In 2010, when Netflix was still early into its shift from DVD rentals to online movies and shows, it started using Amazon.com’s data centers. Video streaming’s popularity was growing fast, and Amazon Web Services, the retailer’s cloud computing division, had the capacity to handle the load. Now that Netflix streams 100 million-plus hours of video every day, it’s sticking with Amazon partly because of Amazon’s scale and features, and partly because switching vendors “would be a significant multiyear effort,” says Yury Izrailevsky, Netflix’s vice president for cloud and platform engineering.
All the major cloud providers—including Amazon, Salesforce.com, Microsoft, and Google—use technology different enough so that switching from one to another would require customers to rewrite much of their software. (Jeremy King, chief technology officer of Wal-Mart Stores’ e-commerce division, compares picking a cloud provider to staying at the Hotel California—“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”) Still, in the next five years about one-third of companies using the cloud may either switch providers to get a lower price or more features, or add another provider to get servers closer to customers or have a backup should one company suffer a meltdown, says David Linthicum, a consultant who creates cloud applications for companies.
That’s why last year’s top story in the $57 billion public cloud market was the rise of so-called container software such as Docker, which chops up and isolates apps to make transitions easier. This year, as Docker and more than a dozen other container makers battle for market share, users have grown worried about falling into the same trap they did with the cloud—getting stuck with one provider that may not be the best long-term choice. The major cloud companies and some of their biggest clients have begun trying to come up with standards they hope will keep the containers interchangeable, too.
“You are not going to beat Amazon at Amazon’s game—you figure out what the next step is.” —Bryan Cantrill, CTO, Joyent
Containers break up apps into smaller packages of code, each bundled with all the basic system software the apps need to operate independently of whichever server plays host. This means programmers won’t have to rewrite the code for each new operating system and platform as an app evolves from a project on a laptop to a global hit with millions of users reached via enormous servers, says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees the open source Linux OS. “A developer will be able to write that software and deploy it without having to spend six months” rewriting it for broader and bigger systems, he says. Moving containers from one cloud provider to another is as simple as downloading them onto the new servers.
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