CoreOS CEO: We’re not out to replace Docker, just its containers

There was a major shakeup in the world of container-based computing this week when operating system provider CoreOS decided to get into the container space with a new open source project called Rocket. It’s a container runtime environment as well as a set of specifications for how App Containers — what CoreOS calls its container images — are built and function. But the bigger news industry-wide was the suggestion from CoreOS that it built Rocket because developer darling Docker isn’t living up to expectations.

CoreOS Co-founder and CEO Alex Polvi came on the Structure Show podcast this week to clarify that message and to explain the rationale behind Rocket and everything CoreOS does. If you’re interested in the future of containers, distributed systems and even cloud computing, both business-wise and technologically, it’s a must-listen interview. Here are some highlights, but there’s a lot more good stuff.

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We’re fine with Docker, really!

If there’s one point that Polvi really wants to get across, it’s that CoreOS didn’t build Rocket because it doesn’t like Docker — either the technology or the company. He called that notion — expressed by the media, as well as, in numerous fora, Docker founder and CTO Solomon Hykes — “fundamentally flawed.”

The rationale behind Rocket is simple, Polvi explained. Docker is turning into more of a platform, adding in features around cluster management, networking and booting cloud servers, and CoreOS wanted to make sure that the original, simple container component didn’t get lost to the world as that happens. In fact, he says he’s fine with the idea of a Docker platform:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”That’s a fine product, the private cloud is an open territory right now still. So the Docker platform is a product that needs to exist. We just want the simple composable building block to also exist for people that have their own platforms or they’re trying to build their own platform to use as a reusable component.”[/blockquote]

Although, below the surface, it might not be the mutual respect society the companies would like everyone to think it is. Later, while comparing Docker’s move away from containers to VMware’s move away from virtual machines, Polvi noted, “There is a debate as to whether the technology warrants another company like VMware to emerge.”

CoreOS CEO Alex Polvi

CoreOS CEO Alex Polvi

We build what we have to

When you consider the CoreOS business strategy, the reasons for Rocket begin to look a little more clear. Polvi calls the CoreOS lineup of technologies, which also includes a database, registry service, cluster management and other pieces, “a platform for platform builders.” It’s building the “primitives” that people need to build next-generation distributed systems and platforms, as opposed to actually building the platforms (think Heroku or CoreOS partner Deis) where people ultimately deploy applications.

“We are never trying to just take somebody else’s solution and build it,” Polvi said. “We’re trying to fill in the white space and build something that’s technically sound in an area we think is an open problem.”

He contrasts this with Docker, which he says is now becoming more akin to cluster (and container) management plays such as Mesosphere and the Kubernetes project, or VMware. Those technologies might use containers and let users move them around and manage them, but they’re far more about the management aspect than about the containers, or any other pieces of infrastructure, themselves.

Kubernetes works levels above the container, which isn't mentioned on this diagram from Microsoft.

Kubernetes works levels above the container, which isn’t mentioned on this diagram from Microsoft.

In fact, despite the fact that CoreOS has its own cluster-management tool, called Fleet, Polvi said the company actually contributes quite a bit to the Google-led Kubernetes project because it really likes the technology and the trajectory the project is on.

“Docker was a similar thing early on,” he added. “We used it for a year, we collaborated heavily with that community, but then it became clear they were on a trajectory that was no longer what we needed — and what a lot of people needed, not just us.”

Still, Polvi noted, technically, there’s no reason why Docker containers and Rocket can’t coexist provided Docker is willing to work within CoreOS’s container specifications or collaborate with CoreOS to develop a standard container format.

Structure 2010: Sebastian Stadil – CEO, Scalr; William “Skip” Bacon – VP of Products and CTO, Virtual Instruments; Michael A.Jackson – Co-Founder, President, and COO, Adaptive Computing; Jagan Jagannathan – Founder and CTO, Xangati; Alex Polvi – CEO and Co-Founder, Cloudkick; Javier Soltero – CTO for Management Products, SpringSource

A younger Polvi (far left) talking cloud a Structure 2010.

A quick thought on the cloud

We also asked Polvi about the world of cloud computing, where he used to work after Rackspace acquired his last startup, CloudKick, and where many CoreOS workloads will likely run. Maybe old allegiances just die hard, but Polvi thinks Rackspace is actually in a pretty good position as bigger cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft continue to drive down prices.

