The development of shipping containers enabled the global trade we now enjoy and made shipping your products around the world a simple transaction. As the opening paragraph in a book chronicling the rise of shipping containers (The Box) from the origins in 1956 onward stated, "The container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the world economy."
Now containers, albeit in a digital form, are being touted as the next big thing in cloud computing.
At the Red Hat Conference April 14-17 in San Francisco (which I did not attend but did watch the keynotes on YouTube), containers were a big piece of the news. "This [container technology] is one of the things that is really going to drive the future," said Red Hat President of Products and Technologies Paul Cormier in his keynote address.
In an era where applications will increasingly be sharing physical and virtual machines as well as private and public clouds, container technology—which allows for lightweight application transport between those myriad platforms—may be the only way to go.
The idea of virtual containers has been around for a while. Although I'm not sure if they go all the way back to those 1956 physical containers, Sun was talking about Solaris containers in the early 2000s.
On one hand, you can see containers as the continuing evolution of applications being separated from hardware. Server virtualization allowed for the operating system to be freed from a specific hardware server. Now containers promise the ability to disperse and move applications throughout the hybrid infrastructures, which seem to be the favorite of corporate techies.
Containers as the next evolution of virtualization is a favorite topic of, no surprise, the companies created around the container concept. In a blog post last September, Pantheon CEO Zack Rosen, wrote, "We believe that the future cloud will run on containers, not virtual machines. Pantheon's container based infrastructure is a huge departure from traditional virtual machine and server based 'hosting' model."
Pantheon runs more than 55,000 Drupal content management system sites, which Rosen claimed would require 100,000 virtual servers without using the lighter, more flexible container approach.
One other big name in the container field is Docker, which describes itself as a shipping container for code. The Docker approach uses the Linux platform to allow containers to be isolated but share an operating system and libraries.
It was the sharing capability and the relative infancy of containers that initially raised concerns about security, privacy and compliance in the corporate environment. Those same concerns were the same for public cloud computing and virtualization.
But as those concerns have been overcome in the public cloud environment, they are also being overcome in the container model. Oracle, the epitome of the enterprise software vendors, has been touting its pluggable 12c database based on the container model.
At its customer conference on April 15, Red Hat introduced its Project Atomic designed to create a user community to develop technologies to further the development of lightweight Linux container hosts. The company is also aligning with Docker to provide the container format used in its OpenShift platform for service development.
Red Hat isn't alone in talking up the container trend as the next evolution of virtualization. With corporate techies still wary of being locked into proprietary development platforms—whether on premises or offered up as a platform as a service—the container concept addresses those concerns as well as the difficulty of managing applications that require a full virtual machine to be deployed and redeployed depending on their hosting location.
Just when you thought you might be getting tired of talking about IaaS, PaaS and SaaS, now you can start shifting your cloud conversation to CaaS—containers as a service.
Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.