Containers are a technology that is based on operating system kernel features that allow the creation of isolated environments that all share the same kernel. For example, container features make it possible to have several isolated root filesystems, network stacks and process trees that all share the same kernel. These isolated environments are similar in functionality to light weight virtual machines, but there are some key differences between virtual machines and containers. The biggest one is that virtual machines always have their own kernel, while containers share the host system's kernel.

The difference between virtual machines and containers The difference between virtual machines and containers.

While many operating systems have container functionality, what we look at more specifically in this documentation is containers in the Linux operating system. Linux is the most popular operating system for running containers, and it is also the operating system used in the Rahti container cloud. Currently the most popular method for using container functionality in Linux is Docker. It provides a set of tools that make it easier to use containers compared to using the kernel functionality directly. Docker provides:

  • A runtime (runC) for containers
  • An image format for containers
  • A command line interface for running and managing containers and images
  • The Dockerfile format for building Docker images

Docker has popularized containers by making them easier to use. Instead of looking at kernel documentation and figuring out how to use the different interfaces to the kernel's container features and then having to figure out which features you want to use and how, Docker provides a simpler way to start containers with a single command line command. The specific kernel features and how to use them have been defined by Docker.

As an example of how Docker is used, this is how you could start a container on your computer after installing Docker:

docker run -it ubuntu

This will download the "ubuntu" image if it is not already present on the computer, start a container based on that image and give the user a command line interface within the container. From the user's point of view the experience is similar to starting a virtual machine: regardless of the operating system distribution on your computer, interacting with the container will seem like you are interacting with a Ubuntu installation.

After running that command, you should be able to see the Ubuntu Docker image that has been downloaded by listing images:

docker images

You can also do many other things, like launch containers in the background, attach to a running container to interact with it or build your own Docker images from a Dockerfile. The examples given here are meant to give a general idea about what using containers is like from the user's perspective. For more complete documentation about Docker, see the official Docker documentation.

Container orchestration

To understand why container orchestration platforms are important, let's describe how a typical web based application that end users access via a web browser is built.

The application is comprised of a frontend that is the part of the application visible to users and a backend that handles various tasks in the background like storing user data in a database. The application runs a server process that clients access to interact with the application. It also accesses a database like PostgeSQL or MongoDB in the background to store user data.

The architects of this application must design it to keep the application running reliably, quickly and safely:

  • Server hardware can fail, so the application must be replicated to multiple physical servers so that the failure of an individual server won't make the entire application inaccessible.
  • A large number of users can cause load on the application. It must be possible to scale up the application by adding more application processes to prepare for increased user load.
  • The connection to the application must be secure so that users can safely enter their data into the application without fearing eavesdroppers.
  • User data must be stored reliably on a fault tolerant storage system.

You could create Linux virtual machines, install Docker on them and run the application directly using those, but there is a lot of additional work that you need to do to fulfill all of the above requirements. You would have to figure out how to manage multiple instances of the application running on several servers, how to direct incoming traffic evenly to all the application instances, how to store user data and how to quickly add more capacity when needed.

Luckily most applications have similar requirements, so the steps for creating good applications are often quite similar. This is where container orchestration systems come in. They handle many of the common tasks required for running robust web applications like distributing application instances on multiple servers, directing traffic to the application instances and providing persistent storage for databases.

Currently the most popular software for container orchestration is Kubernetes. It is based on earlier systems developed at Google over a decade. The Rahti system is based on a distribution of Kubernetes called OpenShift that is made by Red Hat.

Kubernetes and OpenShift concepts

The power of Kubernetes and OpenShift is in the relatively simple abstractions that they provide for complex tasks like load balancing, software updates for a distributed system or autoscaling. Here we give a very brief overview of some of the most important abstractions, but we highly recommend that you read the concept documentation for Kubernetes and OpenShift as well:

Most of the abstractions are common to both plain Kubernetes and OpenShift, but OpenShift also introduces some of its own concepts.


Pods contain one or more containers that run applications. It is the basic unit in Kubernetes: when you run a workload in Kubernetes, it always runs in a pod. Kubernetes handles scheduling these pods onto multiple servers. Pods can contain volumes of different types for accessing data. Each pod has its own IP address that is shared by all the containers in the pod. In the most common case a pod contains one container and perhaps one or a few different volumes.

Pods are intended to be replaceable. Any data that needs to persist after a pod is killed should be stored on a volume attached to the pod.


The abstractions in Kubernetes/OpenShift are described using YAML or JSON. YAML and JSON are so called data serialization languages that provide a way to describe key value pairs and data structures like lists in a way that is easy to read for both humans and computers. Here is an example of what the representation of a pod looks like in YAML:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Pod
  - name: webserver
    - containerPort: 8080
      protocol: TCP
    - name: website-content-volume
      mountPath: /usr/share/nginx/html
    - name: website-content-volume
        claimName: web-content-pvc

The above YAML representation describes a web server pod that has one container and one volume in it and exposes port 8080. You could put this snippet of text in a file and create a pod that runs NGINX by feeding that file to the API of Kubernetes.


Pod IP addresses are not predictable. If a pod is replaced as part of normal operations like an update, the IP address of the new pod can be different. It is also typical to have multiple pods serving the same content, in which case there are several of these unpredictable IP addresses to point to. Thus pods alone are not enough to provide a predictable way to access an application.

A Service provides a stable virtual IP, a port and a DNS name for one or more pods. They act like a load balancer, directing traffic to a group of pods that all serve the same application.



A ReplicaSet ensures that n copies of a pod are running. If one of the pods dies, the ReplicaSet ensures that a new one is created in its place. They are typically not used on their own but rather as part of a Deployment (explained next).



Deployments manage rolling updates for an application. They typically contain a ReplicaSet and several pods. If you make a change that requires an update like switching to a newer image for pod containers, the deployment ensures the change is made in a way that there are no service interruptions. It will perform a rolling update where it replaces all the pods one by one with newer ones while making sure that end user traffic is directed towards working pods at all times.


Persistent volumes

Pods are expendable. When they die, all the state that was stored in the pod's own filesystems is lost. Pods are also meant to die and be replaced as part of normal operations like a rolling update triggered by a deployment. Therefore storage that persists over a pod's lifetime is needed. This is what the concept of persistent volumes is for.

Persistent volumes are stored in some backing storage like Ceph, NFS or GlusterFS. They are claimed by a pod using a PersistentVolumeClaim. When a new claim is made, this can either mean that an existing volume is claimed or a new one is created dynamically and given to the pod to use.