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Puppet's dreams of an IPO were a chimera -- blame a shift from VMs

Configuration management firm bought by Perforce.

Remember Puppet? The open source software configuration management (CM) and deployment provider – traditionally used to “pull the strings” on multiple application servers simultaneously? It got bought this week by another company called Perforce that you may or may not have heard of; drawing, for mixed reasons, some considerable snark on various platforms. Should you care? Like the band sang: "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps..."

The acquisition is arguably a limp finale for the company (Puppeteers had dreamed of an IPO, as CEO Yvonne Wassenaar acknowledged wistfully in a letter April 11, noting: "There was a point in time where many of us, myself included, thought Puppet would be one of the great IPOs to come out of the Pacific Northwest.")

Wassenaar had told The Stack in early 2021 that in 2020, Puppet’s revenue was north of $100 million "and growing as we added new customers". In her open letter two years on, she again said "our collective efforts have fueled over $100 million in annual recurring revenue" -- suggesting that efforts in recent years to upsell a more eclectic range of enterprise software tools straddling the interaction between IT Ops and infosec teams, as well as cloud automation use cases, had not turbocharged revenue growth in the way the company hoped.

Puppet, remind me...

By “describing and managing infrastructure as code” Puppet allows users to automate infrastructure configuration; harden infrastructure security, or deliver applications to hybrid and multi-cloud environments at scale. Like many open source companies, it has layered a range of paid-for tools on top of an OSS bedrock.

Puppet has its own language to power IT automation, "Puppet" which is written in Ruby.

Wassenaar, a former CIO who previously worked with VMware and New Relic added, speaking with us in January 2021 that "we are addressing multiple markets from platform ops, provisioning, configuration management, security and compliance, operations and incident response. [This is a] total addressable market of $45.2 billion... there’s many people who are moving more traditionally architected applications into the cloud and even running containerised VMs in the cloud. Then there are people running Kubernetes applications in their own data centre — which are cloud native. Puppet helps abstract away the complexity of running in these kinds of environments.

Perforce, meanwhile, provides developer productivity tools, and automated testing and quality software. It has a large user base among the gaming community including Ubisoft, as well as with banks, defence firms.

With Puppet's sale to Perforce, just CFEngine stands independent

The acquisition leaves CFEngine as the last independent configuration management vendor, with Chef acquired by Progress in 2020, Ansible bought by IBM in 2019 and Saltstack snapped up by VMWare in 2020.

As one CEO told The Stack, preferring not to be named: "Back in the early DevOps days, we’d say 'Chef and Puppet' as if they were a single atomic entity. While Puppet ended up executing better than Chef, they both suffered from a similar inability to convert fast and deeply enough from their initial VM-based DNA to a cloud-based container world. They can’t really be mocked for it, that would be unfair; the DevOps market has gone through (and is still going through) a continuous transformation, with some cool products being leading-edge one day, and perceived as « legacy » just three years on. Who remembers Eucalyptus, Mesosphere, and the first life of Docker? It's a tough market out there..."

"Karma is a bitch"

"Like two planes landing side-by-side at SFO, both Chef and Puppet have now joined PE-backed companies, and will still be able to have a decent destiny helping maybe less leading-edge enterprises adopt DevOps -- that arguably remains a solid contribution to the digital transformation taking over the world. They might not be part of the cool kids club anymore, but any company making fun of them should first get to $100 million in ARR and be willing to be interviewed about the status of their own company in three years' time: karma is a bitch."

Wassenaar's letter about the sale, regardless, seemed to rub many up the wrong way.

A sample, representative take from BTL on Hacker News: "It's the self-importance of a company which I only just realised isn't just a GitHub repo somehow thinking they need to write a letter longer than Kurt Cobain's suicide note to tell me that they got acquired by some other bland-as-fuck open-core company. All we needed to hear was: 'Hi, I'm the CEO of Puppet. Yeah, that thing you use to do stuff in Chrome with code. Yeah, yeah, we're a company, yup, somehow. Anyway: we're getting acquired by this other company. They're called Perforce. No, you don't know them either. Yeah, they also have some indecipherable enterprise website with some Gartner Quadrant bollocks on it. No, you don't really need to know any of this.'

Puppet's original creator speaks out...

Puppet founder Luke Kanies had aslightly more considered, personal view.

He noted: "As its founder and original coder, I do have some thoughts on the company’s acquisition. When I started Puppet, most sysadmin work was done manually. More time was spent firefighting than shipping software. What worked in development didn’t work in production. People couldn't reuse each other's solutions. It was obvious that things could, and should, be better. To paraphrase Jerry Garcia, someone had to do something, and it was just incredibly pathetic that it had to be me :) I set out to build something sufficiently simple that almost everyone could use it but sufficiently powerful that it could solve almost any problem.

"I knew I couldn't do it alone. While building the tech, we also grew an amazing community. And from there, we built a great company. I'm incredibly proud of what we accomplished. We helped invent DevOps. We changed the lives of countless people: So many jobs are better today because of work we helped start. And we helped launch a ton of amazing careers. I was just talking last week with a long-time employee about how badly we feel for people whose first job is Puppet. "Sorry not sorry, everything after this will be worse."

"I'm frankly not a huge fan of acquisitions. Too many of the corporations in our world are already too big. But this was the right outcome for Puppet and its people. Perforce will be a great home, and we'll help them as much as they'll help us. Whether I like it or not, DevOps teams are different now. Companies are looking for a complete solution, rather than wanting to integrate individual best of breed vendors. And the world is shifting in lots of other ways, not all of which we've done well at following. I'm thankful for so much, and to so many."

He added: "I have no real idea what's next for me. I'm kind of a wreck right now, physically, and I'm hoping this closure will accelerate my healing. You can read a bit more about that here. I can't imagine ever seeking a round of funding again. And I hope I never have to hire or manage another exec for as long as I live. But if and when I get healthy, I'm excited about channeling what made me capable of building Puppet in the first place, and interested in doing so. I can guarantee you one thing, though: I won't be building any more DevOps tools. :)

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