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IT teams use containers to build more dynamic applications and support modern microservice architectures. And containers are a critical tool for IT organizations to take advantage of innovations, such as cloud services, Agile methodology, DevOps collaboration and mobile apps.
As businesses turn to containers to fuel development and support infrastructures, they must identify which workloads benefit from containerization, as well as strategize automation benefits and deploy the right tools for management.
As a result, IT teams are better positioned to evaluate savings potential, adopt key DevOps processes and apply IT training where necessary. In this article, we explore containerization's history and its uses, assess ideal workloads, potential operational savings and key management approaches.
History of containers: A steady evolution
The introduction of VMs into data centers decoupled compute resources from hardware to improve IT maintenance, reduce management costs and minimize physical footprint. Administrators can spin up as many VMs as necessary on a single server to provide extra resources and simplify infrastructure management. The technology also offered new possibilities for application performance and development.
Each VM includes its own OS and all dependencies -- such as libraries and configuration files -- which enable thorough testing, maintenance and provisioning. Thus, programmers have relied on VMs to become more agile, develop applications faster and access new abstraction levels that enhance build processes. Conversely, VMs require a considerable volume of system resources because they cannot share system resources; each VM requires its own set of licenses, the cost of which add up fast.
Container technology complements VMs while it also further extends application development capabilities. VM partitioning got on its feet in the 1960s, but chroot was the first proto-container iteration in 1979, built around the Unix V7. Google made further strides in the early 2000s, and Docker -- now owned by Mirantis -- joined the scene in 2013, which sparked the technology's explosive takeover across the subsequent years to follow and continued into the future.
As a key application development resource, containers include all the necessary application code, libraries and elements to run an application. However, unlike VMs, containers share an OS image, which makes them more lightweight and increases portability.
Containers move applications between development, test and production environments easily, but they also enable smoother cloud migrations and minimize IT maintenance. For example, an on-premises containerized application moves to a cloud container far more easily than a local, full-size application. However, the learning curve from VMs to containers is substantial.
Containers have also played a critical role in microservice architectures. An application split into several containerized modules avoids time-consuming rebuilds: Developers can change discrete elements, such as a database or front-end, rather than the entire application. System administrators can also run numerous containers side by side on the same server and ensure compatibility with automated CI/CD environments.
Identify ideal workloads and management tools
Gartner predicts more than 70% of global organizations will run containerized applications in production by 2023. As organizations increase container adoptions, they must identify which applications are best suited for containerization.
In addition to better compatibility with cloud native applications, containers offer a key resource for three-tier web applications, Java apps and database-centric workloads. Other ideal workloads for containers include stateless applications that don't require persistent data storage. By contrast, containerized applications with complex storage requirements can pose scalability and security issues.
Containers also provide effective workload isolation. Administrators can use this capability to reduce the IT burden, apply immutable updates and spin up new container instances as necessary.
DevOps practices can streamline the process to establish base images for reuse and create foundations for highly scalable applications. DevOps processes can simplify the build process via rapid container image updates, which adds new functionality and bug fixes, as well as centralize configuration patterns.
Effective container management involves four key areas:
Image supply chain. The supply chain comprises application code and dependencies, CI/CD testing tools, hosting registries and attribution features.
Orchestration. Effective orchestration defines where a container should run, schedules the runtime and applies automation for running at scale.
Safeguards. Container security addresses vulnerabilities and reinforces policy requirements to ensure that live containers remain in compliance.
Observability. Logging and metrics represent monitoring tools that ensure efficient container performance.
Adopt the best management approach
IT leaders can choose from an extensive number of management options. However, it's important to start container adoptions with a clear, coherent management strategy, whether via a DIY effort that combines discrete tools; a managed services approach; or a standalone commercial product.
Kubernetes represents the open source, de facto standard for organizations that rely on individual container tools. This orchestration platform automates the running, scheduling and maintenance of multiple containers. Yet a successful Kubernetes deployment also requires significant IT expertise and poses a steep learning curve for tool integrations that manage, for example, image supply chains, security and observability.
On the other hand, administrators can reduce the number of operational tasks and run workloads at scale with an integrated managed service from a major cloud vendor, such as Amazon Elastic Container Service, Microsoft Azure Kubernetes Service, Cloud Foundry or Google Anthos. Generally, these platforms integrate a proprietary aspect of Kubernetes while also providing automation, a critical lynchpin for organizations that want to scale their container deployments.
Vendor-based container management products are designed for easy deployment and can be installed on an organization's infrastructure or within a cloud deployment. These products offer preintegrated components and add-on services to help use DevOps with the platform. For example, Docker Swarm turns a pool of individual hosts into a single, virtual Docker host. Other commercial open source options include Rancher Labs' Rancher, CoreOS Tectonic, HashiCorp Nomad and Foglight Network Management System. IT organizations can use these tools to monitor both internal and cloud-based nodes.
Boost IT efficiency
In the trend toward increased microservices, containers are a foundation that enables IT admins to develop and run applications in parallel. IT leaders can also deploy container technology to future-proof their organizations through more agile DevOps processes and reduced IT costs -- they can evolve beyond monolithic architectures that rely heavily on data center hardware.
For example, containers accelerate application delivery through faster software pipelines and more automated testing. But IT teams can further augment CI/CD systems by eliminating manual release processes as they evolve from Waterfall software development to Agile practices. Container technology not only ensures more efficient cloud native apps, it also increases the number of software iterations and accelerates the speed of application rollouts.
And the ROI for container adoption is directly correlated to faster response times, business opportunities and rapid delivery of high-quality services. Forrester conducted research on behalf of Google that found a 4.8x ROI for Anthos users, and a 40% to 50% increase in platform efficiency for those organizations surveyed. The smaller compute footprint that results from container adoption can lower overall data center costs as well.
Moreover, the associated reduction of server hardware can reduce licensing requirements significantly and increase cost savings. And the benefits from containers extend all along the value chain. When organizations can rapidly roll out updates and new applications, partners, clients and end users gain substantial benefits.