Table of Contents

Containers & Container Orchestration

Containers

Containers are a technology based on operating system kernel features that allow the creation of isolated environments sharing a kernel. For example, container features make it possible to have several isolated root filesystems, network stacks and process trees that all use the same kernel. These isolated environments are similar in functionality to lightweight virtual machines, but there are some key differences between virtual machines and containers. The biggest one is that virtual machines always have their own kernels, while containers share the host system's kernel.

The difference between virtual machines and containers The difference between virtual machines and containers.

While many operating systems have the container functionality, what we look at more specifically in this documentation is containers in the Linux operating system. Linux is the most popular operating system for running containers, and it is also the operating system used in the Rahti container cloud. Currently, the most popular method for using the container functionality in Linux is Docker. It provides a set of tools that makes it easier to use containers compared to using the kernel functionality directly:

  • A runtime (runC) for containers
  • An image format for containers
  • A command line interface for running and managing containers and images
  • The Dockerfile format for building Docker images

Docker has popularized containers by making them easier to use. Instead of looking at kernel documentation and figuring out how to use the different interfaces of the kernel's container features and then having to figure out which features you want to use and how, Docker provides a simpler way to start containers with a single command line command. The specific kernel features and how to use them have been defined by Docker.

As an example of how Docker is used, this is how you could start a container on your computer after installing Docker:

docker run -it ubuntu

This will download the ubuntu image if it is not already present on the computer, start a container based on that image, and give the user a command line interface within the container. From the user's point of view, the experience is similar to starting a virtual machine: regardless of the operating system distribution on your computer, interacting with the container seems like you are interacting with a Ubuntu installation.

After running the command, you should be able to see the Ubuntu Docker image that has been downloaded by listing the images:

docker images

You can also do many other things, such as launch containers in the background, attach to a running container to interact with it, or build your own Docker images from a Dockerfile. The examples given here are intended to give a general idea of what using containers is like from the user's perspective. For more complete documentation about Docker, see the official Docker documentation.

Container orchestration

To understand why container orchestration platforms are important, let us describe how a typical web-based application that end users access via a web browser is built.

Container orchestration

The application comprises a frontend that is the part of the application visible to users and a backend that handles various tasks in the background such as storing user data in a database. The application runs a server process that clients access to interact with the application. It also accesses a database such as PostgeSQL or MongoDB in the background to store user data.

The architects of this application must design it to keep the application running reliably, quickly and safely:

  • Server hardware can fail, so the application must be replicated on multiple physical servers so that the failure of an individual server will not render the entire application inaccessible.
  • A large number of users causes load on the application. It must be possible to scale up the application by adding more application processes to prepare for increased user load.
  • The connection to the application must be secure so that the users can safely enter their data in the application without fearing eavesdroppers.
  • User data must be stored reliably on a fault-tolerant storage system.

You could create Linux virtual machines, install Docker on them, and run the application directly using those, but there is a lot of additional work to meet all of the above requirements. You would have to figure out how to manage multiple instances of the application running on several servers, how to direct incoming traffic evenly to all the application instances, how to store user data, and how to quickly add more capacity when needed.

Luckily, most applications have similar requirements, so the steps for creating good applications are often quite similar. This is where container orchestration systems come in. They handle many of the common tasks required for running robust web applications such as distributing application instances over multiple servers, directing traffic to the application instances, and providing persistent storage for databases.

Currently, the most popular software for container orchestration is Kubernetes. It is based on earlier systems developed at Google over a decade. The Rahti system is based on a distribution of Kubernetes called OpenShift made by Red Hat.

Last edited Thu Jul 30 2020