September 9, 2015

Exclusive Interview: Rancher Labs Founder Sheng Liang

rancherRancher Labs is a startup founded by a group of former engineers from Citrix Systems. The company has developed Rancher, a complete infrastructure platform for running Docker in production, as well as Rancher OS, a minimalist Linux distro that runs the entire OS as Docker containers. Sheng Liang, CEO and co-founder of Rancher Labs was the lead developer at the original Java Virtual Machine at Sun Microsystems. I spoke with Mr. Liang at LinuxCon NA to learn more about his new venture.

Swapnil Bhartiya: How did you get involved in technology and Linux in general?

Sheng Liang: My first job after school was a junior engineer on a Java virtual machine team at Sun. There I worked on bunch of infrastructure-related technologies. My association with cloud really started in late 2008 when I started a company called, and we built a piece of software called CloudStack that enabled organizations to create infrastructure as a service.

Then in 2011, Citrix acquired, and I became the CTO of cloud platforms group at Citrix. Last September, I left Citrix and I saw tremendous excitement and adoption and growth around containers and Docker, and that's why I started Rancher Labs to specifically focus on building the next generation of cloud infrastructure and cloud software platforms. And that's where Rancher came from.

What was the drive behind starting Rancher Labs, what problems did see in the market which you wanted to solve?

sheng-liangThe greatest opportunity we saw was that Docker was getting adopted at large scale by developers, by DevOps teams in developing environments, in build and test environments. We saw a great deal of potential in deploying Docker containers in production. We saw how companies like Twitter and Yelp were using containers, and I realized there is a great deal of potential in bringing that type of infrastructure, that type of platform to the enterprise, to the rest of the technology industry. This is really where Rancher Labs came from. We want to build the infrastructure and management software that enable our customers, our users, to deploy Docker containers in production.

What is the structure of the company?

We are a technology startup and have been in existence for just a year. We have over 20 people now and most of our employees are engineers. We are also very, very customer focused in a way. We believe the right way to really find technology and build a product is to have a very close, intimate engagement with customers. And the customers essentially give us all the insights that we need to build a better product. We have two full-time salespeople who are integral part of our product development process. They bring in the product and market perspective that we need to refine our product. Even though our vision has never changed, the product design and technology development changes constantly, depending on the evolution of the container industry itself.

Who are your typical customers and clients?

The kind of people who use Rancher are people who really want to put containers in production. So, there is no surprise that a lot of them are web companies and SaaS companies who have some operations running in the cloud.

You received $10 million in funding recently; how is this money being used and are you working on the next round of funding?

We actually closed series A funding a couple of months ago, which was funded by a couple of great investment firms here in the Silicon Valley. They share our vision of the potential and the market size of containers. Right now, we are executing the funding in primarily the development of the product and go to market. At this point, we just announced the funding and we are not actively looking at the next round of funding.

There are two competing and complementary container technologies such as Docker and Rocket by Core OS, what’s your perspective on this?

I think these things are coming together for the industry to truly benefit. We like to see a common standard for containers, that's why we were very excited to be part of the Open Container Initiative under the Linux Foundation. They are working together to come up with a common container runtime that the entire industry can leverage. It's very good for the industry because so far Docker has been the de facto standard for the container run-time, but going forward with the support for OCI by both Docker and CoreOS is a great thing for the industry.

Why did you choose open source to build your business?

I think for some of the fundamental infrastructure, run-time, or even some management technology open source is the way to go. To me, open source is really not about doing things for free, it’s about organization, customers, partners, and vendors all coming together to collaborate on developing the technologies that greatly accelerates the growth, maturity, and the adoption of the technology. That is the true power of open source. And when that happens, a lot of customers have no problem paying a commercial vendor like us to actually help them truly utilize, maintain, and support the underlying technology.

So, with open source you get the best of both worlds: on one hand, you get a great deal of collaboration, cooperation and innovation, and on the other hand, you are able to build a very good business model around it. We are very happy with that, and this is not the first time I have been personally involved with open source. My previous company,, developed the Cloud Stack. It later became Apache Cloud Stack; we contributed it to the Apache Software Foundation. So, we know this process very well, and we have been able to build very good business around open source.

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