BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
Companies big and small spent 2014 hitching themselves to Docker, and while the open source container technology and its growing ecosystem have the industry giddy about the potential, don't expect 2015 to be the year enterprises put it into widespread production.
A diverse ecosystem quickly arose last year alongside the platform for containerizing Linux applications. A handful of smaller startups are trying to capitalize on gaps in the system and seemingly every top- and middle-tiered public cloud vendor offers compatibility, even non-Linux vendors such as Microsoft and virtualization giant VMware -- seen by some as having the most to lose from containers.
"It's really a whole ecosystem that's evolving very quickly," said Dave Bartoletti, an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass. "Anyone that supports Linux can pretty easily support Docker."
A number of vendors are rushing in to offer Docker support and solve issues around orchestration, data shared across containers, operations management and application development, including ClusterHQ's Flocker; Mesosphere Inc.; Shipyard; StackEngine, Inc. and the Google-backed Kubernetes.
But even with the building momentum, the uses are largely limited to cloud-first, Web-based companies, said Bartoletti, who doesn't expect much production use of Docker among enterprises until 2016.
"It hasn't really had any major penetration in the data center yet," Bartoletti said. "The reason it's taking off so quickly is it's really being driven by the development teams, not IT right now."
Docker claims enterprise customers exist and use the platform in production, including household names in finance and the federal government that can't be disclosed yet. Docker didn't provide data for the number of enterprises using the platform, saying the open source nature of the software makes it impossible to know who has downloaded it for use in production.
Many open source projects get plenty of hype but receive very little production use in the first couple years, Bartoletti said.
"There's not a lot of money being made yet," Bartoletti said. "It's a rush for a land grab."
Containers shake things up
Meanwhile, some companies have begun to use it with good results. Weeby.co offers tools for developing social media games. It has built its platform on Docker containers as it looked for an "insanely easy" way for customers to use its tools, said Joe Brown, an engineer for the company, based in Mountain View, Calif.
On the front end, using Docker allows developers to each have their own cloud workspace via Weeby.co that is isolated within a container and includes all the necessary tools preloaded.
"We're trying to cut down on the monotony that goes into game development as much as possible and with containers we can make that happen," Brown said.
Containers have solved myriad problems for Weeby.co, but it's not without challenges, including issues involving interfacing with development machines due to a lack of clarity about networking and routing between VMs and containers, Brown said.
"Integration with a host OS that is running a VM running containers, that's a bit edgy still," Brown said.
There are still questions about managing clusters of containers, networking and orchestration, and deployment of three-tiered applications.
Still, enterprises shouldn't be scared to use Docker, especially those that see portability as key to success, said David Linthicum, senior vice president of consulting firm Cloud Technology Partners, Inc., based in Boston. Containers should be considered as part of a broader strategy -- but it's probably best to do proof of concepts and let others jump in first and work through the kinks, he added.
"A lot of people think of it as the second coming, but it's really nothing more than the ability to manage applications and application portability better than what we've been doing now, which has been abysmal," Linthicum said.
That portability of containers could translate to better prices and performance from the major cloud vendors by removing lock-in concerns for applications built off-premises, he added.
The Weeby.co product is still pre-launch, and while the company uses Amazon EC2, Brown isn't too concerned about the underlying cloud infrastructure.
"The cool thing is it matters much less what service you're going for or what hosting service you're using because if one doesn't function the exact same way you want, switching to another is trivial," Brown said.
Filling a vacuum
Others see the hurdles with Docker as an opening, including platform as a service vendor WaveMaker, Inc., which runs its cloud service on Docker containers. The technology doesn't provide out-of-the box solutions, and users must be mindful of myriad issues, including security, storage, orchestration and other holes still getting filled by the broader ecosystem, said Samir Ghosh, CEO for the company, based in Mountain View, Calif.
Docker has gained traction with ISVs and Web-scale companies that run a single application stack, but enterprises face a bigger challenge of integrating Docker into heterogeneous workloads, Ghosh said.
"The old legacy apps aren't architected that way," Ghosh said. "Some could move, but the reality is you will take new things and put them all on Docker. That will take a while."
Containers have the potential to give developers faster pipelines and operations personnel more management control over software without worrying about underlying infrastructure, but with the lingering questions around Docker at scale there may not be a compelling reason for enterprises to move applications that are running well in VMs inside a data center to containers until mid-2016, Bartoletti said. The big difference between OpenStack and Docker is large cloud platforms already use containers at scale, he added.
"People are so excited about it because if Google is based on containers, maybe I should try to take advantage, too," Bartoletti said.
Docker not alone
With success comes competition. CoreOS Inc. plans to build a container runtime of its own called Rocket, saying the promise of Docker as a simple, composable container platform isn't happening. Containers are far from a new technology, after all, but Docker contends that what separates it from previous iterations is that it solved a hard problem with containers by making them run well and making them accessible.
Expect to see more companies follow Core OS' lead and say there are other ways to do containers, but the ever-increasing level of outside support for Docker bodes well for its future, Bartoletti said.
"The longer this goes and the more people support Docker primarily, then it becomes the de facto industry standard the same way VMware became the de facto industry standard for virtualization," Bartoletti said.
Trevor Jones is the news writer for SearchCloudComputing. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.