Docker Desktop no longer free for large companies: New 'Business' subscription is here

Search for sustainable business model continues, but most usage will still be free

Docker will restrict use of the free version of its Docker Desktop utility to individuals or small businesses, and has introduced a new more expensive subscription, as it searches for a sustainable business model.

The company has renamed its Free plan to "Personal" and now requires that businesses with 250 or more employees, or higher than $10m in annual revenue, must use a paid subscription if they require Docker Desktop. There are no changes to the command-line Docker Engine. The $5/month Pro and $7/month Teams subscriptions continue as before, but a new $21/month Business subscription adds features including centralized management, single sign-on, and enhanced security.

The new Docker plans

The new Docker plans

The Docker platform has a number of components, of which Docker Desktop is just one part. Docker images define the contents of containers. Docker containers are runnable instances of images. The Docker daemon is a background application that manages and runs Docker images and containers. The Docker client is a command-line utility that calls the API of the Docker daemon. Docker registries contain images, and the Docker Hub is a widely used public registry. Much of Docker (but not Desktop) is open source under the Apache v2 licence.

Whereas most Docker components are available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and despite the fact that most Docker containers run on Linux, Desktop is only available for Windows and Mac...

Docker Desktop is a GUI tool for managing various Docker components and functions, including containers, images, volumes (storage attached to containers), local Kubernetes, development environments within containers, and more. Whereas most Docker components are available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and despite the fact that most Docker containers run on Linux, Desktop is only available for Windows and Mac.

What is the rationale for the changes? Docker has become a corporate standard, CEO Scott Johnston told us, but there are security challenges with the software supply chain which the company wants to address. Further, and perhaps most importantly, the company needs a viable business model.

"We continue to see growth in the developer market. The latest stat we have is that by 2030 there's going to be 45 million global developers, up from 18-some million today… that requires us to have a business that is sustainably scalable," Johnston told The Register.

Most Docker users use it for free, Johnston confirmed, though he hopes that paid subscriptions will increase as a result of the changes. "We estimate that there's double the number of subscribers today that are likely to find it compelling to sign up to a subscription, but that is still less than 10 per cent of overall usage of Docker," he said.

Is there a risk that some users will simply decide to avoid using Docker Desktop, and continue with the free command-line tools? "There is always a non-zero risk, but we've tried to draw lines such that it's those organizations that are already getting a lot of value from Docker Desktop, that will see $5 a seat as modest," said Johnston.

Businesses need only subscribe to the Pro or Teams plans to be compliant. What is the added value in the new Business subscription at three times the price? "The Business tier at $21 a seat does add a lot more value," Johnston said. "First, it has what we call secure software supply chain features. Users can set, in a centralized control plane, what they want to allow developers to access. That is distributed out to the Docker desktops which is able to enforce those policies in the development environments.

"We're also providing centralized SaaS-based management to control the configuration of CPU usage, memory, ports and firewall access. Single sign-on is another example of the security and user management that we're providing only in that Business tier."

There are also options in the Business tier to purchase premium support bundles, and to scale up consumption of Docker images if it exceeds package limits, again at extra cost. Docker used to list "Premium customer support" as a feature of all its paid plans, but this is now called "email support".

Penguin-shaped hole

There are also a few snags with the focus on Docker Desktop, not least the fact that it does not run on Linux. "By our estimates, Linux is 20 to 25 per cent of development environments," Johnston told us. "We want to have a consistent management control plane across all of those, and so watch this space." In the meantime, "the Docker Desktop updated terms only apply to Mac and Windows."

Another issue is with remote development environments like GitHub Codespaces or Gitpod. "We do have customer requests for that use case," Johnston said, which will be addressed in part by Docker Desktop for Linux when it comes. "We still see the vast majority of our users on dedicated local machines, Windows Mac and Linux," he said, but the company is aware of the trends. "Users want the same experience remotely as they have locally, and that Docker experience can be delivered remotely. It's a matter of productization and delivery."

The new terms will be a hard sell for some, but one area that Docker may be able to exploit further is security. "Every container image on the Internet is built with Docker Build. Build goes off to the Git repos, pulls the source code, builds the image. So Docker Build gives us an opportunity to be at the very start of the inception of that image. There's a standards conversion going on where we can trace the provenance of each and every layer of the image, we can start signing those layers, and with that metadata, we can start doing automated decisioning, automated reporting, automated visibility into what's been done to that image at each step of the lifecycle."

Johnston envisages tooling built on this that "helps compliance officers go: 'Show me who's in compliance, update all those desktops with the latest images'… this feature set that we're introducing [now] is just the start of what will be a multi-year build-out of additional secure software supply chain patching features."

Such a scenario is some way off though. The signing standard is to be Notary v2, a CNCF project, and progress is slow, with plans for 2021 focused on prototypes and to "begin a Notary v2 spec." In the meantime, Docker already offers vulnerability scanning based on Snyk technology. ®

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