Containers are a solution to the problem of how to get software to run reliably when moved from one computing environment to another. This could be from a developer's laptop to a test environment, from a staging environment into production, and perhaps from a physical machine in a Data Center to a Virtual machine in a Private or Public cloud.

In other words, a Container consists of an entire runtime environment: an application, plus all its dependencies, libraries and other binaries, and configuration files needed to run it, bundled into one package. By containerizing the application platform and its dependencies, differences in OS distributions and underlying infrastructure are abstracted away.

Containers are an operating-system-level virtualization - an operating system feature in which the kernel allows the existence of multiple isolated user-space instances. Such instances, called containers may look like real computers from the point of view of programs running in them.

Virtual Machines

A VM is essentially an emulation of a real computer that executes programs like a real computer. VMs run on top of a physical machine using a “hypervisor”. A hypervisor, in turn, runs on either a host machine or on “bare-metal”.

A hypervisor is a piece of software, firmware, or hardware that VMs run on top of. The hypervisors themselves run on physical computers, referred to as the “host machine”. The host machine provides the VMs with resources, including RAM and CPU. These resources are divided between VMs and can be distributed as you see fit. So if one VM is running a more resource-heavy application, you might allocate more resources to that one than the other VMs running on the same host machine.

The VM that is running on the host machine (again, using a hypervisor) is also often called a “guest machine.” This guest machine contains both the application and whatever it needs to run that application (e.g. system binaries and libraries). It also carries an entire virtualized hardware stack of its own, including virtualized network adapters, storage, and CPU — which means it also has its own full-fledged guest operating system. From the inside, the guest machine behaves as its own unit with its own dedicated resources. From the outside, we know that it’s a VM — sharing resources provided by the host machine.

As mentioned above, a guest machine can run on either a hosted hypervisor or a bare-metal hypervisor. There are some important differences between them.

First off, a hosted virtualization hypervisor runs on the operating system of the host machine. For example, a computer running OSX can have a VM (e.g. VirtualBox or VMware Workstation 8) installed on top of that OS. The VM doesn’t have direct access to hardware, so it has to go through the host operating system (in our case, the Mac’s OSX).

The benefit of a hosted hypervisor is that the underlying hardware is less important. The host’s operating system is responsible for the hardware drivers instead of the hypervisor itself, and is therefore considered to have more “hardware compatibility.” On the other hand, this additional layer in between the hardware and the hypervisor creates more resource overhead, which lowers the performance of the VM.

A bare metal hypervisor environment tackles the performance issue by installing on and running from the host machine’s hardware. Because it interfaces directly with the underlying hardware, it doesn’t need a host operating system to run on. In this case, the first thing installed on a host machine’s server as the operating system will be the hypervisor. Unlike the hosted hypervisor, a bare-metal hypervisor has its own device drivers and interacts with each component directly for any I/O, processing, or OS-specific tasks. This results in better performance, scalability, and stability. The tradeoff here is that hardware compatibility is limited because the hypervisor can only have so many device drivers built into it.

After all this talk about hypervisors, you might be wondering why we need this additional “hypervisor” layer in between the VM and the host machine at all.

Well, since the VM has a virtual operating system of its own, the hypervisor plays an essential role in providing the VMs with a platform to manage and execute this guest operating system. It allows for host computers to share their resources amongst the virtual machines that are running as guests on top of them.


Unlike a VM which provides hardware virtualization, a container provides operating-system-level virtualization by abstracting the “user space”. You’ll see what I mean as we unpack the term container.

For all intents and purposes, containers look like a VM. For example, they have private space for processing, can execute commands as root, have a private network interface and IP address, allow custom routes and iptable rules, can mount file systems, etc.

The one big difference between containers and VMs is that containers share the host system’s kernel with other containers.


There are several container orchestration frameworks leveraged in production (i.e docker-swarm and kubernetes).

List of container providers

Below is a small list of common container technologies that can be used.

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