Container Mania

Nearly 60 years after Malcolm McLean developed the intermodal shipping container for the transportation of goods, it seems its computing equivalent has arrived with considerable interest, much expression, and with some occasional controversy.

Containers are a form of virtualisation, but unlike the traditional virtual machine, they are very light in terms of footprint and resource usage. Applications running in containers don't need a full blown guest operating system to function, they just need the bare minimum in terms of OS binaries and libraries, and share the host's kernel with other containers and the host itself. The light nature of containers, and the very quick speeds with which container workloads can be provisioned, can however, be contrasted with a reduction in the level of isolation when compared to a traditional virtual machine, and they are currently only available on the Linux OS. Equivalent capabilities exist in other *nix operating systems, such as Solaris (Zones) and FreeBSD (Jails), but not the Windows platform .... yet[1]. When it comes to choosing whether to plump for containers or virtual machines, it's a matter of horses for courses.

So, why now? What has provoked the current interest and activity? The sudden popularity of containers has much to do with technological maturity, inspired innovation, and an evolving need.

Whilst some aspects of the technology that provides Linux containers has been around for a number of years, it's true to say that the 'total package' has only recently matured to a level where its inherent in the kernels shipped with most Linux distributions.

Containers are an abstraction of Linux kernel namespaces and control groups (or cgroups), and as such it requires some effort and knowledge on the part of the user to create and invoke a container. This has inhibited their take up as a means of isolating workloads. Enter stage left, the likes of Docker (libcontainer library), rkt, LXC and lmctfy, all of which serve to commodotise the container. Docker, in particular, has captured the hearts and minds of the Devops community, with its platform for delivering distributed applications in containers.

Containers are a perfect fit for a recent trend in architecting software applications as small, discrete, independent microservices. Whilst there is no formal definition of a microservice, it is generally considered that a microservice is a highly de-coupled, independent process with a specific function, which often communicates via a RESTful HTTP API. It's entirely possible to use containers to run multiple processes (as is the case with LXC), but the approach taken by Docker and rkt is to encourage a single process per container, fitting neatly with the microservice aspiration.

The fact that all major cloud and operating system vendors, including Microsoft, are busy developing their capabilities regarding containers, is evidence enough that containers will have a big part to play in workload deployment in the coming years. This means the stakes are high for the organisations behind the different technologies, which has led to some differences of opinion. On the whole, however, the majority of the technologies are being developed in the open, using a community-based model, which should significantly aid continued innovation, maturity, and adoption.

This article serves as an introduction to a series of articles that examine the fundamental building blocks for containers; namespaces and cgroups.

  1. Update (26 Sep 2016) - Build and Run Your First Docker Windows Server Container ↩︎