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Docker's Open Container Project to deliver the next wave of app dev innovation

Jaikumar Vijayan Freelance writer
An open standard initiative announced this week at DockerCon will allay fears and drive innovation from the nascent application container market.

Enterprises looking to tap Docker and other container technologies to improve application portability and delivery should benefit significantly from the Open Container Project (OCP) initiative announced this week at DockerCon 2015 in San Francisco.

The Open Container Project is a broad initiative to foster standards around container technologies at a time when some are concerned about fragmentation of the nascent industry. Spearheading the effort are Docker and CoreOS, upstart players in the containerization space supported by powerhouses such as Google, Intel, and VMware.

Standards effort goes beyond CoreOS rivalry

Since launching last year, CoreOS has been on a mission to define what it claims is a more standard specification for containers than Docker's technology. Its App Container spec (appc) or Rocket (rkt), as it's also known, is regarded by some as a potential rival to Docker in the container market. In elevating itself to that position, the company also raised fears of a debilitating fight over technology standards at a time when enterprise interest in containers is surging.

[ Also on Docker/DockerCon this week: Is Docker just the first "killer app" in the container revolution? | Docker gives developers plenty to be happy about at DockerCon | How healthy is your Dockerized application? ]

Under the OCP, the two companies will contribute code from their respective container technologies to develop a common, open container image format and container runtime. The Linux Foundation will host the project and oversee the development of the specification and runtime environment by the open source community. Also collaborating on the project is an impressive coalition of major technology vendors, including Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, HP, Intel, and EMC.

The OCP initiative should go a long way in allaying enterprise and analysts' fears of the container industry becoming splintered even before it has had a chance to take off. "The entire software development industry is focused on containers because they enable far easier development and deployment of applications," says Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation. It holds especially great promise for developers who want to build cloud-based applications capable of running on any platform at any time.

"But there has been a lot of turmoil in the industry between competing approaches," Zemlin says, without specifically singling out Docker and CoreOS. "This announcement represents a coming together of all of the players in the space and an agreement to unify around an open specification and open source runtime."

All in for app portability

Application container technologies give developers a way to bundle an application and all its associated code and dependencies into a standalone container that can run on any platform. Containers allow code developed on a workstation or a laptop to run equally well on a completely different system with no tweaks to the code required. Containers can run even inside a virtual machine.

Since the container is isolated from the hardware on which it runs, developers don't have to worry about infrastructure compatibility issues when writing code. When finished with coding, the development team can simply hand the container over to the operations team, which is then free to run the application on the infrastructure of their choice. While virtualization technologies give organizations a way to optimize hardware utilization, containerization enables application portability across platforms and accelerates the software delivery process.

A de facto standard is born

As a concept, application container technology isn't new, but it has become almost synonymous with Docker and its eponymous product in recent times. Surging enterprise interest in Docker's technology has made the company one of the hottest firms in the technology industry.

The company claims that its open source product has been downloaded a staggering 350 million times. In a recent survey of 754 people from the VMware blog and CloudCow communities by StackEngine, more than 70 percent said they're already using Docker or were evaluating its use. A majority are using it for development and testing purposes, but a substantial 31 percent indicated they were planning to use Docker in production environments.

Docker's container image format and container runtime environment are widely considered as de facto standards in the container industry.

Fear over lock-in drives change

But concerns that Docker was tying its runtime environment too tightly with its image format—and not paying enough attention to critical issues like security and scalability—prompted CoreOS' appc initiative as well as the OCP.

"While Docker was pretty widely accepted as the new, de facto standard for application containerization, the alternative Rocket and Application Container specification emerged last year as another open source, community-based effort," says Jay Lyman, research manager of cloud platforms at 451 Research.

Vendors supportive of both efforts and enterprises cautious about a lack of standards in the space pushed for a merger of the two efforts—or at the very least, to make them more supportive of each other, he says.

"The OCP and associated container format answer this call and provide a broader, stronger community for containers—one more likely to be accelerated by differing approaches rather than stifled by them," Lyman says.

Unleashing the innovation

For enterprises, the standardization effort signals a move toward more collaboration within the container community and will likely speed what has already been a relatively aggressive enterprise adoption curve for containers.

Dave Bartoletti, an analyst at Forrester Research, expects that most of the innovation in this space going forward will happen around the orchestration tools required to manage large, containerized environments. Running containers at scale and securing, networking, and managing them will all require specialized toolsets, he says.

"If you were an enterprise looking to build complex applications using containers you need more than just a standardized image and runtime," Bartoletti says. "You need tools to orchestrate hundreds or thousands of containers. You need tools to connect containers together, tools that help create networks and stitch together containers into more complex applications."

For example, some containers might be running databases, some might be running middleware, some might be processing data, and others running parts of an organization's website. "You might want to stitch all of those together and manage them," as a multi-application container. These high-level orchestration tools are where organizations like Docker, CoreOS, and other vendors will seek to differentiate themselves, Bartoletti says.

He pointed to Docker's Swarm native clustering tool for containers as one example of the kind of tools that will become increasingly available across the industry as the standards take hold.

New tools build out the platform

Docker used the DockerCon confab this week to release several new tools to help enterprises utilize and manage containers more effectively. Among them is a new software-defined networking (SDN) capability designed to let multicontainer application environments communicate over an IP network. The SDN function will let individual developers use a single command to connect discrete services into a distributed application, Docker's CTO and chief architect Solomon Hykes said in a prepared statement. Hykes also announed the spinning off of runC,

Docker has also created a new plug-in architecture that will allow third-party products to work seamlessly with Dockerized applications. Initially, plugin support will be available in the areas of networking and storage volumes, the company says. Enterprises will be able to use Docker-optimized products from companies such as Cisco, Microsoft, VMware, and Nuage Networks to connect and manage Docker container environments, Docker says.

Docker also announced incremental enhancements to the Docker Machine, Docker Compose, and Docker Swarm trio of container orchestration products. The upgrades are designed to make it easier for enterprises to network and manage multicontainer application clusters.

The move is on from dev to ops

The emerging availability of such tools signals an important shift in Docker usage, says Bob Quillin, cofounder and CEO of StackEngine, a vendor of container management products.

At last year's DockerCon, close to 90 percent of the attendees were from the developer community, Quinlin says. "This year, more than half of the people are operational folks who are concerned about how they are going to deploy and operationalize containers," Quillin says. "What we are seeing is that people are moving from the development to the production phase."

The shift is spurring growing interest in better tools for managing containers from an operational standpoint, he says.

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