This article is about a specific hole in docker’s strategy and holy strategies in general.

Incredible adoption curve – what went right?

Running mysql directly on your laptop is like having an unflushed toilet in your kitchen. God forbid you ever need two. Docker lets you do that without having to taste mysql in your food. It was a godsend, and a rare example of the community embracing a new primitive wholesale.

There’s an argument that google was destined to win this space. They invented containerization, mainlined it to the kernel, and then released a usable cloud platform that used it. But docker’s commands and image structure are something that wouldn’t naturally be born in google. D’s obtuse, order-dependent layer caching mechanism wouldn’t make sense given the scale of G’s buildsystems.

By starting at ‘too simple’ docker ended up at ‘simple enough’. Zero chance google would ever get there.

The other shoe

$200m plus of venture raise plus multiple acquisitions and still nobody is sure how much they net; they have 400 ish employees so at cost per head $150k that’s $60m burn. The CEO’s departure letter in may said they have the ‘option’ to be in the black this year, whatever that means, and that they’d ‘no longer need to seek outside capital’, but another version of that story is that they can’t raise again and are going to cut expenses to putter along for a while in case the market allows them to IPO.

‘Big investment in direct sales’ was the story for a while, and it led to the most important event in an F-round infra startup’s life: the hortonworks CEO takes over. Other than getting that one spark job working, I’m not sure what a hadoop consultant is going to do to fix this business. I doubt CNCF will let them pull a CDH on the docker tool. Do they even control their codebase anymore? If not, what are their assets?

Not saying the company will explode, not saying it won’t, but there was a moment when people thought ‘docker will be cloud, period’ and that moment is over. Opportunity missed.

DNS was the missing piece even before their failed cloud offering(s)

Lack of DNS integration for docker containers is, was, and has always been annoying on the local machine. I still have to write like 10 lines of wrapper code in every new project to look up IPs for docker names in the local dev environment. My use case, as it is for a lot of people, is database / services in docker, hot reload API in shell.

Docker’s strategy for this probably was names inside overlay networks but the hole there is sooner or later things need to be reachable from the outside. This is still a pain in kubernetes-land: process, container, pod, deployment, proxy, service, ingress, load balancer is a lot of yaml, though some of those don’t exist physically as a network hop. Had docker created a simple primitive for DNS/routing like they did for container builds, kube would have inherited that simplicity and docker might even have held it’s own against the bigger offerings.

Without that, docker remained a toy I use to run mysql on my laptop and the incumbents (google, I guess) ate all the lunch. Arguably binpacking is a killer feature too, but IMO DNS is more vital.

I think docker’s problem was a missing argument for where they were going and how to get there. This is hard to detect when you’re in it because not everyone in a company understands where it’s going at every moment, but if you’ve been in your career for a few years and don’t understand the links or the stops in a company’s roadmap, that’s a warning signal.

Beware the missing ‘then what’

The great idea at the beginning was to use containerization (existing technology) to solve the problem of running multiple things on your laptop (existing problem) by creating a good tool, build file format, and image format (incremental but real innovation).

But a great idea isn’t a business. My successful and, especially, unsuccessful founder friends have tried to drill this into me. You need to have a good idea AND a sane way to get where you’re going AND a profitable landing zone.

AWS was old already when docker was born. Jim Carville probably wrote ‘cloud’ on a whiteboard in docker HQ when they got serious about growth (‘it’s the economy stupid’).

But I also suspect the team didn’t agree on how to get there. They had a sales team for a while and probably have a few big accounts, but they were competing with AWS which also likes to sell things, MSFT which became the number 1 cloud mostly by converting existing customers, and google who, I mean I don’t know what to say about them, but snapchat trusts them.

Also what’s the pitch to clients? Everyone who has spun up anything in the cloud knows that docker by itself is not super useful. It’s still in 2019 really hard to ‘just run a container’ on any cloud – AMZN fargate requires a multi-hour investment in cloudformation and ECS before you can run anything and does it autoscale? Not sure what happened with Docker’s acquisition Tutum, but IIRC they turned it off after buying it. Language-specific bundle runners like lambda and GAE are winning the ‘just run a workload’ game, maybe because they’re easier for vendors to pack tightly with isolation guarantees (this is a guess).

Even if the smart people in your company individually have ideas about how to get somewhere, that’s not the same as them all agreeing on the current goal(s) and the path(s) to get there. This isn’t wizard stuff that one person can deliver on their own. I suspect, albeit w/ zero insider knowledge, there wasn’t ever a sane, well-argued roadmap at big D that the sales, tech, and C teams all understood and endorsed.


Thank you.