In December 2013, Google announced that its cloud platform was supporting a fledgling open source project called Docker. Outside of a tight-knit community of evangelical software developers, the news went largely unnoticed.
Over the next 10 months, VMware, Amazon Web Services, IBM and Microsoft followed Google's lead. By the end of last year, Docker had gone from almost complete obscurity to become one of the hottest start-ups in the raging-hot business software market, sporting close to a half-billion-dollar valuation.
"At almost every other company I've worked for, if you want to do a partnership with Microsoft or Amazon, you spend months trying to get a meeting," said Ben Golub, Docker's chief executive officer, from the company's brand-new 18,000-square-foot office in San Francisco. "In this case, they're calling us saying `Hey we'd like to meet with you.'"
In a software-defined world, Docker is a little piece of magic. Before Docker, it was accepted that moving an application from development phase on your desktop, to testing on another machine, to live availability, or production, was an unavoidable hassle. And if you wanted to create an app for Amazon Web Services that could be ported to Google or Microsoft's cloud, a sophisticated team would be needed to clear the technical hurdle.
For developers still struggling to package and move their apps, Docker has a message for you: Stop!
Using a technology called containers, Docker does all the dirty work of creating a virtual package for an application so that it can be easily moved. No losing code or critical images in the process.
Just how well has Docker succeeded in solving a major problem for finicky programmers? The technology has been downloaded more than 200 million times, up from less than 1 million at the beginning of 2014.
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Golub, who ran two tech companies before taking over Docker in 2013, is a hot commodity. He had prime speaking slots at VMware's customer conference in August, Rackspace's partner event that same month and re:Invent, the annual Amazon Web Services gala, in November.
When Golub met with IBM in March, he was joined by three Docker employees at an event that included 4,000 people from IBM.
By the time Golub sat down with Microsoft in June, the software giant had 16 different groups that wanted to meet. The companies hit it off—Docker's head of business development, Nick Stinemates, swapped cellphone numbers with Corey Sanders, director of program management for Microsoft Azure.
"From that point forward, we were constantly texting about the plans for the partnership and the terms of the deal," Sanders said. "It was more texting than I do with any of my friends or even my wife."
In the initial deal, Microsoft simplified the process of running Docker in the Azure cloud, and the company later announced that the next release of Windows Server will support Docker.
Talk to any open source enthusiast about Docker and you'll hear some version of this: Container technology has been around for a long time, but Docker just made it dead simple. According to a recent survey of 930 technical professionals conducted by RightScale, 13 percent of organizations used Docker in its first year of availability and 35 percent are planning to use it.
"Everyone recognized that containers were going to take off in some way and they didn't want to be caught flat-footed in having Docker compatibility," said John Engates, chief technology officer of managed cloud provider Rackspace in San Antonio. "Nobody really paid a lot of attention to them until 2014."
Attention and widespread adoption was last year's story. For 2015, the challenge is even bigger—because it involves making money. Remember, Docker software is open source, so anybody can download and tinker with it for free.
Sequoia Capital led a $40 million investment in September at a valuation of around $400 million, expecting Docker—the company—to find a business model around Docker—the free product.
Docker's self-service paid offering rolled out in mid-2014 at prices ranging from $7 to $50 a month. In December, Docker introduced the enterprise edition, slated for public launch later this year, that will likely start at a few hundred dollars a month and go into the tens of thousands.
Commercializing open source software has not been a lucrative way to make a living. Red Hat did it with Linux, and the list pretty much ends there. Several companies today are selling technology and services around open source big data platform Hadoop, with Hortonworks being the first to go public in December. Others are working to generate revenue from another database technology NoSQL.