vSphere Integrated Containers: Innovation With Unexpected Benefits

The history of science is replete with important scientific discoveries that happened by accident. Penicillin, X-rays, galvanized rubber, Teflon, and the pacemaker are all just a fraction of the many discoveries that were the result of accidents and serendipity during the research process. Now, in VMware vSphere® Integrated Containers, VMware can add another discovery to that list. A discovery that its co-developer, VMware Senior Staff Engineer Ben Corrie, says, “could fundamentally change the relationship between an admin and a developer.”

A New Challenge

Like many scientific breakthroughs, vSphere Integrated Containers (VIC) is the result of a relentless quest for innovation. It serves as a model for how innovation is emphasized, encouraged, and supported at VMware through research programs such as VMware’s internal business incubator program, XLR8, which helped shepherd the development of vSphere Integrated Containers.

The origins of vSphere Integrated Containers go back approximately three years. Ben Corrie, and fellow software engineer (now technical lead for VIC) George Hicken, had just finished work on a Hadoop scheduling system for vSphere and were looking for a new challenge. At the time, the two were also just becoming aware of the potential of Docker for streamlining application development and portability. They realized that the potential of Docker dovetailed with the goals of an existing VMware research project, called Project Fargo. Project Fargo was focused on creating an instant clone of a virtual machine (VM) by “forking,” or cloning, it from a running VM.

For Corrie and Hicken, the convergence of Docker and Project Fargo was “the light bulb moment.” As Corrie says, “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we could make VMs as fast and efficient as containers by combining Docker with the VM cloning of Project Fargo?’” On fire with their idea, Corrie submitted it to XLR8. Project Bonneville was born.

Phase I

The initial focus of Bonneville was to examine whether treating VMs as containers could be a compatible model and aimed to combine the runtime efficiency of containers with the isolation of VMs. But over the 18 months that followed its inception, “an interesting thing happened,” Corrie says. “The more I spoke to customers, the more I started to realize the real potential for what we had built.” This was the serendipity for Project Bonneville. Corrie and Hicken began to understand how their work with vSphere Integrated Containers could fundamentally change the relationship between a systems administrator and an application developer.

Big Wins. Bigger Benefits.

In a typical interaction between a sysadmin and an app developer, the developer would raise a ticket to get assigned some system resource, such as a VM. That developer would then be responsible for all of the infrastructure integration issues, such as security, networking and storage, that would flow from ownership of that VM. And while these are issues of vital importance to systems administrators, they are not necessarily the primary focus of the developers.

What Corrie and Hicken realized was that vSphere Integrated Containers could solve this fundamental disconnect between the priorities of admins and developers. They came to understand that the primary capability—and benefit—of VIC wasn’t necessarily increased VM speed but the ability to allow container workloads to integrate directly with VMware vSphere. The outcome would allow users far greater autonomy and flexibility in managing vSphere resources, while leaving responsibility for infrastructure entirely up to the admin.  

vSphere Integrated Containers simplify operations by allowing container workloads to run alongside existing workloads “on the same tracks,” as Corrie puts it, subject to all the same processes as other VMs and workloads. They also help transform the relationship between developers and systems administrators by allowing developers to self-provision applications directly to vSphere—empowering them to be more autonomous, knowing that they don’t have to worry about infrastructure concerns.

vSphere Integrated Containers also has the potential to greatly improve resource efficiency. By giving developers direct access to vSphere, admins no longer have to compute silos for developers to create and test-drive new applications.  

But for Corrie and Hicken, the benefits of vSphere Integrated Containers for both customers and VMware are only just beginning. “The more we build out VIC aspects,” Corrie concludes, “the more we make vSphere itself a more compelling destination for these workloads. We have so much further to go.” And almost certainly, their work will continue to showcase VMware’s culture of innovation and the unexpected technological advances that often result.