Condensing Your Infrastructure with System Containers

Jonathan MathewsPublic

system containers

When most people hear the word containers, they probably think of Docker containers, which are application containers. But, there are other kinds of containers, for example, system containers like LXC/LXD. Stéphane Graber, technical lead for LXD at Canonical Ltd., will be delivering two talks at the upcoming Open Source Summit NA in September: “GPU, USB, NICs and Other Physical Devices in Your Containers” and “Condensing Your Infrastructure Using System Containers” discussing containers in detail.

In this OS Summit preview, we talked with Graber to understand the difference between system and application containers as well as how to work with physical devices in containers. What are system containers, how are they different from virtual machines?

Stéphane Graber: The end result of using system containers or a virtual machine is pretty similar. You get to run multiple operating systems on a single machine.

The VM approach is to virtualize everything. You get virtualized hardware and a virtualized firmware (BIOS/UEFI) which then boots a full system starting from bootloader, to kernel, and then userspace. This allows you to run just about anything that a physical machine would be able to boot but comes with quite a bit of overhead for anything that is virtualized and needs hypervisor involvement.

System containers, on the other hand, do not come with any virtualized hardware or firmware. Instead, they rely on your existing operating system’s kernel and so avoid all of the virtualization overhead. As the kernel is shared between host and guest, this does, however, restrict you to Linux guests and is also incompatible with some workloads that expect kernel modifications.

A shared kernel also means much easier monitoring and management as the host can see every process that’s running in its containers, how much CPU and RAM each of those individual tasks are using, and it will let you trace or kill any of them.

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