Linux Containers and the Future Cloud

Linux-based container infrastructure is an emerging cloud technology based on fast and lightweight process virtualization. It provides its users an environment as close as possible to a standard Linux distribution. As opposed to para-virtualization solutions (Xen) and hardware virtualization solutions (KVM), which provide virtual machines (VMs), containers do not create other instances of the operating system kernel. Due to the fact that containers are more lightweight than VMs, you can achieve higher densities with containers than with VMs on the same host (practically speaking, you can deploy more instances of containers than of VMs on the same host).

Another advantage of containers over VMs is that starting and shutting down a container is much faster than starting and shutting down a VM. All containers under a host are running under the same kernel, as opposed to virtualization solutions like Xen or KVM where each VM runs its own kernel. Sometimes the constraint of running under the same kernel in all containers under a given host can be considered a drawback. Moreover, you cannot run BSD, Solaris, OS/x or Windows in a Linux-based container, and sometimes this fact also can be considered a drawback.

The idea of process-level virtualization in itself is not new, and it already was implemented by Solaris Zones as well as BSD jails quite a few years ago. Other open-source projects implementing process-level virtualization have existed for several years. However, they required custom kernels, which was often a major setback. Full and stable support for Linux-based containers on mainstream kernels by the LXC project is relatively recent, as you will see in this article. This makes containers more attractive for the cloud infrastructure. More and more hosting and cloud services companies are adopting Linux-based container solutions. In this article, I describe some open-source Linux-based container projects and the kernel features they use, and show some usage examples. I also describe the Docker tool for creating LXC containers.

The underlying infrastructure of modern Linux-based containers consists mainly of two kernel features: namespaces and cgroups. There are six types of namespaces, which provide per-process isolation of the following operating system resources: filesystems (MNT), UTS, IPC, PID, network and user namespaces (user namespaces allow mapping of UIDs and GIDs between a user namespace and the global namespace of the host). By using network namespaces, for example, each process can have its own instance of the network stack (network interfaces, sockets, routing tables and routing rules, netfilter rules and so on).

Creating a network namespace is very simple and can be done with the following iproute command: ip netns add myns1. With the ip netns command, it also is easy to move one network interface from one network namespace to another, to monitor the creation and deletion of network namespaces, to find out to which network namespace a specified process belongs and so on. Quite similarly, when using the MNT namespace, when mounting a filesystem, other processes will not see this mount, and when working with PID namespaces, you will see by running the ps command from that PID namespace only processes that were created from that PID namespace.

The cgroups subsystem provides resource management and accounting. It lets you define easily, for example, the maximum memory that a process may use. This is done by using cgroups VFS operations. The cgroups project was started by two Google developers, Paul Menage and Rohit Seth, back in 2006, and it initially was called "process containers". Neither namespaces nor cgroups intervene in critical paths of the kernel, and thus they do not incur a high performance penalty, except for the memory cgroup, which can incur significant overhead under some workloads.

Linux-Based Containers

Basically, a container is a Linux process (or several processes) that has special features and that runs in an isolated environment, configured on the host. You might sometimes encounter terms like Virtual Environment (VE) and Virtual Private Server (VPS) for a container.

The features of this container depend on how the container is configured and on which Linux-based container is used, as Linux-based containers are implemented differently in several projects. I mention the most important ones in this article:

  • OpenVZ: the origins of the OpenVZ project are in a proprietary server virtualization solution called Virtuozzo, which originally was started by a company called SWsoft, founded in 1997. In 2005, a part of the Virtuozzo product was released as an open-source project, and it was called OpenVZ. Later, in 2008, SWsoft merged with a company called Parallels. OpenVZ is used for providing hosting and cloud services, and it is the basis of the Parallels Cloud Server. Like Virtuozzo, OpenVZ also is based on a modified Linux kernel. In addition, it has command-line tools (primarily vzctl) for management of containers, and it makes use of templates to create containers for various Linux distributions. OpenVZ also can run on some unmodified kernels, but with a reduced feature set. The OpenVZ project is intended to be fully mainlined in the future, but that could take quite a long time.

  • Google containers: in 2013, Google released the open-source version of its container stack, lmctfy (which stands for Let Me Contain That For You). Right now, it's still in the beta stage. The lmctfy project is based on using cgroups. Currently, Google containers do not use the kernel namespaces feature, which is used by other Linux-based container projects, but using this feature is on the Google container project roadmap.

  • Linux-VServer: an open-source project that was first publicly released in 2001, it provides a way to partition resources securely on a host. The host should run a modified kernel.

  • LXC: the LXC (LinuX Containers) project provides a set of userspace tools and utilities to manage Linux containers. Many LXC contributors are from the OpenVZ team. As opposed to OpenVZ, it runs on an unmodified kernel. LXC is fully written in userspace and supports bindings in other programming languages like Python, Lua and Go. It is available in most popular distributions, such as Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and more. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 (RHEL 6) introduced Linux containers as a technical preview. You can run Linux containers on architectures other than x86, such as ARM (there are several how-tos on the Web for running containers on Raspberry PI, for example).

I also should mention the libvirt-lxc driver, with which you can manage containers. This is done by defining an XML configuration file and then running virsh start, virsh console and visrh destroy to run, access and destroy the container, respectively. Note that there is no common code between libvirt-lxc and the userspace LXC project.

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