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What is a container?

andrewhowdencom profile image Andrew Howden Originally published at littleman.co ・21 min read

Containers have recently become a common way of packaging, deploying and running software across a wide set of machines in all sorts of environments. With the initial release of Docker in March, 2013[1] containers have become ubiquitous in modern software deployment with 71% of Fortune 100 companies running it in some capacity[2]. Containers can be used for:

  • Running user facing, production software
  • Running a software development environment
  • Compiling software with its dependencies in a sandbox
  • Analysing the behaviour of software within a sandbox

Like their namesake in the shipping industry containers are designed to easily "lift and shift" software to different environments and have that software execute in the same way across those environments.

Containers have thus earned their place in the modern software development toolkit. However to understand how container technology fits into our modern software architecture its worth understanding how we arrived at containers, as well as how they work.

History

The "birth" of containers was denoted by Bryan Cantrill as March 18th, 1982[3] with the addition of the chroot syscall in BSD. From the FreeBSD website[4]:

According to the SCCS logs, the chroot call was added by Bill Joy on March 18, 1982 approximately 1.5 years before 4.2BSD was released. That was well before we had ftp servers of any sort (ftp did not show up in the source tree until January 1983). My best guess as to its purpose was to allow Bill to chroot into the /4.2BSD build directory and build a system using only the files, include files, etc contained in that tree. That was the only use of chroot that I remember from the early days.

— Dr. Marshall Kirk Mckusick

chroot is used to put a process into a "changed root"; a new root filesystem that has limited or no access to the parent root filesystem. An extremely minimal chroot can be created on Linux as follows[5]:

# Get a shell
$ cd $(mktemp -d)
$ mkdir bin
$ $(which sh) bin/bash

# Find shared libraries required for shell
$ ldd bin/sh
    linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffe69784000)
    /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libsnoopy.so (0x00007f6cc4c33000)
    libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007f6cc4a42000)
    libpthread.so.0 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libpthread.so.0 (0x00007f6cc4a21000)
    libdl.so.2 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 (0x00007f6cc4a1c000)
    /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f6cc4c66000)

# Duplicate libraries into root
$ mkdir -p lib64 lib/x86_64-linux-gnu
$ cp /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libsnoopy.so \
    /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 \
    /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libpthread.so.0 \
    /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 \
    lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/

$ cp /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 lib64/

# Change into that root
$ sudo chroot .

# Test the chroot
# ls
/bin/bash: 1: ls: not found
#

There were problems with this early implementation of chroot, such as being able to exit that chroot by running cd..[3], but these were resolved in short order. Seeking to provide better security FreeBSD extended the chroot into the jail[3][4] which allowed running software that desired to run as root and running it within a confined environment that was root within that environment but not root elsewhere on the system.

This work was further built upon in the Solaris operating system to provide fuller isolation from the host[3][6]:

  • User separation (similar to jail)
  • Filesystem separation (similar to chroot)
  • A separate process space

Providing something similar to the modern concept of containers; processes running on the same kernel. Later, similar work took place in the Linux kernel to isolate kernel structures on a per-process basis under "namespaces"[7].

However, in parallel Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched their Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) product which took a different approach to separating out workloads: virtualising the entire hardware[3]. This has some different tradeoffs; it limits exploitation of the host kernel or isolation implementation however running the additional operating system and hypervisor meant a far less efficient use of resources.

Virtualisation continued to dominate workload isolation until the company "dotcloud" (now Docker), then operating as a "platform as a service" (PAAS) offering, open sourced the software they used to run their PAAS. With that software and a large amount of luck containers proliferated rapidly until Docker became the power house it is now.

Shortly after Docker released their container runtime they started expanding their product offerings into build, orchestration and server management tooling[8]. Unhappy with this CoreOS created their own container runtime, rkt, which had the stated goal of interoperating with existing services such as systemd, following the unix philosophy of "Write programs that do one thing and do it well[9]."

To reconcile these disaparate definitions of a container the Open Container Initiative was established[10], after which Docker donated its schema and its runtime as what amounted to a defacto container standard.

There are now a number of container implementations, as well as a number of standards to define their behaviour.

