12 Kubernetes distributions leading the container revolution


Kubernetes has become the project to turn to if you need container orchestration at scale. The open source container orchestration system out of Google is well-regarded, well-supported, and evolving fast.

Kubernetes is also sprawling, complex, and difficult to set up and configure. Not only that, but much of the heavy lifting is left to the end user. The best approach, therefore, isn’t to grab the bits and try to go it alone, but to seek out a complete container solution that includes Kubernetes as a supported, maintained component.

Here I’ve listed the 12 most prominent Kubernetes offerings—what amount to distributions that incorporate Kubernetes plus container tools, in the same sense that various vendors offer distributions of the Linux kernel and its userland.

Note that this list does not include dedicated cloud services, such as Amazon EKS or Google Kubernetes Engine, but focuses on software distributions that can be run locally or as a cloud-hosted option.


The CoreOS operating system, Container Linux, stands apart chiefly by being delivered as a set of containerized components. This way, automated updates to the OS can be slipstreamed into production without taking down running applications. CoreOS also touts “one-click” updates to Kubernetes. CoreOS Tectonic runs on Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and bare metal. 

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Canonical Distribution of Kubernetes

Canonical, makers of Ubuntu Linux, provides its own Kubernetes distribution. One of the big selling points for the  is the widely respected, well-understood, and commonly deployed Ubuntu Linux distribution underneath. Canonical claims that its stack will work in any cloud or on-prem deployment, with support included for both CPU- and GPU-powered workloads. Paying customers can have their by Canonical engineers.

—in its unmodified, vanilla state—as a standard pack-in with both and .

In short, Docker Inc. has read the writing on the container orchestration wall and acknowledged that Kubernetes is more suitable than Swarm for managing large and complex container environments. However, Docker still includes a “” for more modest clustering jobs—for instance, a local, behind-the-firewall application that isn’t likely to grow much. 

Heptio Kubernetes Subscription

Two of Kubernetes’s creators, Craig McLuckie and Joe Beda, to offer services and products around Kubernetes. Their first major offering is the (HKS), a Kubernetes deployment with paid, 24/7 support provided by Heptio. Pricing starts at $2,000 per month.

The main pitch with Heptio is enterprise-grade Kubernetes without vendor lock-in. Deployments can run on public clouds or private hardware. All the tools offered by Heptio to are open source, and fixes are delivered directly to the supported clusters.

Mesosphere DC/OS

uses Apache Mesos to turn a cluster of machines into a single resource that can be dynamically partitioned for multiple applications. as one of many application packages on DC/OS, allowing you to install, run, and update Kubernetes across a DC/OS cluster.

There is room to quibble with whether DC/OS is a Kubernetes distribution per se, considering Kubernetes is not exactly part of DC/OS, but can be deployed through DC/OS like other supported apps—in something like the way a Linux application is made available through a Linux distro’s package management system. Nevertheless, Mesosphere’s approach to Kubernetes hews closely to how Kubernetes works—e.g., it uses the mainline community distribution of Kubernetes to ensure a high degree of compatibility with the existing toolset.

Mirantis Cloud Platform

incorporates OpenStack, Kubernetes, or a combination of the two as the substrate for an “agile infrastructure platform,” as Mirantis puts it. In a nutshell, Mirantis Cloud Platform is a single, integrated solution for orchestrating VMs, containers, and bare-metal servers. Apps deployed on the platform are managed across the lifecycle in “devops style,” using as the configuration management tool, with integrated CI/CD support to ensure apps deploy correctly.

 runs in whatever environment you deploy it in—local bare metal, remote public cloud—but is remotely managed as a service by Platform9’s engineers.

Platform9 rolls out updates to Managed Kubernetes approximately every six weeks under customer supervision. Functions that would normally have to be added by hand to a Kubernetes cluster, like user quotas for multi-tenancy scenarios, are provided by Platform9. Also included is integration with , a that works with most any programming language with a containerized runtime.

Rancher 2.0

Rancher Labs has incorporated Kubernetes into its container management platform—called, simply, —with version 2.0, currently in beta. Rancher 2.0 works on a higher level than other Kubernetes distributions, sitting atop your Linux hosts, Docker containers, and Kubernetes nodes, managing all of them at arm’s length regardless of location or infrastructure. It can even manage Kubernetes clusters on Amazon EKS, Google Kubernetes Engine, Azure Container Service, and other Kubernetes-as-a-service clouds. 

Rancher also comes with its own Kubernetes distribution. Rancher is meant to remove a lot of the drudgery from the process of setting up a Kubernetes cluster and customizing Kubernetes for a specific environment, without allowing those customizations to get in the way of smooth upgrades to Kubernetes—a key consideration for such a fast-moving and constantly updated project.

Red Hat OpenShift

, Red Hat’s PaaS product, originally used Heroku buildpack-like “cartridges” to package applications, which were then deployed in containers called “gears.” Then Docker came along, and OpenShift was reworked to make use of the new container image and runtime standard. Inevitably, Red Hat also adopted Kubernetes as the orchestration technology within OpenShift.

OpenShift was built to provide abstraction and automation for all the components in a PaaS. This abstraction and automation also extend to Kubernetes, which still imposes a fair amount of administrative burden, so OpenShift can be used to alleviate that as part of the larger mission of deploying a PaaS.

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HyperHQ, providers of the cloud service for running containers, have developed , a “Kubernetes-centric OpenStack distro.” Normally, OpenStack uses a component called Nova to provision and manage compute nodes; Stackube uses Kubernetes instead. But other than that, it uses “vanilla” OpenStack and Kubernetes, with all the additional details handled by OpenStack plugins.

The big advantage HyperHQ claims for Stackube is that it can offer varying degrees of multitenancy depending on which container runtime is used. For “soft” multitenancy, there’s Docker; for more industrial-strength separation of resources, there’s , which uses hypervisor-level isolation.

SUSE Cloud as a Service Platform

Best known for a Linux distribution widely popular in Europe, SUSE also offers the . Conceptually, it’s reminiscent of CoreOS Tectonic—a bundling of a bare-metal “micro” OS that runs containers, Kubernetes as the container orchestration system, a built-in image registry, and cluster configuration tools.

SUSE CaaS Platform can run on public clouds as well as local bare metal, but with the caveat that “SUSE does not currently support any integration into the underlying cloud infrastructure.” Meaning that SUSE CaaS Platform isn’t designed to complement Amazon EKS or Google Kubernetes Engine, but to circumvent them, allowing you to run containers across multiple clouds and datacenters. 


Gravitational, maker of the , also produces , a “production hardened” Kubernetes distribution that runs on local or remote clusters. Telekube is positioned as a solution for a private SaaS platform, or for running Kubernetes as a service throughout multiple regions or hosting providers.

Apps on Telekube must be prepared to run in containers on Kubernetes. They must also be packaged into “Bundles” that are then published to Kubernetes clusters for distribution. Bundling requires some additional work on top of all of the other preparation needed to deploy container-based applications, but the Bundle manifest is the only Telekube-specific addition that you need to maintain.