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Differences between VMware container platforms

VMware now offers two container platforms, each with different strengths and weaknesses.

Since Docker burst onto the scene in 2013, many virtualization and cloud companies have scrambled to develop their own approach to container technology. Containers, as Docker envisioned them, are useful for allowing workloads to be easily moved from one platform to another (for example, in the case of moving from a developer's laptop to a test or production server).

Many analysts and industry watchers however, note that containers could present a threat to virtualization. Containers have the potential to enable higher levels of consolidation by eliminating the overhead associated with each VM running a separate operating system instance.

VMware, as the leading name in virtualization, potentially has a lot to lose. However, the company hasn't been caught flat-footed. Earlier this year, VMware unveiled two different container platforms: VMware Photon Platform and vSphere Integrated Containers. For the casual observer as well as everyday IT administrators, understanding the difference between these two -- seemingly competing -- VMware container platforms can be difficult, if not downright confusing. So let's take a look at how the two platforms compare and the pros and cons of each.

VMware vSphere Integrated Containers

For the average VMware administrator, understanding the concept of vSphere Integrated Containers is relatively straight forward. For starters, this approach allows the administrator to create and manage containers from the same familiar vSphere console with which they manage traditional VMs. In many ways, this platform offers an easy entry point into containers for the average VMware customer and extends common VM management capabilities to containers.

VMware first introduced the concept behind vSphere Integrated Containers as a technology preview called Project Bonneville in June 2015. Administrators monitor and manage containers through the vSphere Web Client, using a plug-in. With this platform, a container is created within a virtual machine that is running a lightweight Linux operating system. A virtual container host provides access to the Docker API and holds container images downloaded from the Docker Hub.

This platform provides hardware isolation for containers while still enabling the portability that made Docker's approach so appealing to developers. VMware has said the vSphere Integrated Containers platform is ideal for companies looking to deploy containers alongside traditional VMs on a small to moderate scale -- typically tens to hundreds of containers. This approach allows administrators to maintain security and management control of containers, but also reduce the frustration of moving applications across different platforms.

VSphere Integrated Containers was designed to work with Docker, but should also eventually integrate with other container technologies including Kubernetes, CoreOS Tectonic, Cloud Foundry and Mesosphere's DCOS.

VMware Photon Platform

While vSphere Integrated Containers provides an extension of VMware's existing VM management platform to enable control of containers, the VMware Photon Platform represents a completely new framework.

This platform, which VMware introduced at VMworld 2015, is made up of the Photon Machine and the Photon Controller. Photon Machine couples a slimmed down version of VMware's ESX hypervisor and VMware's Photon Linux operating system to create a lightweight container runtime. The Photon Controller serves as a distributed multi-tenant control plane that provides security and authentication as well as integration with other container management frameworks and an API. Unlike vSphere Integrated Containers, Photon Platform does not rely on Docker as its underlying technology.

VMware has said that its Photon Platform "favors scale and speed over the rich management features offered by vSphere." This is a defining aspect of the platform, making it the right choice for certain applications, but not for others. As a slimmed-down version of ESX, the Photon Machine doesn't offer the high availability or vMotion features available to VMs running on vSphere. While this isn't ideal for many traditional workloads, applications designed with built-in high availability features, or as part of a microservices approach, may be able to run more efficiently on containers than on VMs.

Earlier this year VMware open sourced its Photon Controller, but has said it plans to keep the Photon Machine as a proprietary product.

Choosing the right platform

While it's far too early to give a ringing endorsement to either VMware container platform, vSphere Integrated Containers has more potential as a short-term option for organizations looking to get started with containers. The convenience of using a familiar and proven management tool, like vSphere, to experiment with a relatively new technology is too tempting for IT shops to ignore. While it's not necessarily ideal for large-scale container deployments, vSphere Integrated Containers will help many companies experiment with containers and find out how they can help. Looking to the long term, it's still difficult to say whether VMware's container-within-a-VM approach, or even containers in general, will deliver on all of the consolidation and agility promises, but it's worth watching.

VMware's Photon Platform requires a new perspective on how applications should be designed and deployed, but that doesn't mean it will fail. On the contrary, many companies are already seeing the advantages of containers and microservices. However, even though the IT industry is known for its fast pace of innovation, the average business smartly exercises a good deal of caution and skepticism before adopting new and unproven platforms.

Startups and Web-based companies with forward-looking CTOs are often on the cutting edge of new technology, and they'll likely be among the early adopters of containers. Expect these companies to begin experimenting with both VMware container platforms today, while the average IT shop cautiously tests vSphere Integrated Containers as a way to help improve the software development and delivery process.

Next Steps

How are vSphere Integrated Containers different from other approaches?

Container technology continues to gain ground

Who will control and manage VMware containers?

This was last published in December 2015

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