Getting Started with Containers

Containers are a simplified way to build, test, deploy, and redeploy applications in multiple environments, from a developer's local laptop to an on-premises data center or even the cloud. This article explains the definition of containers, their benefits, the difference between containers and virtual machines, and how Docker and Kubernetes relate to containers.

1. What is a container

Containers are a form of operating system virtualization. A container can be used to run everything from small microservices or software processes to large applications. The container contains all necessary executables, binaries, libraries and configuration files. However, unlike server or computer virtualization methods, containers do not contain an operating system image. Therefore, they are more portable and portable with little overhead. In large application deployments, multiple containers can be deployed as one or more container clusters. Such clusters can be managed by container orchestrators such as Kubernetes.

Using containers isolates software, enabling it to run independently across different operating systems, hardware, networking, storage systems, and security policies. This allows container-based applications to seamlessly transition between development, test, and production environments. Because the operating system is not packaged into containers, each container requires minimal computing resources, takes up minimal space, and is easy to install.

2. Advantages of containers

(1) Reduced overhead: Containers require fewer system resources than traditional or hardware virtual machine environments because they do not contain an operating system image.

(2) Improve portability: Applications running in containers can be easily deployed to multiple different operating systems and hardware platforms.

(3) More consistent operations: DevOps teams understand that applications in containers will run consistently no matter where they are deployed.

(4) Improve efficiency: With containers, applications can be deployed, patched or scaled faster.

(5) Improve application development: Containers support agile DevOps efforts to accelerate development testing and shorten production cycles.

3. Containers VS VMs

There are some basic similarities between container technology and virtual machine (VM) or server virtualization technology, but containers are very different from virtual machines.

Virtual machines run in a hypervisor environment, where each virtual machine must contain its own guest operating system within it, along with associated binaries, libraries, and application files. This consumes a lot of system resources and overhead, especially when multiple virtual machines are running on the same physical server, each with its own guest operating system.

In contrast, each container shares the same host operating system or system kernel and is very lightweight, usually only a few megabytes. This often means that a container might start in seconds, compared to gigabytes and minutes for a typical virtual machine.

4. How Docker and Kubernetes relate to containers

Users involved in container environments may have heard of two common tools and platforms for building and managing containers. They are Docker and Kubernetes respectively.

Docker is a commonly used runtime environment for creating and building software in containers. It uses Docker images (copy-on-write snapshots) to deploy containerized applications or software in multiple environments from development to test and production. Docker is built on open standards and capabilities in most common operating environments, including Linux, Microsoft Windows, and other on-premises or cloud-based infrastructures.

However, containerized applications can get complicated. In a production environment, many applications may require hundreds or thousands of individual containers in production. In this case, container runtime environments such as Docker can benefit from using other tools to orchestrate or manage all the containers running.

One of the most commonly used tools for this is Kubernetes, a container orchestrator that recognizes multiple container runtime environments, including Docker.

Kubernetes can coordinate the running of multiple containers. It manages areas such as the use of underlying infrastructure resources for containerized applications, such as the amount of computing, network, and storage resources required. With orchestration tools like Kubernetes, it's easier to automate and scale container-based workloads for real-time production environments.

5. Industries that embrace containerization

Here are two industries that have recently benefited from containerization technology:

Retail: Containerization helps retailers cope with the continued surge in e-commerce demand. With e-commerce sales doubling or even tripling, retailers are building cloud-native platforms that are reliable, fast, efficient, and scalable to better handle increasing workflows. Containers are integral to gaining the speed and agility needed to handle this situation.

Multinational services: Organizations serving global customers are also turning to a containerized model. With the need to deploy, manage and maintain services across multiple regions, the speed and efficiency advantages of deploying containers across clouds make it a logical choice.

In fact, many industries have realized that by running these containers across on-premises and public cloud environments, they can remove the complexities associated with portability and siloed environments. Today, containerization technology is widely deployed in almost every industry, and it is used for different purposes.

The manufacturing and automotive industries use containers to optimize value chains. The video game industry uses containerization to help accelerate the creation and expansion of new games. Healthcare and life sciences use this technology to improve the patient experience, not only by tracking millions of patients and experiments on cloud platforms but by iterating rapidly based on customer/patient feedback to improve services. Media and entertainment companies use microservices to manage content and distribute their business.

The adoption of container technology is rapidly increasing. This is likely due to containers shortening development cycles and time-to-market, reducing capital expenditure requirements, saving IT resources, and significantly reducing unplanned downtime. As more companies learn about the benefits of containerization technology, it is expected that more and more containerization use cases will emerge.

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