Containers vs. Microservices: 5 Differences & Why Use Them Together

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What Are Containers? 

Containers are lightweight, executable software units in which application code is packaged along with its libraries and dependencies. Containerization ensures that an application runs seamlessly in any environment, from a developer’s computer to a test environment or a production server, regardless of the underlying hardware and software layers. 

Containers isolate software from its environment and ensure that it works uniformly despite differences that might occur between development and staging. 

Containers have their resources abstracted at the operating system level, allowing multiple containers to run on a single OS instance without interfering with each other. They are considered highly efficient, easily portable, and more modifiable compared to older technologies like virtual machines which require including the entire operating system.

What Are Microservices? 

Microservices are a design approach to building a single application as a suite of small services, each running in its process and communicating with lightweight mechanisms, often an HTTP-based API. Each microservice focuses on completing one feature or task within a larger application, enabling a modular approach to system-building. This structure is meant to support an organization’s evolving technology stack without disrupting the functioning of other services.

This architectural style is distinguished by its scalability and flexibility. Microservices allow organizations to deploy and redeploy their services independently without coordinating with other services, leading to quicker updates or repairs and better fault isolation. For companies that need to innovate or scale services frequently, microservices offer a compelling model that supports dynamic, market-responsive system adjustments.

This is part of a series of articles about Kubernetes monitoring.

Benefits of Using Containers 

Due to their lightweight nature and compatibility across platforms, containers offer several benefits. They promote operational efficiency by allowing developers to create predictable environments that are insulated from discrepancies between production systems. This predictability reduces the time and effort spent fixing bugs related to environment inconsistencies.

Furthermore, containers support a microservices architecture by providing an isolated environment for each service. This isolation also enhances security since the other containers are not necessarily affected if one container is compromised. Containers can dramatically streamline developing, testing, and deploying applications, making the entire lifecycle more manageable.

Benefits of Microservices Architecture

Microservices architecture offers significant advantages in enhancing an application’s flexibility and scalability. By decomposing an application into smaller, manageable pieces, businesses can address bugs, update features, and adjust functionalities without impacting the entire system. This can lead to a faster release rate, promoting business agility and product improvement.

Microservices facilitate robust, fault-tolerant applications that maintain functionality even when some services break. This isolation helps prevent cascading failures that can bring down an entire application. Microservices provide a compelling approach for businesses looking for a resilient and adaptable architecture.

Containers vs. Microservices: Key Differences 

Let’s look at some of the main differences between containers and microservices.

1. Architecture

Containers are an infrastructure layer that abstracts applications’ runtime environment.They can host parts of a microservices architecture, but they do not specify how to divide the application into discrete services. 

Microservices architecture focuses on structuring the application into services, each of which performs a specific business function. It provides guidelines and principles for structuring an application by breaking it into manageable, loosely coupled services.

2. Deployment

Containers encapsulate application components, allowing them to be deployed consistently across different environments. This packaging includes everything necessary to run the component, helping eliminate discrepancies in OS distributions and underlying infrastructure.

For microservices, deployment is about independent serviceability. Each microservice can be deployed, scaled, and updated independently of others, significantly optimizing development workflows and reducing downtime. Teams can deploy updates for specific parts of an application without waiting for the next release of the entire application.

3. Communication

Containers do not have built-in communication mechanisms. They generally rely on external methods like networking ports and APIs. The focus is on environment standardization and operations efficiency without specifying communication patterns.

Microservices are designed to communicate over lightweight protocols such as HTTP or messaging queues, which are integral to its architecture. They focus on enabling an application to function as a suite of services that work together over a network. 

4. Scalability

Containers provide an easy and effective way to scale applications horizontally by adding more containers during high demand. Container orchestration tools like Kubernetes facilitate this, automating the scaling and management of containerized applications.

Microservices architecture naturally supports scalability due to its decentralized service breakdown. Each microservice can be scaled independently based on demand for its specific functionality. This allows for more granular resource management and can often result in more efficient performance than scaling a monolithic application.

5. Resource Management

In containers, resource management is handled through the containerization platform, which can allocate specific amounts of hardware resources like CPU and memory to each container. This isolation helps prevent one container from consuming all available resources, which can be risky with traditional server or virtual machine-based deployments.

Microservices can offer a more advanced level of resource optimization. Since each service can be scaled independently, resources can be adjusted per service rather than at the application level. This can lead to significant cost efficiencies and performance improvements, as resources can be allocated more effectively based on each service’s actual needs.

Containers vs. Microservices: 6 Reasons You Should Use Them Together

Here are a few compelling reasons you should use containers and microservices together:

  1. Enhanced scalability and flexibility: Containers provide a suitable runtime environment for each microservice, ensuring that the individual services can be scaled independently based on their specific demands.
  2. Streamlined development and deployment: Containers can encapsulate microservices, making it easier to manage the lifecycle of each service individually. This setup simplifies developing, testing, deploying, and updating services in DevOps environments.
  3. Improved fault isolation: Combining containers with a microservices architecture enhances fault isolation. If one microservice fails, it does not necessarily affect others, as each runs in its container. This isolation helps maintain overall application stability and availability.
  4. Resource efficiency: By using containers to host microservices, organizations can use resources more efficiently. Containers allow precise allocation of CPU and memory to each microservice, optimizing resource use without the overhead of running multiple operating systems.
  5. Consistency across environments: Containers standardize the environment across development, testing, and production stages. This uniformity ensures that microservices operate consistently regardless of where they are deployed, minimizing environment-related bugs and easing troubleshooting and maintenance efforts.
  6. Simplified service management: Orchestration tools like Kubernetes enhance the management of containerized microservices by automating deployment, scaling, and networking tasks. This simplification allows IT teams to focus more on improving the application than managing the infrastructure.

Microservices Monitoring with Lumigo

Lumigo is a cloud native observability tool, purpose-built to navigate the complexities of microservices. Through automated distributed tracing, Lumigo can stitch together the distributed components of an application in one complete view and track every service of every request. Taking an agentless approach to monitoring, Lumigo sees through the black boxes of third parties, APIs, and managed services, 

With Lumigo, users can:

  • See the end-to-end path of a transaction and full system map of applications
  • Monitor and debug third-party APIs and managed services (ex. Amazon DynamoDB, Twilio, Stripe)
  • Go from alert to root cause analysis in one click
  • Understand system behavior and explore performance and cost issues 
  • Group services into business contexts

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