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Cloud Native Ecosystem / DevOps / Platform Engineering

Is Radius Just Another Microsoft Attempt at Lock-in?

Microsoft's Radius is an innovative new open source application platform for cloud native development, but does it harbor elements to lock users in?
Nov 3rd, 2023 8:07am by
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Microsoft’s new Radius open source cloud native application platform offers developers the power to deliver complex cloud native apps that run on multiple clouds and follow organizational policies without having to know the intricacies of all the underlying technology.

However, despite Microsoft’s pronouncements, some observers look at Radius as possibly an attempt to reel developers into the Microsoft Azure environment and detain them.

Lock-in?

For the record, I’m sort of torn on my opinion of this. Complete “lock-in” has become increasingly difficult these days, though certainly not impossible. But I’m going to take Microsoft at its word as the pro-open source community citizen it professes — and has proven in many cases — to be. After all, the company has Azure CTO Mark Russinovich championing the technology. With Russinovich, a Windows guru and a wunderkind of sorts, Microsoft is putting one of its best minds behind Radius.

Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, said Radius is a noble effort that might gain traction, but he sees a couple of things that could impede its progress.

Microsoft has business incentives to prevent or limit such an offering that simplifies deploying across Azure and non-Azure clouds, or worse, moving deployments out of Azure to its competitors, Sanfilippo told The New Stack.

“Lock-in is a characteristic of Azure that has grown since the platform debuted,” he said. “That is, Microsoft wants you to stay on Azure, so it provides you with everything you need, often with services that are meant to work together rather than with non-Azure offerings.”

But Microsoft says Radius is not such a service.

Further, Sanfilippo said there are numerous deployment tools, frameworks, services and languages already addressing what Radius intends to do.

“Many of these are leveraged by Radius, but does it make sense to add more complexity in the hopes of reducing it?” Sanfilippo said. “ARM templates, Bicep, Landing Zones, Azure Dev CLI, Azure DevTest Labs, Deployment Environments, Azure DevOps Pipelines, GitHub Actions and more from Microsoft and third parties target the space of easing and automating deployments. Will another system solve problems or add to them?” he asked.

A common platform to support multiple public and private clouds is a challenge that still needs to be addressed, noted Larry Carvalho, an analyst at RobustCloud.

“Microsoft Radius is a step in that direction but has a long way to go to prove itself in the market,” he said. “Leading cloud providers build an integrated approach that integrates services to accelerate developer productivity. While Microsoft Radius may be popular among Azure customers, developers wanting to run workloads on Amazon or Google may not choose Microsoft Radius, but instead use a collection of services from a single hyperscaler.”

What Radius Is

Radius comes out of Microsoft’s Azure Incubations team as a platform that enables developers and platform engineers who support them to collaborate on delivering and managing cloud native applications that follow corporate best practices for cost, operations and security by default, Russinovich said in a blog post.

Radius is an open source project that supports deploying applications across private cloud, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, with more cloud providers to come, such as Google and Alibaba.

As the Azure Incubations team is focused specifically on open source efforts, it has launched some popular open source projects including DaprKEDA and Copacetic, all available at github.com via the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

In fact, Microsoft submitted Radius to the CNCF at the end of last month.

“Radius is another in a long line of tools designed to make bringing your applications to Platform as a Service (PaaS) easier. The support for on-premises operations is valuable also — it’s a hybrid world after all, we’re just living in it,” said Richard Campbell, founder of Campbell & Associates.

Radius meets application teams where they are by supporting proven technologies like Kubernetes, existing infrastructure tools including Terraform and Bicep, and by integrating with existing continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) systems like GitHub Actions, Russinovich said in the post.

He also noted that while Kubernetes is a key enabler, it has no formal definition of an application, mingles infrastructure and application concepts and is overwhelmingly complex.

