Mar 06 2023

What Is Containerization? Here’s Everything Your Business Should Know

In the span of a decade, software containers have evolved from a technological novelty into a key element of modern software infrastructure.

Whether the goal is hosting a website or application, easing the development process, or managing a large technology stack, containerization has become central to the software conversation in the past decade.

The software container, which evolved along with virtual machines, is a core component of modern DevOps. Containerization has many benefits, but it is not without its complex challenges and security risks. Here’s everything IT leaders need to know.

What Is Containerization and What Are the Benefits?

Containerization refers to packaging executable software in a standardized format to allow consistent, repeat deployments. A container is a single lightweight executable that is created from operating system libraries and layers of coding, according to IBM.

“It allows for an application written once to run anywhere,” says Tushar Katarki, Red Hat’s director of product management. To write something once and achieve “maximum reach” is “any developer or software provider’s dream.”

The etymology of the word “containerization” dates back to 20th-century freight transport, where goods were transported in standardized metal shipping containers. During World War II, these were mainly rail containers, but by the 1960s, containerization involved semi-trucks and ocean shipping. Slowly but surely, this big metal box would revolutionize global commerce.

By the late 1980s, the term “containerization” developed its secondary meaning in the tech space. By the 2000s, the term had grown in use. Containerization became a convenient way to describe how software can be delivered to different types of computers in a common format. Its ability to be replicated and applied in various contexts allowed the technology to mature quickly.

“There’s already standardization, and from a security perspective, there are numerous guides, industry best practices and security benchmarks that organizations can follow,” says Ory Segal, CTO of Prisma Cloud, a division of Palo Alto Networks.

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How Do Containers Work?

Several companies have helped advance containerization technology since the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Docker really popularized containers in cloud deployments. Docker, an open-source tool, made it possible to build the components of an application, such as a database or web server, then deploy it in a variety of settings, like a local machine or cloud platform.

Earlier attempts paved the way, such as the Unix-based operating system FreeBSD. This included built-in technology called “jails,” which separated tasks in a similar way using virtual machine partitions. Similar technologies included Oracle Solaris Containers or Linux LXC; each one was beneficial, but neither was as enduring as Docker. 

More recent technologies, such as WebAssembly, have also built on the Docker model. Docker and similar open-source tools, such as Podman and LXD, rely on infrastructure as code concepts to operate. Scripting made it possible for containers to automate easily and scale across cloud platforms like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.

While containers are usable on a variety of platforms, including MacOS and Windows, Docker and similar tools often virtualize lightweight variants of Linux. A common distribution used for containerization is Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Linux is easily the most popular operating system for containerization, but it is also possible to run other operating systems, such as FreeBSD or Windows Server, inside of a container. (Microsoft even actively maintains a Windows-based Docker container).

The goal of using a consistent operating system like Linux to manage the containers is to help ensure a consistent result with no delay in functionality over time.

DIVE DEEPER: How to use Red Hat’s Ansible to create Kubernetes container clusters in Azure.

What Are the Different Types of Container Technology?

Containerization relies on a wide variety of technologies for deployment and management; some are unique to containers, while others are used more broadly.  Here are a few examples:

  • Container orchestration. These tools, particularly Kubernetes, help automate and scale large numbers of containers across different deployments, making them effective in DevOps Kubernetes, an open-source tool originally designed by Google, is a key element of Red Hat’s OpenShift, a Software as a Service software suite that helps manage containers across an organization. Katarki notes that Red Hat integrated Kubernetes into OpenShift to make it more accessible. “A lot of customers didn’t have the skill set to manage the complexity of running Kubernetes,” he says.
  • Infrastructure as Code. Containerization works very effectively in Infrastructure as Code workloads, in which deployments are managed and scaled programmatically. This also makes automation possible.
  • Continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD): This automated workflow is used to manage and deploy code changes. Though not unique to containerization, it can dramatically improve the overall process.
  • Container security tools: Just like any other type of technology used in the cloud, security is an important part of containerization. Tools like Palo Alto Networks’ Prisma Cloud and VMware’s Carbon Black manage these setups and help containers stay compliant.
Tushar Katarki
Containers are faster, and sleeker compared to virtual machines from a technology point of view.”

Tushar Katarki Director of Product Management, Red Hat

Containers vs. Virtual Machines: What Are the Differences?

In many ways, containerization extends the concept of virtualization, where one computing environment is abstracted from another computing environment. IBM, Red Hat’s parent company, invented virtualization for mainframe computers in the 1960s. These days, it’s widely used through tools such as VMware Workstation and Parallels Desktop.

While containerization uses virtualization, the ability to compute tasks quickly and standardize processes sets it apart. This is an advantage over a traditional virtual machines or hypervisors because it allows tools to be deployed more efficiently using programming.

“Containers are faster, and sleeker compared to virtual machines from a technology point of view,” Katarki says, noting that containers generally lack the overhead of a full system, as a VM might have.

LEARN MORE: How energy and utility companies can benefit from digital twins.

Containers vs. Virtual Machines: Which Is More Secure?

When it comes to security, is it better to use containers or virtual machines? Which is safest to base your infrastructure around?

IBM Research found that if built properly, containers could have a lower “horizontal attack profile,” which refers to the amount of running code on a given system compared with a VM or a bare-metal machine.

“I don’t think containers introduce more risk or less risk than legacy workloads,” Segal says. “There are nuances that require attention, but in general, the challenges are the same.”

However, a container’s automation ability could help make security more manageable, Segal notes. 

“If you adopt a methodical approach to securing containerized workloads, starting as early as the development phase, you will find it much easier to scale and automate security than ever before,” he adds.

Segal recommends “automating security as part of the CI/CD pipeline,” including taking steps to scan images for vulnerabilities, reducing the scope of images, running automated compliance tools, and putting defenses on containers and their hosts at the runtime level. He also suggests following the benchmarks set by the Center for Internet Security.

EXPLORE: How businesses can manage workloads on multiple clouds.

Container Management: How Can Containers Be Used?

There are several ways containers can be used. You can choose a local development approach using Microsoft’s Visual Studio or try external deployment. Either way, containers can be used on a VM or a bare metal server.

Containers are particularly effective for microservices-driven approaches, where software stacks are made up of many small application servers. That said, the more microservices you use, the more containers you’ll need. This can make it tough to manage as server stacks become more complex to navigate. Tools like OpenShift simplify the process so that containers can be managed within a unified environment.

It’s particularly helpful for “that system developer who doesn’t want to really get into containers and inner workings,” says Katarki. “We simplified it for them, to reduce complexity.”

As organizations assess their container strategy, it’s worth consulting with CDW DevOps Services to find the best fit. CDW can also help you take the next steps in your container strategy.

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