Microsoft Corp. has bought Kinvolk GmbH, the Berlin-based startup behind a specialized Linux distribution that is used to power software container environments on Azure and other public clouds.
The technology giant announced the deal today in a post on the Azure blog.
Kinvolk’s Linux distribution is called Flatcar Linux and packs multiple optimizations for running containerized applications. Among them is an automated updating mechanism that the startup says makes installing new operating system versions easier in container environments. Meanwhile, Flatcar Linux’s file system, a software component responsible for managing data, is immutable, which blocks malicious modifications and thereby reduces the risk of a cyberattack.
Also notable is what Flatcar Linux doesn’t feature. Kinvolk has removed many of the components typically included in Linux distributions to reduce the distribution’s attack surface. The principle behind the design decision is that the fewer components an operating system has, the less potentially vulnerable code there is for hackers to use in cyberattacks.
Kinvolk offers Flatcar Linux alongside a distribution of Kubernetes, the go-to framework for managing software containers, that can be used together with the operating system. The Kubernetes distribution also has features to ease updates and improve security.
Both projects are available for free under an open-source license. As a result, it’s likely that Microsoft acquired Kinvolk primarily for its technical expertise rather than its technology. In the blog post announcing the deal, Brendan Burns, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Compute, wrote that the Kinvolk team members coming aboard will become “key contributors to the engineering development of Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), Azure Arc, and future projects.” Azure Arc is a hybrid cloud platform that allows enterprises to run Azure services on-premises.
Another significant aspect of the deal is that Kinvolk, through its free software projects, is an important member of the open-source community. Microsoft has worked to boost its own role in the open-source community over recent years through moves such as its $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub. The acquisition should enhance this element of the company’s strategy.
“The Kinvolk team will remain active in their existing open source projects and will be essential to driving further collaboration between Azure engineering teams and the larger open source container community,” Burns wrote.
In the long term, taking over maintenance of the Flatcar Linux project could enable Microsoft to compete with cloud rival Amazon Web Services Inc. in a new area. AWS has its own open-source Linux distribution for running software containers that it introduced last year. Called Bottlerocket, the platform takes a similar approach to security as Flatcar Linux, leaving out multiple standard operating system components to reduce the potential attack surface.
Google LLC’s development of Kubernetes and its subsequent decision to open source the framework helped shape the evolution of the software container ecosystem. Along the way, the move created new revenue opportunities for the search giant, as well as Microsoft and AWS, in the form of the managed Kubernetes services they provide via their public clouds. Microsoft’s open-source efforts and related investments such as the Kinvolk acquisition might help the company unlock new revenue opportunities as well in the long term.
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