Definition

It might be surprising to learn that a "container" is not a real thing — rather, it is a specification. At the time of writing this specification has implementations on[11]:

  • Linux
  • Windows
  • Solaris
  • Virtual Machines

In turn, containers are expected to be[12]:

  1. Consumable with a set of standard, interoperable tools
  2. Consistent regardless of what type of software is being run
  3. Agnostic to the underlying infrastructure the container is being run on
  4. Designed in a way that makes automation easy
  5. Of excellent quality

There are specifications that dictate how containers should reach these principles by defining how they should be executed (the runtime specification[11]), what a container should contain (the image specification[13]) and how to distribute container "images" (the distribution specification[14]).

These specifications mean that a wide variety of tools can be used to interact with containers. The canonical tool that is in most common use is the Docker tool, which in addition to manipulating containers provides container build tooling and some limited orchestration of containers. However, there are a number of container runtimes:

As well as other tools that help with building or distributing images.

Lastly, there are extensions to the existing standards, such as the container networking interface, which define additional behaviour where the standards are not yet clear enough.

Implementation

While the standards give us some idea as to what a container is and how they should work, it’s perhaps useful to understand how a container implementation works. Not all container runtimes are implemented in this way; notably, kata containers implement hardware virtualisation as alluded to earlier with EC2.

The problems being solved by containers are:

  1. Isolation of a process(es)
  2. Distribution of that process(es)
  3. Connecting that process(es) to other machines

With that said let’s dive in to the Docker implementation[15]. This uses a series of technologies exposed by the underlying kernel:

Kernel feature isolation: namespaces

The man namespaces command defines namespaces as follows:

A namespace wraps a global system resource in an abstraction that makes it appear to the processes within the namespace that they have their own isolated instance of the global resource. Changes to the global resource are visible to other processes that are members of the namespace, but are invisible to other processes. One use of namespaces is to implement containers.

Paraphrased, a namespace is a slice of the system that, from within that slice, a process cannot see the rest of the system.

A process must make a system call to the Linux kernel to changes its namespace. There are several system calls:

  • clone: Create a new process. When used in conjunction with CLONE_NEW* it creates a namespace of the kind specified. For example, if used with CLONE_NEWPID the process will enter a new pid namespace and become pid 1
  • setns: Allows the calling process to join an existing namespace, specified under /proc/[pid]/ns
  • unshare: Moves the calling process into a new namespace

There is a user command also called unshare which allows us to experiment with namespaces. We can put ourselves into a separate process and network namespace with the following command:

# Scratch space
$ cd $(mktemp -d)

# Fork is required to spawn new processes, and proc is mounted to give accurate process information
$ sudo unshare \
    --fork \
    --pid \
    --mount-proc \
    --net

# Here we see that we only have access to the loopback interface
root@sw-20160616-01:/tmp/tmp.XBESuNMJJS# ip addr
1: lo: <LOOPBACK> mtu 65536 qdisc noop state DOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/loopback 00:00:00:00:00:00 brd 00:00:00:00:00:00

# Here we see that we can only see the first process (bash) and our `ps aux` invocation
root@sw-20160616-01:/tmp/tmp.XBESuNMJJS# ps aux
USER       PID %CPU %MEM    VSZ   RSS TTY      STAT START   TIME COMMAND
root         1  0.3  0.0   8304  5092 pts/7    S    05:48   0:00 -bash
root         5  0.0  0.0  10888  3248 pts/7    R+   05:49   0:00 ps aux

Docker uses the following namespaces to limit the ability for a process running in the container to see resources outside that container:

  • The pid namespace: Process isolation (PID: Process ID).
  • The net namespace: Managing network interfaces (NET: Networking).
  • The ipc namespace: Managing access to IPC resources (IPC: InterProcess Communication).
  • The mnt namespace: Managing filesystem mount points (MNT: Mount)
  • The uts namespace: Isolating kernel and version identifiers. (UTS: Unix Timesharing System).

These provide reasonable separation between processes such that workloads should not be able to interfere with each other. However there is a notable caveat: we can disable some of this isolation[16].

This is an extremely useful property. One example of this would be for system daemons that need access to the host network to bind ports on the host[17], such as running a DNS service or service proxy in a container.

Tip

Process #1 or the init process in Linux systems has some additional responsibilities. When processes terminate in Linux they are not automatically cleaned up, but rather simply enter a terminated state. It is the responsibility of the init process to "reap" those processes, deleting them so that their process ID can be reused[18]. Accordingly the first process run in a Linux namespace should be an init process, and not a user facing process like mysql. This is known as the zombie reaping problem.

