Moby or not Moby. That is the question: Docker devs debate fate of unloved rebranding

Whale becomes an albatross around the neck of the container community

In 2017, DevOps darling Docker decided to start calling the Docker open-source project by a new name, Moby – a decision the containerization upstart knew would be confusing and in fact baffled many developers at the time.

The rebranding effort, initiated as a GitHub pull request by company co-founder and then-CTO Solomon Hykes, has now been answered with a GitHub issues post to undo the name change, as if it were a vulnerability.

For developer Asim Aslam, who proposed the name reversion earlier this week, the switch to Moby harmed the project and its developer community and represents a liability.

"Moby was a confusing rename that largely did not contribute any value to the ecosystem and I'd argue actually hurt Docker adoption since it moved this project to something that was supposed to be a neutral home but perhaps on reflection was not as effective as assumed," he said in his post.

Now that Docker has sold its enterprise business to Mirantis to focus on the development market, Aslam argues that switching the open source project back to the name Docker might help the trimmed-down firm survive. Backtracking would provide clarity and make the Docker software visible at its expected URL, https://github.com/docker/docker.

That URL, in which the company name Docker precedes the name of its primary product, Docker, underscores the perils of using the same terminology in different contexts. It's an issue that's common when companies use their name for their products, like MongoDB or NPM.

With Docker, the problem was made worse by prior efforts to reshuffle the set of modules that together made up the Docker-turned-Moby project. This resulted in containerd, Docker's container runtime, being spin out, among other shifts. Over the years, Docker (the company) has open sourced components like libcontainer, libnetwork, Notary, runc, HyperKit, VPNkit, Datakit, SwarmKit and Infrakit.

Keeping track of the container project's scope at any given time has proven to be challenging, particularly when names may also be trademarks and software licenses impose their own limitations. Lack of clarity about these issues tends to be unhealthy for open source projects.

On Wednesday, Hykes, who left the biz when hopes for the project were higher, joined the discussion - being careful not to endorse the proposal or reject it. But he did offer a justification for the Moby affair. Acknowledging that it created confusion and anger, he defended the Moby name change as a necessary step to resolve differences between those who saw Docker as a developer tool and those who saw it as an infrastructure tool.

For those outside the devops community, an example of the distinction between these two camps might be that a developer would want the command docker run to launch a Docker container and spin up an app. Meanwhile, someone focused on infrastructure might prefer to specify runtime components involved in spinning up an app, like systemd, lxd, or cri-o. In short, developers want a functioning tool while ops folk prefer components they can assemble and customize.

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"Infrastructure people and devtool people have different goals and priorities, and it was not sustainable for one project to try and make both groups happy," Hykes wrote.

"...Unless you've been a full-time maintainer on Docker pre-split, you have no idea how painful it is to mix devtools development and infrastructure development in the same open-source project, at large scale. I would not wish it on my worst enemy."

Asked whether Docker (the business) intends to act on this evidently rather popular suggestion, a company spokesperson offered a decisively non-committal response: "We are listening to the community and will support what is in their best interests."

Sebastiaan van Stijn, open source contributions manager at Docker and member of the Moby Technical Steering Committee, offered a slightly warmer welcome to the proposal, noting that "evaluating the 'Moby' naming and repository structure is definitely on the roadmap." ®

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