Container Use Cases

There are many types of Container design patterns forming. Since containers are the runtime version of a container image, the way a container is built is tightly coupled to how it is run.

Some Container Images are designed to be run without privileges while others are more specialized and require root-like privileges. There are many dimensions in which patterns can be evaluated and often users will see multiple patterns or use cases tackled together in one container image/container.

This section will delve into some of the common use cases that users are tackling with containers.

Application Containers

Applications containers are the most popular form of containers. These are what developers and application owners care about. Application containers contain the code that developers work on. These include, for example, MySQL, Apache, MongoDB, and Node.js.

Cattle vs Pet Containers

Containers are usually perceived as a technology that serves for deploying applications that are immutable and can be therefore redeployed or killed any time without severe consequences. As an analogy, these are often referred to as "cattle". Containers in this development environment don’t have "identity", the user doesn’t need to care where the contianers live in the cluster, the containers are automatically recovered after failures and can be scaled up or down as needed. In contrast, when a pet container fails, the running application will be directly affected and might fail as well. Similarly as pets, pet containers require user’s closer attention and management and are usually accompanied with regular health checks. A typical example would be a containerized database.

Super Privileged Containers

When building container infrastructure on dedicated container hosts such as Atomic Host, system administrators still need to perform administrative tasks. Whether used with distributed systems, such as Kubernetes or OpenShift or standalone container hosts, Super Privileged Containers (SPCs) are a powerful tool. SPCs can even do things like load specialized kernel modules, such as with systemtap. In an infrastructure that is built to run containers, administrators will most likely need SPCs to do things like management, monitoring, backups, etc. It’s important to realize that there is typically a tighter coupling between SPCs and the host kernel, so administrators need to choose a rock solid container host and standardize on it, especially in a large clustered/distributed environment where things are more difficult to troubleshoot. They then need to select a user space in the SPC that is compatible with the host kernel.

Image Types

Base Images

A base image is one of the simplest types of images, but you will find a lot of definitions. Sometimes users will also refer an application image as the “base image.” However, technically, this is not a base image, these are Intermediate images.

Simply put, a base image is an image that has no parent layer. Typically, a base image contains a fresh copy of an operating system. Base images normally include core system tools, such as bash or coreutils and tools necessary to install packages and make updates to the image over time (yum, rpm, apt-get, dnf, microdnf…​) While base images can be “hand crafted”, in practice they are typically produced and published by open source projects (like Debian, Fedora or CentOS) and vendors (like Red Hat). The provenance of base images is critical for security. In short, the sole purpose of a base image is to provide a starting place for creating your derivative images. When using a Dockerfile, the choice of which base image you are using is explicit:


Builder Images

These are a specialized form of container images which produce application container images as offspring. They include everything but a developer’s source code. Builder images include operating system libraries, language runtimes, middleware, and the source-to-image tooling.

When a builder image is run, it injects the developers source code and produces a ready-to-run offspring application container image. This newly created application container image can then be run in development or production.

For example, if a developer has PHP code and they want to run it in a container, they can use a PHP builder image to produce a ready to run application container image. The developer passes the GitHub URL where the code is stored and the builder image does the rest of the work for them. The output of a Builder container is an Application container image which includes Red Hat Enterprise Linux, PHP from Software Collections, and the developer’s code, all together, ready to run. Builder images provide a powerful way to go from code to container quickly and easily, building off of trusted components.

Some Builder images are created in a way that allows developers to not only provide their source code, but also custom configuration for software built into the image. One such example is the Nginx Builder image in the source-to-image upstream repository.

Intermediate Images

An Intermediate image is any container image which relies on a base image. Typically, core builds, middleware and language runtimes are built as layers on “top of” a base image. These images are then referenced in the FROM directive of another image. These images are not used on their own, they are typically used as a building block to build a standalone image.

It is common to have different teams of specialists own different layers of an image. Systems administrators may own the core build layer, while “developer experience” may own the middleware layer. Intermediate Images are built to be consumed by other teams building images, but can sometimes be ran standalone too, especially for testing.

Intermodal Images

Intermodal container images are images that have hybrid architectures. For example, many Red Hat Software Collections images can be used in two ways.

First, they can be used as simple Application Containers running a fully contained Ruby on Rails and Apache server.

Second, they can be used as Builder Images inside of OpenShift Container Platform. In this case, the output child images which contain Ruby on Rails, Apache, and the application code which the source-to-image process was pointed towards during the build phase.

The intermodal pattern is becoming more and more common to solve two business problems with one container image.

Deployer Images

A deployer image is a specialized kind of container which, when run, deploys or manages other containers. This pattern enables sophisticated deployment techniques such as mandating the start order of containers, or first run logic such as populating schema or data.

Containerized Components

A container that is meant to be deployed as part of a larger software system, not on its own. Two major trends are driving this.

First, microservices are driving the use of best-of-breed components - this is also driving the use of more components combined together to build a single application. Containerized components are meeting the need to deploy an expanding quantity of complex software more quickly and easily.

Second, not all pieces of software are easy to deploy as containers. Sometimes, it makes sense to containerize only certain components which are easier to move to containers or provide more value to the overall project. With multi-service application, some services may be deployed as containers, while others may be deployed through traditional a traditional methodology such as an RPM or installer script.

It’s important to understand that containerized components are not designed to function on their own. They provide value to a larger piece of software, but provide very little value on their own.