“Now, because of the competitive pressure of the cloud providers, compute on infrastructure will go asymptotically to free over time, as well,” he said. “If you think about it, what’s left after the hard parts of software are free and the compute itself is relatively free, or free enough? … I think it’s service, that’s how you do it. You help people use all this stuff.”

After a dramatic week, Docker pushes on with its product roadmap

Docker is having one of its most interesting weeks of the year starting Monday as partner (and now potential rival) CoreOS revealed its new container technology of mass-destruction, Rocket — a possible alternative to Docker. The timing of Rocket’s launch was suspect, considering this week Docker is holding a conference in Amsterdam, but the container specialist isn’t putting its head in the sand. Instead, Docker is announcing on Thursday several new features to woo developers who want to more easily craft container-based applications on the Docker platform.

Docker will detail its long-awaited open-source container-orchestration services, as well as Docker Hub Enterprise, a version of the [company]Docker[/company] Hub for paid clients. The three orchestration tools are now available in an alpha release and should enter general availability in the second quarter of 2015. Docker Hub Enterprise will be available in early access in February 2015.

The startup noted before that these new services have been in the pipeline for some time as it attempts to make its platform a sort of container-based-application-development-hub for coders to craft multicomponent applications across different cloud providers. To do this, Docker built orchestration tools, which coordinate, schedule and distribute the appropriate system resources necessary for an application to be built and run in an automated fashion.

How to orchestrate your containers

The three new orchestration services include Docker Machine, Docker Swam and Docker Compose.

Docker Machine is essentially a simpler way for developers to get the Docker engine up and running on multiple clouds from the comfort of their own laptops without having to do any manual configuration, explained David Messina, Docker’s vice president of enterprise marketing. The service uses an API that connects to any cloud so “the infrastructure itself is instantly Docker ready,” he said.

Similar to Docker Machine, Docker Compose basically makes it easier for developers to build an application using multiple Docker containers, regardless of the infrastructure used; a configuration file lets coders craft an application using multiple containers in minutes.

Docker Swarm is a clustering service that ensures an application’s distributed containers are automatically “getting fed the right resources,” said Messina. Docker is also partnering with resource-management startup [company]Mesosphere[/company] so that Mesosphere’s technology can be baked into Swarm, he said.

Swarm will eventually have a set of clustering APIs that allow it to connect with other clustering services so a developer could use Swarm to manage a set of containers on a test environment and then eventually transfer those containers to another clustering system like Mesos or the Amazon EC2 Container service.

And on to the enterprise

As for Docker Enterprise, the new service is pretty much the same Docker that everyone knows except tailored for enterprises who want to use it behind a company firewall for added security. Companies should also have access to both private and public Docker repositories.

It was possible to use Docker behind a firewall before, but companies needed open-source software and tools to do so; like Docker Machine and Compose, this service makes a complex task a bit more simple.

Although pricing has not been determined, the new Enterprise Hub will be available through Docker partners [company]Microsoft[/company], [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services, and [company]IBM[/company] on their own clouds. As part of the launch of the Enterprise Hub, Docker is also announcing its new partnership with IBM, making yet another big tech partner.

IBM will let customers use Docker Enterprise on-premise or in the cloud and Microsoft will let organizations sign up on the Azure marketplace. Amazon is making Docker Enterprise available on its AWS Test Drives and AWS Quick Start Reference platforms, which are essentially the Amazon-sanctioned services for people to test out non-Amazon-related IT products on Amazon infrastructure.

It’s not clear yet if Google will eventually offer Docker Enterprise on its own cloud. Google detailed in November its own paid-container-management platform called Google Container Engine, based on its open-sourced Kubernetes system. It will be worth watching how Amazon plans to tout Docker Enterprise as well, since it recently showed off its own EC2 Container Service.

Lots of new features, but are they warranted?

From these announcements, it’s clear Docker is trying to expand from simply being a container-centric startup to being an application-development service that rolls with all the cloud providers.

Of course, given CoreOS’s claims this week that by working on all the extra bells and whistles, Docker has lost sight of creating a “standard container,” it’s hard not to think that perhaps Docker is getting a bit caught up in its own momentum and its urge to become a modern-day application-development hub.

Messina disagreed with Polvi’s statements on Docker, and said “the drive for orchestration is driven by the need of the users in our community.” Supposedly, Docker’s large community has called on Docker to upgrade those containers and make sure they can be spun up and controlled across multiple clouds with ease.

Messina didn’t want to go in detail as to what he felt Polvi got wrong about Docker when CoreOS unveiled its own stripped-down App Containers, but he did say that Polvi was “painfully inaccurate” when he referred to Docker being “fundamentally flawed” as it pertains to security.

