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Amid Container vs VM Hype, VMware Draws Docker Closer

Jan 15th, 2015 9:43am by
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Like other vendors, VMware has been rushing to jump on the Docker train. It announced a partnership with Docker and other plans at VMworld last summer. Docker, meanwhile, is evolving as a platform and in December announced orchestration for multiple containers. It’s moving toward reduced reliance on infrastructure.

As Scott Johnston, Docker’s senior vice president of product, told VentureBeat:

“You’re no longer going to need kind of separate operational tools to manage, deploy, monitor, and scale. All those operational functions can now be unified across the enterprise.”

While Google, Microsoft, IBM and other major players are jumping on the bandwagon, and also run containers on virtualized machines, potential reduced reliance on VM poses more of a potential threat to VMware’s core business – one it’s trying to get ahead of.

“Docker has made significant inroads on reducing complexity and offered greater simplicity and agility for developers. A lot of people in the industry are excited by that, and we’re all trying to figure out how to take what’s happening here and make sure it really works in practice for customers,” said Kit Colbert, VMware’s vice president and CTO of Cloud-Native Apps.

How Much Threat?

Docker isn’t a container technology itself, but primarily a container packaging technology used by developers – not a consolidation tool, the way VMware’s vSphere is used, according to Gary Chen, research manager for cloud and virtualization system software at research firm IDC.

That means it’s not a direct threat at this point, but could be if it develops into consolidation that’s more efficient than virtual machines, he says.

Docker’s wild popularity has been in making it faster and easier to deploy and manage containers across multiple clouds, though the VM players tout their more mature security and management capabilities. While Docker has been knocked on the security front, a recent Gartner report merely calls its security “immature,” but says running it on a hypervisor doesn’t help that much.

Mitchell Hashimoto, founder of HashiCorp, which makes Vagrant, a tool for building development environments, doesn’t foresee VMs going away.

“Practically, I don’t think Docker is an existential threat to VMware, but a marginal threat. People will adopt containers … but the way I see it playing out is there will still be a lot of virtual machines everywhere. … Even Docker’s marketing now is ‘better together,’” he says of the line that VMware’s using.

VMware’s Focus

VMware, meanwhile, is focused on making its customers’ container experience the best it can be.

Colbert highlighted the company’s Docker efforts since last summer as:

  • Helping Docker maintain its momentum toward building a truly extensible system, including gaining data on factors such as networking and storage that it can build back into the system.
  • Adding support in vSphere, vCloud Air and vFusion with Docker Machine to start apps rapidly on a variety of different hosts.
  • Making it really easy to provision a container cluster scheduler onto vSphere by extending its Big Data Extensions (BDE) technology to Mesos and partnering with Google on Kubernetes to speed app startup times.

Its forking technology known as Project Fargo, which can clone a VM during a running process, originally grew out of desktop virtualization and is still be tested. “We think there’s a tremendous opportunity there,” he said.

“What we’re focused on is providing the best infrastructure. Compute virtualization, network virtualization, storage technology …,” Colbert said. “What Docker represents is the best way of managing those applications, the provisioning of them. The reality is you still need an infrastructure to provision those applications on. Software doesn’t run on software.”

He sees Docker’s and VMware’s efforts as complementary.

“The thing we’re really excited about is the potential for greater levels of automation. We’ve been talking for years about the notion of a software-defined data center, so the characteristics, the SLAs — all that can be defined by software, many times by APIs. So the great thing is that now you can say, ‘These are the SLAs that I need for my app,’ and the infrastructure goes out and makes those SLAs happen. It’s all automated…

“The container, next-generation architectures are the perfect complement to everything we’ve been doing with the software-defined data center,” he said.

What’s Next?

Chris Swan, CTO at CohesiveFT in London sees Project Fargo as a potential “best of both worlds” technology, offering a lightweight virtual machine that looks and feels like a container – and can use Docker tools – but with VMware’s more mature security and management capabilities.

He notes that competitors’ Kubernetes-based services are still using virtual machines as a wrapper for containers.

“Nobody among the big public cloud offerings has yet announced a native container service, so you need to look at new entrants in the market such as Giant Swarm where you see that beginning to happen.”

VMware’s efforts, he says, are about hybrid solutions between the existing enterprise VMware environment and a new public cloud environment.

Hashimoto, too, sees VMware taking the correct path.

“Integration is the best solution short term, but I expect to see a lot of container runtimes coming up very quickly,” he said, mentioning CoreOS’s Rocket.

“Short-term, at least publicly, the best thing that VMware can do is make sure its hypervisor and management tools for VMs are the best that they can be. Maybe in secret they’re trying to do something else to create their own container runtime – that’s just speculation. I don’t think that would be a bad idea,” he said.

VMware’s response so far has been good, according to Chen.

“They’re trying to embrace new, disruptive technology. That’s much better than trying to ignore it or say it doesn’t work. Clearly there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of hype there,” he said.

However, “as containers evolve, [VMware’s] going to have to have more of a strategy than ‘We partner with Docker.’ They’re probably going to have to have some native story around containers. That probably includes owning that container layer and doing more native things around that …” Chen said.

They have to figure out what’s going to be the intersection – or not – of containers and VMs.

“VMware doesn’t own an operating system. They’ve been competing against operating system vendors that have included virtualization, hypervisors with their operating systems, now they’re moving into a technology that is operating system-centric. If they want to own containers, they may have to own an OS,” Chen said.

Despite Docker’s white-hot rise in popularity, it’s still early days for it yet, and enterprises are conservative and risk-averse, Swan pointed out.

“I think the one thing that’s going to hold back adoption is that things are changing so fast, and they want to wait for everything to stabilize before putting it into their production infrastructure,” he said. “I think that will keep enterprises running experiments with Docker, but will prevent them from making Docker a full-time part of their infrastructure.”

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Docker.
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