There is an enormous amount of activity going on in the container space these days. Rarely does a day go by without an announcement of new features and services that fills a much needed gap. In this article I summarize the state of the container industry and highlight some recent announcements from a few innovative container companies.
The State of Containers
2016 will go down as the year where enterprises started implementing container based architectures into production in mass for the first time. Early adopters are seeing huge gains in developer productivity. At the same time, operations is reporting improvements in managing the complexity and portability of hybrid container based architectures. A recent Rightscale survey found that the average enterprise is managing around 6 distinct cloud vendor solutions. This is driving the demand for hybrid cloud and begging for vendors to create new solutions to simplify the complexity of managing these heterogeneous environments.
I am seeing a lot of vendors releasing new features that improve container capabilities in the areas of networking, data storage, database portability, container management, and logging/monitoring. Later in this post I will highlight some announcements from four companies that recently released new features.
The Speed of Innovation
In 2013, Docker burst onto the scene making age old container technology a hot new technology trend. They accomplished this by making it really simple for developers and operators to create and manage containers. By 2014, Docker had pivoted from dotCloud, a PaaS startup, to the hottest container startup in the market place and has been raising money like crazy ever since.
In 2015, a large container ecosystem evolved and container orchestration engines like Mesos and Kubernetes emerged as great tools for scheduling and scaling container based architectures. What is interesting for me is the rate at which new features are being introduced in the container space. A large number of startups have emerged to fill in much needed gaps around security, networking, and many others. At the same time, Docker has rapidly closed these gaps as well by both acquisition and rapid development.
We have seen new technologies emerge rapidly before, but what is different this time around is that a large amount of innovation is coming from new companies with no legacy products and services to slow them down. The other major difference is that all of these companies have the ability and the culture to rapidly iterate and deliver new functionality at speeds I have never seen before.
I get briefed by Docker about every 2 months. The amount of innovation between these briefings is incredible. A year ago we were talking about how containers are too insecure for production. Now a year later, containers are heading to production in large numbers and we are starting to talk about the tipping point where containers are more secure than VMs.
Startup Challenges and Opportunities
The emergence of containers has led to many opportunities for entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps with point solutions. The following image shows a large number of companies who participate in the Docker ecosystem.
But each opportunity comes with its challenges. The container ecosystem is a crowded space with new players emerging each day. Some startups have been fortunate enough to be bought by the major players (Docker has purchased Tutum, Socket Plane, Unikernel Systems, and others) but many startups are competing along side industry giants like Cisco, VMware, EMC and others while at the same time watching Docker release feature sets that compete with their own offerings.
After Docker announced their new features at DockerCon 2015, a few of the companies displaying their products in the booths were dismayed to find that they were now competing directly with the one company they were banking on to be a key integration partner.
The industry moves so fast that a founder can identify an opportunity to fill in a much needed gap and bring a product to market in only a year only to discover that Docker with its millions in the bank can deliver a similar offering at the same speed or even faster. The window of opportunity opens and closes real fast in the container space.
Container companies in the news
One of the biggest drivers for containers is the recent trend of IT shops to embrace microservices as the way forward for building applications. Monolith applications are giving way to systems made up of loosely coupled microservices that can run anywhere and run in isolation of each other. The advantages of microservices are many. Applications can be changed faster, deployed more frequently with smaller changesets thus reducing risk, and can scale more effectively than a monolith application.
The challenge with microservices is without the proper operations tools, managing microservices running in containers can be a nightmare. This is where companies like Weaveworks comes to the rescue. Weaveworks provides what they call a fabric that is a layer of abstraction that runs on top of containers. This fabric, integrates with a large number of the solutions in the ecosystem and provides visibility into the health of the applications, the microservices that make up the applications, and the containers that are running the microservices. Traditional agent based monitoring solutions were never built to run on containers.
Another interesting company is ContainerX. ContainerX has deep roots in the VMware heritage. With their latest release, ContainerX is striving to be the “vSphere for Containers”. CEO Kiran Kamity understood that most enterprises are dealing with a complex hybrid cloud environment. Many of these enterprises have VMware and some other cloud endpoint to manage. Admins in these organizations typically have years of experience working with the VMware management tools. ContainerX enables VMware admins to be Docker admins by providing a familiar experience for managing containers.
Containers have been great for porting applications across cloud endpoints. Unfortunately, the permutations of networking and storage infrastructure has created the need for manual configuration when applications moved to environments with a different set of underlying technologies. To address that concern, a number of companies have emerged to address the issue so portability can become a seamless exercise. One such company is Datawise.io. At the Container Summit in New York recently, Datawise.io announced that it contributed code to the Kubernetes project for handling network and storage abstraction and portability. Datawise now integrates with both Docker and Kubernetes and reduces the complexity of porting applications across hetergeneous environments.
The big news out of the Docker camp in January was the release of the Universal Control Plane (UCP) which was a big step forward for enabling containers for production environments. Today, just one month later, they announced Docker Datacenter which provides a one stop management portal for managing container based architectures in a hybrid cloud environment. Docker Datacenter is installed on-premises and leverages UCP, Docker Trusted Registry, and Docker Engine to provide Container as a Service capabilities for enterprises.
You can see from the above image that Docker is starting to provide robust features to simplify managing complex distributed container based architectures. You can also see that Docker is gradually filling gaps that various vendors within the ecosystem have been targeting. Docker is an open and pluggable architecture so a customer can replace any module with the vendor solution of their choice. However, as the technologies mature and more companies start embracing containers, I wonder how many companies will feel the need to go outside of the Docker toolset to fulfill their needs. In fairness, a number of features in this offering are the result of acquisitions. The optimal path for these startups is through acquisition. Very few will have the money and staying power to own a niche in the ecosystem. I expect more startups to enter the space in 2016, but I do expect mass consolidation to start appearing in mid to late 2017 and beyond.
The container space is moving at light speed. The ecosystem is rapidly growing and the gaps that give IT professionals pause, are quickly being filled. Expect to see a flurry of announcements from container vendors frequently though out the year and watch the ecosystem mature and evolve rapidly before our eyes. 2016 will be the tipping point where many companies find containers acceptable for production deployments. I’ll try to post a few other roundups during the year to keep everyone abreast of the what is changing in this space.