“There’s an incredible number of inaccuracies in that blog post,” Messina said. “I don’t want to comment one by one.”

Docker is only roughly 20 months old, said Messina, and like other technologies, the 1.0 version of a product evolves over time into something a bit different than what started out based on community feedback.

“What is there today will not necessarily be there tomorrow or next week,” he said.

Messina stressed that “Each one of these services is available on the platform but optional.” However, as container-clustering startup Giant Swarm’s founder Oliver Thylmann told me earlier this week, he and his team have noticed the Docker daemon growing each day as Docker adds more features.

Still, it’s understandable why Docker is launching these services. The promise of containers was that it could make developing applications a whole lot easier and prevent infrastructure lockdown. The gist of the new orchestration services is that Docker’s containers are more portable than ever and can run better on different clouds; whether that adds to a larger Docker daemon or ironically ends up making Docker more complex than what it needs to be remains to be seen.

As for Docker Enterprise, the startup has been saying it wants to take a Red Hat approach to its open-source technology, and today’s announcements lays the groundwork for more Docker enterprise services to sprout. The important detail was for Docker to convince enterprises that it’s safe to use, and by making a version of Docker that can run behind a company firewall as well as containing private repositories, companies could feel better about giving the new service a whirl.

The outlier in this case are the multiple cloud providers that are Docker partners. Just how long will they tolerate a startup that plays nice with their competitors and allows for customers to use other infrastructure as well? There is a cloud war going on, after all.

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket land in the Atlantic Ocean

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is now equipped with landing legs, which could eventually allow it to be reusable–a crucial step toward lowering the cost of carrying cargo to space. The space startup released a video today taken from the surface of the rocket as it passed through the planet’s atmosphere and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. “The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight,” a blog post states. “At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment.”
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQnR5fhCXkQ&w=560&h=315]

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The Samwer brothers suddenly lose their shyness

It’s become almost cliche to say that the Samwer brothers, Europe’s most successful — and notorious — internet entrepreneurs are publicity shy. A series of exits to the likes of eBay and Groupon have made them millions, but they have tended to keep away from the press, avoid much in the way of public speaking, and even apparently walk out of interviews from time to time. Why? Presumably it is in part because the awkward questions about their copycat ideas just keep on coming.

But is it now time to retire the idea that they just won’t talk?

Two major pieces in the last few days suggest that the three brothers — Marc, Oliver and Alexander — have decided to go on something of a press offensive.

First came Bloomberg Businessweek‘s “How Three Germans Are Cloning The Web”, a piece that hangs itself on the recent copycatting of Fab.com to give an overview of the Samwer’s main company-building vehicle, Rocket Internet. In it, Oliver Samwer goes on the record through a mixture of email and interview.

“There are pioneering entrepreneurs and execution entrepreneurs, and maybe we belong more to the execution entrepreneurs,” says Oliver, who speaks at a rapid clip, frequently punctuating thoughts with a rhetorical “ja?”

“I think the most admirable entrepreneurs are those with original ideas, ja? It’s a unique gift that you either have or you don’t. Just as we might have a very good gift of execution, others have a unique gift for the purest form of innovation.”

Meanwhile, a piece in the new edition of Wired UK, called Inside The Clone Factory, treads similar ground with a little more flourish. Written by Reuters journalist Matt Cowan, it’s obviously been several months in the making (it opens with an interview in Munich last September) and also tries to get to the bottom of what keeps them going.

“If I was motivated by money alone, I would have stopped a long time ago,” he [Oliver] insists. Rather, he suggests that what galvanises them is winning: “To prove over and over again that we’re the best,” he explains.

Both stories are good reads that give some insight into the brothers and into Rocket, and more or less go over the same ideas.

Both stories get to visit the offices of Rocket and discuss the company’s position in the fast-growing Berlin startup scene. And, ultimately, both stories manage to get the brothers (actually, mainly Oliver) to go on the record, even if it’s largely to share the same anecdotes or make the same points.

How much they add to your understanding of the Samwer brothers probably depends on how closely you follow Rocket’s movements.

The meta question is not about what these articles themselves say, or even what the Samwers say about themselves. It’s why they are appearing now. What do they hope to get from these interviews? Is it understanding? Legitimacy? Better press in general?

Whatever the case, the trio are obviously taking on a slightly new approach — and this feels like a watershed of sorts. After all, even though they really end up saying very little, well… at least they’re talking.