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Azure puts a new twist on container management platforms

Azure Container Instances will mean customers can now use -- and pay for -- containers only, though some doubt this will dramatically change the competitive landscape.

An Azure 'easy button' for containers that can bypass the need for VM and container orchestration management will make IT pros reconsider the Microsoft cloud for Docker deployments.

Microsoft has rolled out a public preview of its Azure Container Instances (ACI) container management platform for Linux instances, with Windows support to come in the next few weeks. Unlike the existing Azure Container Service (ACS), ACI enables users to deploy individual container images onto an abstracted infrastructure -- without requiring management of underlying VMs. ACI container images can be used with an orchestrator; the first connector, ACI for Kubernetes, was released to open source this week, and is also optional.

"The reason I avoided containers on Azure was because I did not want to have to create Hyper-V instances, which for our small application, would be the same effort as deploying to a VM and maintaining it," said Chris Riley, DevOps analyst at Fixate IO, a content strategy consulting firm based in Livermore, Calif., and a TechTarget contributor. Fixate consults with enterprise clients and uses Azure for its own applications. "With this, I don't have to, and it makes me rethink using Azure for containers."

Enterprise Microsoft shops that have leaned toward on-premises container deployments say ACI will make them reconsider Azure as a cloud container management platform.

"One of the challenges we've always run into is trying to verify that moving over to the cloud is more cost-effective than running [containers] internally," said Marc Priolo, configuration manager at Urban Science, a Detroit-based data analysis company that specializes in the automotive industry. "This makes it much easier to more granularly figure that out."

Urban Science's cost-benefit analysis of on-premises deployment versus the public cloud has favored the on-premises data center, but the equation may change because ACI only charges for containers on a per-second basis, Priolo said. It would require a change in the way his team uses resources to spin things up and down when needed, instead of reserving resources for the long term. But that adaptation might also be worthwhile.

Priolo doubted the potential performance effect of public cloud VMs as a substrate for containers, but this could tip the balance toward the public cloud anyway, he said.

The cloud could also bring benefits such as high availability, the ability to quickly spin up containers in the event of a failure, and more convenient host with less downtime. If these benefits materialize when Urban Science evaluates ACI, "we'll know this is the direction for us to look into," Priolo said.

ACI container orchestration optional, but cozy with Kubernetes

With ACI in preview and Windows instances not yet supported, it's still early for Microsoft shops to follow the container trend. Urban Science won't evaluate cloud options until an on-premises container management platform proof of concept is completed in October or November, Priolo said. While orchestration is optional with ACI, the company will also factor it into the container deployment environment it chooses.

For now, ACI for Kubernetes is the only connector between the new Azure container management platform and container orchestration tools, but Priolo is also investigating Docker Swarm and Mesosphere's DC/OS.

"There are still challenges with Kubernetes on the Windows side, and Kubernetes seems to have the largest learning curve," he said. "Docker Swarm looks promising, but scalability is a concern of ours going in with that platform."

ACI's VM abstraction from both its management and pricing model is different from Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) Container Service (ECS), which is priced by the hour according to the underlying EC2 instances and storage resources that container clusters consume. But some industry watchers doubt this will be an overall game-changer for the cloud container management platform market.

"It's a minor point," said Brandon Cipes, managing director of DevOps at cPrime, an Agile consulting firm in Foster City, Calif. ECS users can set up one big EC2 instance and then use ECS on top of it if they don't want to manage multiple VMs. "Once you're in a heavily virtualized environment, I'm not sure Microsoft's offering is really groundbreaking, but it's them pushing the envelope as they should."

Microsoft also has joined the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, which governs Kubernetes -- an interesting indication about the future direction of the container management platform market at large, Cipes said. It also ties Microsoft in more closely with the Kubernetes community as AWS continues to hold it mostly at arm's length.

"It's the story of what another cloud juggernaut thinks the container market is doing," he said.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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