Open Source

New VMware open-source tools make Docker safe for the enterprise

VMware has been threatened by Docker containers, but a bold new move embraces and extends them.

Open source

Docker is hot. Docker is cool. But Docker is nowhere near a sustainable business. Despite being top-of-mind for every startup and a rising number of enterprises, some reports put the company's annual revenues at less than $500,000.

Not to worry. VMware has a plan for helping Docker—or rather, helping companies to embrace Docker while helping itself to the consequent cash.

Just as the biggest beneficiaries of Linux weren't the Linux vendors (Red Hat, SuSE, Canonical), the biggest winners in Docker-land may not be Docker and the companies creating container technologies. Instead, the big winners will be those, perhaps including data center giant VMware, who know how to make Docker safe and easy for the enterprise.

Docker is cool but...

Just last week, Docker Inc. announced a $95 million funding round, a testament to the extraordinary interest in the container technology it develops.

The reason is simple.

As I've written, it's difficult to assemble diverse components of the modern software stack on a single machine, and it becomes dramatically more so when you "ship" that software. Figuring out how to package all these components and knowing where to run them is painful.

Docker is a container technology that makes it easy to package software, along with all its dependencies, and ship it to the developer across the room, to staging or production, or wherever it needs to run. While container technology has been around since the mainframe era, it has never been more needed than now.

This is reflected in its rapid adoption.

As enterprises embrace DevOps, they're aggressively planning to use Docker, as a RightScale survey uncovers:

Figure A

As frenetic as its adoption appears, however, most enterprises aren't using Docker today, and they won't for some time. Docker, for all its strengths, still struggles with enterprise-grade security, and it introduces complexities of its own.

Sure, there are plenty of add-ons to round out Docker's many gaps, but any would-be adopter of Docker still faces an uphill battle securing its deployment.

In a conversation with VMware's Jared Rosoff, he explained that "When enterprises move to this world where they break up their apps into microservices, they end up complicating the security picture." Many developers simply don't care, of course, preferring to "move fast and break things," as Facebook's engineering motto runs.

But while developers may not care, their Operations counterparts can't be so blase about security.

All of which leaves the enterprise wanting Docker and its ease-of-use, while still figuring out ways to make that simplicity safe:

Figure B

This is what makes VMware's announcement that it has open sourced two tools to help enterprises safely embrace cloud-native applications:

  • Project Lightwave, an identity and access management project that will extend enterprise-scale and security to cloud-native applications; and
  • Project Photon, a lightweight Linux operating system optimized for cloud-native applications.

That's right. VMware, the virtualization company ostensibly at risk from lightweight containers, is embracing (and extending) Docker. This is good for VMware, as the company will be able to get paid for the tooling around Docker.

Making Docker safe for curmudgeonly enterprises

This may be precisely what the enterprise needs.

As Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady highlights, "Wherever one looks in developer infrastructure today, choices are multiplying." While choice seems like a good thing, it can be overwhelming.

As O'Grady continues, "[I]t's difficult if not impossible for developers to understand in depth the infrastructure they rely on. Worse, it's only getting more complicated as new projects arrive and existing projects extend their capabilities into adjacent areas."

As much as the Ubermensch of infrastructure believe Docker is simple and makes things easier, for the mainstream, it also adds complexity. Just look at the very different projects to which many compare Docker (as O'Grady illustrates):

Figure C

For this reason, O'Grady concludes that "becoming more opinionated is about to become more popular," by which he means, "opinionated about how and when to use particular technologies."

For enterprises that have depended on VMware for years, the thought of starting over with Docker is daunting, if not impossible. Hence, VMware embracing Docker with open-source tools that make it much easier (and safer) to run Docker containers is a blessing.

Importantly, VMware isn't forcing developers to play by its Operations-centric rules. As Rosoff tells it, "Rather than going off to developers to tell them to change to comply with IT policies, we wanted to bring the data center to the developer."

While VMware has higher-value software to complement Lightwave and Photon, should enterprises need more than these open-source tools provide, it's an interesting approach to make Docker consumable by the mainstream enterprise, a place where VMware still rules.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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