11 min read

“The service control platform is the next-gen of traditional API management,” Kong CTO and co-founder Marco Palladino tells me. “It’s not about APIs any more, it’s about services.”

This shift in the industry is what makes Kong so interesting. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to speak to Palladino. Its success is an index of businesses’ technological priorities today, and useful as an indicator of the way the world is going – one, it’s safe to say, that’s increasingly cloud-native and highly distributed.

As part of a broad and growing cloud-native ecosystem, Kong is playing an important role in the digital transformation of thousands of companies around the world. Furthermore, the fact that it follows an open core model, with an open source version of Kong made available in 2015, underlines the way in which the platform occupies a valuable position in the valley between developer enablement and managerial control.

This isn’t always an easy place to be. ‘Digital transformation’ is a well-worn phrase, but behind it is the messy truth about the reality of how companies use technology: at their own pace and often shaped by necessity rather than best practice.

So, with Kong a useful proxy for the state of the software industry, I wanted to dive deeper into Kong’s challenges, as well as the opportunities the platform can potentially unlock for its users.

What is Kong?

Before going any further it’s probably worth explaining what Kong actually is. Essentially, Kong is an API management platform – it allows teams to manage how services interact and move within their architecture.

Marco Palladino, Kong CTO
via konghq.com

“APIs allow information to be in flight within our systems,” Palladino explains. Information can, he continues, either be “at rest in a database” or “in use by a monolith or microservice.” Naturally then, it follows that “the more we decouple – the more we distribute our applications – the more information will be… in flight.”

This is why Palladino believes Kong is so valuable today. The “flight” of information (he never uses the word “data”) necessarily implies a network and, as anyone familiar with L. Peter Deutsch’s 7 Fallacies of Distributed Computing will know, “the network is unreliable.”

“So how do we protect that communication? How do we secure it? How do we connect it? How do we route that transmission?” Palladino says. “The more we decouple, the more we distribute, the more those problems become critical, if not essential, for a successful microservice organization… what Kong provides is a platform that allows us to intelligently broker the flow of information across the organization.”

Why does the world need Kong? Do we really need another API management solution?

The short answer to this is relatively straightforward: the world is moving toward (micro)services and Kong provides you with a way of managing them. This control is crucial, moreover, because “in microservices, being slow is the new down – if you’re slow, you’re down.”

But that’s only half of the picture. This “new world” is still in development and transition with each organization following its own technological path. Kong is necessary because it supports and facilitates these unique transitions, all of them happening in different ways around the world.

“Kong is a platform agnostic system that can run across different architectures, but most importantly it can run across different platforms,” Palladino says. “While we do work very well with Kubernetes, we also support… traditional legacy virtual machines or bare metal infrastructures. And the reason we do support both the modern and the old is that we’re working with enterprise organizations… [who] might be deploying new greenfield applications in Kubernetes or OpenShift but… still have a significant part of their software running in traditional virtual machines.”

One of Kong’s strengths, Palladino suggests, is its pragmatism and the way in which the company is alive to their customer’s respective levels of technological maturity.

“I’m very proud to say we’re a very pragmatic company. While we do work with developers to make sure that Kong is a leader in what we do in microservices and traditional API management, we’re also very pragmatic – we understand that’s the end goal, it’s not necessarily the current state of affairs in our enterprise organizations.”

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“We’re not just a vendor. We don’t give you the platform and then let you figure it out. We want to be a strategic technology partner with our customers.”

Kong sees itself as a ‘strategic technology partner’

However, while every organization has its own timeline when it comes to technology, its CTO describes Kong as a platform that is paving a way for the future rather than simply catering to the needs of its customers.

“We’re not an industry follower, we’re an industry leader,” says Palladino. “We’re looking at these large scale systems that organizations are creating and we’re thinking how can we make that better from a security standpoint, from a discoverability standpoint, from a documentation standpoint?”

This isn’t just Silicon Valley posturing. As the software world moves toward cloud and microservices, the landscape shifts at a much faster rate. That makes it essential for organizations like Kong to pave the way for the future rather than react to the needs and demands of their customers.

In turn, this means the scope of Kong’s work is growing. “We’re not just a vendor. We don’t give you the platform and then let you figure it out. We want to be a strategic technology partner with our customers,” says Palladino. “We engage with them, not just from a low-level standpoint with the teams, but we also engage… from a higher level executive standpoint, because we want to enable not just the technology but the business itself to be successful.”

This is something Palladino is well aware of. Kong’s customers aren’t, after all, needlessly indulging in “an exercise in adopting new technologies,” but are rather doing so in response to business requirements. Having a more extensive relationship – or partnership, as Palladino puts it – ensures that digital transformation is both impactful and relatively risk free.

“You simply can’t afford to have a black box at the center of your infrastructure. You need to know what’s happening and how services are interacting with one another – the way of achieving this is through open source software.”

