What Are Containers — Breaking Down the Container Ecosystem

When you think containers, you think Docker. Sure, Docker made containers cool, but it has only been on the market since 2014. And while it is the biggest player in the container world, it can’t do everything. Even with that popularity, people are still asking “what are containers”?

There are different core power mechanisms in different container management solutions.There are tools to connect and monitor containers. There are tools to identify and link containers. And that’s just the beginning to container possibilities.

To take a step back, containers provide a flexible, portable platform to organize, automate, and distribute applications. Applications are virtualized at the operating system level in an isolated environment. The structure gives users more control over resource allocation, which can improve speed and simplify scaling.

There’s an entire industry built on containers which provide microservices to countless SaaS providers. Still, the containerization market grew 40 percent from 2016 to 2017 and there are no signs of stopping.

The market makes up about 10 percent of cloud computing industry, but it’s bringing a level of standardization to the delivery and development of cloud applications. So, although the industry is but an infant, we’ve aimed to categorize the products of this emerging market accurately.

This resulted in the creation of eight new categories on our site: Container Engines, Container Monitoring, Container Orchestration, Container Networking, Container Registry, Runtime, Service Discovery and Log Analysis. Below I’ve differentiated each category, explained why they are important for SaaS providers and highlighted the major players in the space.

Major Players:
LXC, Solaris Zones, OpenVZ

Defining Features:
— Virtualized OS
— Abstraction
— Server Isolation

Key Benefits:
— Resource Independence
— Simplified Migration
— Increased Security


At the core of products like Docker are container engines, which power these containerized applications. Container engines power operating system-level virtualization in containerized applications. These tools run a single instance on an isolated server to replicate a real server running, meaning a container engine will run without being affected by external applications using the same resources.

The container engine allows an application to run as if it had a completely dedicated, resource-independent server. They’re benefitted by management and orchestration tools, but containers end up running nine times faster than your average virtual machines. This means companies can deploy and destroy applications more frequently as updates roll in.

Major Players:
Docker, Apache Mesos, Apcera

Defining Features:
— Container Storage
— Container Testing Tools
— Container Deployment Capabilities

Key Benefits:
— Container Replication
— Optimized Execution Scheduling
— Improved Resource Allocation


Container management software used to contain all of these tools, but the space has been narrowed and these products add a level of abstraction to the container engine’s instance. They simplify administrative processes to automate container creation, deployment and scaling processes, which saves time and money for companies. This is where Docker lives.

Many of these tools combine some aspects of the additional container categories to provide a full lifecycle management featureset. They can centralize the process to make container management simpler and more secure.

Container orchestration software plays a major role in the overall container lifecycle. These tools interact with the applications running inside their respective containers. They maintain the container’s performance and allow developers to quickly implement updates or rollbacks.

They’re typically used by companies that have to maintain a large number of containers. They simply make it easier to provision and manage system configurations. Many come bundled with container management tools to simplify integration, but there are still a number of options to choose from.

Major Players:
Docker Swarm, Kubernetes, Marathon

Defining Features:
— Load Balancing
— Clustering Tools
— Deployment Scheduling

Key Benefits:
— Failover Management
—Large-Scale Resource Allocation,
— Increased Scalability


Container runtime tools help organize a container’s components and enable container execution. These tools define the files and configurations required to run a container instance. They essentially provide the guidelines for each individual container and give the green light to containers for proper execution.

Companies use runtime tools to manage container lifecycles and reduce failover. Properly configured containers will reduce overhead by optimizing resource allocation. This saves companies money and improves application performance.

Major Players:
rkt, CRI-O, containerd

Defining Features:
— Execution Governance
— Runtime Specifications
— Lifecycle Commands

Key Benefits:
— Improved Configuration Management
— Reduced overhead
— Access Control

Container monitoring software serves as the application performance monitoring (APM) tool for container-based applications. These products analyze live performance to ensure administrators that applications are running smoothly and securely. They’re much more dynamic than traditional APM tools, allowing for short lifecycles and rapid scaling.

They also play a major role in troubleshooting issues with deployments, infrastructure and crashes. As a result, they’ll increase visibility and help administrators better manage resources. This ensures a more reliable, optimized container-based application.

Major Players:
Dynatrace, Prometheus, DataDog

Defining Features:
— Adaptive Monitoring
— Performance Data Collection
— Resource Tracking

Key Benefits:
— Failover Reduction
— Optimized Resource Allocation
— Performance Monitoring and Event Analysis

Major Players:
Weaveworks, Calico, Cumulus

Defining Features:
— Network Isolation
— IP Address Management
—Network Privilege Control

Key Benefits:
— Improved Network Security
— Network Optimization
— Increased Scalability and Availability


Some containers are reliant on other containers for data; other containers only hold components of an application. But all containers rely on network accessibility for proper functionality. Container networking software helps users define networks and connect containers across multiple hosts.

Efficiently networked containers create a decentralized architecture where parts of an application can be added or removed without affecting availability. These tools make it easier to scale applications, manage configurations and secure application networks.


Container registries are basically repositories for private and publically available container images. Most container management solutions have self-hosted, private image storage components. Many container registries also offer private container image storage as cloud services.

Users can store, manage and distribute their container images and control who is accessing them. Public registries are easy to deploy, but large organizations that rely heavily on container image storage tend to opt-in to private registries. Private container registries allow users greater control over access, authentication and vulnerability scanning.

Major Players:
Docker Hub, Quay, Google Container Registry

Defining Features:
— Container Registration
— Image Storage
— Container Access Control

Key Benefits:
— Improved Security
— Improved Container Organization
— Improved Configuration Management

Service discovery software helps identify and connect containers using the containers’ individual IP addresses, key values or client-side APIs. These tools power the microservice ecosystem, making it easier for companies to diversify solutions, speed up networks and secure application modules.

There are two main approaches to service discovery. Server-side discovery connects requesting services to service registries via a load balancer. Client-side discovery dynamically assigns service instances using HTTP/REST APIs by querying a service registry.

Connecting services lets providers alert requesting clients of their availability and allows both parties to verify instances. Users can keep track of all the dynamic components of their distributed system and monitor their application’s deployment status.

Major Players:
ZooKeeper, Apache Thrift, Consul

Defining Features:
— Service Registration
— Service Integration
— Interaction Tracking

Key Benefits:
— Increased Application Functionality
— Third-Party Service Availability
— Defined Connection Roadmap


Today’s Most Popular Container Tools:

  • Docker (106 Reviews)
  • Datadog (44 Reviews)
  • PagerDuty (43 Reviews)
  • Nginx (32 Reviews)
  • Amazon EC2 Container Service (24 Reviews)
  • Kubernetes (23 Reviews)
  • Dynatrace Application Monitoring (22 Reviews)
  • Cloud foundry (19 Reviews)
  • Apache Mesos (16 Reviews)
  • AppDynamics (15 Reviews)
  • Docker hub (13 Reviews)
  • Shippable (12 Reviews)
  • GitLab (10 Reviews)
  • rkt (6 Reviews)
  • Azure container service (6 Reviews)
  • Flynn (5 Reviews)
  • Prometheus (5 Reviews)
  • Kubernetes (5 Reviews)
  • Marathon (5 Reviews)
  • Heroku Dynos (5 Reviews)