What is all the Container Hype?

In the virtualization world, containers have long been a topic of interest and conversation. The technology has been seen as both an affordable way of packing a hosting environment and a curiosity. With today’s burgeoning interest in cloud services, there is a focus on elasticity, scale and density within a lean data center…that’s where containers are really coming into their own.

Broadly speaking, virtualization is the art of running one computer operating system on top of another. Long before hypervisors and UNIX, it was used by mainframes to partition different operating systems. The technology became popular in the UNIX and Linux markets around 2001 when VMware produced a server product for hypervisor-based virtualization.

Containers Versus Hypervisors – It’s a Matter of Density

At its base level, a hypervisor works by having the host operating system emulate machine hardware and bring up other virtual machines (VMs) as guest operating systems on top of that hardware. Container technology however, is virtualization at the operating system level.  Instead of working at the hardware level, containers allow each guest operating system to share the same kernel – and sometimes parts of the operating system – with the host. This enhanced sharing means that containers can be leaner and smaller than hypervisors, simply because they’re sharing much more of the pieces with the host and can dramatically increase overall server density.

This improved density is one of the principle reasons containers found a home in the hosting market for web services and virtual private servers (VPSs). In web services, hosting providers cannot predict at any given time whether they’ll be servicing ten, 100 or even millions of requests. But because end users expect instant response – regardless of how many others are simultaneously using the service – increased capacity is vital to success. While the tens of seconds bring-up time that’s common in hypervisors may not seem slow to most, the average user’s expectation of results within a second cannot be met.

With containers, a hosting provider can serve three times as many VPSs per server, as opposed to hypervisors, meaning fixed costs per VPS are reduced by 66 percent. In a low margin business like hosting, this can be the difference between a profit and a loss.

Containers and Enterprise, why the Hype now?

For hosting providers, the need for increased utilization means that density makes containers the logical choice. However because the enterprise doesn’t really need density in most data centers, the value of virtualization is more about using up the spare capacity already present in enterprise servers. This was the predominate reason that containers technology was overlooked by the enterprise, and non-hosting providers until about 2010.

At about this time, enterprises began taking advantage of the cloud as a way to provide services to end users. The technology offered a lot of promise, but enterprises were running into struggles scaling consumption of resources in the data center elastically – while also ensuring a flawless user experience. Some companies experimented with hypervisor-based virtualization for the task, but quickly found it unsuitable because the time to bring up a new instance was simply too low to provide quick response, leading to inability to scale quickly.

What the enterprise needed was increased elasticity to allow for rapidly changing capacity – container technology. Even the long overlooked density improvement of containers now starts to look appealing because as you scale up rapidly, you eventually run out of physical systems (your capacity limit) and so dense packing allows you to service more (up to 3x) customer requests without having to add systems.

However, because the enterprise virtualization mindset had been limited by hypervisors – adopting a new virtualization technology wasn’t a quick fix. In fact it wasn’t until the momentum behind OpenStack’s promise to unify cloud management to a single platform that the container hype in the enterprise began in earnest. With OpenStack, enterprise could finally see a path to managing their hypervisor-based data centers with a single tool that could simultaneously deploy containerized applications at scale.

Looking Ahead – are Containers the Answer?

Containers are a proven technology for density, elasticity and scale. However, in order to reap the benefits of containers, you may have to think about the problem in a different way.

Containers can help package and deploy web applications at scale, and using container features in web applications and platforms can address some of today’s cloud delivery problems. However, they’re not a total solution. Enterprise technology was built on hypervisors, so much of the technology is designed to connect a virtual machine guest directly to virtual hardware. Since container technology works on the operating system level, it can’t speak the hardware paradigm. However, for almost every enterprise hypervisor hardware technology (like SR-IOV or NFV), there is a solution which can be used in a container.

But the reality is, container technology cannot work if one thinks only in the hypervisor paradigm. Instead, consider how one of these technologies might be made accessible to containers. It’s a challenge, but the solution lies in looking at enterprise today, and thinking about using containerization in place of. virtualization. The results may be surprising.

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James Bottomley, CTO, Server Virtualization, Parallels, Inc.

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