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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Multiple Containers, Same Port, no Reverse Proxy

Disclaimer: In 2021, there is still a place for simple setups with just one machine serving all traffic. So, no Kubernetes and no cloud load balancers in this post. Just good old Docker and Podman.

Even when you have just one physical or virtual server, it's often a good idea to run multiple instances of your application on it. Luckily, when the application is containerized, it's actually relatively simple. With multiple application containers, you get horizontal scaling and a much-needed redundancy for a very little price. Thus, if there is a sudden need for handling more requests, you can adjust the number of containers accordingly. And if one of the containers dies, there are others to handle its traffic share, so your app isn't a SPOF anymore.

The tricky part here is how to expose such a multi-container application to the clients. Multiple containers mean multiple listening sockets. But most of the time, clients just want to have a single point of entry.

Benefits of exposing multiple Docker containers on the same port

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Disposable Local Development Environments with Vagrant, Docker, and Arkade

I use a (rather oldish) MacBook for my day-to-day development tasks. But I prefer keeping my host operating system free of development stuff. This strategy has the following benefits:

  • Increasing reproducibility of my code - it often happened to me in the past that some code worked on my machine but didn't work on others; usually, it was due to missing dependencies. Developing multiple projects on the same machine makes it harder to track what libraries and packages are required for what project. So, now I always try to have an isolated environment per project.
  • Testing code on the target platform - most of my projects have something to do with server-side and infra stuff; hence the actual target platform is Linux. Since I use a MacBook, I spend a lot of time inside virtual machines running the same operating system as my servers do. So, I'd need to duplicate the development tools from my macOS on every Linux OS I happen to use.
  • Keeping the host operating system clean and slim - even if I work on something platform-agnostic like a command-line tool, I prefer not to pollute my workstation with the dev tools and packages anyway. Projects and domains change often, and installing all the required stuff right into the host operating system would make it messy real quick.
  • Decreasing time to recover in case of machine loss - a single multi-purpose machine quickly becomes a snowflake host. Coming up with the full list of things to reinstall in the case of a sudden machine loss would be hardly feasible.

Since I usually work on several projects at the same time, I need not one but many isolated development environments. And every environment should be project-tailored, easy to spin up, suspend, and, eventually, dispose. I figured a way to achieve that by using only a few tools installed on my host operating system, and I'm going to share it here.

The approach may be helpful for folks using macOS or Linux:

  • to work on server-side and full-stack projects
  • to do Linux systems programming
  • to play with Cloud Native stack
  • to build some cool command-line tools.
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The Need For Slimmer Containers

I was hacking containers recently and noticed, that Docker started featuring the docker scan command in the docker build output. I've been ignoring its existence for a while, so evidently, it was time to finally try it out.

Scanning official Python images

The docker scan command uses a third-party tool, called Snyk Container. Apparently, it's some sort of a vulnerability scanner. So, I decided, mostly for the sake of fun, to scan one of my images. And it just so happened that it was a fairly basic thing:

# latest stable at the time
FROM python:3.9

RUN pip install Flask

COPY server.py server.py

ENV FLASK_APP=server.py
ENV FLASK_RUN_PORT=5000
ENV FLASK_RUN_HOST=0.0.0.0

EXPOSE 5000

CMD ["flask", "run"]

I ran docker build -t python-flask . and then docker scan python-flask. To my utter surprise, the output was huge! Here is just an excerpt:

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Container Networking Is Simple!

Just kidding, it's not... But fear not and read on!

You can find a Russian translation of this article here.

Working with containers always feels like magic. In a good way for those who understand the internals and in a terrifying - for those who don't. Luckily, we've been looking under the hood of the containerization technology for quite some time already and even managed to uncover that containers are just isolated and restricted Linux processes, that images aren't really needed to run containers, and on the contrary - to build an image we need to run some containers.

Now comes a time to tackle the container networking problem. Or, more precisely, a single-host container networking problem. In this article, we are going to answer the following questions:

  • How to virtualize network resources to make containers think each of them has a dedicated network stack?
  • How to turn containers into friendly neighbors, prevent them from interfering, and teach to communicate well?
  • How to reach the outside world (e.g. the Internet) from inside the container?
  • How to reach containers running on a machine from the outside world (aka port publishing)?

While answering these questions, we'll setup a container networking from scratch using standard Linux tools. As a result, it'll become apparent that the single-host container networking is nothing more than a simple combination of the well-known Linux facilities:

  • network namespaces;
  • virtual Ethernet devices (veth);
  • virtual network switches (bridge);
  • IP routing and network address translation (NAT).

And for better or worse, no code is required to make the networking magic happen...

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