Containers—Not Virtual Machines—Are the Future Cloud

Cloud infrastructure providers like Amazon Web Service sell virtual machines. EC2 revenue is expected to surpass $1B in revenue this year. That's a lot of VMs.

It's not hard to see why there is such demand. You get the ability to scale up or down, guaranteed computational resources, security isolation and API access for provisioning it all, without any of the overhead of managing physical servers.

But, you are also paying for lot of increasingly avoidable overhead in the form of running a full-blown operating system image for each virtual machine. This approach has become an unnecessarily heavyweight solution to the underlying question of how to best run applications in the cloud.

Figure 1. Traditional virtualization and paravirtualization require a full operating system image for each instance.

Until recently it has been assumed that OS virtualization is the only path to provide appropriate isolation for applications running on a server. These assumptions are quickly becoming dated, thanks to recent underlying improvements to how the Linux kernel can now manage isolation between applications.

Containers now can be used as an alternative to OS-level virtualization to run multiple isolated systems on a single host. Containers within a single operating system are much more efficient, and because of this efficiency, they will underpin the future of the cloud infrastructure industry in place of VM architecture.

Figure 2. Containers can share a single operating system and, optionally, other binary and library resources.

How We Got Here

There is a good reason why we buy by the virtual machine today: containers used to be terrible, if they existed in any useful form at all. Let's hop back to 2005 for a moment. "chroot" certainly didn't (and still doesn't) meet the resource and security isolation goals for multi-tenant designs. "nice" is a winner-takes-all scheduling mechanism. The "fair" resource scheduling in the kernel is often too fair, equally balancing resources between a hungry, unimportant process and a hungry, important one. Memory and file descriptor limits offer no gradient between normal operation and crashing an application that's overstepped its boundaries.

Virtual machines were able to partition and distribute resources viably in the hypervisor without relying on kernel support or, worse, separate hardware. For a long time, virtual machines were the only way on Linux to give Application A up to 80% of CPU resources and Application B up to 20%. Similar partitioning and sharing schemes exist for memory, disk block I/O, network I/O and other contentious resources.

Virtual machines have made major leaps in efficiency too. What used to be borderline-emulation has moved to direct hardware support for memory page mapping and other hard-to-virtualize features. We're down to a CPU penalty of only a few percent versus direct hardware use.


David Strauss is the CTO and co-founder of Pantheon, whose all-for-one-and-one-for-all improvements to the Drupal infrastructure have made the largest Drupal Web sites in the world more scalable and secure.


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Kino to alternative's picture

The concept is on a good way. Go on dude ! (

Top Advantages of Shipping Containers House

jamesfin's picture

Shipping containers homes are made of best & high quality metal, they are also quite durable like our traditional houses. Container house also protect your goods & equipment from rodent, insects and humidity.

Except it's completely

Anonymous's picture

Except it's completely impractical for people like Amazon from a security perspective. All you need to do is exploit the kernel and you have access to every other VM that's running, not to mention any raw network access inside Amazon's infrastructure.

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This approach has become

Kathie Boswell's picture

This approach has become associate degree unnecessarily heavyweight answer to the underlying question of the way to best run applications within the cloud.

Reply to comment | Linux Journal

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Welcome to 1970

Anonymous's picture

This "future cloud" nonsense is laughable. We are going back decades to the days when you would rent timesharing services from a service bureau, with all applications and data residing on a remote mainframe somewhere. Sorry, I prefer to keep control of my data right here on my own PC.

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This isn't for you or your

Anonymous's picture

This isn't for you or your PC. It's for all the millions of internet-based businesses that need to scale their applications across hardware on-demand. The likes of Facebook will use this to raise efficiency and the likes of Amazon (with EC2) will use this to lower their compute prices.

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PabloB's picture

Disclaimer: I work for Parallels, but I am not posting on their behalf, this is a personal post.

My company offers a commercial implementation of containers in two products:

A) Parallels Cloud Server - Linux containers and Win/Linux VMs (plus storage clusters for HA)
B) Parallels Virtuozzo Containers for Windows - as you can imagine Windows based containers.

There is also an OSS implementation of the previous version of our Linux product called OpenVZ, which supports only Linux containers.

