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Open Container Initiative Moving Fast

It's been almost exactly a month since a coalition of industry leaders and users joined forces to create the Open Container Project to establish common standards for software containers. Now known as the Open Container Initiative (OCI) (renamed to avoid confusion with another Linux Foundation project), the group has announced the availability for public scrutiny of a draft charter for the nascent organization and the addition of 14 new members.

You can tell the OCI has the potential to become a true standards body by the broad range of organizations it has brought together, not to mention the number of out-and-out rivals who've gotten onboard. The list of founding members includes Docker, CoreOS, Amazon Web Services, Apcera, Cisco, EMC, Fujitsu, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Joyent, The Linux Foundation, Mesosphere, Microsoft, Pivotal, Rancher Labs, Red Hat and VMware. The new membership roster includes AT&T, ClusterHQ, Datera, Kismatic, Kyup, Midokura, Nutanix, Oracle, Polyverse, Resin.io, Sysdig, SUSE, Twitter and Verizon.

The OCI was established under the auspices of The Linux Foundation, which also this week announced the formation of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Both groups are "collaborative projects," which means they are Linux Foundation sponsored, but independently supported.

The hopes of the backers of the OCI are summarized in the mission statement of the draft charter:

"The Open Container Initiative provides an open source, technical community, within which industry participants may easily contribute to building a vendor-neutral, portable and open specification and runtime that deliver on the promise of containers as a source of application portability backed by a certification program."

Just as interesting, I think, is what the OCI says it will not be doing:

"The Open Container Initiative does not seek to be a marketing organization, define a full stack or solution requirements, and shall strive to avoid standardizing technical areas undergoing signification innovation and debate."

The initiative was unveiled in June at DockerCon, and the latest news was announced this week at OSCON. Docker is making a big upfront donation to the OCI: a draft specification for the base format and runtime and the code associated with a reference implementation of that spec. The company is donating the entire contents of its libcontainer project and all modifications needed to make it run independently of Docker.

I had a chance to talk with two Docker Dudes (Dockeroids? Dockerettes? Dockerers?) about the new organization and its initial momentum.

"The number of members just about doubled in 30 days," said David Messina, Docker's vice president of marketing. "That's serious velocity, which I think speaks to the widespread interest in having a single, open container specification. But also notice the diversity of that membership. We have large software vendors, smaller software vendors, large Web-scale users and large enterprise players. Everybody in the industry wants a universal standard."

The OCI is making fast moves on the technical side, too. Patrick Chanezon, a member of the technical staff at Docker who has been working on the OCI, said we can expect a draft spec in just a few weeks.

"I've been involved in several standards projects over the years at Sun, Google, and Microsoft," Chanezon said, "and I've never seen an industry standard being elaborated so fast. In just six weeks [from the launch] we'll have a first draft of a spec for something that will be the basis for container based computing. To me that is a testament to the fact that a standard like this was needed to be able to innovate faster at the higher level, like orchestration and things like that."

High demand is one reason the draft spec is coming along so quickly, but it didn't hurt that the OCI launched was followed two days later by the Docker Contributor Summit. Many of the maintainers of libcontainer, which provides a standard interface for making containers inside an operating system, attended that event, as did members of the OCI working group. "We spent the whole day working together, with the result that the spec is in pretty good shape," Chanezon said.

The OCI working group's rapid progress also shows how effective a model that emphasizes lightweight governance and a focus on a discrete set of technologies, and nothing, else can be, Messina said. "This is what can happen when the organization gets out of the way of the maintainers," he said.

There are around 10 maintainers on the project right now, many of whom are coming from the libcontainer project, Chanezon said. "What we did was move the libcontainer from the Docker GitHub organization to Open Container organization, and all the maintainers came with it," he said. But that group also includes people from Docker, Google, Red Hat, CoreOS and a few independents.

It's worth noting that libcontainer represents 5 percent of the Docker code base. Chanezon called it "the heart of Docker." runC is the reference implementation in the OCI spec, and Docker plans to use it as plumbing for creating its own containers.

Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, has said that containers are revolutionizing the computing industry. Docker claims that containers based on Docker's image format have been downloaded more than 500 million times in the past year alone, and there are now more than 40,000 public projects based on the Docker format.

I asked Chanezon why we're seeing such intense interest in, and furious activity around, containers.

"When I give talks, I like to quote William Gibson, who said, 'The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed,'" he said. "Right now, that future is getting evenly distributed, and that means that every organization on the planet is starting to build distributed applications. Docker arrived just at the right time to let them do that."

You gotta love a guy who can work in a quote from the author of the great cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, and coiner of the term "cyberspace." (Not to mention one of my favorite writers.)

Posted by John K. Waters on July 24, 2015