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Kinvolk on Arm: Can’t Stop a Lokomotive

At Kinvolk, the team focuses on maintaining and implementing open source technologies at the core of modern Linux systems. And when they don’t like what they see, they’re not shy about fixing it. 

“That’s the main characteristic of our team,” Kinvolk Co-Founder and CEO Chris Kühl says. “We don’t see anything as a black box. If we see a problem and if it’s open source, we dig in.”

Fundamental to the Berlin-based company’s mission is maintaining enterprise-grade, open-source software with a focus on Kubernetes. “At our core, we are open source geeks,” says Kühl, who started Kinvolk in 2015 as a consulting company. Since that time, Kinvolk has expanded to offer open source products such as Flatcar Container Linux and the Kubernetes distribution Lokomotive and Kühl has opened subsidiaries in the US and India.

“We’re looking to remove any gap that may exist between a viable open source project and an enterprise-supported product,” adds Kühl. “If we see that there’s an open-source project that fits our needs but is not maintained enough, we jump in.”

Getting a Leg Up With Arm

Kinvolk’s reputation is built on expertise in the lower-level parts of the stack: infrastructure, networking, operating systems. It was this capability that caught Packet’s attention in 2018.

“While working with a joint customer, we started sending patches for issues we noticed,” Kühl says. “Packet took note because instead of just complaining, we were actually fixing really hard things, which is what we’re best at.”

When Ampere Computing wanted to conduct performance benchmarking on Arm vs. AMD and AMD64 machines, Packet recommended Kinvolk for the job. Kinvolk was up for the challenge—even though their core projects didn’t officially support Arm at the time.

“We first had to port our Flatcar Container Linux operating system to work on Arm-based systems, which required generalizing our build system to accommodate another architecture,” Kühl says. Today, Kinvolk maintains Arm support for Flatcar’s alpha channel and will bring support to its other channels late this year.

The work is an investment, but one that Kühl sees as timely. With the introduction of Ampere Altra (based on Arm’s Neoverse N1 platform) Marvell’s latest ThunderX system, and the Graviton2 (from Amazon Web Services), the cloud-native and open source ecosystems are positioned to lead as Arm adoption hits the mainstream. 

“Arm servers have been talked about for at least five years, but with these new platforms, it’s becoming a reality,” says Kühl. “People are taking notice, and that’s why we absolutely want to have first-class support for Arm for our operating system.”

Rewriting the Book on Hybrid Architecture

Through its partnership with Ampere and Works on Arm, the Kinvolk team put together a comprehensive comparative benchmark of Arm vs. AMD machines that resulted in the development of hybrid cluster functionality in Lokomotive.

“We did an analysis of what workloads are better on which architecture so you can make an informed decision about which architecture to run on,” Kühl says. “If some workloads run more effectively on Arm because of the many cores and fast memory bandwidth, butother workloads run better on AMD64, you can choose which architectures to run on.”

Like most things in business, total cost of ownership (TCO) is a big driver. Since current Arm platforms are generally quite affordable, especially for certain use cases, detailed and trusted analysis is important. “In the end, we’re trying to save our clients as much money as possible as they invest further in cloud-native and digital technologies.”

As a result of the benchmarking project, Kinvolk received requests for Arm support from clients with workloads that involve a high level of requests that require many cores to work in parallel.  

“If we can make it easy for people to have this advantage, there’s absolutely no reason not to engage,” says Kühl. “With collaborative support from Packet, Arm, and Ampere we have seamless access to powerful infrastructure, which enables us to provide a first-class experience for Arm-based systems.”

Building the Lokomotive

While the benchmarking project focused on Arm, it’s a shared savvy customer target that has kept the companies in lock-step over the past few years. This has only strengthened as companies look to push the boundaries of performance, and turn to Kinvolk or Packet to help. Enter, Kubernetes.

Lokomotive, Kinvolk’s certified Kubernetes distribution, is a first-class experience on Packet. “This is critical because our clients often leverage a multi-cloud strategy, with some workloads running on AWS and others running on Packet,” says Kühl. “Lokomotive, when paired with Flatcar Container Linux, provides a seamless experience across clouds and architectures, which is the promise of cloud-native in many ways.”

Building upon their shared interest in cloud-native and Arm, Kinvolk and Packet have collaborated on other projects as well. “Kinvolk, with support from Packet and others, is helping to maintain MetalLB, which is a load-balancer for bare metal Kubernetes clusters,” says Kühl. “This project is important for running Kubernetes at scale on bare metal, and so it makes sense for both of our companies to support it.” 

Similar to Packet, elevating the open source community is a key tenet of Kinvolk’s mission. “Everything we do is open source,” Kühl says, “and we want to keep to the spirit of making sure that other viable open source projects stay that way.”

In the case of Kinvolk, being super technical is directly aligned with being excellent community stewards. Says Kühl: “We’re building a company that can be a meaningful part of the cloud-native success story at all levels, from the code to the community to the customers.”

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