Cloud Services / Containers / Culture

Docker Is a Symbol of the New Stack

29 Apr 2014 10:00am, by

There really is no way to know what impact Docker will have on the future of cloud services as we know them. Nor can we definitively say how Docker will affect companies that have for so long sold operating systems and infrastructure technology that is still at the heart of most traditional stacks.

But we do know this: lightweight apps are changing infrastructure to make it lightweight, too. Docker, a lightweight container technology, symbolizes this shift from heavy to light systems. It stands at the center of a major cultural change that is not its own invention. It simply has arrived a a time when the operating system (OS) is a commodity, open-source rules and app development are faster than ever.

What Makes Docker Symbolic

Docker operates on top of the infrastructure. It syncs with the developer’s laptop, “shipping” the code. It’s fast and correlates in three ways to popular, emerging technologies:

  • Docker connects app development with back-end systems.
  • It works wherever Linux does, and as we know, that’s essentially anywhere.
  • Docker is not reliant on a separate operating system; it just takes advantage of already built technology.

The new Docker technology is the work of Solomon Hykes, who founded dotCloud, a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) company. Hykes built Docker as an extension of the Linux container system. Its architecture allows Docker containers to run independently, making it easy to move code. Virtualization technology from companies like VMware sit below the operating system and virtualize the server, not the app. Wherever the virtual machine goes, the operating system has to go with it. It has to be taken down, then booted back up and configured to run with the database and the rest of the stack that it depends on.

Docker is symbolic of an emerging  generation of developers that connect back-end systems with apps. Here’s why. We define the new stack as services on sophisticated and fast infrastructure. These types of new stacks are being built all over the world to do things that could never be done before. For example, a small business can set up a network without the need to buy networking gear. Instead, companies like Pertino have built a new stack that leverages data centers all over the world. These data centers make it possible to leverage the data mesh that crisscrosses the planet.

It’s this sophisticated infrastructure that makes it possible for startups to buid services faster and at a cost that is practically nothing compared to ten years ago.

That’s what makes the new stack so significant in so many ways. It allows companies to build businesses that are far more agile than companies using heavyweight technologies that rely on proprietary software and high IT overhead.

But who gets the credit for the shift to this new stack world? It’s not a single person. The Linux Kernel may have been developed by one man, the famous Linus Torvalds, but it now now contains more than 15 million lines of code, written by thousands of developers. A legion of distributions have been built off the kernel. Linux has grown to such an extent that it makes Windows seem small compared to its heyday. Linux is everywhere. Windows is not.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The OS is more valuable in a world of heavyweight systems than in this new one. In the age of IT, the OS sat at the base of the stack, running on single servers. Windows locked up this market for years and fought the open source movement like angry birds. Virtualization came into vogue, powered by hypervisors such as VMware’s ESX, Xen and KVM. By 2006 there were these new services like Twitter that had developed lightweight Internet technologies that operated on a platform-based OS.

This new developer community were not motivated by IT-based solutions. They wanted to build on the read/write Web, what the Web was meant to become.

To do that, developers could not depend on what the large software providers offered. The data volume was too much. Millions of people wanted to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Netflix, and other Internet-native services.

So, they built their own infrastructure technologies and open sourced it, too. For example, Cassandra, an analytics platform, came out of Facebook. Storm, the real-time analytics technology, was open sourced by Twitter. Microsoft essentially said fuck it. They were not going to join that open source world they dismissed. They still believed they could beat anyone with their might and their will. The problem was that few wanted to listen. People had other choices. There were all sorts of operating systems to choose from and all kinds of infrastructure had started to become available.

Of particular note was the emergence of Amazon Web Services (AWS). This new service, though still complex to manage, became an energy source of its own, pulling the weight of the OS and fragmenting it into a platform OS that operated on an elastic network. Developers could scale services up or down using systems that spawned virtual machines across vast distrbuted infrastructures. It signaled a new phase, a generation of platforms such as Heroku and popular entertainment services such as Netflix.  Apps were not judged entirely by their uptime. Instead, latency became the real source of trouble. Now we determine the success of an app as much by its user interface as its speed and responsiveness.

To move faster is most important. That has meant a sea change in how apps get developed. Go, for example, was built as a systems language, but it was expansive enough that developers are now exploring how to build client and mobile apps with it. The rise of Node.js is the result of a new demand for apps and the need to produce them in higher volume at a more rapid pace.

In the meantime, the OS continues to get more abstracted and more commoditized. Businesses are creating new markets by leveraging data centers and the mesh of infrastructure that now essentially covers the planet. The OS is everywhere, allowing a software networking company like Pertino to build a new kind of service that abtracts the need for networking technology.

What Does Docker Mean for the OS Vendors?

The established vendors can’t make the money that they used to in the days of single and virtualized servers. In the new platform world, the winners are the lightweight services and the large infrastructure providers. The PaaS market represents the middle but it’s not yet apparent how valuable that market will become.

In the meantime, the lightweight ecosystem is thriving. Ansible and SaltStack have become popular for configuration management and fit well with Docker. Vagrant is a service designed to create and configure lightweight, reproducible, and portable development environments.

Lightweight apps are forcing infrastructure to be lightweight, too. Docker is symbolic of that shift and the emergence of a new class of service providers.

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