How Docker broke in half

How Docker broke in half

The game changing container company is a shell of its former self. What happened to one of the hottest enterprise technology businesses of the cloud era?

Credit: tom.ruethai / Shutterstock / Docker

The Kubernetes decision

Docker would come to rue an earlier set of decisions surrounding its refusal to truly embrace Kubernetes as the emerging container orchestration tool of choice—which allowed customers to run fleets of containers at scale and in unison—instead pushing forward with its own proprietary Docker Swarm orchestrator (RIP) with a myopic level of focus.

“The biggest mistake was to miss Kubernetes. We were in that collective thought bubble where internally we thought Kubernetes was way too complicated and Swarm would be much more successful,” Jérôme Petazzoni, one of Docker’s first and longest serving employees, said. “It was our collective failure to not realise that.”

The truth is, Docker had the chance to work closely with the Kubernetes team at Google in 2014 and potentially own the entire container ecosystem in the process. “We could have had Kubernetes be a first-class Docker project under the Docker banner on GitHub. In hindsight that was a major blunder given Swarm was so late to market,” Stinemates said.

Those early discussions at Google’s San Francisco offices were technical and tense, according to multiple people who were in the room, as both sides had strong opinions on how container orchestration should be done.

Craig McLuckie, Kubernetes cofounder and now vice president at VMware, says he offered to donate Kubernetes to Docker, but the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. “There was a mutual element of hubris there, from them that we didn’t understand developer experience, but the reciprocal feeling was these young upstarts really don’t understand distributed systems management,” he told InfoWorld. Others say discussions were more informal and focused on joint development of container technology. Either way, the teams never saw eye to eye and ended up going their separate ways, with Google launching Kubernetes itself in the summer of 2014.

Hykes disputes that Google offered Docker ownership of the Kubernetes project, saying they had “the opportunity to be part of the ecosystem like everyone else.”

Hykes does acknowledge that there were tensions between the Docker and Google teams at the time. “There was a moment when egos prevailed. A lot of smart and experienced people at Google were blindsided by the complete outsiders at Docker,” Hykes said. “We didn’t work at Google, we didn’t go to Stanford, we didn’t have a PhD in computer science. Some people felt like it was theirs to do, so there was a battle of egos. The result of that was not a good collaboration between the Docker and Kubernetes teams, when it really made sense to collaborate.”

“That fundamental ego on one side and tension on the other with [Kubernetes cofounders] Joe Beda, Brendan Burns, and Craig McLuckie—who had strong opinions about the need for a service level API and Docker technically had its own opinion about a single API from a simplicity standpoint—meant we couldn’t agree,” Stinemates said.

Hykes admits that Docker was under pressure at the time to find an orchestration solution for customers who wanted to scale their use of containers, but that it wasn’t obvious at the time that Kubernetes would be that solution. “Kubernetes was so early and one of dozens and we didn’t magically guess that it would dominate,” Hykes said. “It wasn’t even clear how committed to it Google was. I asked our engineers and architects what to do and they recommended we continue with Swarm,” he said.

Even McLuckie admits that he “didn’t know Kubernetes would become Kubernetes. It’s easy to look back on history and call it a bad choice.”

However it went down, Kubernetes ended up winning the container orchestration battle, and the rest becomes a great “Sliding Doors” moment for the software industry.

“Kubernetes came and stole all of that thunder,” Jay Lyman, an analyst at 451 Research, said. “It represented Google’s use of containers and so in developing and open sourcing that, in many ways that eclipsed the attention around Docker. [Docker] viewed Docker Swarm as their way to monetise their software. If they could go back they probably would have integrated more closely with Kubernetes from the get-go. They were too focused on going it alone.”

“One of my deepest regrets is we didn’t find a way to negotiate this,” McLuckie said. “Docker offered something experientially remarkable and what Kubernetes delivered, from an experiential perspective, was less remarkable.” Or, as Docker cofounder Sebastien Pahl noted: “Simplicity has not won. I love Kubernetes, but it is not for normal humans.”

Tensions at the top

Docker eventually hit the peak of its hype cycle in the wake of its 2015 mega Series D funding round of US$95 million at a “unicorn” US$1 billion valuation.