Tip

Another place namespaces are used is the Chromium browser[19]. Chromium uses at least the setuid and user namespaces.

Resource isolation: control groups

The kernel documentation for cgroups defines the cgroup as follows:

Control Groups provide a mechanism for aggregating/partitioning sets of tasks, and all their future children, into hierarchical groups with specialized behaviour.

That doesn’t really tell us much though. Luckily it expands:

On their own, the only use for cgroups is for simple job tracking. The intention is that other subsystems hook into the generic cgroup support to provide new attributes for cgroups, such as accounting/limiting the resources which processes in a cgroup can access. For example, cpusets (see Documentation/cgroup-v1/cpusets.txt) allow you to associate a set of CPUs and a set of memory nodes with the tasks in each cgroup.

So, cgroups are a groups of "jobs" that other systems can assign meaning to. The systems that currently use this cgroup systems:

As well as various others.

cgroups are manipulated by reading and writing to the /proc filesystem. For example:

# Create a cgroup called "me"
$  mkdir /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/me

# Allocate the cgroup a max of 100Mb memory
$ echo '100000000' | sudo tee /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/me/memory.limit_in_bytes

# Move this proess into the cgroup
$ echo $$  | sudo tee /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/me/cgroup.procs
5924

That’s it! This process should now be limited to 100Mb total usage

Docker uses the same functionality in its --memory and --cpus arguments, and it is employed by the orchestration systems Kubernetes and Apache Mesos to determine where to schedule workloads.

Tip

Although cgroups are most commonly associated with containers they’re already used for other workloads. The best example is perhaps systemd, which automatically puts all services into a cgroup if the CPU scheduler is enabled in the kernel[20]. systemd services are …​ kind of containers!

Userland isolation: seccomp

While both namespaces and cgroups go a significant way to isolating processes into their own containers Docker goes further than that to restrict what access the process can have to the Linux kernel itself. This is enforced in supported operating systems via "SECure COMPuting with filters", also known as seccomp-bpf or simply seccomp.

The Linux kernel user space API guide defines seccomp as:

Seccomp filtering provides a means for a process to specify a filter for incoming system calls. The filter is expressed as a Berkeley Packet Filter (BPF) program, as with socket filters, except that the data operated on is related to the system call being made: system call number and the system call arguments.

BPF in turn is a small, in-kernel virtual machine language used in a number of kernel tracing, networking and other tasks[21]. Whether the system supports seccomp can be determined by running the following command[22]:

$ grep CONFIG_SECCOMP= /boot/config-$(uname -r)

# Our system supports seccomp
CONFIG_SECCOMP=y

Practically this limits a processes ability to ask the kernel to do certain things. Any system call can be restricted, and docker allows the use of arbitrary seccomp "profiles" via its --security-opt argument[22]:

docker run --rm \
  -it \
  --security-opt seccomp=/path/to/seccomp/profile.json \
  hello-world

However, most usefully Docker provides a default security profile that limits some of the more dangerous system calls that processes run from a container should never need to make, including:

  • clone: The ability to clone new namespaces
  • bpf: The ability to load and run bpf programs
  • add_key: The ability to access the kernel keyring
  • kexec_load: The ability to load a new linux kernel

As well as many others. The full list of syscalls blocked by default is available on the Docker website.

In addition to seccomp there are other ways to ensure containers are behaving as expected, including:

  • Linux Capabilities[23]
  • SELinux
  • AppArmour
  • AuditD
  • Falco[24]

Each of which take slightly different approaches of ensuring the process is only executed within expected behaviour. It’s worth spending time to investigate the tradeoffs of each of these security decisions or simply delegating the choice to a competent third party provider.

Additionally it’s worth noting that even though Docker defaults to enabling the seccomp policy, orchestration systems such as kubernetes may disable it[25].

