August 18, 2017

What is the state of the Docker ecosystem? What’s the relationship between Docker Inc. and other container vendors? Here’s a primer.

The short answer to the questions above is that the Docker ecosystem breaks down into Docker Inc. on one side and everyone else on the other. Increasingly, Docker Inc. is pushing a technology stack comprised of products from Docker itself. It wants users to choose its integrated stack over solutions from other vendors that combine various orchestrators, container registries, security tools and so on into more heterogeneous stacks.

Docker, Inc.’s announcement Feb. 9 of built-in secrets management is the latest example of the company’s effort to promote its own technology stack as a pure-play option that comes premade with all of the components you need to build a production container environment.

The Slow Evolution of the Container Channel

But things weren’t always this way. In the early days of Docker the technology and Docker the company, Docker Inc.’s main focus was on just containers. The Docker folks left it to other projects to develop complementary tools, such as orchestrators and registries, that users needed to compose a complete container environment.

Then, last summer, Docker made the interesting move of baking Swarm, its own container orchestrator platform, directly into Docker itself. Docker containers remained compatible with other orchestrators that users might choose to install. Still, by making Swarm available by default, Docker, Inc. sent a sign to other vendors that the company wanted to encourage—though not require—use of its own, home-grown products over others.

Built-in secrets management takes things a step further. A secrets-management tool is not as vitally essential a part of the container stack as an orchestrator. Depending on the type of app you’re running, you may not need to manage secrets. Plus, there is no shortage of third-party solutions for secrets management.

But Docker wants users to turn to its own solutions even for the relatively non-essential task of secrets management. That sends a clearer signal than ever of the company’s commitment to creating a pure-play container technology stack.

Included But Not Required

Docker Inc. is taking an interesting approach as it does all of this. It’s not actually requiring use of its own technologies. It’s just making them available by default.

That leaves third-party vendors—including Red Hat, which offers integrated container stacks built mostly using products other than Docker’s, such as Kubernetes—in a somewhat awkward position. They can’t really treat Docker as a competitor, because Docker is not blocking their products out from a technical standpoint. But it’s still making it easier for people to run Docker’s own technologies, rather than those of third parties that are nominally Docker partners.

From an ecosystem perspective, then, Docker is increasingly treating other companies in its channel as frenemies. And this is not likely to change anytime soon.

Christopher Tozzi

Christopher Tozzi has covered technology and business news for nearly a decade, specializing in open source, containers, big data, networking and security. He is currently Senior Editor and DevOps Analyst with Fixate.io and Sweetcode.io.