“Microsoft Radius is best positioned as a ‘universal control plane’ for Kubernetes. This universality — providing a comprehensive layer between Kubernetes infrastructure and the applications that run on it — has been largely missing from the cloud native world. Microsoft seeks to fill this gap with Radius,” said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at Intellyx. “By making it open source, Microsoft is hoping to avoid the ‘Microsoft has to be in control’ pitfall that limits its ability to lead in the cloud native world. The jury is still out whether the K8s community at large will buy into Microsoft’s vision as a neutral player here.”

But developers have realized that their applications require much more than Kubernetes, including support for dependencies like API frontends, key-value stores, caches and observability systems.

Companies like Microsoft, BlackRock, Comcast and Millenium BCP have worked together with Microsoft to ensure applications defined and managed with Radius can run on any cloud.

Radius also ensures the cloud infrastructure used by applications meets cost, operations and security requirements. These requirements are captured in “recipes,” which are defined by the IT operators, platform engineers and/or security engineers that support cloud native developers, Russinovich said.

Mike Bowen, senior principal engineer and director of the Open Source Program Office at BlackRock, said he believes Radius has “significant potential” for the cloud native community.

“Through its unique offering of Radius recipes, the platform empowers developers to tap into vital cloud resources like Kubernetes and storage solutions, without the necessity to grasp the intricate details of these underlying systems,” Bowen said in a statement.

For instance, Radius helps developers see all the components that comprise their application, and when they add new components, Radius automatically connects those components to their application by taking care of permissions, connection strings and more, Russinovich said in the post.

The product provides an application graph that shows how the application and infrastructure are interconnected and enables team members to understand what makes up an application.

Moreover, Radius was designed to “make it possible for the operators or platform engineers to make sure that developers are falling into the pit of success as defined by their own enterprise, because every other enterprise has its own definition of best practices,” according to a keynote presentation at the Linux Foundation Member Summit last month.

Demos

At the Summit, Microsoft and BlackRock demonstrated Radius in different situations.

“We see radius as a way to enhance collaboration between our development and platform teams,” said Ryan Umstead, a senior engineer at BlackRock leading a platform engineering team who demonstrated how his team uses Radius. “Through its unique offering of Radius recipes, the platform empowers developers to tap into vital cloud resources like Kubernetes, and storage solutions, without the need to grasp the intricate details of these underlying systems.”

Also at the Summit, Ryan Nowack, principal software architect at Microsoft, a developer on the Azure incubation team and the creator of Radius, said as part of building it, Microsoft talked to over 70 cloud customers about the challenges their developers face when managing applications. “What we heard is that it’s a pain for developers to get access to cloud resources, like databases; it’s doubly a pain to wire those up and troubleshoot access problems,” he said during his demo of the product.

Moreover, “Our philosophy is that we’re unopinionated about the kind of tools and Infrastructure as Code technologies you want to use. And we’re going to empower the cloud native community to build whatever kinds of integrations that they think are valuable,” he said.

Humble Microsoft?

Microsoft doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Indeed, Russinovich told the Linux Foundation Summit goers that Microsoft is “humble” about what it’s doing with Radius.

“We don’t think or believe that we have all the answers here, we don’t think we’ve got it all figured out,” he said. “And there’s a tremendous amount of work to do to really make this work.”

Microsoft will highlight Radius at the KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America event in Chicago next week. Check it out and see if you have any lock-in concerns.

“In the meantime, if cloud vendor lock-in is a concern, consider using software from an independent provider instead of from a cloud provider, such as databases, messaging systems or observability tools,” wrote Eric Newcomer, CTO and analyst at Intellyx in an article he wrote for the Intellyx site.

And lock-in or not, “In the end, Microsoft is in the business of selling cloud consumption — so any tooling they can make to allow more customers to bring more workloads to the cloud is good,” Campbell said. “And Microsoft’s strength is in the platform pieces — rather than infrastructure. Not that they don’t do infrastructure just fine, but there’s more money to be made in Platform as a Service.”

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