A Small Software Company Sees a Fut...
A Small Software Company Sees a Future in Containers of Code
SAN FRANCISCO — A tech start-up called DotCloud was on its last legs in 2012. Now called Docker, its software has been downloaded 70 million times.
"It's exhilarating and it's frightening," said Benjamin Golub, Docker's chief executive. "We are absolutely punching way above our weight class."
Docker is at the forefront of a new way to create software, called containers. These software containers are frequently compared with shipping containers. And as their popularity grows, building big computer networks could become remarkably simpler.
Like the big metal containers that can move from ship to ship to truck without being opened, software containers ship applications across different "cloud computing" systems and make it easy to tinker with one part, like the products for sale on a mobile application, without worrying about the effect on another part, like the big database at the heart of the corporate network.
"It absolutely makes it easier to write applications," said Eric Brewer, Google's vice president for computer infrastructure. Google developed the first type of container, for internal use, about eight years ago, which helped it build its Internet services quickly.
Docker took the Google innovation and made it easy for people to use across computers.
"It's a huge efficiency gain in how you write code," said Mr. Golub, who started his career teaching business courses in Uzbekistan. "You don't have to rewrite everything, then fix all the breaks when it goes into production. You just work on what you change."
Mr. Golub's office has a turtle, he jokes, "so that I'm not the worst coder."
Some big companies have noticed what the 70-employee start-up is doing. The European bank ING uses Docker to update 1,400 different applications a day. Gilt Group, an online store, turned seven big applications in its website into 400 smaller pieces, making it easier to update. And Goldman Sachs uses Docker to build and deploy the software it runs internally.
"Our underlying software was getting so spread out" that it was difficult to manage, said Don Duet, a global co-head of technology at Goldman. "Docker is a central place where you can put everything." A 26-year technology veteran, he compares software containers in importance to Java, a programming language created in the 1990s that led to rapid growth of the commercial Internet.
At least for now, Docker's small size and independence may be assets, since it is able to play with the giants without seeming like a threat. Microsoft in October announced it would work with Docker to put its Windows operating system in containers (Docker already works with several types of Linux, the operating system commonly used in the servers of many big clouds). IBM is working with Docker to increase the international deployment of containers. And Google and Amazon have both endorsed Docker at their events for software developers.
For all the success, Mr. Golub has reason to worry, too. His company, still private and unprofitable, has raised about $65 million. It makes some money advising companies, and is working on commercial management software that it hopes to sell. That will help manage a product Docker distributes to open source software developers — outside contributors who help create software and share it free.
He also has competitors. Google's commercial offering, called Kubernetes, can manage the free Docker tool, something that could make Mr. Golub's commercial product unnecessary. Another container project, CoreOS, claims to offer more options on how to build software, possibly with more security.
Mr. Golub acknowledges the unlikely nature of Docker's success. "It's strange, going from a feeling I know — your company is about to close its doors — to a feeling that you won't be able to deliver on your promise," he said.
He went to Uzbekistan in 1993, after he finished graduate school at Harvard in business and government. His teaching position there lasted all of five months. He returned to the United States and started working in tech during the Internet's early days, mostly in marketing at VeriSign, an online domain-name and security company.
In 2005, when social media was just starting, he was asked to become chief executive of Plaxo, which created an early tool for managing address books. Plaxo infuriated users by raiding their personal information to send spam emails.
Plaxo was sold to Comcast in 2008 for about $150 million, according to reports at the time. Mr. Golub, by then something of a Mr. Fixit for struggling tech companies, in 2010 became chief executive of Gluster, which specialized in software for data storage. Red Hat, another software company, purchased Gluster for about $140 million in 2011.
DotCloud, the precursor of Docker, was in the business of helping developers build online applications by focusing on things like spreading use across several computers.
"Software developers need to be able to work easily with complicated infrastructure," said the company's founder, Solomon Hykes. "It was clear that cloud applications would have to be written efficiently, become part of the Internet, update constantly, and be always online, for all kinds of industries."
DotCloud was one of many such services, and could not find many customers. But there was a container-type function in DotCloud, like the one Google had built. Mr. Hykes, who was talking with Mr. Golub about what the company could do to generate interest, worked at building a way for one container to work over the many versions of the Linux operating system.
His project was demonstrated at a five-minute talk in March 2013 in Santa Clara, Calif., for fans of the computer programming language Python, popular for creating interactive websites. A video of the talk went viral, and Mr. Golub joined DotCloud soon after. Mr. Hykes is now the company's chief technology officer.
Docker, as the project was called, officially began in September of that year and used the open-source process for building software. The company name was changed a month later. The open-source project has attracted about 700 outside contributors, and over 65,000 applications have been "Dockerized," or made capable of global creation, deployment and updating.
Docker's rapid rise has accelerated the creation of alternatives. Besides CoreOS, which was founded about the same time that Mr. Hykes's video was made, another company, Mesosphere, focuses on the management of containers among different cloud systems. Microsoft's shift to containers is likely to include the kind of management software Mr. Golub hopes to sell.
"I used to tell my students in Uzbekistan that competition is good," Mr. Golub said. "You don't need to know what the future is going to be to know what is going to get you there."