The “Windows or bust” Microsoft of the last decade is truly dead.

Microsoft and a bunch of its biggest competitors, including Google and Amazon, have joined forces for the Open Container Project, a non-profit organization housed under the Linux Foundation — the governing body of the Linux open source operating system, which Microsoft once considered its biggest competitor.

They’ll work to make the super-hot software container technology even better by settling on a standard.

“The creation of the Open Container Project is one of the most important technology industry moves this decade,” says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

Other companies on board include a who’s who of tech giants — HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Red Hat, and VMware — plus Goldman Sachs and several other companies.

This announcement was the biggest surprise to come out of DockerCon, this week’s big Docker event. Docker basically invented the market for containers, and recently took in a $95 million funding round at a rumored valuation of $1 billion

Contain yourself

docker ben golub solomon hykesDockerDocker CEO Ben Golub and CTO Solomon Hykes

Container technology, like the kind pioneered by Docker, lets a developer package up their software in such a way that it becomes easy to run almost anywhere, which is important as web applications get bigger and bigger. 

It allows developers to write an application on their personal laptop, send it to their team for testing on their local servers, and then run the application on a big public cloud like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, or Microsoft Azure, all without any changes to the code.

It’s intended to be simple and powerful, so developers can spend less time worrying about configuring their code and more time writing good software, resulting in a meaner, leaner technical organization. 

Docker claims that its technology currently powers over five million containers, across all the major operating systems and cloud platforms. Docker CEO Ben Golub describes the company’s containers as the “de facto standard.”

Indeed, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and other major tech companies have been tripping over themselves to support Docker containers.

Drama

alex polvi, coreos, sv100 2015Twitter/polviCoreOS CEO Alex Polvi

But there’s been some drama involved. 

A Google-backed startup called CoreOS, which once upon a time was one of Docker’s biggest boosters, didn’t like the way the Docker project was heading, especially when it came to security.

So CoreOS split off, and would eventually go on to create “appc,” an alternative to Docker that earned the support of Google, VMware, and Red Hat

This resulted in the perception that vendors were taking sides in a container war between Docker and CoreOS. Google even had to put out an official blog entry clarifying that it planned to support all major container formats.

It was making a lot of developers nervous about picking one or the other, for fear that they were choosing the wrong container format. The risk is that they might have to one day invest heavily in switching — something that could end up being hugely disruptive to a team of developers, if the tools they were using to manage their Docker containers doesn’t also work with appc, or vice versa.

This made cloud platforms and customers alike wary of committing to any one kind of container.

Moving forward

Jim ZemlinYouTube/TEDxTalksJim Zemlin, Executive Director, Linux Foundation

This brings us back to the Open Container Project, an industry group that’s given itself the mandate of working on standardizing an interoperable container format so that all of this drama can come to an end. It’s something that just about everybody had been asking for, says Docker’s Golub. 

“At this point, we can all focus on building a great set of tools,” says Golub.

The Linux Foundation was brought in to help organize the project — it’s been guiding the Linux operating system and other open software projects since its inception in 2000, which Golub says is valuable experience as the project looks to move quickly.

In fact, much of Docker’s technology is based on a way more rudimentary version of containers that Linux has had for years. 

CoreOS is taking this chance to contribute what it’s learned from appc back to Docker says CEO Alex Polvi. For CoreOS, this project is an opportunity to sort of nudge Docker in the way it thought Docker should have been moving in the first place — and customers reap the benefits of their combined expertise. 

“Creating a universal format that brings Docker and appc together is particularly important because the format is the bridge that links the tools and companies that build containers, with the tools and companies that host containers,” says Google Cloud Platform product manager Craig McLuckie. “A single standard will lead to a more vibrant ecosystem on either side of that divide.”

Still, CoreOS, Docker, and anybody else who decides to make container technology are going to continue to compete.

In the same way that big companies like Canonical and Red Hat both make a lot of money by selling their own versions of the common Linux operating system, CoreOS’s flagship “rkt” container product and Docker’s containers are going to take this agreed-upon Open Container Project standard and turn it into commercial products, each in their own ways, Polvi says.

After all, competition is just as important in software containers as it is in any other market.

“If we’re all honest about wanting standards to exist, one must also want competing implementations to exist,” says Polvi. 

The major difference is that now, customers of both companies can rest assured that all of the container management tools out there, like Google’s Kubernetes project, and all the cloud platforms out there, like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, are going to continue to support every container format out there.

It’s exciting to see an initiative that offers common container technology regardless of a customer’s choice of OS or cloud provider. We look forward to supporting the Open Container Project through our work around Windows Server and Linux Containers, and across our cloud platform,” says Microsoft Azure architect John Gossman.

For big companies like Goldman Sachs, which is both a big investor in Docker and a major user of its technology, it’s one fewer thing keeping them from moving towards adopting containers. It’s probably a big part of why Goldman Sachs signed on with the Open Container Project.

“We applaud Docker and the founding members on the work they’re doing today to ensure container technologies continue to drive innovation in the enterprise far into the future,” says the Linux Foundation’s Zemlin.