A rising, new market in the data and information technology (IT) sector has set the field ablaze with excitement and opportunity. Docker has had a similar impact in the software industry as the iPhone had with smart phones by creating new standards for how we use the technology. Companies have signed on in droves since its relaunch in 2013 under the Docker name, with many labeling it “the next big thing” in cloud computing and the “biggest disruptive technology” to the IT world. But unless you are fluent in tech jargon, it is likely you have never heard of it.
So what is this tech that Docker has revolutionized? So-called software containers.
While the technology is alien to the average consumer, Docker’s version is changing the game on how people behind the scenes manage and transport their software from machine to machine, which directly affects most people who enjoy using the Internet.
“Container technologies can be described as shipping containers for software,” says René Büst, senior analyst and cloud practice lead at Crisp Research in Kassel, Germany, via e-mail. “These are tools that help developers package their program code and all necessary dependencies (e.g. libraries etc.) into a virtual container. Thus, the container approach makes software portable across an array of servers running in [its] own data center or at a public cloud infrastructure.”
Think of it as regular package delivery. If you order an item from Ikea, which typically sells its furniture disassembled, it would be a mess to try to deliver every nut and bolt without all the pieces collected neatly in a box. Code and software work the same way. Without the proper delivery method (containers) Web applications – whether the apps are based in browsers, desktops, or mobile devices – could never make it to your screen in a clean, efficient format.
While the typical Web surfer is likely oblivious to it, we have been using containers for years. Tech news outlet ZDNet points to Google as an example. The company created its own open-source container technology, lmctfy (Let Me Contain That For You). Every time you use Google’s applications, such as Gmail or Search, it is delivered to you in a new container.
Before the rise of containers, virtual machines (VM) were a popular method for developers to transport their applications across servers, but an excessive amount of system requirements cut down on the number of apps that programmers could put in one virtual container. This limiting factor held back developers and increased costs. Docker advertises that its new approach could potentially save tens of millions of dollars for data centers and cloud providers.
Docker is revolutionary because it stripped away much of the fat created by virtual machines, allowing for anywhere from two to six times more applications to fit onto a single physical server. This is especially important for the larger packages that need to move from hundreds to thousands of different servers.
Cloud software providers have led the Docker trend, and not just because they can save a pretty penny. As more and more aspects of business move to digital storage in the sky, it is becoming increasing important for Web applications to efficiently run on the cloud. And for businesses that depend on this model, they can only move as fast as operators allow. Now that Docker’s containers can move efficiently through cloud systems, developers are able to track down and fix issues more quickly than ever before.
Banks have found Docker’s service especially useful, with big names signing on, such as Goldman Sachs, which uses the service to test and deploy internal software, and ING Group, which uses Docker to “update 1,400 different applications a day.”
Docker is not perfect. VMs offer more security, but the apps become venerable when moving to a cloud environment. While Docker has made this process easier, there are still security flaws that need to be worked out with the new platform.
Still, Docker has gained enough steam that Google and others have backed its major rival, CoreOS’ Rocket. Some see this as an attempt by Google and investors to open up the container market, but Mr. Büst sees this as a strategic move on Google’s part. After all, Google uses Docker for some of its systems, and several companies have designed their future-looking software to run on Docker or CoreOS' Rocket – leaving the gates open for more innovation, rather than simply coronating a market leader this early in the fight.
While Docker, CoreOS, and all other container companies may not have much fanfare outside of the tech and business world, behind the scenes of a growing number of Web applications you use, software developers see a new horizon full of innovation and new ventures.