The future of profitability in the container market lies in Kubernetes hosting. That, at least, seems to be the new stance from Microsoft, whose container market strategy has evolved significantly over the past year.
To understand just how much Microsoft’s container strategy is shifting, you have to understand how Microsoft entered the container market and how it has evolved its strategy since then.
When Docker hit the market in 2013, Microsoft was not at all an obvious partner for the company. Docker initially ran only on Linux. There was little reason for Microsoft to become interested in Docker containers early on.
By late 2014, Microsoft had begun eyeing an opportunity in Docker as a way to host workloads on Windows servers, too. Toward that end, Microsoft and Docker began collaborating to bring Docker Engine to Windows. They demonstrated that functionality in April 2015.
Native Docker support for Windows was more or less feature-complete about a year ago, around the time that Microsoft and Docker announced an official partnership.
Microsoft even reportedly tried to buy Docker at one point.
At that time, Microsoft’s container strategy seemed clear. The company aimed to leverage Docker containers as a lightweight virtualization-like solution for Windows servers, which would ultimately help the company’s server operating system business.
Microsoft’s Pivot Toward Kubernetes Hosting
Today, however, more than a year after Docker became officially available for Windows Server 2016 and Windows 10, Microsoft seems to have rethought its container strategy.
Docker Engine still runs on certain flavors of Windows, but the pace of innovation on that front by Docker and Microsoft has been rather slow. The list of versions of Windows that Docker supports remains short. Neither Microsoft nor Docker has been very aggressive in promoting Docker as an application deployment solution for Windows.
Meanwhile, Microsoft in late October announced that it would start offering managed Kubernetes on the Azure cloud. The company is going so far as to change the acronym for Azure Container Service from ACS to AKS to emphasize the Kubernetes part of the platform (and, probably, to copy Google, which abbreviates Google Container Engine as GKE).
Although it may not be obvious on the surface, the managed Kubernetes offering on Azure adds significant friction to the Microsoft-Docker partnership. Kubernetes competes with Swarm, the orchestrator developed by Docker itself. By pushing Kubernetes as the container orchestrator of choice on the Azure cloud, Microsoft is essentially promoting Docker’s competition.
For Microsoft to go this far suggests that the company views its hosted container service on the Azure cloud as a more profitable venture than making Docker containers available on Windows servers.
To be sure, Docker and Microsoft haven’t officially broken up, and Docker Engine will continue to run on Windows. But Microsoft is reorienting its container strategy toward the cloud and Kubernetes, which is a big break from the playbook it was following a year ago.