October 22, 2017

Docker has evolved in little more than four years from a half-baked technology that only geeks could love to a complete platform that attracts millions of dollars in investment. And that begs the question: What’s next for Docker Inc.?

Before considering where Docker is headed in the future, let’s step back and appreciate just how quickly Docker has evolved since its launch in 2013.

Docker Past

When Docker first debuted, it was built using a technology—Linux containers—that had already been around for years. It was unclear at the time whether Docker containers would be any more successful than LXC, which never gained a large following.

In 2013, Docker also lacked a complete platform. It provided containers, but not anything to orchestrate them with. It also lacked tools for persistent storage, easy networking and so on.

Docker Present

Fast forward to the present, however, and Docker has made impressive strides. The Docker software stack is now more or less feature-complete. Docker Inc. has landed more than $180 million in venture capital. People everywhere—most of whom had never heard of LXC or the container concept before Docker came along—are talking about Docker containers.

Docker today also boasts support for virtually any type of platform, thanks to LinuxKit. If you had told me in 2013 that Docker would find a way to make its containers run on any type of operating system, I would have been pretty incredulous. But that is what Docker developers achieved.

Docker Inc.’s Future

Yet, Docker’s rapid and impressive rise also leaves me wondering what will come next. Great success breeds even greater expectations. Docker needs to keep delivering if it is going to retain its current position in the market and in the popular mind; otherwise it could end up as this generation’s VA Linux.

Like most tech startups, Docker Inc. has basically two options going forward:

  1. Go public.
  2. Get acquired.

While both of those options would be good outcomes for Docker investors and developers, there are problems with each eventuality:

  1. To go public, Docker Inc. needs to be profitable. Currently, the company makes money in two main ways: By selling Docker as a service and by selling support services for Docker. It’s not clear how much money Docker Inc. makes from these endeavors. But given that there are plenty of other companies that offer the same services, I’m a bit skeptical it can generate enough revenue from its current streams to sustain itself over the long term as a publicly traded company.
  2. To get acquired, Docker needs a company willing to acquire it. Microsoft, which has been working closely with Docker Inc. for a while, is one candidate. The problem here is that Microsoft would likely be interested in only part of Docker’s technology—namely, the components that help bolster Windows Server—and it would seem silly for Microsoft to spend the money required to buy Docker wholesale if it only wants part of the technology. Indeed, Microsoft reportedly already tried to acquire Docker but couldn’t because of disagreements over price. And if not Microsoft, it’s unclear who else might want Docker. Red Hat’s container strategy is humming along nicely with no reason to invest in a Docker acquisition. Old-guard companies such as Oracle or IBM also have little to gain from owning Docker because it’s not a strong complement to their existing business. A smaller company, like CoreOS, might like to acquire Docker, but it’s unlikely to be able to afford it.

If Docker doesn’t go public or get acquired, then it will default to maintaining the status quo, which means relying on investor capital to keep things running. That might continue to work for a while, but it’s no way for a company to survive indefinitely.

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.