Containers vs. VMs: A Closer Look

A closer look at the use cases for containers and VMs in software development environments

Software development is changing, as organizations are being pushed to increase the rate at which they release and update applications due to today’s mobile, on-demand world. Traditionally, this process could take months, but development teams are now expected to deliver new software and updates in a matter of hours or days.

These accelerated timelines make it even more important for development teams to be nimble and able to shift direction at a moment’s notice. However, this type of real-time agility typically has been a challenge due to the restrictions of existing IT systems and development tools. Fortunately, new solutions such as containers are changing how organizations approach software maintenance, empowering developers with greater flexibility and options to execute faster workflows.

While containers are seeing a surge in adoption, it’s important for development teams to understand what’s at stake for existing virtual machine (VM) deployments and how that may impact and complement the successful adoption of containers.

Shifting From Virtual Machines

For years, applications ran solely on VMs and physical servers. Both are still viable options for specific applications, but do present challenges when it comes to DevOps philosophies that center on speed and agility. One challenge is the fact that VMs carry a much larger overhead and footprint and require regular maintenance that must be conducted manually by humans. This introduces the increased risk of error and scaling concerns, both of which can be detrimental in any business setting but are exacerbated when organizations are looking to improve efficiencies and accelerate innovation.

VMs also introduce a unique challenge for some legacy businesses, as their management often lies with one person. While this may not seem like a problem at its surface, if and when that person leaves the organization, it exposes significant knowledge gaps in the status of each system, particularly around past performance insights and scheduled maintenance and updates. As a result, teams can be left sifting through legacy information to make sure applications continue to run smoothly, which ultimately will stymie productivity across the team.

Containers: The Solution?

As companies evaluate costs and look for ways to stay competitive and accelerate time to market, the specialized development roles required to manage VMs have become unsustainable. To maximize the contribution of developers, organizations must move away from manual processes and toward automated methodologies such as container-based development and deployment, which are more sustainable and scalable.

All maintenance tasks for containers—whatever the application functions or services they provide—are standardized via simple, programmable and automatable commands. That means that the information required for management and maintenance is transparent across the team, enabling anyone to identify and resolve an issue when one arises. This shared, cloud-standardized knowledge, along with the fact that containers can be changed and updated more easily and with less maintenance than VMs, enables the development team to spend more time on activities that bring value to the company. Instead of spending countless hours monitoring VMs, the team can focus on innovations that will drive the organization’s success and foster a happier, more productive team that’s not bogged down by mundane tasks.

For example, if one of the engineering teams’ technical challenges is providing more on-demand software updates or the need to enable automation throughout the software suite, then containers are a logical choice. The lightweight characteristics of containers enable developers to quickly stop and ramp back up without having to shut down the entire system. This will allow the team to experiment without fear of failure and ultimately solve issues and update solutions at an accelerated rate.

Containers or VMs: Finding Success

Containers bring transparency, acceleration, and innovation to development teams. However, to ensure their success, the development team must also adopt a DevOps methodology that prioritizes many of the same qualities as containers: openness, experimentation, willingness to fail and constant communication. Without it, the team will find themselves spinning their wheels and ending up with the same problems they started with—slow turnaround times and a lack of innovation needed to stay competitive.

While containers can provide a variety of benefits to any organization, it’s important to first examine the business needs of a project before deciding to move forward. In some cases, solely using a VM approach will suffice, but as companies and customers alike increase demands for accelerated deployment, flexibility and mobility, developers likely will find themselves turning to containers to meet these needs while alleviating headaches of traditional development methods.

Luca Ravazzolo

Luca Ravazzolo is the product manager responsible for the strategy and the technologies used for the cloud enablement of the new InterSystems IRIS Data Platform. He focuses on leveraging the best of breed technologies to optimize processes that provide solutions to market needs.

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