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Why (and how) VMware created a new type of virtualization just for containers

Brandon Butler | Sept. 11, 2015
VMware says containers and virtual machines are better together.

The journey to containers

Not all customers are ready to go all-in on containers though. So, VMware is also integrating container support into its traditional management tools.

VSphere Integrated Containers is a second product VMware announced that Colbert says is a good starting point for organizations that want to get their feet wet with containers. For full-scale container build outs, Colbert recommends transitioning to Project Photon.

VSphere Integrated Containers is a plugin for vSphere, the company’s venerable ESX management software. “It makes containers first-class citizens in vSphere,” Colbert explains. With the plugin, customers are able to deploy containers inside of a virtual machine, allowing the container in the VM to be managed just like any other VM by vSphere.

By comparison, currently if a user wanted to deploy containers in vSphere, they would likely deploy multiple containers inside a single virtual machine. Colbert says that has potentially harmful security implications though: If one of the containers in the VM is compromised, then the other containers in the VM could be impacted. By packaging one container inside each VM, it allows containers to be protected by the security isolation and baked in management features of vSphere.

Kurt Marko, an analyst at Marko Insights, says VMware’s approach to containers could be appealing to VMware admins who are being pressured to embrace containers. It could come with a downside, though.

“Wrapping Photon containers in a micro-VM makes it look like any other instance to the management stack and operators,” Marko wrote in an email. “Of course, the potential downside is lost efficiency since even micro-VMs will have more overhead than containers sharing the same kernel and libraries.” VMware says the VM-overhead is minute, but Marko says it will take independent analysis to determine if there is a tax for using containers inside VMs.

Hold your horses

As VMware attempts to position itself as a container company, there are headwinds. First, it is still very early on in the container market.

“The hype far outweighs the utilization” at this point, says IDC analyst Al Gillen, program vice president for servers and systems software. He estimates that fewer than 1/10 of 1% of enterprise applications are currently running in containers. It could be more than a decade before the technology reaches mainstream adoption with more than 40% of the market.

VMware also hasn’t traditionally been known as a company that leads the charge when it comes to cutting edge open source projects, which is a perception the company is fighting. Sheng Liang, co-founder and CEO of Rancher Labs – a startup that was showcasing its container operating system and management platform at VMworld - said the container movement has thus far been driven largely by developers and open source platforms like Mesos, Docker and Kubernetes – he hasn’t run into a single container user who is running containers in VMware environments, he said.


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