Virtualization: Virtual Machines versus Containers

You’ve heard of virtualization…but what is it? Essentially, it’s the process of creating software that allows you to run software applications on virtual hardware like virtual machines, or virtual operating systems like containers. While both are a part of the virtualization concept, it’s extremely important to note that both virtual machines and containers are two very different things.

Virtual machines are an older, more established technology that will continue to evolve. Containers, on the other hand, are a more recent and rapidly evolving technology. Both technologies will continue to serve different needs.

Virtual machines and containers both create virtual environments that give the illusion of having multiple computers on a single hardware platform. These virtual environments are isolated from one another, as well as from the underlying hardware and operating system.  Both types of virtualization provide similar benefits, including reduced costs and increased efficiency and security.

Although virtual machines and containers do similar things, they operate in a fundamentally different fashion. Virtual machines use a hypervisor which virtualizes hardware, while the container engine virtualizes just the operating system.

Unlike a virtual machine, a container does not have its own operating system; it is dependent on the host operating system (OS) for all system functions. A container is very lightweight compared to a virtual machine, consisting of only the application code and any run-time libraries not available through the host OS. Since they are lightweight, containers can start very quickly (within seconds) as opposed to a virtual machine, which may take minutes to start.

A properly scoped container consists of the minimal components needed to run an application, while a properly scoped virtual machine requires installation of all the components that a physical server would require. This makes containers very portable, and if developed in a test environment, they can be moved to any other compatible environment and can be expected to run the same way.

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