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Will containers kill the virtual machine?

Brandon Butler | April 16, 2015
As container hype sweeps across technology, what does it mean for VMs?

Two years ago when Frank Macreery started Aptible to help companies host sensitive healthcare data in the cloud, as CTO he decided that containers would play a pivotal role in the company's operations.

"Running our service just on top of VMs (virtual machines) would be ugly," he says. "I couldn't envision doing it without containers."

Container hype is sweeping across the cloud computing and virtualization industry. Many developers have realized the advantage of the lightweight way of packaging application code and in turn big-name tech vendors, from Amazon Web Services, Red Hat, IBM and even VMware are jumping aboard the container bandwagon.

And it's leading some to wonder: Will the rise of containers mark an end to virtualization and virtual machines?

A structural disruption
"There is a structural disruption happening right now," says Bryan Cantrill, the CTO of cloud provider Joyent, which is a heavy user of container technology. "We're now doing to VMs what VMs did to physical machines."

Containers are not a new technology: the earliest iterations of containers have been around in open source Linux code for decades. But in the past year they've captured the hearts and minds of many developers for building and running applications. Containers isolate specific code, applications or processes. Doing so gives whatever is inside the container a neat envelope for managing it, including moving it across various hosts. Whereas you can think of a virtual machine slicing up a server into multiple operating systems, containers run atop the OS so unlike a VM, they don't require an OS to boot up when they're created. In essence they can virtualize an operating system to provide a more lightweight package of an application compared to a VM.

Cantrill says that means it's best to run containers on bare metal servers, meaning one that does not have a hypervisor and virtual machines. "VMs (virtual machines) just don't make sense in a container world," he says, noting that Joyent has built its SmartOS operating system that powers it cloud on containers.

So will the rise of containers kill the VM?

"I don't think Bryan is alone in thinking that," says Jay Lyman of the 451 Research Group. But, Lyman's not quite ready to declare VMs dead. "The reality is that VMs are part and parcel of enterprise IT today and nothing will be replacing them or killing them off anytime soon."

Instead, containers are good in some situations, but they're not a panacea. "You have to think of containers as another weapon in the arsenal of cloud developers," says David Linthicum, a respected industry pundit and consultant at Cloud Technology Partners. "They fit well in some situations, but not all."

 

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