From the outside, it looks pretty cut-and-dried.
Docker is a super-hot, highly-funded startup — it raised $US95 million in its last round alone — that offers products to help developers use software containers, a suddenly popular technology that helps companies write and manage applications more efficiently.
CoreOS, a former Docker partner, decided to go its own way with a competing standard for containers, and recently won support from companies like VMware, Red Hat, and Google.
Now the two are competing for dominance in a growing, high-visibility market.
Maybe not, says CoreOS CEO Alex Polvi.
Containers let a developer take an application (an email server, a blogging platform, whatever) and whatever else it needs to run and throw it into a standard virtual “box.” Companies can can put this box in their own servers in their own data center, or upload it to Amazon’s or Microsoft’s or Google’s cloud service, and it will run the exact same way, without the extra effort of having to struggle with it to make it work.
Docker was the first to commercialize this idea. But Polvi says that CoreOS never set out to lead a rival ecosystem to Docker’s. Mostly, it’s just that his company thought Docker wasn’t doing a great job and CoreOS had to step in to build the stuff that Docker couldn’t or wouldn’t.
“We’re filling in white space,” Polvi says.
Docker is great if you want something easy to use, Polvi says, but it’s lousy as an emerging standard. For starters, the whole idea of a “standard” is that it’s not supposed to change very fast, but Docker keeps moving the goalposts as it tries to corner this emerging market.
CoreOS had tried and failed to get security features added to Docker, which resulted in the company deciding to go their own way with the launch of its own appc (pronounced “app-c”) technology. It’s gotten some traction, with plenty of developers excited at the idea of something like Docker that’s not Docker.
But that put Polvi into an awkward situation at the company’s first-ever CoreOS Fest this week. He had to talk about how VMware, Red Hat, and Apcera — bigger companies with products that compete against what CoreOS sells — were building their own products with and on top of appc.
It’s not ideal for a little venture-backed startup like CoreOS, obviously. But Polvi says that if it’s serious about appc being a real-life open competitor to Docker, promoting the competition is an unavoidable side-effect.
“It just keeps everybody honest,” Povli says.
Besides, Povli says, it’s kind of cool that CoreOS has inspired so many others to follow in its footsteps. CoreOS got its start by making a super-tiny version of the popular free Linux operating system designed to make it easier to work with these software containers, and now both VMware and Microsoft have made their own similar products (though Microsoft’s is based on Windows).
Between that, and the fact that big technology companies are adopting appc, Polvi says that it’s been tremendously validating for the company.
“In our weird little way, we changed the world,” Polvi says.
All of that said, Polvi says he looks forward to the day when all of this hype and competitive back-and-forth is behind us and a standard is settled on.
Not only do containers make it easier and more affordable to run web sites and services at a huge scale, Polvi says, they can “fundamentally [improve] the security of the Internet.”
But that movement only happens when everybody is using containers, and having a commonly agreed-upon standard can help that happen.
All the same, the potential here is visible in companies like Google, which only got as big as it did by using homegrown container technology for many years before Docker even existed.
But if containers let Google change the world, Polvi asks, and container technology is more viable and easy-to-use-then ever, then “what other businesses will change the world?”
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