Open source and the rise of bottom-up software adoption

However, although Kong positions itself as a company attuned to the business needs of their customers, it’s also clear that it understands the developer’s power in today’s technology ecosystem.

Palladino sees open source as playing a big part in this. And as an open core platform, Kong is able to build a community of creative and innovative developers around the wider product ecosystem.

But Palladino is also keen to point out that you can’t really separate open source and the API and microservices revolutions.

“10 years ago APIs used to be a nice-to-have” Palladino says. The approach was, he explains, little more than a kind of curiosity or a desire for a small community around a platform: “let’s open up some APIs, let’s open up this monolithic black box and see what happens.”

However, “it’s not like that any more.” If “APIs are the core business of every organization,” as Palladino puts it to me, “then you simply can’t afford to have a black box at the center of your infrastructure. You need to know what’s happening and how services are interacting with one another – the way of achieving this is through open source software.”

“When we look at the microservices transition, we look at Docker, we look at Kubernetes, we look at Elastic, we look at Zipkin… Kafka… Kong, what’s the baseline? Open source. Each one of these products is open source at their core. Open source is driving this new transformation within the enterprise,” says Palladino.

Palladino continues on this, offering a compelling narrative of why open source has become the dominant form of software. He begins with the problems posed by traditional central IT, “an ivory tower far from the business, far from real usage” which consequently “were not able to iterate fast enough to be able to answer those business requirements.”

“The teams building the apps were closer to the business, closer to the customer, and they had to pick the right solution in order to be successful. And so what these… teams did was to go into self-service ecosystems – like… CNCF [Cloud Native Computing Foundation] – and pick and choose open source technologies they could adopt without having to go through an enterprise process… that’s why open source became more important – because it allowed them to be in production and get business value without having to deal with the bureaucracy of central IT – so it’s a bottom-up adoption from the teams all the way up as opposed from central IT to all the teams.”

Developer freedom and organizational control

Palladino refers to ‘bottom-up’ adoption a number of times throughout our conversation. He argues that it’s an industry shift that has been initiated by microservices. “With the emergence of microservices something happened in the industry – software, is not being sold top down anymore as much as it used to be – it’s more bottom-up adoption.”

He also explains that having an open source element to the Kong offering is actually helping the company to grow. It’s a useful onboarding route.

“Sometimes – often actually – Kong is being adopted just because the organization happens to already be running Kong in production, and you need enterprise features and enterprise support,” says Palladino.

But while developer power seems to be part of this new post-central IT world, it also makes Kong even more valuable for those in leadership positions.

Taking the example of multi-cloud, Palladino explains saying that “it’s very rare to see a CIO saying we would like to be multi cloud. Sometimes it happens, [but] most likely the organization is already multi-cloud because it naturally evolved to be multi-cloud. Different teams, different products using different clouds, different services.”

With the wealth of tools, platforms and environments being used by forward-thinking developers trying to solve the problems in their immediate vicinity, it makes sense that the “C-Level Executives” who express an interest in Kong are looking for “a way to consolidate and standardize how their APIs and microservices are being managed and secured across multiple clouds, across multiple platforms.”

A big concern for the leadership of the top Global 5000 organizations we’re working with… [is] making sure they can consolidate how security is being done, how monitoring is being done, how observability and enablement is being done across multiple clouds,” Palladino says.

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The future of Kong and API management

The future for Kong looks bright. The two new features released by the platform – Kong Brain and Kong Immunity – launched earlier this year, signal what the broader trends might be in the software infrastructure and systems engineering space. Both are backed by artificial intelligence, and provide incredibly cutting edge ways to manage the reliability and security of the services inside your infrastructure.

Kong Brain, Palladino explains, lets you “listen to… runtime traffic to auto generate documentation for APIs… services, and monoliths” that organizations have no visibility on “after 20 years of running them in production.” Essentially then, it’s a tool that will prove incredibly useful in working with legacy software; it will certainly encourage the ‘lift and shift’ mentality that we’re starting to see emerge.

Kong Immunity, meanwhile, is a security tool that uses machine learning to detect anomalies in traffic – allowing users to identify security threats and breaches within their system.

“Traditional web application firewalls… don’t work within east-west traffic [server to server],” Palladino says. “They work perhaps in north-south traffic [client to server], but they’re slow, they’re very heavy weight.” Kong, then “tries to take away that security concern by providing a machine learning platform that can asynchronously, with no performance loss, learn from existing traffic across every version of every microservice.”

With releases like these, it’s hard to dispute Palladino’s assertion that Kong is indeed an ‘industry leader.’ However, as Palladino also appears to be aware of, to be truly successful, it’s not enough to just lead the industry – you have to make sure you can bring people with you.

Learn more about Kong here, and follow Marco Palladino on Twitter.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.