Kubernetes / Service Mesh / Technology

Is Linkerd Winning the Service Mesh Race?

8 Mar 2022 9:19am, by

Linkerd appears to be taking the lead market share-wise in the service mesh race as organizations increase their adoption of Kubernetes and realize they can’t do it without a proper control plane mesh. According to a recent CNCF survey, for example, Linkerd has surged ahead of Istio’s adoption in the three major geographic zones of North America, Europe and Asia.

Independent of the CNCF survey, analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) noted a “strong momentum of the Linkerd platform,” Torsten Volk, an analyst at EMA, said. “Its growing user base is raving about its simplicity and its targeted addition of more enterprise-grade features.”

Simplicity Is Key

Simplicity of adoption and use accounts for Linkerd’s very strong growth in adoption, Linkerd creator William Morgan, CEO of Buoyant, said. “Istio is notorious for its complexity, and I think that burned a lot of community goodwill. By contrast, Linkerd has been focused on simplicity since day one — especially operational simplicity, which is very hard to achieve. We tried very hard not to oversell the project,” Morgan said. “This simplicity means that not only do we get adopters because simpler is better, but also as you suggest because a low cost of adoption means that Linkerd is usable in more situations. Today, we see production usage of Linkerd on three-node clusters, on massive global deployments with tens of thousands of pods, and on everything in between.”

However, a deeper analysis shows how the service mesh sector may not necessarily be a one-horse race led by Linkerd despite its rapid adoption. “I am not sure there is enough evidence to determine Linkerd is taking a perceived lead in the service mesh race,” Erik Frieberg, chief marketing officer for Solo.io, said.

Smaller Targets?

Linkerd is geared for smaller as well as larger deployments. In that respect, just by volumes alone, Linkerd adoption is surging. Within this context, the other leading open source alternatives, such as Istio, are often perceived as being geared for different types of applications, particularly for large-scale deployments for Kubernetes management.

“Linkerd is focused on making service mesh accessible to a wider audience of organizations without service mesh experience. The product appeals to product teams that need a service mesh to quickly solve daily challenges while Istio targets large enterprises with experienced cloud native infrastructure teams that want to create one unified solution for most of the enterprise, from the top down,” Volk said. “As a result, there could be a larger number of smaller enterprises trying Linkerd at the team level, while Istio might have much larger overall penetration of each individual enterprise.”

Based on his experience implementing service mesh, Steve Gray, founder of internet publishing company ZeroFlucs who is also a Linkerd ambassador, said Linkerd is relatively simple to implement and manage. He based his observation from when Gray supported Linkerd’s deployment at the Australian division of sports betting and gaming group Entain where he was head of trading solutions when Entain was also evaluating Istio.

“I’d agree that Isitio is only suited for larger deployments due to the weight it brings to the table — it’s just not worth doing at small scale. However it’s not correct to layer the opposite supposition over the top of Linkerd and say it can’t play in those spaces,” Gray said. “Linkerd excels in both worlds: it’s both simple to get started, but also painless to scale. I’ve used it on everything from pet projects right through to backbone systems that power multibillion-dollar companies’ real-time platforms, with thousands of pods, processing petabytes a month in a high-chaos environment.”

A service mesh geared for large-scale deployments and multi-cluster management does not necessarily have to be complex to implement and manage, either. “Being complex, or having a long time-to-value is not the hallmark of a requirement for being suited for large-scale deployments. Ultimately, the two meshes target exactly the same workloads — you can use Istio or Linkerd at either end of the scale spectrum — and the question becomes whether or not the immense weight of complexity can be carried by the minuscule feature footprint differential for real-world use cases,” Gray said. “For higher performance, latency-sensitive applications — the type of applications that Linkerd is best at in benchmarks and those milliseconds matter the most to larger deployments.”

But Istio Adoption Will Still Grow

Despite Linkerd’s rapid gains in adoption and its perceived good fit for smaller organizations and deployments, Linkerd continues to make adoption headway, especially for large organizations. Solo.io is “working with some of the largest deployments of Istio around the world who see features, extensibility, VM support and multicluster as foundational to their architectures,” Frieberg said. “We continue our explosive growth, after seeing 500% growth in the last year,” Frieberg said. “We see the Istio service mesh market as robust and continuing to significantly expand.”

Linkerd’s position in the marketplace versus open source Istio can be also described as the nimble contender that capitalizes on Istio’s well-known challenge of having to be “everything to everyone” and therefore struggling to offer a similar level of accessibility for organizations that are new to service mesh, Volk said. “Istio was conceived to provide absolute flexibility for advanced DevOps teams to connect, secure, observe, and test microservices on Kubernetes and VMs and has only recently started to lower its barrier of entry,” Volk said. “At the same time, Linkerd has added advanced features such as multicluster support, policies, and adhering to required container startup sequences. These new capabilities appeal to Istio’s original audience, making the service mesh race a lot more interesting today.”

The service mesh market overall is also growing overall, while the CNCF’s adoption numbers include sandbox projects, etc. So, in the CNCF study, a lot of firms could have been reporting adopting Linkerd for the first time after they had already adopted Istio, for example. In that sense, Linkerd can be perceived as an “up and comer” while Linkerd is growing as well. Istio’s relatively slower relative growth could be accounted for (in theory) by how it has been in use for a while and is particularly geared for large-scale deployments among fewer organizations — hence larger yet fewer deployments.

However, Volk did not necessarily agree. Linkerd is also “on its way to becoming a full-blown enterprise solution, while at the same time Istio is working to appeal to a larger audience with less service-mesh experience,” Volk said.

“The actual race starts now, but we can definitely see that Linkerd is currently the contender that shows some significant momentum,” Volk said. “In the recent past, we have seen more and more how products with the most bottom-up momentum beat out larger enterprise solutions.”