Cue the hand-wringing, Docker acquires Tutum. More ecosystem angst on its way?

Anyone who said that navigating the perils of being a massively valued company is easy was lying. Docker once again shows us just how hard it can be.

First the news, then a look at what it means. Docker, the commercial entity behind the eponymously named open-source initiative, is today announcing that it is acquiring Docker ecosystem startup Tutum. For its part, Tutum is a cloud service to deploy and manage "dockerized" distributed applications; it integrates the technologies and provides the workflows for development and operations to run production applications. Founded only a couple of years ago, and having only raised just under $3 million in venture capital from RTP Ventures, Azure Capital and Techstars, Tutum has grown to 11 employees and gained a claimed 24,000 beta users.

From a customer use perspective, acquiring Tutum is a no-brainer. For developers, this deal helps enable DevOps initiatives and self-service for deploying and managing distributed apps. For operations teams, it means easily deploying and managing distributed apps across clouds and private infrastructure.

For both sides of the house, the fact that Tutum is natively built upon Docker, means that it delivers a user experience and workflow that is totally aligned to what teams that use Docker are looking to do -- Docker's existing tools make it easy for companies to build and ship containerized applications; Tutum makes it similarly easy for them to run them.

And if that was all there was to it, that would be the end of this story. But alas, as I alluded to above, there is an interesting thing going on in Dockerland. Docker's founder, Solomon Hykes, took an existing technologies (Linux containers) and reimagined them in the context of modern applications. In doing so, he created a massive groundswell of interest with enterprise experimentation, startup activity and associated venture funding for a host of companies. 

A large part of that funding went directly to Docker, who has raised over $160 million as of last announcement (their funding rounds seem to come thick and fast these days so there's every chance they've raised again). All of that money eventually needs to be justified by a revenue stream -- and this is where the tension arises. Docker has had a hard time creating an open ecosystem while ensuring that it retains enough value to monetize so that its valuation is justified.

In the past, when Docker has acquired companies (SocketPlane, Kitematic, Koality and Orchard to date) there has been a gnashing of teeth by the vendors that were negatively impacted by the deals. The theory goes that if a customer has a choice between a solution (say, in the Tutum example, container management) that is provided directly from Docker (the company) as well as a third party solution from the broader ecosystem, the native tool will generally win. As such, there is a feeling, or at least a glimmer of concern, that Docker is cannibalizing its own ecosystem with these deals. If you're in the general space that Tutum is (Nirmata, StackEngine, ClusterUp and a few others, for example), today is either an awesome validation (if you're an optimist) or a pretty depressing indicator that a pivot might just be in the cards.

Previously Docker had created a "batteries included but swappable" approach when it comes to company-owned technology that is competitive with third party solutions. It will be interesting to see how the community reacts to this deal, and what impact it has on Dockers continuing approach towards the ecosystem.

I put this question to David Messina, VP of marketing at Docker. Messina adopted Docker's regular line saying:

From Docker’s inception, we have always espoused a “batteries included but swappable model” to give our partners and users the freedom and flexibility to create the best user experience with the technologies and tools that work for their particular environment. By leveraging the Docker APIs and Dockers plug-in architecture, Tutum will extend its capabilities to both users as well as Docker ecosystem partners. In turn, Docker users will require monitoring, logging, auditing solutions, etc. for its distributed applications and will look to the ecosystem to provide these solutions.

The jury is out on how this will all shake down. Industry insiders suggest that this is more of a talent acquisition than anything else. One insider, under the condition of anonymity, suggested that Tutum has "a talented team, but not sure of how much actual success they've seen as a registry product."

Interesting times, and an interesting insight into the realities of playing within a fast moving and complex ecosystem.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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