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Docker may be the dumbest thing you do today

Welcome to the enterprise minefield

It’s clear that Docker is on a tear as it ushers in a brave new world of DevOps. What’s less clear is whether this is a good idea. At least, today.

After all, for most enterprises, most of the time, Docker and its container peers are simply not ready for primetime, assuming “primetime” means “standard enterprise apps.” While it seems certain Docker will come to displace stodgier alternatives like VMware in the future, we’re nowhere near that future today.

The Docker numbers don’t add up

It’s not hard to find startup vendors like Datadog that claim “real Docker adoption is up 5X in one year.” While true of Datadog’s customer base, which jumped from 1.8 per cent adoption in September 2014 to 8.3 per cent adoption by September 2015, Datadog’s cloud monitoring-as-a-service isn’t focused on large enterprises.

In other words, Datadog’s “eight surprising facts about real Docker adoption”, though widely recycled, don’t really reflect “real Docker adoption” among the Global 2000.

Ditto StackEngine’s State Of Containers Survey 2015, given the company’s focus on DevOps and Docker definitionally pigeon-holes it as a still-nascent IT operations vendor. (By the way, that survey found that more than 70 per cent of respondents are either using Docker or evaluating it in their organization. Gonzo!)

Perhaps a closer read on the enterprise comes from RightScale’s State of the Cloud report, which found that Docker has notched 29 per cent within enterprises, with another 38 per cent making plans to embrace Docker. Yet even here adoption can (and probably does) mean “someone, somewhere in the organisation has spun up a few Docker containers.”

Finally, a much better read on Docker momentum comes from 451 Research analyst Donnie Berkholz, who finds that 22.5 per cent of cloud-using organisations have Docker running in production. That’s a pretty hefty number for a relatively new technology, but those italics reflect an important qualifier:

“Much of enterprise IT today is stuck 10 years behind the state-of-the-art in cloud technology,” as former AppFog chief executive Lucas Carlson declares.

Enterprise inertia blocks Docker nirvana

Oh, sure, there’s no question that cloud-hugging developers love Docker, a point that Berkholz makes clear in his report.

These same developers work for companies large and small, and are quick to jump on the Docker train. They’re the very same people that escape IT inertia by throwing apps onto Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, desperate to get stuff done without having to undergo IT procurement water torture.

Yet developer love doesn’t mean mainstream adoption. Though developers are a leading indicator of enterprise adoption, they don’t necessarily reflect current adoption by stodgy enterprises that break out in hives at the mere mention of DevOps-friendly technologies like Docker.

In fact, Carlson continues, “for non-tech-native companies, 2016 is a horrible time to start adopting containers.” Why?

First, he suggests: “[T]he benefits of containers can only be achieved when the applications run within containers have been built-for-cloud.” Despite Amazon’s gargantuan cloud business, most of enterprise IT is stuck on terra firma.

Next: “[E]nterprise container technology is still half-baked,” with fledgling startups promoting them, with but precious few that will survive.

And finally: “[T]he people within many large IT organizations right now are still struggling just with the migration to virtual machines alone.” Moving immediately to containers when they’re still stuck on legacy apps is bound to result in more pain than progress.

Unfortunately, this isn’t getting any easier. As Krishnan Subramanian, senior vice president of products and strategy at CloudMunch, told me, enterprises are confused as to how to use Docker in real production scenarios. They’re also flummoxed on the subject of what is the right tooling to use, a problem that has been exacerbated by conflicting approaches introduced by Docker (the company) and Kubernetes, among others. Navigating the rapidly shifting Docker landscape is in some ways getting harder for enterprises, not easier.

And yet...

Developers as a leading indicator

“Developers love the ability to pick and choose the tools and frameworks they want to use, and tend to quickly adapt a technology they find useful. Docker is a great example of this. The same can be said of many technologies before that make their way into the corporate IT landscape," said Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady.

Lars Herrmann, general manager of Integrated Solutions & Container Strategy at Red Hat, concurs, informing me that much of Docker’s adoption that Red Hat sees is confined to proofs of concept or initial use of containers, and usually developer teams working on greenfield projects.

For now.

As O’Grady notes: “[T]he path through test and development is one we frequently see,” as developer darlings one day become enterprise requirements the next (e.g., virtual machines). And while containers aren’t appropriate for legacy applications, O’Grady insists:

Where we are seeing a massive difference with the use of containers is around greenfield projects. These greenfield projects generally have as close to a blank slate as you are going to find in the enterprise, and with them containers are going into production incredibly quickly – much faster than before.

So is Docker ready for your enterprise app today? Probably not. But if the developers are to be believed, they have a big role to play in defining the future of enterprise virtualization and application development. ®

Matt Asay is VP of Mobile at Adobe.

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