The Tale of Kubernetes

By Mark Bergen and Dorothy Gambrell
Edited by Dimitra Kessenides and Max Chafkin
November 13, 2017

Five years ago, Philips Lighting, the lightbulb company, had an idea: Wireless lights you turn on with your phone. It’s “about peace of mind,” says George Yianni of Philips, “so you never come home to a dark house.”
But the lights took too long to turn on. 3 WHOLE SECONDS! The problem wasn’t the lightbulb, but the cloud-based software that Philips used to control the bulbs. It was buggy and slow. To speed it up, Philips turned to Kubernetes, an open source application developed by Google.
Cooberneetz? Koo Burr Net ease. It’s from a Greek word for helmsman or pilot. Geeks just call it K8s.
Once upon a time, software was written for specific computers. Different types of computers required different versions of the same application. Today, most software runs in the cloud—on thousands of different machines.
But developers don’t always customize apps properly for the different kinds of computers. That leads to bugs. And security holes. To manage this, engineers came up with “containers.” Like Tupperware? More like shipping containers.  Containers are imaginary computers that let developers write software as if they were working on a single, superpowerful computer. Developers like to use multiple containers to keep aps running smoothly, but that adds a layer of complexity.
At a company like Google, which runs on millions of servers, that complexity is mind- boggling.
Enter Joe Beda, a Google engineer who in the mid-2000s helped create the ultimate container, Borg, for Google. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE Google added some features to Borg and renamed it Kubernetes, releasing it to the public in 2015. There are competitors, such as Docker, but K8s is the fastest-growing container application.
K8s works by sorting out how to store and run code most efficiently. It’s a bit like Tetris. What’s a Tetris? It’s an old game. It was great.
K8s also lets companies split cloud storage over multiple providers or easily jump from one to another. Super neat! But… …weren’t we talking about lightbulbs? Yes, we were. K8s is the magic that makes lights come on faster. The wireless lightbulb project required a team of engineers. Philips moved the app to K8s last year. Now they’re freed up to work on other projects. Mostly.
The time it takes to turn on the lights was cut from three seconds to a fifth of a second. They called the new code Freddie Mercury. Skuttle Skuttle Skuttle A 2.8-second improvement might sound trivial, but for Philips— WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS MY FRIENDS it’s arena-rock glory. AND WE’LL KEEP ON FIGHTING ‘TIL THE END.

Correction: Engineer Joe Beda was a co-creator of Kubernetes; he did not help create Borg.