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Containers Get Ready To Run Critical Production Apps

Interest in Docker runs high, even among practiced virtual machine users. One big question: Who will provide container management?

Given the remarkable rise of interest in containers, I often find myself talking with IT leaders, developers, and virtual machine experts about how deep into the data center this new approach will go. Does container use stop at testing and development? Web applications? Or will IT trust containers to run mission-critical, production applications?

The basic answer is no one knows. But given the popularity of Docker -- the open-source platform for creating containers, with the for-profit Docker Inc. behind it -- it feels like big changes are in store for how IT develops and deploys enterprise applications. VMware, whose virtualization software rules the enterprise data center today, soft-pedals the container phenomenon and behind the scenes, recoils in dismay when IT pros lightly state that containers are replacements for virtual machines. They're not. And yet, some virtual machines will be phased out in favor of containers.

Here's where I think the container phenomenon is headed. Docker containers are a natural formatting and organizing agent for some existing applications and many future ones. The more we decompose enterprise applications into smaller and smaller pieces, or micro-services, the more useful they become. Think of each service in a big, monolithic application separated and running in its own container.

Before such an approach takes hold, IT has many management issues to work out. How will one service be linked to another? How will they be monitored and tracked after launch? Who's driving the use of containers? Right now, it is primarily developers and testing teams, which both like the fast and lightweight code deployments that containers allow.   

But container use will grow into new areas, in some cases as a substitute for growth in virtual machines. VMware recommends running a container in a virtual machine for security reasons. Enterprise IT and cloud service suppliers so far agree. But I suspect many micro-service containers will be run in one virtual machine. Containers will not replace virtual machines, but they will slow VM's rate of growth.

[Want to learn more about Google's active role in containers? See Google OKs Docker Container Registry.]

Three recent events have shaped my thinking on containers' role in the data center:

1. VMware eyes container management.

At VMware's Partner Xchange in San Francisco a week ago, I heard VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger cite several new technologies, from OpenStack, to Kubernetes to Docker, and say VMware's "Project Fargo" will let IT create very rapid, lightweight virtual machines. Those lightweight virtual machines are meant to work hand in glove with containers but make containers more secure. As containers begin to infiltrate the virtualized data center, VMware has its eye on managing them. Will it welcome containers into its vSphere operations?

2. Oracle offers Oracle Linux for download from the Docker Hub.

Oracle's move might help IT speed up the development of new database applications. But it also might give IT a better option to move database applications in the near future into production inside containers. Are containers ready for production systems?

3. Stack Engine opens my eyes a bit.

I ran into StackEngine CEO Bob Quillin and CTO Eric Anderson during the VMware Partner Xchange, and they opened my eyes further to what's going on with containers. They polled 745 site visitors to VMblog.com and CloudCow.com in January about what they knew about containers and how they viewed their future use. VMblog visitors tend to be virtual machine administrators, and 65% of those polled are current VMware users.

The results:

21% are using Docker.

50% are evaluating its use.

23% are familiar with Docker but not using it yet.

7% haven't heard of Docker.

Of those using it, 64% do so for testing and quality assurance, making those the most popular reasons. That makes sense because containers are a quick and efficient way to create a test system, and you don't usually have to worry about malicious code being contained in the tests. Fifty-three percent use it in development.

Most surprising: 31% say they're already using or plan to use Docker in production. Given the doubts about Docker security, which ties for the No. 1 challenge to Docker adoption in the survey, with 49% questioning its security model, that number seems high. The other big obstacle, also cited by 49%, is the lack of operational tools to manage containers for production purposes.

Forty-four percent expect their existing VMware tools will one day include container management. A strong minority of respondents expect operational tools to emerge out of the Docker ecosystem, with the Docker Platform, Google's Kubernetes open source project, and even CoreOS's Rocket Project counted among the candidates.

From the evidence available, I would conclude that Docker is headed toward production fairly quickly, at least among some early container users.

Container management is more up for grabs than I thought, with the VMware customer base happy with their virtualization management tools, and 44% of them looking for those tools to manage containers as well. I'm not sure VMware is the best author of container management, since third-party efforts show promise, but VMware's statements at the Partner Xchange show the company making a commitment to managing containers, as well as working with third-party efforts.

We haven't seen enough results yet from the effort pouring into the Kubernetes Project, the container management project launched by Google and now backed by many big-name vendors. Stay tuned for an update. My guess is that containers will take over some services from virtual machines, reducing their numbers in the data center at the outset. But an explosion of rapid software building and deployment in containers will restore VMs' growth rate. These are competing but also collaborative technologies, and it's hard to see why they won't each contribute to the rapid expansion of enterprise software.

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