The Container Factor

For an industry like technology that gleefully develops jargon to describe each new or emerging capability, the word ‘container’ doesn’t resonate much. But don’t be fooled—it describes a technology trend that could play a big role in banking.

Remember, the original ‘containers’ were hugely important to the shipping industry. They enabled and built on an industry standard, a uniform methodology for cargo that previously shipped in different sizes and formats. By eliminating the confusion, the entire process was streamlined, cutting costs and boosting efficiency. And now, the newest generation of software containers could have a similar effect on the way financial services institutions do the hard work of application development.

In essence, container software makes it quite a bit easier to move applications from the individual laptops and other terminals where they’re developed to the servers that the end users will log into. Those servers might be in public and private clouds, and running a range of operating systems. That’s really about it, but the potential ramifications are profound: Rather than requiring developers to get into the messy details of sourcing and procurement, they can focus on the core function of developing and supporting unique applications. That could easily cut major costs from the bottom line, and accelerate application development and adoption.

This has got some of the biggest names in banking very interested.

There was just a conference devoted to this subject just this week, and representatives from institutions ranging from Goldman Sachs to the International Securities Exchange sent senior representatives to make their presence known. There’s been movement already—Bank of America has a full team researching the field, and Goldman has taken at least some applications into the containers in the public cloud.

Of course, as with any promising technology, some concerns remain. Compatibility is a big one—since one major reason to adopt containers is that they will reduce complexity, having disparate and incompatible platforms takes away the benefit. True to form, one vendor has taken the lead in getting its own version out there: Docker has gained rapid market share with its offering, which features code, runtime, system tools, system libraries and just about anything else needed on the server. But there’s always a danger with having one company’s offering become the standard, and the tech industry has now does what it does best to promote cooperation with competition.

The Open Container Initiative (OCI), which launched this summer, has been formed specifically to create open industry standards around container formats and runtime. The group fully understands that while many ideas are welcome, the “promise of containers as a source of application portability requires the establishment of certain standards around format and runtime.” To no one’s surprise, the standards body is backed by just about every major tech player, including Amazon, Google, Intel, AT&T, EMC, Oracle and HP.

Getting that many heavyweights into the room could propel a new set of standards quite fast.

To be clear, Docker (which has received funding Goldman Sachs) and the OCI are not the only forces around.

The most interesting variable in this fast-moving equation is CoreOS, a Linux-based operating system designed to provide a stable infrastructure for clustered deployments, while focusing on automation, ease of app deployment, security, reliability and scalability. While banks like the idea of Docker, they are even more drawn to the potential offered by CoreOS.

So with all this development, and the accompanying interest, why aren’t more institutions doing more with container technology? One massive obstacle is security: While industries like technology jump with abandon from one platform or tool to another, banking IT folks must be able to withstand regulatory scrutiny with every initiative. Guarding confidential information is the top priority, and the convenience afforded by containers can’t change that rule.

Still, it should be remembered that standards at the back end can drive innovation at the front end. If everything goes as planned, container software will be widely adopted, and soon, but most end users will likely know nothing about it. What they should notice, however, is that apps are arriving faster, getting supported better, and (even if they don’t care personally) the banks are paying less.

Written by Jack Dougal