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Docker looks to the future with Unikernel Systems buy

Docker has acquired Unikernel Systems to expand its capabilities with microservices and connected devices and continue to simplify the developer experience.

Docker is looking to the future and for more ways to strip down application dependencies with its latest acquisition.

The popular container startup this week acquired Unikernel Systems, a Cambridge, U.K.-based company that has been one of the leaders in developing unikernel technologies. This is an emerging space that could simplify deployments in the cloud and with Internet of Things. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The idea behind unikernels is to remove the excess baggage bundled with an operating system, stripping it down to only those parts essential to a specific application. Doing so can streamline an application from hundreds of gigabytes to megabytes -- and boot in milliseconds. The tradeoff in runtime flexibility translates to better usage and fewer surface areas for security vulnerability.

Coinciding with Docker's growth has been a proliferation of different lightweight operating systems, data center operating systems and container-specific operating systems. Unikernels are just another example of the rapidly evolving market for modern applications; and the Docker-Unikernel deal could help Docker better support the microservices that are gaining momentum, said Jay Lyman, an analyst at 451 Research.

"Unikernels are a good match for microservices," Lyman said. "You're better able to isolate the application and the operating system component and match them up most effectively."

Behind Unikernel Systems are some of the pioneers of Xen, the open source hypervisor project that is central to the majority of public cloud deployments. The founders are also part of existing unikernel and unikernel-related software initiatives, including, MirageOS, the Rumprun unikernel, the Irmin distributed database, as well as the Jitsu just-in-time deployment system.

The push for unikernels has come from research settings and academia; the technology is still very rough around the edges. Those using unikernels in production are doing so in very limited, specialized cases that require extensive computer science skills to build and operate properly, said Fintan Ryan, an analyst at RedMonk in Portland, Maine.

"I said last year that 2017 is as early as we're going to see unikernels in any kind of significant usage," Ryan said. "I'd still stand by that. I think it's quite a bit away."

Unikernels can touch and target a wide range of quicker deployments, from the hypervisor to low-level devices, and the addition of Unikernel Systems expands Docker's tool chain for common development software, Ryan said. That includes microservices in the short-term, but a more interesting potential use is around connected devices.

Docker, Unikernel similarities

There are parallels between Docker and Unikernel Systems. Both focused on older, lightweight technology used in very limited capacity because of the complexity around it. Docker took off by making it easier to package, run and deploy containers. Unikernel Systems is trying to do the same thing by making its underlying technology more accessible to developers.

Docker has made a number of acquisitions over the past year, and this one echoes a trend of bringing in smaller companies for its team and technology, rather than new customers. Instead, this Docker-Unikernel Systems deal represents more of a long-term play to build and integrate both technologies for a broader continuum of uses.

"It's all about cutting away things you don't need and that's very much in line with what containers have been about," Lyman said.

This deal also may reframe the debate about unikernels supplanting containers into a narrative about how the two could help each other and lend themselves to microservices.

"With [Docker's] growth and funding I wouldn't be surprised to see more [acquisitions]," Lyman said. "There are lots of areas for them to expand on the IT admin side, developer side, networking, data services, and software as a service."

Trevor Jones is a news writer with TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization media group. Contact him at [email protected].

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