Alibaba Bets on Containers Running on Bare-Metal Servers

Aiming to provide IT organizations with as much flexibility as possible, Alibaba Group has unfurled an instance of a private cloud service based on Docker containers running on bare-metal servers.

Hong Tang, chief architect for Alibaba Cloud, says Alibaba will continue to support Docker containers running on virtual machines on its public cloud, but enterprise IT organizations also want access to a private cloud using the Alibaba Apsara Stack Agility. That new private cloud service is available now in China, but Alibaba will make the Docker service available in cloud zones around the world soon. Alibaba Cloud has nodes in 14 locations worldwide, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Middle East, Europe and the both the east and west coasts of the United States.

Alibaba still expects public clouds to be the dominant compute model. But Tang says the company is committed to working with customers across a variety of computing models, including emerging event-driven architectures now referred to as serverless computing.

Many enterprise IT organizations are adopting containers to lift and shift existing enterprise applications into the cloud. But for both regulatory and performance reasons, many of those applications need to run on a private cloud. Rather than deploying those containerize applications on top on a virtual machine, Alibaba is addressing any performance concerns by running on bare-metal servers.

Tang says the next great technology hurdle will be to dynamically match the attributes of an application with the appropriate computing model. Tang says he expects it to take years to achieve that goal. In the meantime, Alibaba is committed to providing customers not only access to all the major computing models, but also a choice of infrastructure spanning virtual machines, bare-metal servers, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and graphics processing units (GPU).

Alibaba Cloud generated $254 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2016. But only 765,000 of its 2.3 million customers worldwide actually pay to use it services. Most of that usage is outside the United States, but Alibaba has made it clear it intends to provide cloud services globally. The degree to which it might be able to catch up to rivals such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google may come down to how flexible the cloud services being provided comparatively how.

The truth of matter is that applications evolve over time. A stateless application running on a container-as-a-service (CaaS) environment today might very well need to shift over to a serverless computing framework tomorrow. Rather than having to negotiate new cloud computing contracts, many customers would prefer for that transition to occur as seamlessly as possible.

The one thing that is for certain is that containers give IT organizations more leverage over cloud service providers. A containerized application can not only be lifted into the cloud from on-premises; it can just as easily move between clouds. Alibaba is clearly betting that in the fullness of time a lot more of those containerized workloads are going to wind up moving on to a more diverse set of cloud services provided by them.

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard is a seasoned IT journalist with over 25 years of experience. He also contributed to IT Business Edge, Channel Insider, Baseline and a variety of other IT titles. Previously, Vizard was the editorial director for Ziff-Davis Enterprise as well as Editor-in-Chief for CRN and InfoWorld.

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