Distribution: the union file system

To generate a container Docker requires a set of "build instructions". A trivial image could be:

# Scrath space
$ cd $(mktemp -d)

# Create a docker file
$ cat <<EOF > Dockerfile
FROM debian:buster

# Create a test directory
RUN mkdir /test

# Create a bunch of spam files
RUN echo $(date) > /test/a
RUN echo $(date) > /test/b
RUN echo $(date) > /test/c

EOF

# Build the image
$ docker build .
Sending build context to Docker daemon  4.096kB
Step 1/5 : FROM debian:buster
 ---> ebdc13caae1e
Step 2/5 : RUN mkdir /test
 ---> Running in a9c0fa1a56c7
Removing intermediate container a9c0fa1a56c7
 ---> 6837541a46a5
Step 3/5 : RUN echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019 > /test/a
 ---> Running in 8b61ca022296
Removing intermediate container 8b61ca022296
 ---> 3ea076dcea98
Step 4/5 : RUN echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019 > /test/b
 ---> Running in 940d5bcaa715
Removing intermediate container 940d5bcaa715
 ---> 07b2f7a4dff8
Step 5/5 : RUN echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019 > /test/c
 ---> Running in 251f5d00b55f
Removing intermediate container 251f5d00b55f
 ---> 0122a70ad0a3
Successfully built 0122a70ad0a3

This creates a docker image with the id of 0122a70ad0a3 containing the contents of date at a, b and c. We can verify this by starting the container and examining its contents:

$ docker run \
  --rm=true \
  -it \
  0122a70ad0a3 \
  /bin/bash

$ cd /test
$ ls
a  b  c
$ cat *

Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019
Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019
Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019

However, in the docker build command earlier Docker created several images. If we run the image after only a and b have been executed we will not see c:

$ docker run \
  --rm=true \
  -it \
  07b2f7a4dff8 \
  /bin/bash
$ ls test
a  b

Docker is not creating a whole new filesystem for each of these images. Instead, each of the images are layered on top of each other. If we query Docker we can see each of the layers that go into a given image:

$ docker history 0122a70ad0a3
IMAGE               CREATED             CREATED BY                                      SIZE                COMMENT
0122a70ad0a3        5 minutes ago       /bin/sh -c echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019…   29B
07b2f7a4dff8        5 minutes ago       /bin/sh -c echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019…   29B
3ea076dcea98        5 minutes ago       /bin/sh -c echo Sat 30 Mar 18:05:24 CET 2019…   29B
6837541a46a5        5 minutes ago       /bin/sh -c mkdir /test                          0B
ebdc13caae1e        12 months ago       /bin/sh -c #(nop)  CMD ["bash"]                 0B
<missing>           12 months ago       /bin/sh -c #(nop) ADD file:2219cecc89ed69975…   106MB

This allows docker to reuse vast chunks of what it downloads. For example, given the image we built earlier we can see that it uses:

  1. A layer called ADD file:…​ — this is the Debian Buster root filesystem at 106MB
  2. A layer for a that renders the date to disk at 29B
  3. A layer for b that renders the date to disk at 29B

And so on. Docker will reuse the Add file:…​ Debian Buster root for all image that start with FROM: debian:buster.

This allows Docker to be extremely space efficient if possible, reusing the same operating system image for multiple different executions.

Tip

Even though Docker is extremely space efficient the docker library on disk can grow extremely large and transferring large docker images over the network can become expensive. Therefore, try to reuse image layers where possible and prefer smaller operating systems or the scratch (nothing) image where possible.

These layers are implemented via a Union Filesystem, or UnionFS. There are various "backends" or filesystems that can implement this approach:

  • overlay2

  • devicemapper

  • aufs

Generally speaking the package manager on our machine will include the appropriate underlying filesystem driver; docker supports many:

$ docker info | grep Storage
Storage Driver: overlay2

We can replicate this implementation with our overlay mount fairly easily[26]:

# scratch
cd $(mktemp -d)

# Create some layers
$ mkdir \
  lower \
  upper \
  workdir \
  overlay

# Create some files that represent the layers
$ touch lower/i-am-the-lower
$ touch higher/i-am-the-higher

# Create the layered filesystem at overlay with lower, upper and workdir
$ mount -t overlay \
    -o lowerdir=lower,upperdir=upper,workdir=workdir \
    ./overlay \
    overlay

# List the directory
$ ls overlay/
i-am-the-lower  i-am-the-upper

Docker goes so far as to nest those layers until the multi-layered filesystem has been successfully implemented.

Files that are written are written back to the upper directory, in the case of overlay2. However Docker will generally dispose of these temporary files when the container is removed.

