Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Thursday, September 21, 2017
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Containers Depart ‘Hype’ Phase in 2016 

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Application containers made the jump from prototype to production in 2016 as the distributed application technology began to make headway in hyper-scale IT infrastructure. Along with an expanding ecosystem, the sector is characterized by healthy competition that is driving innovation in areas such as container security and management of computing and storage resources, those competitors note.

The latest indication of a maturing container infrastructure was industry leader Docker's announcement in mid-December that it is turning over its container runtime to the open source community. The rebranded runtime dubbed containerd, which the company describes as the underlying "plumbing" of application containers, is used to execute container software. The move signals a shift to more critical areas of application delivery and innovation, the company said.

And plenty of innovation will be needed in the coming year before the much-hyped technology fully enters the mainstream.

Docker's code donation also underscores how companies large and small are jumping on the open-source bandwagon, motivated by strategies ranging from collaborative technology development to enlightened self-interest. In the case of container technology, vendors have expanded their offerings beyond the Linux kernel to embrace mainstream platforms such as the ubiquitous Windows server. Those moves have raised some eyebrows within the fiercely independent open-source movement as giants such as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) make inroads within the Linux Foundation and other open source initiatives.

Competitive jockeying aside, Docker and other container vendors insist they are trying to help early adopters avoid "vendor lock-in," especially in areas like storage. Key production issues including persistent storage requirements surpassed container security this year as a top barrier to adoption of application containers in production, according to an industry survey released last summer by data management software vendor ClusterHQ.

Innovation in container storage technology "is just getting started," Solomon Hykes, Docker founder, CTO and chief product officer, noted in an interview. "Storage must adjust to distributed applications [and] the risk of [vendor] lock-in is high," Hykes asserted.

The company addressed the storage issue earlier this month with its acquisition of privately held distributed storage vendor Infinit. The company's software-defined storage platform specifically targets containers and micro-services. Among other things, the acquisition gives Docker an embedded storage capacity it previously lacked.

"In the end, we win by providing more choice" for persistent container storage, Hykes said.

Others are targeting persistent storage as a way of advancing "stateless" containers in which data is destroyed as each instance is shut down to stateful containers better suited to production. "This is largely due to the immaturity of the container persistence technologies available on the market today," argued Kit Colbert, CTO of VMware's Cloud Platform Business Unit. "With the advent of new capabilities like Kubernetes’ PetSets, up-and-coming technologies like those from PortWorx, and our own container persistence efforts such as the Docker volume driver for vSphere, we’ll soon see increased levels of maturity for container persistence."

Among the other signs of a mature container ecosystem was the November launch of startup Heptio by Kubernetes founders Joe Beda and Craig McLuckie. The startup's goal is making the micro-services ready for primetime by reducing the deployment complexity of tools such as Kubernetes. That in turn would make the container orchestrator easier for developers to use.

McLuckie stressed in launching the startup that its goal is "making Kubernetes accessible to the enterprise living in a multi-cloud world."

That multi-cloud approach is expected to expand significantly in the coming year as hybrid cloud deployments gain momentum and enterprises hedge their bets on which public cloud providers they use to avoid vendor lock-in.

Another facet of the Kubernetes toolkit includes a series of components released this year by CoreOS, the San Francisco-based startup hot on Docker's heels. The company's "Google infrastructure for everyone" strategy advanced over the last 12 months with a new container image registry and other improvements to its Kubernetes-based Tectonic technology stack for deploying and managing applications containers.

Meanwhile, application containers continue to make headway in the HPC sector as scientists seek to boost their workflows with infrastructure technology currently being stress-tested and deployed in the enterprise sector.

All this activity bodes well for the coming year as application containers make inroads in the enterprise as well as scientific and other research computing initiatives.

-Editor's note: This story has been updated. 

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 25 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as Executive Editor for Electronic Engineering Times.

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