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Docker is no longer just a container operation

By Tim Clark

January 21, 2016

Docker is no longer a container company. Today’s acquisition of Unikernel Systems, toolmaker for “unikernels,” signaled again that Docker isn’t just container technology (the free, open source part) but aspires to become a platform (mostly proprietary and for-pay) for building hybrid distributed applications.

Add unikernels to the list of options (Windows containers, Docker containers) to build, ship and run  hybrid applications on Docker. If containers are lightweight because they don’t contain an operating system, the unikernels are super-lightweight. A unikernel contains the application code plus the elements of an operating system (and nothing more) that are needed to run that application, making it significantly smaller than a container.

Solomon Hykes, founder and CTO of Docker, acknowledges it as the “most obscure” of Docker’s acquisitions, but the company’s most exciting one to date.

“Through the Docker platform, unikernels will be on a ‘continuum’ with Linux and Windows containers, enabling users to create truly hybrid applications across all formats with a uniform workflow,” Hykes said in a statement. Docker said the acquisition of Unikernel Systems and its 13 employees in the United Kingdom, makes unikernel technology accessible to a much wider audience and aligns with Docker’s core tenet to separate applications from infrastructure constraints. The deal (no price was disclosed) was consistent with Hyke’s intent to “build a programmable layer for the Internet.”

Unikernels are not themselves new. They have been used in dedicated appliances for networks (Cisco’s IOS) and storage (NetApp’s OnTap), both fairly large applications built with different technology. Both Docker and Unikernel see their tools as enabling the Internet of Things, for example, a much different scale than older unikernel applications. In addition to their small footprint, unikernals  can be more secure because there less code for malicious hackers to attack. 

Unikernels enable the creation of secure, self-contained, and purpose-built workloads, said John Lawler, VP of Marketing and Product Management at Virtuozzo, a pioneer in container technology. That will allow vendors such as Virtuozzo to focus more on building platforms to optimize the user experience.

The business value of the acquisition is difficult to assess. Clearly Docker believes that supporting the unikernel technology will boost the popularity of its platform and thus generate income. For enterprise developers, Docker SVP Marketing David Messina says, the acquisition spells “future-proofing” or “investment protection” (but no immediate impact) as the Docker platform embraces new software technologies.

However, Docker points out that its platform can already manage unikernels, as demonstrated in November 2015 at DockerCon EU. With Docker’s platform, developers will be able to utilize unikernels without understanding the underlying technology.

Messina admits that unikernels are “not a technology for the masses today,” so the acquisition is a bet on the future direction of software technology. A clear clue about Docker’s bet on unikernels will be how many of the 200-plus companies in the Docker ecosystem sign on to support unikernel and release tools for unikernel. If the number is low, some industry wags may dub the Unikernel deal as “Solomon’s folly.”