Tip

Generally speaking all software needs access to shared libraries found in static paths in Linux operating systems. Accordingly it is the convention to simply ship a stripped down version of an operating systems root file system such that users can install and applications can find the libraries they expect. However, it is possible to use an empty filesystem and a statically compiled binary with the scratch image type.

Connectivity: networking

As mentioned earlier, containers make use of Linux namespaces. Of particular interest when understanding container networking is the network namespace. This namespace gives the process separate:

  • (virtual) ethernet devices

  • routing tables

  • iptables rules

For example,

# Create a new network namespace
$ sudo unshare --fork --net

# List the ethernet devices with associated ip addresses
$ ip addr
1: lo: <LOOPBACK> mtu 65536 qdisc noop state DOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/loopback 00:00:00:00:00:00 brd 00:00:00:00:00:00

# List all iptables rules
root@sw-20160616-01:/home/andrewhowden# iptables -L
Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination

Chain FORWARD (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination

Chain OUTPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination

# List all network routes
$ ip route show

By default, the container has no network connectivity — not even the loopback adapter is up. We cannot even ping ourselves!

$ ping 127.0.0.1
PING 127.0.0.1 (127.0.0.1): 56 data bytes
ping: sending packet: Network is unreachable

We can start setting up the expected network environment by bringing up the loopback adapter:

$ ip link set lo up
root@sw-20160616-01:/home/andrewhowden# ip addr
1: lo: <LOOPBACK,UP,LOWER_UP> mtu 65536 qdisc noqueue state UNKNOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/loopback 00:00:00:00:00:00 brd 00:00:00:00:00:00
    inet 127.0.0.1/8 scope host lo
       valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever
    inet6 ::1/128 scope host
       valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever

# Test the loopback adapter
$ ping 127.0.0.1
PING 127.0.0.1 (127.0.0.1): 56 data bytes
64 bytes from 127.0.0.1: icmp_seq=0 ttl=64 time=0.092 ms
64 bytes from 127.0.0.1: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.068 ms

However, we cannot access the outside world. In most environments our host machine will be connected via ethernet to a given network and either have an IP assigned to it via the cloud provider or, in the case of a development or office machine, request an IP via DHCP. However our container is in a network namespace of its own and has no knowledge of the ethernet connected to the host. To connect the container to the host we need to employ a veth device.

veth, or "Virtual Ethernet Device" is defined by man vetTo create a `veth device we can run as:

The veth devices are virtual Ethernet devices. They can act as tunnels between network namespaces to create a bridge to a physical network device in another namespace, but can also be used as standalone network devices.

This is exactly what we need! Because unshare creates an anonymous network namespace we need to determine what the pid of the process started in that namespace is[27][28]:

$ echo $$
18171

We can then create the veth device:

$ sudo ip link add veth0 type veth peer name veth0 netns 18171

We can see both on the host and the guest these virtual ethernet devices appear. However, neither has an IP attached nor any routes defined:

# Container

$ ip addr
1: lo: <LOOPBACK> mtu 65536 qdisc noop state DOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/loopback 00:00:00:00:00:00 brd 00:00:00:00:00:00
2: veth0@if7: <BROADCAST,MULTICAST> mtu 1500 qdisc noop state DOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/ether 16:34:52:54:a2:a1 brd ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff link-netnsid 0
$ ip route show

# No output

To address that we simply add an IP and define the default route:

# On the host
$ ip addr add 192.168.24.1 dev veth0

# Within the container
$ ip address add 192.168.24.10 dev veth0

From there, bring the devices up:

# Both host and container
$ ip link set veth0 up

Add a route such that 192.168.24.0/24 goes out via veth0:

# Both host and guest
ip route add 192.168.24.0/24 dev veth0

And voilà! We have connectivity to the host namespace and back:

# Within container
$ ping 192.168.24.1
PING 192.168.24.1 (192.168.24.1): 56 data bytes
64 bytes from 192.168.24.1: icmp_seq=0 ttl=64 time=0.149 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.24.1: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.096 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.24.1: icmp_seq=2 ttl=64 time=0.104 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.24.1: icmp_seq=3 ttl=64 time=0.100 ms

However, that does not give us access to the wider internet. While the veth adapter functions as a virtual cable between our container and our host, there is currently no path from our container to the internet:

# Within container
$ ping google.com
ping: unknown host

To create such a path we need to modify our host such that it functions as a "router" between its own, separated network namespaces and its internet facing adapter.

