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 Thursday, 30 August 2018
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Software deployment has been a major problem for decades. On the client and the server.

On the client, the inability to deploy apps to devices without breaking other apps (or sometimes the client operating system (OS)) has pushed most business software development to relying entirely on the client's browser as a runtime. Or in some cases you may leverage the deployment models of per-platform "stores" from Apple, Google, or Microsoft.

On the server, all sorts of solutions have been attempted, including complex and costly server-side management/deployment software. Over the past many years the industry has mostly gravitated toward the use of virtual machines (VMs) to ease some of the pain, but the costly server-side management software remains critical.

At some point containers may revolutionize client deployment, but right now they are in the process of revolutionizing server deployment, and that's where I'll focus in the remainder of this post.

Fairly recently the concept of containers, most widely recognized with Docker, has gained rapid acceptance.

tl;dr

Containers offer numerous benefits over older IT models such as virtual machines. Containers integrate smoothly into DevOps; streamlining and stabilizing the move from source code to deployable assets. Containers also standardize the deployment and runtime model for applications and services in production (and test/staging). Containers are an enabling technology for microservice architecture and DevOps.

Virtual Machines to Containers

Containers are somewhat like virtual machines, except they are much lighter weight and thus offer major benefits. A VM virtualizes the hardware, allowing installation of the OS on "fake" hardware, and your software is installed and run on that OS. A container virtualizes the OS, allowing you to install and run your software on this "fake" OS.

In other words, containers virtualize at a higher level than VMs. This means that where a VM takes many seconds to literally boot up the OS, a container doesn't boot up at all, the OS is already there. It just loads and starts our application code. This takes fractions of a second.

Where a VM has a virtual hard drive that contains the entire OS, plus your application code, plus everything else the OS might possibly need, a container has an image file that contains your application code and any dependencies required by that app. As a result, the image files for a container are much smaller than a VM hard drive.

Container image files are stored in a repository so they can be easily managed and then downloaded to physical servers for execution. This is possible because they are so much smaller than a virtual hard drive, and the result is a much more flexible and powerful deployment model.

Containers vs PaaS/FaaS

Platform as a Service and Functions as a Service have become very popular ways to build and deploy software, especially in public clouds such as Microsoft Azure. Sometimes FaaS is also referred to as "serverless" computing, because your code only uses resources while running, and otherwise doesn't consume server resources; hence being "serverless".

The thing to keep in mind is that PaaS and FaaS are both really examples of container-based computing. Your cloud vendor creates a container that includes an OS and various other platform-level dependencies such as the .NET Framework, nodejs, Python, the JDK, etc. You install your code into that pre-built environment and it runs. This is true whether you are using PaaS to host a web site, or FaaS to host a function written in C#, JavaScript, or Java.

I always think of this as a spectrum. On one end are virtual machines, on the other is PaaS/FaaS, and in the middle are Docker containers.

VMs give you total control at the cost of you needing to manage everything. You are forced to manage machines at all levels, from OS updates and patches, to installation and management of platform dependencies like .NET and the JDK. Worse, there's no guarantee of consistency between instances of your VMs because each one is managed separately.

PaaS/FaaS give you essentially zero control. The vendor manages everything - you are forced to live within their runtime (container) model, upgrade when they say upgrade, and only use versions of the platform they currently support. You can't get ahead or fall behind the vendor.

Containers such as Docker give you some abstraction and some control. You get to pick a consistent base image and add in the dependencies your code requires. So there's consistency and maintainability that's far superior to a VM, but not as restrictive as PaaS/FaaS.

Another key aspect to keep in mind, is that PaaS/FaaS models are vendor specific. Containers are universally supported by all major cloud vendors, meaning that the code you host in your containers is entirely separated from anything specific to a given cloud vendor.

Containers and DevOps

DevOps has become the dominant way organizations think about the development, security, QA, deployment, and runtime monitoring of apps. When it comes to deployment, containers allow the image file to be the output of the build process.

With a VM model, the build process produces assets that must be then deployed into a VM. But with containers, the build process produces the actual image that will be loaded at runtime. No need to deploy the app or its dependencies, because they are already in the image itself.

This allows the DevOps pipeline to directly output a file, and that file is the unit of deployment!

No longer are IT professionals needed to deploy apps and dependencies onto the OS. Or even to configure the OS, because the app, dependencies, and configuration are all part of the DevOps process. In fact, all those definitions are source code, and so are subject to change tracking where you can see the history of all changes.

Servers and Orchestration

I'm not saying IT professionals aren't needed anymore. At the end of the day containers do run on actual servers, and those servers have their own OS plus the software to manage container execution. There are also some complexities around networking at the host OS and container levels. And there's the need to support load distribution, geographic distribution, failover, fault tolerance, and all the other things IT pros need to provide in any data center scenario.

With containers the industry is settling on a technology called Kubernetes (K8S) as the primary way to host and manage containers on servers.

Installing and configuring K8S is not trivial. You may choose to do your own K8S deployment in your data center, but increasingly organizations are choosing to rely on managed K8S services. Google, Microsoft, and Amazon all have managed Kubernetes offerings in their public clouds. If you can't use a public cloud, then you might consider using on-premises clouds such as Azure Stack or OpenStack, where you can also gain access to K8S without the need for manual installation and configuration.

Regardless of whether you use a managed public or private K8S cloud solution, or set up your own, the result of having K8S is that you have the tools to manage running container instances across multiple physical servers, and possibly geographic data centers.

Managed public and private clouds provide not only K8S, but also the hardware and managed host operating systems, meaning that your IT professionals can focus purely on managing network traffic, security, and other critical aspects. If you host your own K8S then your IT pro staff also own the management of hardware and the host OS on each server.

In any case, containers and K8S radically reduce the workload for IT pros in terms of managing the myriad VMs needed to host modern microservice-based apps, because those VMs are replaced by container images, managed via source code and the DevOps process.

Containers and Microservices

Microservice architecture is primarily about creating and running individual services that work together to provide rich functionality as an overall system.

A primary attribute (in my view the primary attribute) of services is that they are loosely coupled, sharing no dependencies between services. Each service should be deployed separately as well, allowing for indendent versioning of each service without needing to deploy any other services in the system.

Because containers are a self-contained unit of deployment, they are a great match for a service-based architecture. If we consider that each service is a stand-alone, atomic application that must be independently deployed, then it is easy to see how each service belongs in its own container image.

This approach means that each service, along with its dependencies, become a deployable unit that can be orchestrated via K8S.

Services that change rapidly can be deployed frequently. Services that change rarely can be deployed only when necessary. So you can easily envision services that deploy hourly, daily, or weekly, while other services will deploy once and remain stable and unchanged for months or years.

Conclusion

Clearly I am very positive about the potential of containers to benefit software development and deployment. I think this technology provides a nice compromise between virtual machines and PaaS, while providing a vendor-neutral model for hosting apps and services.

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