Docker is an open source project to pack, ship and run any application as a lightweight container.

Docker containers are both hardware-agnostic and platform-agnostic. This means they can run anywhere, from your laptop to the largest cloud compute instance and everything in between – and they don’t require you to use a particular language, framework or packaging system. That makes them great building blocks for deploying and scaling web apps, databases, and backend services without depending on a particular stack or provider.

Docker began as an open-source implementation of the deployment engine which powered dotCloud, a popular Platform-as-a-Service. It benefits directly from the experience accumulated over several years of large-scale operation and support of hundreds of thousands of applications and databases.

Better than VMs

A common method for distributing applications and sandboxing their execution is to use virtual machines, or VMs. Typical VM formats are VMware’s vmdk, Oracle VirtualBox’s vdi, and Amazon EC2’s ami. In theory these formats should allow every developer to automatically package their application into a “machine” for easy distribution and deployment. In practice, that almost never happens, for a few reasons:

  • Size: VMs are very large which makes them impractical to store and transfer.
  • Performance: running VMs consumes significant CPU and memory, which makes them impractical in many scenarios, for example local development of multi-tier applications, and large-scale deployment of cpu and memory-intensive applications on large numbers of machines.
  • Portability: competing VM environments don’t play well with each other. Although conversion tools do exist, they are limited and add even more overhead.
  • Hardware-centric: VMs were designed with machine operators in mind, not software developers. As a result, they offer very limited tooling for what developers need most: building, testing and running their software. For example, VMs offer no facilities for application versioning, monitoring, configuration, logging or service discovery.

By contrast, Docker relies on a different sandboxing method known as containerization. Unlike traditional virtualization, containerization takes place at the kernel level. Most modern operating system kernels now support the primitives necessary for containerization, including Linux with openvz, vserver and more recently lxc, Solaris with zones, and FreeBSD with Jails.

Docker builds on top of these low-level primitives to offer developers a portable format and runtime environment that solves all four problems. Docker containers are small (and their transfer can be optimized with layers), they have basically zero memory and cpu overhead, they are completely portable, and are designed from the ground up with an application-centric design.

Perhaps best of all, because Docker operates at the OS level, it can still be run inside a VM!