Luckily, Linux is set up well for this purpose. First, we need to modify the normal behaviour of Linux from dropping packets not destined for IP addresses with which their associated but rather allow forwarding a packet from one adapter to the other:

# Within container
$ echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward

That means when we request public facing IPs from within our container via our veth adapter to our host veth adapter the host adapter won’t simply drop those packets.

From there we employ iptables rules on the host to forward traffic from the host veth adapter to the internet facing adapter — in this case wlp2s0:

# On the host
# Forward packets from the container to the host adapter
iptables -A FORWARD -i veth0 -o wlp2s0 -j ACCEPT

# Forward packets that have been established via egress from the host adapater back to the contianer
iptables -A FORWARD -i wlp2s0 -o veth0 -m state --state ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT

# Relabel the IPs for the container so return traffic will be routed correctly
iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o wlp2s0 -j MASQUERADE

We then tell our container to send traffic it doesn’t know anything else about down the veth adapter:

# Within the container
$ ip route add default via 192.168.24.1 dev veth0

And the internet works!

$ # ping google.com
PING google.com (172.217.22.14): 56 data bytes
64 bytes from 172.217.22.14: icmp_seq=0 ttl=55 time=16.456 ms
64 bytes from 172.217.22.14: icmp_seq=1 ttl=55 time=15.102 ms
64 bytes from 172.217.22.14: icmp_seq=2 ttl=55 time=34.369 ms
64 bytes from 172.217.22.14: icmp_seq=3 ttl=55 time=15.319 ms

As mentioned, each container implementation can implement networking differently. There are implementations that use the aforementioned veth pair, vxlan, BPF or other cloud specific implementations. However, when designing containers we need some way to reason about what behaviour we should expect.

To help address this the "Container Network Interface" tooling has been designed. This allows defining consistent network behaviour across network implementations, as well as models such as Kubernetes shared lo adapter between several containers.

The networking side of containers is an area undergoing rapid innovation but relying on:

  1. A lo interface
  2. A public facing eth0 (or similar) interface

being present seems a fairly stable guarantee.

Landscape review

Given our understanding of the implementation of containers we can now take a look at some of the classic docker discussions.

Systems Updates

One of the oft overlooked parts of containers is the necessity to keep both them, and the host system up to date.

In modern systems it is quite common to simply enable automatic updates on host systems and, so long as we stick to the system package manager and ensure updates stay successful, the system will keep itself both up to date and stable.

However, containers take a very different approach. They’re effectively giant static binaries deployed into a production system. In this capacity they can do no self maintenance.

Accordingly even if there are no updates to the software the container runs, containers should be periodically rebuilt and redeployed to the production system — less they accumulate vunlerabilities over time.

Init within contianer

Given our understanding of containers its reasonable to consider the "1 process per container" advice and determine that it is an oversimplification of how containers work, and it makes sense in some cases to do service management within a container with a system like runit.

This allows multiple processes to be executed within a single container including things like:

  • syslog
  • logrotate
  • cron

And so fourth.

In the case where Docker is the only system that is being used it is indeed reasonable to think about doing service management within docker — particularly when hitting the constraints of shared filesystem or network state. However systems such as Kubernetes, Swarm or Mesos have replaced much of the necessity of these init systems; tasks such as log aggregation, restarting services or colocating services are taken care of by these tools.

Accordingly its best to keep containers simple such that they are maximally composable and easy to debug, delegating the more complex behaviour out.

In Conclusion

Containers are an excellent way to ship software to production systems. They solve a swathe of interesting problems and cost very little as a result. However, their rapid growth has meant some confusion in industry as to exactly how they work, whether they’re stable and so fourth. Containers are a combination of both old and new Linux kernel technology such as namespaces, cgroups, seccomp and other Linux networking tooling but are as stable as any other kernel technology (so, very) and well suited for production systems.

<3 for making it this far.

References

  1. “Docker.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docker_(software) .
  2. “Cloud Native Technologies in the Fortune 100.” https://redmonk.com/fryan/2017/09/10/cloud-native-technologies-in-the-fortune-100/ , Sep-2017.
  3. B. Cantrill, “The Container Revolution: Reflections After the First Decade.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXWaECk9XqM , Sep-2018.
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