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:

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.

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:

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.

The Kubernetes and OpenShift concepts

The power of Kubernetes and OpenShift is in the relatively simple abstractions that they provide for complex tasks such as load balancing, software updates for a distributed system, or autoscaling. Here we give a very brief overview of some of the most important abstractions, but we highly recommend that you read the concept documentation for Kubernetes and OpenShift as well:

Most of the abstractions are common to both plain Kubernetes and OpenShift, but OpenShift also introduces some of its own concepts.


Pods contain one or more containers that run applications. It is the basic unit in Kubernetes: when you run a workload in Kubernetes, it always runs in a pod. Kubernetes handles scheduling these pods on multiple servers. Pods can contain volumes of different types for accessing data. Each pod has its own IP address shared by all containers in the pod. In the most typical case, a pod contains one container and perhaps one or a few different volumes.

Pods are intended to be replaceable. Any data that needs to persist after a pod is killed should be stored on a volume attached to the pod.


The abstractions in Kubernetes/OpenShift are described using YAML or JSON. YAML and JSON are so-called data serialization languages that provide a way to describe key value pairs and data structures such as lists in a way that is easy to read for both humans and computers. An example of what the representation of a pod looks like in YAML:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
  - name: webserver
    - containerPort: 8080
      protocol: TCP
    - name: website-content-volume
      mountPath: /usr/share/nginx/html
    - name: website-content-volume
        claimName: web-content-pvc

The above YAML representation describes a web server pod that has one container and one volume and exposes the port 8080. You could put this snippet of text in a file and create a pod that runs NGINX by feeding that file to the Kubernetes API.


Pod IP addresses are not predictable. If a pod is replaced as part of normal operations such as an update, the IP address of the new pod can be different. It is also typical to have multiple pods serving the same content, in which case there are several of these unpredictable IP addresses to point to. Thus, pods alone are not enough to provide a predictable way to access an application.

A service provides a stable virtual IP, a port and a DNS name for one or more pods. They act as load balancers, directing traffic to a group of pods that all serve the same application.



A ReplicaSet ensures that n copies of a pod are running. If one of the pods dies, the ReplicaSet ensures that a new one is created in its place. They are typically not used on their own but rather as part of a Deployment (explained next).



Deployments manage rolling updates for an application. They typically contain a ReplicaSet and several pods. If you make a change that requires an update such as switching to a newer image for pod containers, the deployment ensures the change is made in a way that there are no service interruptions. It will perform a rolling update to replace all pods one by one with newer ones while making sure that end user traffic is directed towards working pods at all times.


Persistent volumes

Pods are expendable. When they die, all state that was stored in the pod's own filesystems is lost. Pods are also meant to die and be replaced as part of normal operations such as a rolling update triggered by a deployment. Therefore, storage that persists over a pod's lifetime is needed. This is what persistent volumes are for.

Persistent volumes are stored in a backing storage such as Ceph, NFS or GlusterFS. They are claimed by a pod using a PersistentVolumeClaim. When a new claim is made, this can mean that either an existing volume is claimed or a new one is created dynamically and given to the pod to use.