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Docker Enterprise pricing shake-up leaves unanswered questions

IT pros begin to evaluate the long-term budget implications of a significant change to the Docker Enterprise pricing scheme.

Docker Inc. has quietly rolled out a major change to the pricing for its Docker Enterprise container orchestration software that could weigh heavily on some customers.

Docker Enterprise, the company's largest commercial software product, has also been sold under various other names, most recently Docker Enterprise Edition. Until the last three months, the software was priced per container host starting at $750 per host, per year. Customers who renewed their software licensing contracts with Docker earlier this year said those terms shifted to pricing per CPU core.

While the exact price per core is not publicly available, this approach may raise Docker Enterprise prices for IT shops that use large multicore server hardware to host containers.

"We were thinking about running Docker Enterprise on bare metal, but if the pricing is based on number of CPUs, it could take away the advantage [of that]," said Richard Fong, senior software engineering manager at Mitchell International, an auto insurance software company in San Diego.

Mitchell is in negotiations to purchase additional licenses under the new pricing model.

"We're moving forward, but I'm not sure how long that will last," Fong said. "Our business case for Docker was built on moving to bare-metal hosts and eliminating virtual machine license costs."

Pricing change favors smaller container hosts

Docker executives said little about the timing for the pricing changes. They did say it would rectify a problem for smaller-scale shops that pay as much as their larger enterprise counterparts for sometimes vastly different hardware.

Gary Chen, analyst at IDCGary Chen

The change to per-CPU pricing structure shifts the focus to the number of containerized workloads a customer runs and manages, rather than the number of nodes a customer runs, which should help companies that are just beginning to use containers, the company said in a statement.

Some enterprise customers said they'll take the Docker Enterprise pricing change in stride, and will find ways to work around the change by boosting the density of containers on each host in their shops, though some of the nuances of the pricing change remain unclear.

"We had broken our clusters down to smaller sets of fewer hosts to remedy some scale and stability issues we'd seen, but in the next six to nine months we'll be able to push the density higher without adding more compute," said a senior architect at a large insurance company on the East Coast, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It won't be the same for every customer, but we should be able to maintain a flat state expense-wise."

However, the senior architect said he's still awaiting pricing details on different types of CPU cores, such as mainframe, RISC and Intel x86. Some software vendors' pricing varies based on CPU core type, but it's unclear whether Docker intends to pursue this kind of scheme.

Docker Enterprise pricing change reflects market pressures

Per-host pricing is simple and was good for Docker when it was starting out, but ... smaller shops may have overpaid, and Docker may have been leaving money on the table.
Gary ChenAnalyst, IDC

Docker has faced competitive pressure during the last 18 months, as Kubernetes has become the de factor standard for container orchestration, and competitors such as Red Hat have made inroads at enterprises with Kubernetes-based software.

"We've always felt that Docker may need to shift its pricing model to gain revenue," the senior architect said. "Being able to fit 40 containers onto one host with one license was great for us, but not so great for Docker."

Per-CPU-core licensing is common for other major software vendors such as Microsoft, Red Hat and Oracle, which also shifted away from host-based licensing in recent years.

"Per-host pricing is simple and was good for Docker when it was starting out," said Gary Chen, analyst at IDC. "But machines vary so much that smaller shops may have overpaid, and Docker may have been leaving money on the table."

* Information updated after publication

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