Yesterday at DockerCon in San Francisco, French-born company Docker Inc, released the long awaited 1.0 version of its open source container-based virtualization software. Docker also announced several complementary services which provide insight into how Docker, Inc, the commercial entity behind the open source project, plan to monetize the massive community that has grown up around Docker in the last year and a half, notably an enterprise support offer and a cloud-based console for managing Docker images.
Docker: Made in France, kind of
Docker rarely makes it into lists of interesting companies coming out of France, but it should. Much of the team is French, although as one would hope and expect, many non-French people are joining the team (woe to the company who never expands beyond their national roots), including serial entrepreneur Ben Golub as CEO. The company started as DotCloud, a French startup that participated in the famous Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator program in 2010. Since participating in Y Combinator, DotCloud, and now Docker, has stayed in San Francisco, explaining why they’ve been under the radar when it comes to covering French tech.
The technical team at Docker is led by Frenchman Solomon Hykes, a consummate engineer and fantastic open source community builder. Solomon has a reputation for being both a brillant engineer and an extremely hard worker, qualities that have helped build a global community around the software that he wrote originally to manage the thousands of applications running on the DotCloud platform-as-a-service. Another notable frenchie on the Docker team is Julien Barbier. In addition to his work building the Docker community, he is one of the founders of while42, the French Tech Engineers Alumni Association. There’s little doubt that the Docker team’s ability to build community is one of the keys to their success. Great software is not enough to build a great company and watching this French team build a global community from San Francisco has been amazing and instructive. At a time when France is wondering what #lafrenchtech means, Docker is a great example of a company who just worried about building something great and succeeded.
Why Docker matters
Because Docker has received so little coverage in the French press, it’s worth looking at why Docker matters in the first place.
It used to be that IT departments would run their applications on a server that was located in their own data center. Each application (e.g. email, file server, website) would have its own physical server with enough excess capacity to handle growing and sometimes unpredictable demand. At any given time, most of their servers would be operating at around 20% capacity, an enormous waste of resources. Along came server virtualization, led by a company called VMware, and IT departments could suddenly drastically reduce the number of servers in their data center. Instead of 5 servers to run 5 applications, a business could run 5 applications on a single server. While VMware built a multi-billion dollar business helping IT organizations save money through data center consolidation, Amazon Web Services (AWS) did the same thing by allowing enterprises to get out of the data center business entirely, offering virtualized servers for rent by the hour.
Renting IT from a shared pool of resources– a process known as cloud computing–has completely changed how applications are developed, and who can create applications. Netflix, Dropbox, Airbnb, Uber are just a few examples of companies that could never have existed without the invention of server virtualization and the subsequent innovation that provided virtualization as a low-cost rentable service. These companies don’t have one or two or three servers, they have 10s of thousands of servers, or more, a scale that is practically impossible to imagine prior to virtualization.
So back to Docker. You can think of Docker as the next logical extension of this progression from running single applications on single servers in a company’s own data center to running single applications on thousands of different servers at a service provider. It is the next logical extension because AWS and other cloud computing provides like Rackspace, Google or Microsoft, still impose a wall around how and where a company can run its application: the data center. Cloud computing is often referred to as a commodity, but it is not a commodity yet in one very important way: one cloud computing provider is not interchangeable with another. Large call center operations regularly route phone calls through different telecommunications providers based on the best rates available in a given geography at a specific time. Telecommunications lines are truly a commodity. Quality is consistent, functionality is uniform, all that matters is price.
We haven’t gotten here yet with cloud computing but Docker and the ecosystem that is emerging around it promise to make this application portability a reality through the special way that Docker packages up an application and all its dependencies into an entity that can be easily moved around between data centers. As the mobile revolution and the Internet of Things bring connectivity to more and more devices, the benefits of being able to run an application in different data centers will increase (cost and proximity to users are two important factors). In a major way, Docker is the enabling force behind the next wave of cloud computing commoditization. The first wave of cloud computing- virtualization- created VMware, now with a $40 billion market cap. The second wave created AWS, whose parent Amazon.com has a market cap of $150 billion, in part due to the success of AWS. There will be winners that are at least as successful as VMware and AWS in the emerging containerization market. Who they’ll be in unclear. That they will be is not.
What’s next for Docker
The last year and a half have been exciting for Docker, but there’s a real sense in the community that things are just getting started. Docker is now the de facto standard for running containers, but there are other container-based virtualization projects out there, notably Google’s LMCTFY project (LMCTFY stands for Let Me Contain That For You, a playful take on Let Me Google That For You).
Docker clearly has the lead in this market, but one of the challenges for Docker will be continuing to support a budding community that is springing up around its core container technology while growing its own commercial business. The Docker team is very clear that there are two parts of Docker: Docker the open source project, and Docker, Inc, the commercial entity behind the project. While clear in principle, it is less clear in practice how these two entities will co-evolve. If it truly wants to be a platform, Docker will have to tread carefully when it comes to what additional areas it expands into, and what areas it leaves for partners. Done the wrong way, the community that Docker has worked so hard to create may dissipate, leaving room for a new container-based virtualization standard to emerge. It’s certainly an exciting market to watch. Go #lafrenchtech!