Docker may have launched the container revolution, but the groundbreaking startup now competes against much larger tech companies looking to seize the market opportunity it created.
Facing down those challenges, Docker has defined a clear strategy to differentiate Enterprise Edition, its commercial platform: The ability to deploy and manage containers across a wide variety of environments, clouds, operating systems, application types and orchestration platforms.
Docker partners attending last week's DockerCon conference told CRN that strategy gives them an edge over rivals with many enterprises scrambling to leverage containers to transform their application development and operations environments.
"The ability to run applications how you want is a powerful value proposition," Glen Tindal, cloud computing principal at Capstone, a Docker partner based in Omaha, Neb., told CRN.
While the market is ripe for many success stories, Docker is uniquely positioned to meet customers where they're at—reducing potential for public cloud lock-in, enabling the popular Kubernetes orchestration platform, as well as its native Swarm orchestrator, and supporting legacy applications as comfortably as cloud-native ones.
"Our experience, every customer has in their own mind's eye a federated model that they're trying to figure out how to grapple with," Tindal said. "We've got to put an environment in place that gives them freedom of choice, ubiquity of service, allows them to drive their business the way they want it to go."
Docker leaders say that flexibility stands in stark contrast to its two largest competitors—Red Hat's OpenShift and Pivotal Cloud Foundry. Those Platform-as-a-Service offerings are highly prescriptive in how they implement containerization, said Steve Singh, Docker's CEO.
Docker's approach also has positioned the hyper-scale public cloud operators, all of which now offer managed Kubernetes services, as partners, not competitors, Singh said at a session with media at DockerCon.
"Our competition is Red Hat and Pivotal," Singh asserted. "Some people think our competition is clouds. That's absolute nonsense."
The "promise of choice" is Docker's mantra, Singh said in an earlier keynote at the fifth DockerCon conference—the first staged at San Francisco's Moscone Center, site of many of the industry's premier events.
At the conference, Docker previewed new capabilities coming to Enterprise Edition, starting with a federated control plane that manages Kubernetes clusters running on Docker's on-premise platform, or leveraging native Kubernetes services from the hyper-scale heavyweights, including the recently released Amazon EKS and Azure AKS, as well as Google's longer-standing GKE.
"If you're looking for best-of-breed, for a company that's really going to make this work, then you go with Docker," Will Kinard, CTO of BoxBoat, a Docker partner based in Washington D.C., told CRN.
Another unique focus, one that especially sets Docker apart from Red Hat, is a close relationship with Microsoft that has yielded extensive support for Windows containers, a technology Docker developed alongside the software giant.
Docker's partnership with Microsoft has been progressing since 2014, and two years ago Microsoft began bundling Docker's containerization engine into Windows Server 2016.
Partners say the alliance is starting to deliver a competitive advantage to Docker's channel--inroads to Microsoft's massive enterprise installed base.
Singh told reporters Microsoft is the biggest generator of leads for Docker.
The other major upgrade to Enterprise Edition announced at DockerCon is the ability to use Kubernetes to orchestrate Windows containers in the same clusters as Linux ones.
"There's a huge market out there, and a huge need, for Windows-native containers and the ability to intermix," Sorin Vacaru, CTO of HighVail, a Docker partner based in Toronto, told CRN.
Docker's approach particularly appeals to IT operations teams, Vacaru said.
"When I first saw Docker's platform, I said, 'That's my data center. I recognize that. I know what to do with it'," Vacaru told CRN.
Enterprise Edition "helps me deploy, manage, monitor my resources. And all the developers have to do is give me their stuff," he said.
The coming federated control plane is crucial to advancing Docker's promise of multi-cloud portability.
Pulling in Kubernetes clusters spun up by AKS, EKS, or GKE, changes the game by allowing customers to use a single platform while still leveraging services from Microsoft, Amazon and Google, and easily migrating between them.
Working with Microsoft, Docker has made it easier to bring .NET applications into modern containerized environments, Vacaru said, which has obvious appeal to the many engineers skilled at building software using Microsoft's development framework.
"That possibility will mean a lot for modernizing traditional apps," Vacaru said. Docker has empowered its partners to move legacy workloads off aging Windows platforms and begin integrating micro-services, Internet of Things, and serverless technologies.
HighVail, like many other partners with container expertise, last year was asked by Docker to participate in its MTA (Modernize Traditional Applications) program. Through the program, partners help customers start their container transformations with a select few apps.
Microsoft has even advised HighVail clients interested in using its native Azure Container Services platform to instead choose Docker Enterprise Edition in conjunction with its own cloud, Vacaru told CRN.
"Windows containers give us an incredible edge," Vacaru said. "Then, with federated cloud, you can take Windows apps, run them and start moving them whatever way you want."
Alan Geary, Docker's senior director of alliances, told CRN the company has invested heavily in enhancing the user experience, looking to simplify container deployment and operations at enterprise scale.
But even with that ease of use, partner services are in strong demand to optimize environments, set data governance policies, and operate the end-to-end pipeline. That's why the MTA program is so vital, Geary said.
"We know we need them," Geary said of the company's channel. "We're not building a services organization."
Tim Hohman, CEO of BoxBoat, said Docker eliminated a major impediment when it released Enterprise Edition 2.0—the first version to embrace Kubernetes, a rival technology to Docker's natively built Swarm orchestrator.
"The market yelled," Hohman told CRN. "And the good news is that Docker listened."
The coming release goes further to welcome the reality of a hybrid, multi-cloud world in a way its competitors don’t, he said.
"What they're saying is we can manage your Kubernetes anywhere it is, whether Docker EE or AWS. That brings a lot of things the market wants, whether visibility or control," Hohman said.
Two years ago, customer discussions about running Docker in Windows environments were in a preliminary phase, Hohman said.
"A year ago, it was still more talk than reality," he told CRN. Now "implementing containers on Windows Server is reality. Customers are doing it."
Now that Docker has effectively integrated containerization with Microsoft's vertical toolset, it's just a matter of time before Windows-centric enterprises are calling for Kubernetes, he said.
A few years ago, when Tindal came from Juniper Networks to Capstone, a Microsoft Azure partner that's in the early stages of working with AWS, he encouraged a rapid embrace of containers, sensing a shift in the market.
Capstone registered in Docker's partner program, becoming a reseller and integrator of turnkey container solutions.
"We can finally unlock the potential of legacy applications, and the associated legacy spend trapped behind those applications," Tindal told CRN.
And once legacy apps have been containerized, customers have the freedom to port them from on-premise infrastructure to the public cloud, he said.
Microsoft deserves much credit for its work with Docker, and its pivot to embracing an open ecosystem, Tindal said, as evidenced by the software giant's recent $7.5 billion deal to acquire GitHub, the leading open source code repository.
"No one can overlook the impact they made, the speed they moved," Tindal said of Microsoft. "To draw a conclusion that Linux is containers, the industry may decide it disagrees."
Every enterprise customer has a unique technological approach they want to pursue, be it [Red Hat Enterprise Linux], Windows, Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services, Jenkins, or combinations of all those products.
"Invariably, customers pick what they want to do, and they have a culture that's associated with it, an investment associated with it, a body of knowledge associated with it," Tindal told CRN.
With Docker, partners can support those preferences.
"It's difficult when your approach mandates what they need to do. Change is not something that customers do easy," Tindal said.