Containers 101: attach vs. exec - what's the difference?

The difference between docker (or podman, or containerd) attach and exec commands is a common source of confusion. And it's understandable - these two commands have similar arguments and, at first sight, similar behavior. However, attach and exec aren't interchangeable. They aim to cover different use cases, and the implementation of the commands also differs. But still, it might be hard to remember when to use which command.

Since I'm no fan of brute memorization, here is my recipe of how I managed to internalize the difference. Long story short, connecting the dots between the knowledge of what containers really are under the hood and these two commands helped to grasp the difference almost instantly. And like any true understanding, it freed me from relying only on my memory and gave me a chance to extrapolate the knowledge on a similar tech such as Kubernetes ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Containers vs. Pods - Taking a Deeper Look

Containers could have become a lightweight VM replacement. However, the most widely used form of containers, standardized by Docker/OCI, encourages you to have just one process service per container. Such an approach has a bunch of pros - increased isolation, simplified horizontal scaling, higher reusability, etc. However, there is a big con - in the wild, virtual (or physical) machines rarely run just one service.

While Docker tries to offer some workarounds to create multi-service containers, Kubernetes makes a bolder step and chooses a group of cohesive containers, called a Pod, as the smallest deployable unit.

When I stumbled upon Kubernetes a few years ago, my prior VM and bare-metal experience allowed me to get the idea of Pods pretty quickly. Or so thought I... ๐Ÿ™ˆ

Starting working with Kubernetes, one of the first things you learn is that every pod gets a unique IP and hostname and that within a pod, containers can talk to each other via localhost. So, it's kinda obvious - a pod is like a tiny little server.

After a while, though, you realize that every container in a pod gets an isolated filesystem and that from inside one container, you don't see processes running in other containers of the same pod. Ok, fine! Maybe a pod is not a tiny little server but just a group of containers with a shared network stack.

But then you learn that containers in one pod can communicate via shared memory! So, probably the network namespace is not the only shared thing...

This last finding was the final straw for me. So, I decided to have a deep dive and see with my own eyes:

  • How Pods are implemented under the hood
  • What is the actual difference between a Pod and a Container
  • How one can create Pods using Docker.

And on the way, I hope it'll help me to solidify my Linux, Docker, and Kubernetes skills.

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Containers Aren't Linux Processes

There are many ways to create containers, especially on Linux and alike. Besides the super widespread Docker implementation, you may have heard about LXC, systemd-nspawn, or maybe even OpenVZ.

The general concept of the container is quite vague. What's true and what's not often depends on the context, but the context itself isn't always given explicitly. For instance, there is a common saying that containers are Linux processes or that containers aren't Virtual Machines. However, the first statement is just an oversimplified attempt to explain Linux containers. And the second statement simply isn't always true.

In this article, I'm not trying to review all possible ways of creating containers. Instead, the article is an analysis of the OCI Runtime Specification. The spec turned out to be an insightful read! For instance, it gives a definition of the standard container (and no, it's not a process) and sheds some light on when Virtual Machines can be considered containers.

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You Don't Need an Image To Run a Container

As we already know, containers are just isolated and restricted Linux processes. We also learned that it's fairly simple to create a container with a single executable file inside starting from scratch image (i.e. without putting a full Linux distribution in there). This time we will go even further and demonstrate that containers don't require images at all. And after that, we will try to justify the actual need for images and their place in the containerverse.

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Implementing Container Runtime Shim: runc

A container runtime shim is a piece of software that resides in between a container manager (containerd, cri-o, podman) and a container runtime (runc, crun) solving the integration problem of these counterparts.


Layered Docker architecture: docker (cli) -> dockerd -> containerd -> containerd-shim -> runc

Layered Docker architecture

The easiest way to spot a shim is to inspect the process tree on a Linux host with a running docker container:

Spotting container runtime shim process

ps auxf output on a host running docker run -it ubuntu bash; notice containerd-shim process in between containerd and bash.

On the one hand, runtimes need shims to be able to survive managers restarts. On the other hand, shims are helping container managers to deal with the quirky behavior of runtimes. As a part of the container manager implementation series, we will try to create our own shim and then integrate it with conman, an experimental container manager. Hopefully, during the development, we will gain an in-depth understanding of the topic.

However, before jumping to the shim development, we need to familiarize ourselves with the container runtime component of the choice. Unsurprisingly, conman uses runc as a container runtime, so I will start the article by covering basic runc use cases alongside its design quirks. Then I'll show the naive way to use runc from code and explain some related pitfalls. The final part of the article will provide an overview of the shim's design.

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