How MSPs Can Make the Most of ContainersHow MSPs Can Make the Most of Containers
Products like Docker offer some key advantages to technology services providers who want to deliver the best service to customers at the lowest cost.
September 22, 2016
By now, most MSPs have heard all about Docker containers. But leveraging containers effectively as an MSP requires a deeper understanding of the container landscape than knowing just Docker. Keep reading for an MSP's guide to container technology.
What are containers? Briefly put, they're a way of running software inside an isolated, portable environment. If that sounds similar to virtual machines, it's because containers and virtual machines are alike in many respects. But they're also different in the following key ways:
Containers are leaner. Because containers share some system resources with the host, rather than duplicating them as virtual machines do, containers have less overhead. For customers that want to make the most of limited physical resources — or MSPs trying to do the same — this is an advantage.
Containers are easier to scale. Low overhead also means containers can be spun up and copied quickly. Container-based infrastructure can therefore scale more easily. This trait will help containers appeal to clients who have unpredictable or fluctuating infrastructure needs.
Containers are open source. Almost all of the major container platforms in existence today are fully open source. That makes them different from virtual machine platforms like VMware. This can be a selling point for customers who are wary of closed-source solutions and potential vendor lock-in.
Should MSPs promote containers?
If you've read this far, you've gotten the sense that containers offer some key advantages to MSPs aiming to deliver the best service to customers at the lowest cost. That's generally true.
Before migrating all of their customers to containerized infrastructure, however, MSPs should keep in mind that virtual machines may be better solutions in the following scenarios:
Customers need to host Windows workloads on Linux servers, or vice versa. Docker now runs on both Linux and Windows (most other container platforms are currently Linux-only), but it can only host applications that are designed for the same operating system as the one running on the server that hosts Docker. In other words, a Docker host running on Linux can only power Linux apps, and a Windows Docker server can only do Windows apps. Virtual machines are not subject to this limitation; you can run a Windows virtual machine on a Linux host without issue.
MSPs don't have deep container expertise. Virtual machine platforms like VMware are very mature and user-friendly. Container technology will probably arrive at the same point some day, but for now, platforms like Docker are still rough around the edges. They require deep expertise to administer properly. If an MSP doesn't have that expertise on staff, it should steer clear of containers until it acquires it.
Clients have very high security needs. To be clear, Docker and most other container platforms are now secure enough for general enterprise use. However, container technology in the enterprise remains new enough that the suite of container-ready security tools is still developing. For customers with very high security requirements, containers are not currently a good choice.
Containers are more than Docker
Last but not least, it's worth noting that Docker is certainly not the only production-ready container platform available to MSPs. Docker has become famous as the first container project and company to make big headlines in the enterprise world, but container technology is actually much older. Docker was founded in 2013, but software containers stretch back to the late 1970s.
Besides Docker, MSPs might benefit from other container platforms that have become enterprise-ready in recent years, including the following:
LXD, a system container platform designed to host complete operating systems inside containers (as opposed to Docker, which can host only individual applications).
OpenVZ, another system application platform (and one of the first container technologies to be commercialized, starting in the mid-2000s).
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