Donnie Berkholz's Story of Data

Docker, Rocket, and bulls in a china shop

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Quick backstory: Docker’s an incredibly popular container technology, and CoreOS built a cloud-native Linux distro around it.

CoreOS just announced a competing alternative to Docker called Rocket. Docker’s official response to the Rocket announcement was very telling, and surprising. It came less than 2 hours after the announcement went up, and it was packed with typos, defensiveness, and aggression.

The basic structure and meaning of the response, in my own words, is:

  • Docker has an enormous community — we own all the mindshare, implying that we’re clearly right.
  • We’re moving up the stack. Since we own the mindshare, this is the right thing to do by virtue of us doing it.
  • We love open source, we swear, although we’re definitely in the right because the majority of people are with us.
  • There’s some minuscule group of people (all vendors, apparently) who disagree with our moves. They must be wrong because we’re taking efforts to point out that they’re vendors and not users. (ad hominem, anyone?)
  • We’re going to imply that the reason Rocket exists isn’t technical or philosophical, by presenting that option as the final corner case (“of course”). Aim being to convince developers that Rocket is just some NIH thing that exists for no reason devs should care about.
  • In bold, at the very end, such as to be the take-home point of the whole post, is a line about “questionable rhetoric and timing”, followed by another implication that Docker Inc knows what’s best since it has this huge ecosystem.

It’s particularly easy to see when you compare the initial post to the current, updated version:

Docker Rocket response

What are the key differences?

  • A host of typos disappear. Their presence indicates this was rushed out the door very quickly. Why might that happen?
  • Emphasizing their commitment to the ecosystem, rather than solely the ecosystem’s commitment to them;
  • Clearly noting that Rocket’s raison d’être appears to be true technical or philosophical differences; and
  • Removing the bolding on the final paragraph, although the wording remains.

I’d interpret that as Docker’s leadership initially having a panicked knee-jerk reaction. Couple their post with Docker cofounder and CTO Solomon Hykes’ behavior on Twitter and on the Hacker News thread on the Rocket announcement (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster.

My experiences with abusive behavior in Gentoo have led me to speak for years on the data and social-sciences research behind negative community interactions. One universally critical point is that you separate technical criticisms from emotional attacks, and Docker has failed to do so in this case. The Rocket announcement has some harsh words, no doubt about it. But taking them personally and then replying emotionally is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Responses from the community have largely been negative to Docker’s behavior throughout this process, with some exceptions:

This comes off as overly defensive and entitled, like “we brought you containers and you stab us in the back!?”

I don’t see why they need to view this as an opportunity to fight back and criticize another app container system, rather than enthusiasm about the continued spread of containers and expressing a desire to cooperate on building open, interoperable standards.

— themgt, December 1, 2014

In longer-form writeups, Daniel Compton had particularly insightful thoughts on the competitive landscape and moves among Docker Inc, CoreOS, Amazon, and Google that nicely complement my colleague Steve’s recent writeup on scale and integration. Matt Asay also wrote up a useful critique of Docker’s actions.

While Solomon would prefer to focus solely on the technology, unfortunately “Field of Dreams” approaches don’t work out so well in real life. Things like marketing, community management, and the barrier to entry really do matter. I’d strongly recommend to Solomon that in the future, he should stay out of any controversies like this, get himself some media training, and stick solely to technical arguments in public as long as he’s representing Docker Inc.

But he’s not alone — the formal statement from Docker was similarly out of touch with reality, in that it was very much focused on inside-out emotional reactions rather than the consequences they would have upon their existing and potential community.

Disclosure: CoreOS and Amazon Web Services are clients; Docker and Google are not.


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