A Startup You’ve Never Heard of Is Changing the Internet
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A Startup You’ve Never Heard of Is Changing the Internet

Flickr/Dot Conferences

A tiny startup called Docker, which launched a mere 19 months ago and gives its software away for free, has become a huge industry phenom.

The biggest names in tech have been calling it up and asking it to be their partner.

In the past few months Dell, HP, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Red Hat, VMware and others have all asked to join forces with this 31-employee company.

On Thursday, Amazon got cheers at its customers when it announced it would be supporting Docker, too.

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This has been a shockingly crazy ride for the startup's founder, 31-year-old Solomon Hykes.

He started working on Docker in 2008 in his mother's Paris basement, as a tiny side thing that he thought only a handful of other people would ever care about.

Hello Wowlrd?

The ride began in as awkward a way imaginable.

"The way we introduced Docker, it did not go as planned at all," he laughed. "We had this little project, not ready by any stretch of the imagination. We would go to someone we knew, show it, get feedback, work on it."

He had three other guys helping him. They showed it to more and more friends, 5, 10, 20 until they wanted to demo it beyond people they knew. 

So they signed up to give a "nerdy session" at a tech conference and thought maybe 30 people would show up, Hykes describes.

"We didn't think we were cool at all," Hykes laughs.

The session was something called a "Lightenting Talk" at a huge developer's conference called PyCon.

It turned out that Lightening Talks were a big deal at Pycon. "But no one told me. I got up on stage and there were like 900 people there, it was the main track. I didn't have anything worthy to show. Just this little 'Hello World' thing. I was so nervous, I misspelled Hello World," he laughs.

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"Inexplicably people went crazy, nuts over the demo. It got leaked on Hacker News. That was our launch. We did not plan any of this

Why Docker Scares VMware

The demo was for something called a "container" used to develop apps that run on cloud computing.

The cloud makes it easy for people to run their apps on all sorts of devices. But writing an app that can handle being moved around so much is really tough to do.

"If you are a software developer today, chances are you are not trying to build a desktop application, running in one computer at a time. You are probably involved in building something like Gmail or Uber, something that's just running out there on the internet, everywhere and nowhere," Hykes explains.

"You need your app to be running on many machines at the same time. As those machines come and go, the app has to evolve and expand to new machines and move around," he says.

Until Docker, everyone was coming up with their own ways to solve this problem.

But Docker wraps each piece of app into something called a container. You can change the container without changing the piece of an app. The container is smart enough to know where it (what kind of cloud server) and automatically adjust itself so all the parts of an app can float around the internet and still always work together.

Before Docker, the closest thing to a container was a tech dominated by VMware called a "virtual machine" (VM). VMware was founded in 1998, long before the mobile revolution, to solve a different problem. It tricks a single computer server into hosting lots of different apps, with different operating systems (like a Linux computer running a Windows app).

Docker is disrupting that virtual machine tech, and threatening one of the kingpins in the enterprise tech world, VMware.

VMware isn't waiting around for that to happen. In August, as container mania started taking hold, it got on the phone with Docker to strike up a partnership, Hykes says. The two companies are now working together to build a product that marries VMware's cloud tech with Docker.

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But there's still some risk that Docker could replace, not compliment.

Docker just poached Marianna Tessel, one of VMware's most prestigious early engineers, from her long term position at VMware. She's now heading up Docker's engineering.

Ingenius Business Model

Docker also has a really clever business model. It's an open source project, so it gives the software away for free. Most open source companies earn money by selling subscriptions to a special version of their product that comes with support, or special features and they charge for things like training.

Docker is doing all that but it's doing something else, from the days when it was DotCloud. It's building a service that's a cross between a GitHub (which hosts software projects in the cloud) and an Amazon (which runs software in the cloud).

The part that makes Docker containers so smart is a cloud service running on Docker's own cloud. When developers use Docker for important apps, they pay Docker for this service. The more apps running Docker, the more money Docker makes.

"Think about Docker in two parts," he says, meaning the free software plus the cloud. "Compare it to a smartphone. It's way less fun without a data network around it."

$10 Million In VC funds And Jerry Yang

After that presentation put Docker on the map, Hykes and his DotCloud cofounders pushed DotCloud aside and joined Ycombinator to build out Docker.

Smart move. This year, Docker raised $55 million from several top tier VCs including super angel Ron Conway.

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And things took off from there. Docker has been downloaded over 50 million times, it has spawned 128 user groups in 43 countries, there are over 700 developers voluntarily working on it, with 15,000 third-party projects on GitHub using Docker and some big names using it too, like eBay, Spotify, Cloudflare, Yandex, Cambridge Healthcare and Yelp.

Yahoo founder Jerry Yang also invested and joined Docker's board.

"He's a great guy. I remember being so impressed. Your talking to a billionaire that changed the internet. He's so approachable and talks to you about every day problems as a founder," Hykes describes.

The way things are going for Hykes and Docker, he's heading toward an internet-changing, super financially successful future of his own.

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

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