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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?

Determining where and when to use containers may be the big question then.

A natural fit
For Macreery of Aptible, containers were a natural fit for his company's hosting platform for sensitive health care data. The company, which started in 2013 and made its product generally available a year later, uses Amazon Web Services' Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service, and runs Docker container images on top of those cloud-based virtual machines. Because the company deals with sensitive healthcare information, Aptible creates a separate virtual private cloud (VPC) running containers for each customer.

Containers allow significantly easier management compared to if Aptible was just using virtual machines. For one, containers provide consistent design architecture for all the data Aptible manages -- everything is stored in containers. If customers or Aptible need to update anything then a new container is created and launched, which takes less than a second. VMs, on the other hand, can take up to a minute to boot up. The flexibility of containers is another benefit: Aptible is able to spread multiple containers over a single virtual machine, or spread a large container over multiple VMs, if needed. The point though is that it's much easier for Aptible to manage its service when all of the data and apps look the same, because they're packaged neatly into containers. They act as a least common denominator.

That architecture works well for Aptible, but having consistent services may not be a reality for everyone. Gartner analyst Lydia Leong says even with the rise of containers, users with heterogeneous environments that include multiple operating systems and different security controls will likely still use a VM-focused architecture. Containers need to all run on the same OS and can't be mixed between Linux and Windows, for example. But, there's no reason why a large enterprise environment could have a mix of virtualized servers, bare-metal physical hosts with containers mixed into both.

Getting started
So how do you get started with containers? Vendors in the cloud and virtualization market have jumped on containers in a big way. Docker, which is an open source project for spinning up containers and the name of a company, has been central to the container movement recently. Other open source projects like Google's Kubernetes, help manage multiple containers and are gaining popularity as well.

Take Amazon Web Services, the market-leading IaaS company last fall announced the Amazon Elastic Container Service (ECS), and just this month the company made it generally available. After an AWS customer spins up a container, ECS will take care of scaling them and providing a central management portal for keeping track of them.


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