Data Centers

Why Docker's survival depends on money from customers, not investors

Docker started the container revolution, but it is struggling to capitalize on it as better-equipped competitors take on the market.

dockerbank.jpg
Image: iStockphoto/real444

Docker is apparently about to raise another $75 million in venture capital funding, bringing its total raised to roughly $250 million. If only it could raise similar amounts from paying customers.

Even as containers have gone mainstream, with enterprises embracing them en masse, Docker, the company, has largely missed out. Though this new round brings the company's value to $1.3 billion, that number has hardly moved from Docker's $1 billion valuation back in 2015. Investors clearly continue to have an appetite for Docker's potential, but unless the company does something drastic to super-charge its appeal to paying enterprises, other companies like Red Hat will continue to mint money on the container revolution that Docker kickstarted.

Fat and lazy on investor cash

You've seen it before: The hearty congratulations on Twitter to startups that raise a big round of funding. Too often, however, venture money isn't a sign of success—it means a company still hasn't figured out how to make money, so it's buying time with VC money. While venture money can be used to fuel growth, too often companies use it as an excuse to put off the inevitable, difficult task of making money.

SEE: Docker rocker: container technology usage doubles; serious money follows (ZDNet)

I should know. I've lived it, working for a range of open source startups that each struggled to make money. My most recent startup, MongoDB, seems to have cracked the code on revenue, with indications that it has now surpassed $100 million in annual revenue. But, it wasn't venture capital that delivered the revenue. Instead, a new, highly sales and operations-minded CEO, Dev Ittycheria, joined the company and started forcing hard decisions to turn a hugely successful open source project into a hard-headed open source business.

Docker, however, has yet to make this shift.

Yes, the company hired a new CEO, Steve Singh, the former CEO of Concur Technologies. Like Ittycheria, Singh may well bring discipline and a sales-minded culture to Docker. Indeed, according to the funding rumors, a significant share of the funding is intended to build out a sales and marketing machine. If so, that's really good news, as Docker's current revenue is paltry compared to its popularity, as several sources close to the company have shared with me. Even if you don't believe the inside sources, the company's valuation growing just $300 million over two years is testimony enough that Docker has yet to crack the revenue code.

The problem for Docker, however, is that other companies are minting lots of revenue from containers, even as it searches for the right approach.

Your loss, my gain

It's not hard to find competitors currently collecting copious cash from the container fever Docker did most to spark. Google, Microsoft, and AWS are all earning healthy returns on containers within their clouds, but Red Hat, more than any other company, offers the most painful slap in the face.

Two years ago, Cloud Technology Partners' Mike Kavis highlighted a few reasons that Docker was (then) worth $1 billion after its funding round. Each of those, however, points to Red Hat as a bigger beneficiary of the container mania than Docker, given that Red Hat wisely chose to build on community darling Kubernetes. In his post, Kavitz talked about Docker as sitting at the center of a future of distributed applications, its affinity for hybrid architectures, and its robust ecosystem, among other things.

SEE: Special report: Riding the DevOps revolution (free PDF)

But each of these areas is more likely to favor Kubernetes, which has become the center of the container ecosystem precisely because it's how enterprises choose to manage containers at scale. Add Kubernetes' traction to Red Hat's longstanding ability to sell into the enterprise and it starts to become clear how hard Docker has made things for itself by delaying a real revenue model for so long.

Is it too late? No. But Docker, despite rightly getting credit for fostering the container market, is the underdog, and not nearly as well-equipped as Red Hat to make money from containers. With every major tech vendor firmly behind Kubernetes, Red Hat has wind in its sails as its Kubernetes-based OpenShift competes against a Docker whose management tooling has the benefit of being closely aligned with the company that invented the container standard, but also the detriment of not being tied to the community managing those containers with Kubernetes.

Docker is by no means doomed, but it has serious work to do—the dull, grinding work of sales.

Also see

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.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox