NEW YORK—When Matthew Pick, technology manager for engineering at HBC Digital, tried to explain containers and Docker to his wife, she would refer to them as his “Tupperware and pants” projects.
He was deep into figuring out how to roll out a container initiative for Hudson’s Bay Co., the parent of retailers Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and others. As with all things technical, he realized that he needed a better way to describe containers to the people that mattered in the corporation.
“We needed a different way to sell containers to neophytes,” Pick said this week at the Container Summit here. “Not what the technology is but what the technology brings to the business and how it improves things: Self-healing, portable, faster.”
He built a small production environment to play around with and to show how containers can cut development time and enable developers to be more responsive to business needs in a fast-changing retail setting. He was successful, and now HBC is looking to use containers for new all projects.
Developers from other companies like Uber and Jet.com have similar stories and have shown enough progress to win over executives, especially in retail and financial services where dev teams need to move fast and make changes to applications on the run. “Containers are all about making [developing] software faster, getting it from the laptop to the cloud as fast as possible,” said Bryan Cantrill, CTO of Joyent, a container hosting and management provider.
It was a financial services firm, Lucera, an early adopter of containers, that showed what containers could do in mission-critical situations. Lucera provides infrastructure as a service for exchange markets, which CEO Jacob Loveless calls “IaaS for grownups.” Lucera used containers to build exchange trading technology that could scale up or down as fast as markets were moving. “There was Alpha [ROI] in the ability to reconfigure infrastructure on demand,” he said.
The first thing developers will say about containers is that they are not new technology. The concept originated from the Unix world 30 years ago. Containers are just now coming into vogue because they solve a fundamental problem presented by cloud computing, and that is now to write and manage distributed applications and scale them effectively.
Containers enable developers to package up anything—an application, a service or a script—into an immutable format that can then be picked up and moved, like a shipping container, and work in any environment. They can spin up and down as they are needed, and can resize dynamically. As Docker CEO Ben Golub has put it, to put apps in the cloud, we had to get past the assumptions that “applications are monolithic, live a long time and run on a single server.”
Containers also have become a catalyst in bringing IT development and operations teams together, said Larry Glenn, vice president of platform and systems development, also for HBS Digital. “Docker has done more for DevOps than anything,” he said. “[With containers] there’s no more walls between Dev and Ops. Containers blur our idea of what a developer is.” The result is increased developer/operations productivity and efficiency, which adds up to a lot for corporations whose developers number in the thousands.
Containers Make Their Mark in the Enterprise
Despite the enthusiasm of its participants, the container movement is still young—Cantrill describes it as “pubescent”—and much needs to be accomplished on several fronts to pave the way for containers to be as ubiquitous as virtual machines are today.
One area is standards, and this is where things get confusing, even for those participating in the current standards projects, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and the Open Container Initiative. The problem lies with the fact that Docker is a company that wants to be a standard. To be clear, Docker is open source, and Docker the company participates in the standards bodies, and like Kleenex and tissue paper, Docker is synonymous with containers. We’ve seen before what this can lead to.
But there are many pieces of the container ecosystem beyond Docker’s container format, like run-time environments and orchestration tools, that need to grow up and around the container concept in a way that won’t strangle innovation. Areas the developers at the Summit contend need to mature include security, persistent storage and making it all easier to use.
A nagging question around containers is what all this will mean for current VMware shops. Right now, nothing. VMware runs containers. Amazon Web Services, Azure, Google and OpenStack all support and run containers. Whether those environments are the best for running containers is subject to debate. Containers on one of the large cloud players still run within a hypervisor. Container advocates say those same containers will run better, and less expensively, on bare metal, or on the very thinnest OS, like Joyent’s Triton, Alpine, or CoreOS’ namesake product.
Still, there’s too much infrastructure built up around traditional VMs for containers to come along and topple them all at once, or at all. Containers should be viewed as a new way of developing applications. Data from Forrester, Gartner and others show that virtually all new apps will be developed specifically for the cloud. Containers will be the logical starting point for new projects.
Another question that gets asked is how to start with Docker. The developers all say, just start. Start slowly, take small steps, show your progress and keep going back for more. But start soon so you can see what containers can do and why they are changing what’s really important about cloud computing. “If you want to know what’s going on in the cloud, follow the apps,” said Dave Bartoletti, principal analyst at Forrester. “Cloud is the place to build exciting new apps. Cloud as a place for cheap servers is so 2010.”
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.