A top VMware exec says it’s becoming the ‘largest force’ in the Google-made Kubernetes, as it places a ‘huge bet’ on a tech that many thought would kill it (VMW, PVTL)

A few years back, a startup called Docker popularized so-called containers, a different way of thinking about running software in the cloud. At the time, the world saw the rise of Docker as an existential threat to VMware, as VMware COO Sanjay Poonen tells Business Insider at the SAP-TechCrunch Conference on Sept. 5.

VMware pioneered the market for virtual machines (VMs) — basically, software that tricks one server into acting like several servers, increasing efficiency. But Docker's containers presented an alternative to virtual machines that allow users to package up their code so that their applications can run on any computing environment, without the headaches of maintaining a whole army of VMs.

Fast forward to today, though, and Docker's star has fallen somewhat, as increased competition puts pressure on its business. Meanwhile, VMware has chosen to embrace, rather than fight, the container revolution that Docker has started — specifically by making what Poonen calls a "huge bet" on Kubernetes, an open source cloud computing project started by Google engineers that makes it easy to manage these containers and run large-scale applications.

"People were saying Docker would be a significant threat to VMware, but they disappeared," Poonen told Business Insider. "There was a massive parade that showed up called Kubernetes. We decided to join that parade and become a leader of that parade."

Today, VMware has become the second biggest contributor to the Kubernetes project – second only to Google itself.

Just August, VMware announced it will acquire Pivotal, which is betting on Kubernetes as a major part of its strategy. Last year, it acquired Heptio, which was co-founded by Craig McLuckie and Joseph Beda, two former Google engineers who helped create Kubernetes.

Poonen says the goal is to "create the largest force working on Kubernetes," which he sees as critical to the company's future.

"The mystery of this whole thing is we were nowhere in this parade, and people thought of this parade as a threat to us, and people didn't think of VMware as an open source player as well," Poonen says. "Now we see this as our future. We have gotten a religion in Kubernetes."

'We felt we had to ride this wave'

"We felt we had to ride this wave and become a leader in the containers," Poonen said.

Read more: Here's how VMware is putting its $550 million acquisition of Heptio to work as it builds a new future around Kubernetes, the red-hot cloud software created by Google

At VMware's conference in August, VMware announced a host of new Kubernetes announcements. For example, it announced Project Pacific, which would embed Kubernetes into vSphere, one of VMware's flagship products that helps users manage virtual machines.

"People left with a very clear sense that VMware aspires to be the leader in the parade of Kubernetes with the moves they made in Heptio and Pivotal," Poonen said.

The company is also uniting its Kubernetes products under the Tanzu branding — with "Tanzu" being the Japanese word for "containers." Poonen says he hopes that Tanzu becomes as big of a name as VMware flagship products like ESX and vSphere.

Poonen also says he gives the Heptio team "a tremendous amount of credit" for influencing VMware into giving more code back to the open source community, whether through code or through support.

"This will be closely connected with developer mindset," Poonen said. "We hope that creates positive mindshare with developer community."

All told, Poonen says, he believes that VMware can succeed with Kubernetes as it has with virtualization.

"Why can't the company that created VMs also be the company that creates the best container and container management platform of the future?" Poonen said. "Our view is, it's not a threat. It's an opportunity. That's what I meant by joining the parade and becoming the leader of the community. We can do that effectively. I believe we're at a good start to that strategy."

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