Our experience with Service Providers is that through containers you can triple the density (number of virtual environments) per physical node when compared to traditional virtualization, containers are faster and they are easier to manage (update the Kernel and you update all containers or add resources without reboots, backup/migration only move user data not OS or even applications in many cases), one disadvantage is that if you need to have different OSs in the same HW node or you have application s that try to modify the Kernel, the shared Kernel is a limitation.

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premise is all wrong

Sasha's picture

"Running a whole separate operating system to get a resource and security isolation."
We use VMware ESX. When machines are not in use, they use virtually 0% CPU, Disk and very little overhead RAM. These are Ubuntu 12.04LTS VMs. We also prefer the security isolation the OS provides.

"Slow startup time while waiting for the OS to boot."
It's 2013. We use SSDs for backing storage for our VMs. Our Ubuntu instances boot in 3 seconds flat.

Re: premise is all wrong

David (the author)'s picture

> and very little overhead RAM

Having an Ubuntu 12.04 instance running does not require "very little overhead RAM" compared to a container's <5MB of overhead.

> Our Ubuntu instances boot in 3 seconds flat.

Containers start in far under a second. Three seconds is far too slow to start containers in real-time as needed during a request.

Doesn't know much about VMs

Grant McWilliams's picture

Anyone who thinks that it takes 5-10 minutes to deploy a VM doesn't know much about VMs. The very same technology referenced in the article (CoW) allows us to spin up VMs in about 30 seconds. Also the CPU overhead on hypervisors these days runs in the 1% range.

There are a few reasons to use containers over VMs but there are 10x as many reasons to use VMs over containers. Yes, there's overhead but in time I think you'll see the OS splitting due to Virtualization - only the hardware specific stuff in the "host" and the rest in the "guest".

For PaaS/SaaS containers would work great but for IaaS they're not going anywhere.

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Re: Doesn't know much about VMs

David (the author)'s picture

The article is titled "...the future cloud," so I used benchmarks based on real-world cloud systems, not CoW with an image in machine-local storage.

Every major cloud has to copy over the VM image and then launch it, which takes over five minutes, whether you choose the Rackspace Cloud, EC2, the HP Cloud, or other major competitors. My company has provisioned thousands of VMs across cloud providers, and they almost never finish in under five minutes. Some take well over ten.

Real-world PaaS providers, in comparison, do provision their containers in well under a minute because they're not copying 1GB+ of state over the network.

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user namespaces

Anonymous's picture

the creation of containers as an ordinary user, of containers that do have local root, has recently been implemented in linux and is called "user namespaces".

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Yeah, user namespaces are

Tristan Schmelcher's picture

Yeah, user namespaces are going to solve this problem, but I don't think they're quite ready yet to fully replace VMs. I'm anxiously awaiting that.

One advantage with VMs

Tristan Schmelcher's picture

One advantage that VMs still have is that many VM technologies provide a way to configure and launch a VM without root access to the host, which LXC couldn't do last time I checked. You also get root access to the guest even if you don't have it on the host. This makes VMs much more tractable for some use cases. If LXC could offer some sort of unprivileged creation option then that would go a long way towards truly eliminating the need for VMs.

sudo make me a sandwich.

Anonymous's picture

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This has already been done

Anonymous's picture

This has already been done with FreeBSD years before Linux.
Your article should be updated to reflect that.

What the author describes

JFM's picture

What the author describes looks a lot like V-servers and has existed on Linux's for a loooong time. Probably longer than your BSD solution.

Welcome to 1998

Poul-Henning Kamp's picture

Welcome to 1998, where I created FreeBSD's 'jail' facility, which were the basis for this fantastic "new" technology you're gushing about.

-- Poul-Henning Kamp

Poul-Henning Kamp: welcome to

Olivier Lalonde's picture

Poul-Henning Kamp: welcome to paragraph 6 where it is mentioned containers are not a new technology.

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Taylor's picture

Isn't this the concept that services like Heroku and AppFog and Dotcloud provide?

services using containers

bmullan's picture

Yes, Heroku and DotCloud use LXC.

So does ActiveState's Stackato PaaS cloud service (

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