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Why (and how) VMware created a new type of virtualization just for containers

Brandon Butler | Sept. 11, 2015
VMware says containers and virtual machines are better together.

colbert vmware containers
VMware VP Kit Colbert (left) and CTO Ray O'Farrell unveil the company's container management software at VMworld 2015.

As the hype about containers has mounted over the past year, it has raised questions about what this technology – which is for packaging applications - means for traditional management and virtualization vendors. Some have wondered: Will containers kill the virtual machine?

VMware answered that question with a resounding no at its annual conference in San Francisco last week. But, company officials say containers can benefit from having a new type of management platform. And it’s built a whole new type of virtualization just for containers.

Virtualization for containers

A decade and a half ago, VMware helped revolutionized the technology industry with the introduction of enterprise-grade hypervisors that ushered in an era of server virtualization.

Last week the company revealed a redesigned version of its classic virtualization software named Project Photon. It’s a lightweight derivative of the company’s popular ESX hypervisor that has been engineered specifically to run application containers.

“At its core, it’s still got the virtualization base,” explains Kit Colbert, VMware’s vice president and CTO of Cloud Native Applications. Colbert calls Photon a “micro-visor” with “just enough” functionality to have the positive attributes of virtualization, while also being packaged in a lightweight format ideal for containers.

Project Photon includes two key pieces. One is named Photon Machine – a hypervisor software born out of ESX that is installed directly onto physical servers. It creates miniature virtual machines that containers are placed in. It includes a guest operating system, which the user can choose. By default Photon Machine comes with VMware’s customized Linux distribution named Photon OS, which the company has also designed to be container friendly.

The second major piece is named Photon Controller, which is a multi-tenant control plane that can handle many dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of instances of Photon Machine. Photon Controller will provision the clusters of Photon Machines and ensure they have access to network and storage resources as needed.

The combination of Photon Machine and Photon Controller creates a blueprint for a scale-out environment that has no single point of failure and exposes a single logical API endpoint that developers can write to. In theory, IT operators can deploy Project Photon and developers can write applications that run on it.

Project Photon will integrate with various open source projects, such as Docker for the container run-time support, as well as Google Kubernetes and Pivotil’s Cloud Foundry for higher-level application management. (Photon manages infrastructure provisioning while Kubernetes and CF manage application deployments.)

VMware has not yet set pricing for either platform, but both will be available this year as a private beta.


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