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Akuity: Setting Sail with Argo for Every Cloud-Native Journey

Today, we’re excited to announce our investment in Akuity, a new startup behind the rapidly growing Argo open source project which makes it easy for developers to build applications using the power of Kubernetes and cloud-native infrastructure. Containers and microservices have become the foundation for modern software development, and Argo has become the workflow engine of choice for companies like Adobe, Cisco, Google, Intuit, Nvidia, and Tesla when using Kubernetes for application delivery.

We asked the founders, Hong Wang and Jesse Suen, to share their vision for how Akuity and Argo will change how applications are delivered in the cloud in our founder Q&A:

How did you guys meet? What inspired you to become open source contributors?

Hong: I grew up in rural China and my parents were one of the first groups to go to college after the Cultural Revolution. The opportunity for all of us to get an education changed our life and we were able to move out of the countryside and into the city. My parents never forgot what it was like to be deprived of education and technology and always instilled in us a deep appreciation for school and access to computers. They bought me a PC when I was very young and encouraged me to learn how to program. I fell in love with coding and always knew I would someday be a software engineer.

When I was growing up in China there was not a large commercial software industry – the top programmers used open-source tools and it was the best way to learn about emerging software products from around the world. I learned a lot from open source contributors, like Jesse, and I always knew I wanted to give back and share my work with the community who helped me grow as an engineer.

Jesse: Hong and I met in one of our first startups – he came from China, and I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley. In spite of our different backgrounds, we had very similar experiences in our early years. We both grew up playing Age of Empires, taught ourselves programming in BASIC, and had parents who would drive for hours to ensure we had access to the best computer science programs. We also participated in large open-source projects like Linux and Kubernetes, and always found the answers to our hardest technical questions from the open source community. Though Mandarin and English are very different languages, we both felt at home speaking the universal language of open-source software.

The Akuity team prepares for launch (2021)

What was the initial idea behind Argo? What problem are you trying to solve? How did you come up with the name?

Hong: When I came to the US to get my Master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon, one of my first projects was working on an unsolved computational project for NASA using NVIDIA’s GPUs. That was one of the first times I understood the power of distributed computing firsthand. Calculations that had previously taken days to solve now took a few minutes. By farming the compute tasks out across a large cluster, we made the unsolvable solvable. I knew this was the future for all software. Programming is so much more powerful, and so much more fun on distributed systems.

In every application, there is tremendous strength that comes from breaking down a computing problem into smaller pieces. Containers and Kubernetes make this possible in the cloud but to do this right, you need to build a system that can automate and orchestrate the completion of each required task so you can assemble the big picture. You need to have a proverbial conductor leading the effort when solving complex challenges. That was the original vision behind Argo – to help developers capture the power of containers and cloud computing by making it easy for them to orchestrate their apps.  

Jesse: Many people have asked us why we picked Argo as our name – it was named after the ship Argo in Greek mythology, which carried the Greek mythological hero Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. An argonaut also happens to be a species of pelagic octopuses, and so we used an octopus as our open source project mascot. Argonauts are groups of hard-working deep-sea octopuses that traverse undersea and perform numerous tasks critical to marine biology. When you are building a distributed system on containers such as Kubernetes, Argo makes it possible to orchestrate numerous steps that would be very difficult to do without some extra hands. Though an army of Argonauts are limited to 8 arms each, Argo itself has virtually no limitations in the number of containers it can orchestrate in the cloud.

When did you know Argo was going to be successful? Why did you choose open source?

Jesse: We had no idea how many people were using the product initially. We were working at Intuit at the time and started to hear that companies like Alibaba, BlackRock, and Google were becoming major users and contributors of Argo.

Our community really started to grow at Kubecon in 2017. I remember Joe Beda, one of the co-creators of Kubernetes, spent some time at our booth and was excited that we had built a Kubernetes-native workflow engine. I guess that was when we knew we had built something truly unique that would gain widespread adoption. Argo today is one of the fastest growing CNCF projects and is used by companies large and small including some of the fastest growing companies such as Bytedance, Canva, and GitHub.

Hong: If I’m being honest I do think there was some serendipity in how the Argo story eventually unfolded. As engineers in our prior lives, we lived through the pain of not having a great container or cloud-native orchestration and joined a startup that had a similar vision as Argo. The company had great technology but it was proprietary and not open source.

We had a lot of trouble as a company selling the product top-down to engineers, and learned the hard way that engineers didn’t want a black box. Trust me when I say that there is nothing more exciting, and nothing more dangerous, than letting third party systems control your engineering and deployment pipelines. We wanted to be transparent because transparency breeds trust. We made sure to let everyone know, and see, exactly how Argo worked. We felt the only way to win over developers was to make the product open source. It was the right call and we were fortunate to win over the community.

The Argo Community (CNCF Application, 2020)

Why did you want to start Akuity, the Enterprise Argo company? What do enterprises need from Akuity?

When we were creating Argo at Intuit, in many ways we were in the best place to see the demands of a large enterprise using Kubernetes at scale. Intuit was an early adopter of containers and decided many years ago to go 100% into cloud. We grew from only a handful of teams using Kubernetes to now over 4,000 engineers and hundreds of clusters that run their apps using Argo for their application orchestration.

As the Argo community grew more robust and widespread, we heard requests from customers for large scale, enterprise features such as multi-tenancy and multi-cluster management, particularly as Argo has become the de-facto standard for everything from application rollouts to machine learning pipelines. We also heard from several companies that they would prefer to use a cloud-managed solution rather than deploy and manage their own Argo infrastructure.

At that point, we felt the weight and the opportunity of that momentum. It was time for a new company to dedicate 100% of its time to invest in the long-term roadmap of enterprise needs within the Argo community.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, giving a talk to the Argo team (2017)

What is the long term vision for the company?

We have seen first hand how powerful it can be when a software team can move from building a monolithic or siloed application, to creating a modern and distributed system that leverages the best of containers and cloud computing. What seemed like impossible breakthroughs in targeted vaccine therapies, personalized medicines, computer vision, autonomous driving, and artificial intelligence are all now possible with modern containerized infrastructure.

As exciting as these breakthroughs have been, there is so much more we can do and there are really no limitations to what can be imagined when we combine the power of Kubernetes and Argo together. Kubernetes has given every developer a common API for cloud computing, and we believe Akuity and Argo can be the “Lingua Franca” for automation and orchestration - a universal language for how applications tie together all of their containers and cloud computing resources. We are still in the early innings of what software developers can do and are excited to see what comes next!  

The Akuity and Decibel Team