Meet VMware’s New Homegrown Container Alternative

Four years of development finally yield fruit


Standing out from the over 650 enhancements that VMware has packed into the latest version of its hypervisor is a new cloning feature that leapfrogs the open-source container movement into the data center. It’s the culmination of a four-year effort that started with a corporate grant for exploring new applications of forking.

University of Toronto researcher Eyal de Lara landed the sponsorship through VMware’s academic awards program for his work on a project called SnowFlock that pioneered a new way of efficiently replicating virtual machines across hosts. Instead of copying an entire instance as many times as needed, the mechanism forks it into children start out with only the bare minimum needed to launch.

Everything else is shared with the parent until a change is made to a common file, at which point it’s saved locally. That approach removes the need to shuffle duplicate operating system images around, freeing up resources and allowing forks to travel much faster over the network, thereby slashing instantiation times.

If that sounds similar to containers, that’s because it is. In fact, it’s almost the exact same concept, down to the copy-on-write architecture. The big difference is that the technology runs at the hypervisor layer rather than directly on the host, which preserves the security and manageability of conventional virtualization.

That would make for a highly compelling pitch even if VMware didn’t already have a substantial portion of the world’s virtualized servers under its thumb. But since it does, the argument for using forks over containers also includes compatibility with existing infrastructure and integrated management. Cobbling together something similar out of unproven open-source components suddenly becomes even less appealing than it did before.

In other words, the launch nullifies the strategic threat that containers pose to VMware’s enterprise dominance. But it simultaneously opens another front for the company that could potentially present much more tangible competitive repercussions.

Microsoft, which has been steadily gaining on the hypervisor maker in recent quarters, won a patent for “applying the concepts of forking and migration to virtual machines” almost a year before Eyal de Lara and his colleague published their paper on SnowFlock. Given that the software giant is already working on bringing containers to Windows, that more or less guarantees competition in VMware’s future — as well as potentially tie-breaking litigation.

Regardless of how that almost inevitable lawsuit shapes out, the incumbents will make it immensely difficult for the likes of Docker to establish a foothold in on-premise environments. Where the project still has an opening is the public cloud, which is situated largely beyond the reach of hypervisor-specific forking capabilities. But the balance of power in the everyday data center will remain slanted firmly towards the old guard of the virtualization world through the container era.

Banner via Best Business Intelligence