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Docker Desktop drives devs to difficult decisions

Let us say grace... period is over.

A Docker subscription grace period is days from ending with Docker Desktop to be a licensable product chargeable per user from January 31. Docker Desktop is used by ~five million developers to locally build, share, and run containerised applications and microservices from Windows or Mac. It will cost from $5/user per month for companies with either 250+ employees or $10 million+ in annual revenue in a move announced August 2021.

Is Docker Desktop really vital? Will procurement at large enterprises pay up? Docker certainly hopes that the shift will net the company a minor windfall: the open source pioneer has faced real financial challenges over the years, although it raised a fresh $23 million in March 2021. The move comes after Docker sold off its enterprise arm to Mirantis, a Kubernetes and OpenStack support firm in 2019. (A move greeted by one observer with the pithy observation: "Congratulations to Docker on spinning off that pesky part of their business that makes money.")

Docker CEO Rob Bearden said at the time that this was the logical choice: “We determined that Docker had two very distinct and different businesses: one an active developer business, and the other a growing enterprise business. We also found that the product and the financial models were vastly different. This led to the decision to restructure the company and separate the two businesses, which is the best thing for customers..."

Docker Desktop licensing

The company says its focus is firmly on developer pipelines. Docker via Linux CLI remains free.

Perhaps not unexpectedly after selling off its enterprise side of the business, Dockers shift to make its Desktop application enterprise-ready has been a touch fraught, with the company only taking Single Sign-on (SSO) features live on January 13, 2022 (“by enabling SSO, large organizations and enterprises can easily automate the onboarding and management of Docker users at scale”); just a fortnight from the grace period ending.

The lack of SSO had been flagged by users in forums as an issue. Others had bewailed Docker’s inability to provide its centralised portal to identify how many licenses were being used across large enterprises – its FAQ advised enterprise users that “If your organization uses a Software Asset Management tool, you may be able to use this to determine how many users have Docker Desktop installed. If your organization does not use such software, you can run an internal survey to find out who is using Docker Desktop…”

The shift came after the company renamed its Free plan"Personal" in August 2021 and (alongside demanding that large enterprises use a paid subscription for Docker Desktop), introduced a new $21/month Business subscription that added more centralised management tools (even if SSO took a while to land.)

Keepers of coin still wringing their hands over this could arguably do the “right thing” and simply pay. (As one observer noted: “We have probably five people that use it. It seems insane because the cost of people talking about it so far been more than just paying [the licence] for the year.”) But at larger enterprise scale, of course, a multiplicity of “must-have” tools can start adding up fast.

Perhaps suggesting that Docker was rather belatedly coming to grips with the needs of large enterprises and their demanding procurement requirements – or simply hoping to scale uptake through the channel -- less than six weeks before the imminent deadline Docker inked a distribution agreement with distributor Nuaware that lets users’ preferred resellers purchase subscriptions through Nuaware. (The latter is owned by Exclusive Networks, which has an ecosystem of 18,000 specialist channel partners.)

Grizzled greybeards in Windows shops but not scared of the Command Line Interface and wanting to install the (free) Docker CLI instead of the (now $5/month) Docker Desktop can run it inside Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 (WSL2), which lets you run a Linux kernel inside a lightweight utility virtual machine.)

According to Stack Overflow’s 2021 survey of 83,000 developers, Docker, along with Git and Kubernetes, leads the list of the most loved and most wanted tools. How much of that love is for the Docker Desktop and how much of it will turn into a paying kind of love remains a bit of an open question, although many have already decided on their strategy. Others, meanwhile, may still be sticking a finger in the air and trying to work out just how many developers across their organisation run the tool to avoid awkward audits down the line.