ability to take over full operations and support of the infrastructure we deliver, hire their own staff (or another vendor) and roll forward independently vs. staying forever dependent on Mirantis," he says.

The pivot to Kubernetes was not Mirantis's only recent pivot. After pivoting to Kubernetes, it pivoted again, this time naming Spinnaker, an open source multi-cloud continuous software delivery platform, as the future of the company. But Mirantis talks a lot more about Kubernetes than it does about Spinnaker nowadays.

Mirantis hasn't "quote productized [Spinnaker] to the extent we did with Kubernetes or OpenStack," Renski says. Spinnaker is less mature.

"We've been doing Kubernetes for 4+ years and Spinnaker just a year," Renski says. Because Mirantis's model is to prevent customer lock-in, "it's important that the tech we push to customers is a clear standard with a broad and diverse ecosystem around it, like OpenStack and Kubernetes are for their respective use cases." Continuous delivery, on the other hand, is "quite fragmented, and while Spinnaker has strong promise to become the standards, it is not quite there yet," he adds. "But we do remain bullish."

While Mirantis seems out of danger, its future is by no means assured. Mirantis faces tough competition with much bigger resources than it can bring to bear. Among software vendors, both VMware and Red Hat are both strategically focused on Kubernetes -- and Red Hat is looking to get a lot bigger, as it's on the hook to be acquired by IBM. Also, big cloud providers, Amazon, Microsoft and Google (where Kubernetes was invented), support Kubernetes. However, we've seen in the past that small companies can successfully compete against entrenched incumbents when those small companies remain tightly focused on areas of specialization. We'll see if that strategy works for Mirantis.

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