Step Aside written on ground

Containers are quietly replacing VMs. Is your IT Ops team prepared?

Organizations are increasingly embracing software containers to develop, deploy, and run applications, and that is going to affect their future virtualization strategies.

This year, nearly one-third of companies will spend half a million dollars or more on licenses and fees for container technologies—up from 5% in 2016—according to a new survey. That growth will continue at a compound annual growth rate of 40% until 2020, when container revenues will reach $2.7 billion, according to 451 Research. By then, about 10% of all compute power in the world will reside in nearly one billion containers, according to IDC.

The rapid growth of containers will create pressure on IT departments to re-evaluate their virtualization environments, but it still will be some time before containers dominate production. "Virtualization took a long time because apps were written for a bespoke architecture," explained Dave Langlais, former senior director of IT operations management at HPE Software. "To take advantage of VMs, developers had to rewrite those apps, or major portions of them, to efficiently use virtual machine technology. That same process is already happening with containers."

To get the full measure of benefit from containers, your apps must be re-architected to take advantage of microservices, Langlais said. "That will take some time. Well over 50% of Global 2,000 organizations are looking at it, but less than 10% of their apps and infrastructure is fully containerized or on bare metal."

Here's what your IT Ops team needs to understand about containers and how to prepare.

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A virtual takeover of VMs?

Langlais predicts that containers will dislodge VMs over the next five years for new deployments and that they will run on bare metal. Older deployments, though, may take longer because apps and existing infrastructure will need to be redesigned to accommodate containers.

"More than likely those new apps will first be deployed inside existing VMs because IT has them in place. So they'll run them for a while."
—Dave Langlais

While containers are rapidly being deployed inside Silicon Valley, adoption will be slower elsewhere and depend on a number of factors, said Dave Bartoletti, analyst with Forrester Research. Those factors include how fast an industry is being disrupted, how fast applications can be repackaged and deployed in containers, and how fast an industry or organization moves to microservices-based architectures.

"I don't see people just throwing out VMs and replacing them with containers unless they're combining it with some kind of application modernization effort."
Dave Bartoletti

Rather than replacing VMs, containers will complement them, said John Morello, CTO of Twistlock, a software container security company. "While conceptually related, they solve different problems and have different strengths," he said. "I see containers as the primary way organizations deploy and run apps, but VMs will still be used to allocate hardware and isolate tenants and workloads of varying sensitivity levels from each other."

"From the IT side, containers are an additional way to run software, but they're not in competition with VMs."
—Dave Bartoletti

It's a mixed bag

One reason VMs won't be totally supplanted by containers is that old tech has a way of hanging around. "You’re not going to live in a container world," Langlais said. "You’ll live in a hybrid world because a bunch of stuff will never go away. Why? Because it doesn't have to. It’s simply not cost-effective to move those apps."

Bartoletti, too, sees a future where containers and VMs coexist. "Five years from now, we're going to have millions of virtual machines running, but there are going to be companies that don't use any virtual machines at all," he said. "Those are the ones that have migrated or refactored or built new apps around microservices and container environments."

"That is going to grow quickly," he continued, "but a lot of that is going to happen in the public cloud. We're not going to see as much of it where people have to retool their entire IT infrastructure to set up native container platforms."

In some cases, containers will run on bare-metal servers, but in others they'll continue to run on VMs for isolation and deployment purposes, added Rani Osnat, vice president of marketing for Aqua Security, maker of a container security platform. However, the use of VMs will decline, he said.

How much of a decline remains to be seen, though. "There'll be some bare-metal containers, but 85% of containers will be running inside virtual machines," predicted Gary Chen, a research manager at IDC.

The impact on VM infrastructure

While containers and VMs will coexist, changes will be necessary to ensure they do so peacefully. "Presently, most container-based applications run within VMs, but as the technology matures, more containers will run on bare metal," Aqua's Osnat said.

Nevertheless, some containers will remain in VMs, so a hybrid architecture will be needed to accommodate both. In fact, many vendors, including VMware, Red Hat, and Pivotal, already support hybrid VM and container deployments.

Containers are going to have a large impact on VM infrastructure and the vendors that sell it, said Chen. He explained that VMs took on multiple roles as they evolved. They were used for infrastructure and server consolidation, as well as app management. "That happened because people began putting one app per VM."

"With containers, that app management role gets moved out of the VM layer."
Gary Chen

That will change the infrastructure because VMs will no longer need to accommodate app management things such as availability and resource scheduling.

Twistlock's Morello noted that VMs still have an important place in the enterprise, and as container technology gains traction, companies should be thinking about how to best integrate both technologies.

"Certain processes are best suited for containers, while others are better suited for VMs. The best IT teams will optimize their infrastructure for both."
John Morello

How to prepare for containers

One of the first steps when preparing for containers should be sitting down with the development team and finding out how they are using containers. Then you have to decide how you're going to run containers. Do you want to create your container platform from scratch on bare metal, or use existing infrastructure with some kind of orchestration layer on top of it? Or maybe you want to go the public-cloud route.

Pilot projects can also be valuable for organizations preparing to dip their toes into container technology, said David Linthicum, senior vice president of Cloud Technology Partners, a cloud computing consulting company.

"They should get experience using containers and understanding how they scale and get familiar with container orchestration tech, such as Kubernetes."
David Linthicum

One key thing is to take a holistic approach and learn from the lessons of virtualization, added IDC's Chen.

Virtualization was introduced as a cool server technology, but it evolved into much more than that, Chen explained. "Like virtualization, containers are a new compute primitive, but you need to think about things like orchestration, storage, and networking from the start."

"You have to understand it's going to have a ripple effect on your organization."
—Gary Chen

People and processes may be among the most important things for organizations preparing for containers to consider, contends Twistlock's Morello. "Containers bring great advantages in velocity, efficiency, and even security, but to reap these benefits an organization must evolve its operational practices to focus on automation, repeatability, and 'infrastructure as code,'" he said.

"The organizations that embrace these operational changes are the ones that will reap the most rewards from the technology."
—John Morello

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