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Get to know data storage containers and their terminology

Looking into containerization? You're going to need these key terms to better understand the technology, how it works and which vendors are offering it.

Data storage containers have become a popular way to create and package applications for better portability and simplicity. Seen by some analysts as the technology to unseat virtual machines, containers have steadily gained more attention as of late, from customers and vendors alike.

Why choose containers and containerization over the alternatives? Containers work on bare-metal systems, cloud instances and VMs, and across Linux and select Windows and Mac OSes. Containers typically use fewer resources than VMs and can bind together application libraries and dependencies into one convenient, deployable unit.

Below, you'll find key terms about containers, from technical details to specific products on the market. If you're looking to invest in containerization, you'll need to know these terms and concepts.

Getting technical

Containerization. With its roots in partitioning, containerization is an efficient data storage strategy that virtually isolates applications, enabling multiple containers to run on one machine but share the same OS. Containers run independent processes in a shared user space and are capable of running on different environments, which makes them a flexible alternative to virtual machines.

The benefits of containerization include reduced overhead on hardware and portability, while concerns include the security of data stored on containers. With all of the containers running under one OS, if one container is vulnerable, the others are as well.

Container management software. As the name indicates, container management software is used to simplify, organize and manage containers. Container management software automates container creation, destruction, deployment and scaling and is particularly helpful in situations with large numbers of containers on one OS. However, the orchestration aspect of management software is complex and setup can be difficult.

Products in this area include Kubernetes, an open source container orchestration software; Apache Mesos, an open source project that manages compute clusters; and Docker Swarm, a container cluster management tool.

Persistent storage. In order to be persistent, a storage device must retain data after being shut off. While persistence is essentially a given when it comes to modern storage, the rise of containerization has brought persistent storage back to the forefront.

Containers did not always support persistent storage, which meant that data created with a containerized app would disappear when the container was destroyed. Luckily, storage vendors have made enough advances in container technology to solve this issue and retain data created on containers.

Stateful app. A stateful app saves client data from the activities of one session for use in the next session. Most applications and OSes are stateful, but because stateful apps didn't scale well in early cloud architectures, developers began to build more stateless apps.

With a stateless app, each session is carried out as if it was the first time, and responses aren't dependent upon data from a previous session. Stateless apps are better suited to cloud computing, in that they can be more easily redeployed in the event of a failure and scaled out to accommodate changes.

However, containerization allows files to be pulled into the container during startup and persist somewhere else when containers stop and start. This negates the issue of stateful apps becoming unstable when introduced to a stateless cloud environment.

Container vendors and products

While there is one vendor undoubtedly ahead of the pack when it comes to modern data storage containers, the field has opened up to include some big names. Below, we cover just a few of the vendors and products in the container space.

Docker. Probably the most synonymous with data storage containers, Docker is even credited with bringing about the container renaissance in the IT space. Docker's platform is open source, which enables users to register and share containers over various hosts in both private and public environments. In recent years, Docker made containers accessible and offers various editions of containerization technology.

When you refer to Docker, you likely mean either the company itself, Docker Inc., or the Docker Engine. Initially developed for Linux systems, the Docker Engine had version updates extended to operate natively on both Windows and Apple OSes. The Docker Engine supports tasks and workflows involved in building, shipping and running container-based applications.

Container Linux. Originally referred to as CoreOS Linux, Container Linux by CoreOS is an open source OS that deploys and manages the applications within containers. Container Linux is based on the Linux kernel and is designed for massive scale and minimal overhead. Although, Container Linux is open source, CoreOS sells support for the OS. Acquired by Red Hat in 2018, CoreOS develops open source tools and components.

Azure Container Instances (ACI). With ACI, developers can deploy data storage containers on the Microsoft Azure cloud. Organizations can spin up a new container via the Azure portal or command-line interface, and Microsoft automatically provisions and scales the underlying compute resources. ACI also supports standard Docker images and Linux and Windows containers.

Microsoft Windows containers. Windows containers are abstracted and portable operating environments supported by the Microsoft Windows Server 2016 OS. They can be managed with Docker and PowerShell and support established Windows technologies. Along with Windows Containers, Windows Server 2016 also supports Hyper-V containers.

VMware vSphere Integrated Containers (VIC). While VIC can refer to individual container instances, it is also a platform that deploys and manages containers within VMs from within VMware's vSphere VM management software. Previewed under the name Project Bonneville, VMware's play on containers comes with the virtual container host, which represents tools and hardware resources that create and control container services.

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