SHIPPING CONTAINERS REVOLUTIONIZED the way freight is moved around the world. By making it possible to pack all manner of cargo in a uniform way, shipping companies save money and streamline the process of loading and unloading goods. But it only worked because the size and shape of shipping containers are standardized, ensuring smooth transitions the trains hauling containers across the country to the boats designed to carry the containers across the ocean.
Software containers are poised to do the same thing for the web that shipping containers did for logistics. They make it far easier to move applications from the individual laptops and workstations where they are coded to the vast clusters of computers that serve those applications to customers. Now, a who’s who of tech companies, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, have formed a new organization called the Open Container Project to create an open source standard for software containers.
But the biggest names in this effort are not the most important. That distinction belongs to Docker and CoreOS, the two companies most closely associated with container technology that until now have been working to develop competing systems. By bringing the two companies together, the open source community aims to avoid compatibility nightmares that can arise when competitors offer similar products. A single, open standard can also keep users from being locked in to a specific product. The end result, ideally, is the kind of worldwide efficiency for software that shipping containers offer for physical stuff.
Containers for All
Software containers have been around for years, but the idea caught fire when Docker released its tool set, also called Docker, for creating containers. Since then Google,Amazon and Microsoft have joined the container craze.
Docker was envisioned as a standard way to create containers. But last year, CoreOS decided that Docker had drifted too far from its roots, largely because of the needs of Docker rather than the needs of the broader open source community that had rallied around the software. So CoreOS launched a new container system called Rocket, now known as “rkt,” that would exist outside the control of any single company.
This new Open Container Project standard, called RunC, is meant to ensure compatibility between Docker and rkt containers, and with any luck, containers created by other products as well. That will leave the rkt team to focus on creating a container system that addresses the CoreOS team’s issues with Docker without creating too much fragmentation in the container ecosystem. RunC containers should even work on Windows, according to a tweet from Docker.
The Quest for Standards
The list of participants in the Open Container Project, which exists under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation, is exhaustive: Amazon Web Services, Apcera, Cisco, CoreOS, Docker, EMC, Fujitsu Limited, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Joyent, Mesosphere, Microsoft, Pivotal, Rancher Labs, Red Hat, and VMware—essentially, every company with an interest in the development of the container ecosystem.
These sorts of mega-coalitions have become increasingly common over the past couple years. In 2013, Cisco, Brocade, Microsoft and several others teamed up to create Open Daylight, an organization dedicated to a standard open source platform for the next generation of networking technologies. Several others have followed, including the Internet of Things group AllSeen Alliance, the drone tech group Dronecode, and a group dedicating to liberating the popular programming platform Node.js from corporate control. Like the Open Container Project, all exist under the auspices of the Linux Foundation.
The upside is that by putting the companies actively involved in developing products around this technology in one place and having them create open source software they can all share, the standards are more likely to be adopted. “Providing a huge standards document to a light bulb manufacturer won’t help it make better, cheaper bulbs,” Jim Zemlin, the director of the Linux Foundation, Zemlin told uslast year. “But if you hand them the open source code, then they can just start doing it.”
In the long run that’s better for everyone. Companies won’t stop trying to create their own innovative extensions to these standards that set them apart from the competition. But at least developers, and ultimately customers, won’t be left with fundamentally incompatible product. That’s progress.