“That set expectations very high and exposed some of the fundamental difficulties we would have as a company,” Steinmates said. “I think Ben [Golub, the CEO] had a different idea for the company than Solomon did and it shouldn’t be a secret that the two didn’t see eye-to-eye. There was a lot of involvement from the board in trying to keep the founder happy and give the CEO enough leeway to make the company successful. If it were up to Solomon, we would have stuck on the community-oriented route to create virality. If it was up to Ben, we would have moved more strongly to the business side earlier. That tension caused us to do both in a half-assed way.”

This approach effectively spawned two Dockers: Docker Community Edition, the massively popular command-line tool and open source project aimed at developers, and Docker Enterprise Edition, a suite of commercial tools aimed at enterprise customers who wanted to adopt containers at scale. Unfortunately, the company was too slow to make that split official and divide resources accordingly.

Golub admits that they “should have split the business” earlier than they eventually did, while Hykes agrees that Docker “never found a way to connect those two halves of the company.”

By 2018, the cracks were starting to show, as the company struggled to steer a viable course between an increasingly disgruntled open source community, powerful partners, and demanding enterprise customers trying to run containers in production.

Hykes left his day-to-day role at the company soon afterward, in March 2018, noting in a blog post that, “As a founder, of course, I have mixed emotions. When you create a company, your job is to make sure it can one day succeed without you. Then eventually that one day comes and the celebration can be bittersweet. It’s never easy for a founder to part ways with their life’s work.”

Looking back today, Hykes is more succinct. “I realised that I didn’t belong at the company. It wasn’t constructive for me to stay, so I left … I was mostly an unhappy founder who should have stayed on as CEO or left.”

Docker breaks in two

In the face of growing funding troubles, Docker cycled through new CEOs, with Golub giving way to former SAP executive Steve Singh in May of 2017, and then Singh stepping aside for former Hortonworks CEO Rob Bearden in June 2019.

It fell to Bearden to finally face the music. Shortly after he took the helm, Docker sold the enterprise part of its business to Mirantis in November 2019, and Docker Enterprise was absorbed into the Mirantis Kubernetes Engine.

“After conducting thorough analysis with the management team and the board of directors, we determined that Docker had two very distinct and different businesses: one an active developer business, and the other a growing enterprise business. We also found that the product and the financial models were vastly different,” Bearden said in a press release at the time.

Where is Docker today?

The remains of Docker, anchored by the original Docker Engine container runtime, Docker Hub image repository, and Docker Desktop application, still lives on today under the leadership of seven-year company veteran Scott Johnston, thanks to a US$35 million cash injection from original investors Insight Venture Partners and Benchmark Capital.

Johnston is attempting to take the company back to its roots, by focusing “laser-like back on the needs of developers,” he told InfoWorld. “We think the company is in a stronger than ever position because of three things: customer focus, aligned go-to-market, and an ecosystem-friendly business model.”

Last week Docker announced changes to the Docker software’s licensing terms. Soon professional users of Docker Desktop who work for large companies will have to sign up for a paid subscription to continue using the application.

Johnston is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, by focusing on delivering value to the company’s core audience of software developers. “Our ambition is greater, as the addressable developer ecosystem is every developer in the world, not just those aligned to our runtime,” he said.

Where Johnston sees growth opportunities for “Docker 2.0” is in building new developer tools and trusted content for secure, verified images, as well as continued momentum behind emerging computing models like serverless, machine learning, and IoT workloads, which are underpinned by container technology.

Meanwhile, Docker remains the industry standard container runtime, with Docker Desktop installed on 3.3 million machines today. Further, 49 per cent of respondents to Stack Overflow’s 2021 developer survey said that they use the tool regularly.

Nonetheless, there remains a deep sense of disappointment around what could have been. “If I wanted to be flippant, I would ask if Docker even exists today,” Stinemates said. “From a career perspective, it’s sad. I’m still looking for a company as exciting and dynamic and to create a spark like Docker did.”

“It is fair to say Docker failed to realise its potential as a business … so far. I am very excited that Docker gets another shot at building a business after so many years. That is testament to the underlying project and the brand,” Hykes said.

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