Containerized Architecture: Components and Design Principles

Learn about the advantages of a containerized architecture, its basic building blocks, and design principles to make your project a success

March 16, 2021

What is a Containerized Architecture?

A containerized architecture makes it possible to package software and its dependencies in an isolated unit, called a container, which can run consistently in any environment. Containers are truly portable, unlike traditional software deployment, in which software could not be moved to another environment without errors and incompatibilities.

Containers are similar to virtual machines in a traditional virtualized architecture, but they are more lightweight – they require less server resources and are much faster to start up. Technically, a container differs from a virtual machine because it shares the operating system kernel with other containers and applications, while a virtual machine runs a full virtual operating system. 

Containerization helps developers and operations teams manage and automate software development and deployment. Containerization makes it possible to define infrastructure as code (IaC) – specifying required infrastructure in a simple configuration file and deploying it as many times as needed. It is especially useful for managing microservices applications, which consist of a large number of independent components. 

Containers are a key part of the cloud native landscape, as defined by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). They are an essential component of cloud native applications, built from the ground up to leverage the elasticity and automation of the cloud. 

In this article, you will learn:

Building Blocks of Containerized Applications

The following are three elements of a typical containerized application architecture.

Container Engines

The container engine (often referred to as operating-system-level virtualization) is based on an operating system in which the kernel allows multiple isolated instances. Each instance is called a container, virtualization engine, or “jail”. 

Developers use containers to create a virtual host with isolated resources, and can deploy applications, configurations, and other dependencies within a container. This reduces the administrative overhead needed to manage applications, and makes them easy to deploy and migrate between environments. Developers can also use containers to deploy applications in a hosted environment, more efficiently and with lower resource utilization than virtual machines.

Examples of container engines include Docker, CRI-O, Containerd, and Windows Containers.

Related content: read our guide to docker security best practices

Container Orchestrators

Container orchestration software allows developers to deploy large numbers of containers and manage them at large scale, using the concept of container clusters. Orchestrators help IT admins automate the process of running container instances, provisioning hosts, and connecting containers into functional groups. 

With container orchestration, it is possible to manage the lifecycle of applications or ecosystems of applications consisting of large numbers of containers. Orchestrators can:

  • Automatically deploy containers based on policies, application load and environment metrics
  • Identify failed containers or clusters and heal them
  • Manage application configuration
  • Connect containers to storage and manage networking
  • Improve security by restricting access in between containers, and between containers and external systems

Examples of orchestrators include Kubernetes, Mirantis Kubernetes Engine, and OpenShift.

Managed Kubernetes Services

Managed Kubernetes services add another level of management above container orchestrators. Setting up and managing a tool like Kubernetes is challenging and requires specialized expertise. 

These services allow organizations to provide container images and high-level scaling and operation policies, and automatically creates Kubernetes clusters. Clusters can be managed via APIs, web-based consoles, or CLI commands. Managed Kubernetes  is commonly offered on the public cloud, but there are platforms that can run in an on-premises data center as well.

Examples of managed Kubernetes services are Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS), Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) and SUSE Rancher. 

Related content: read our guide to ECS security

10 Advantages of a Containerized Architecture

In the past, virtualization provided a way to simplify the distribution of multiple OSs on a single server. Containerization is considered the next evolution of virtualization, which focuses on breaking down operating systems and applications into pieces of software that delivers certain functionality. Because the code is broken down into functions and packaged individually, it becomes more efficient and portable. 

Here are ten benefits of implementing a containerized architecture:

  1. Lower costs—on infrastructure operations, because you can run many containers on a single virtual machine.
  2. Scalability—at the micro-service level eliminates the need to scale VMs or instances.
  3. Instant replication—of microservices, enabled through deployment sets and replicas.
  4. Flexible routing—you can set this up between services supported natively by containerization platforms.
  5. Resilience—when a container fails, it’s easy to refresh/redeploy with a new container from the same image.
  6. Full portability—between on-premise locations and cloud environments.
  7. OS independent—there is no need to run an OS. All you need is to deploy a container engine on top of a host OS.
  8. Fast deployment—of new containers. You can also quickly terminate old containers using the same environment.
  9. Lightweight—since containers run without an OS, they are significantly lightweight and much less demanding than images.
  10. Faster “ready to compute”—you can start and stop containers within seconds—much faster than VMs.

Containers and the Microservices Architecture

A microservices architecture divides the application into multiple, independent services, each of which is developed and maintained by a small team. Each has its own CI/CD pipeline, and can be deployed to production at any time, without dependence on other microservices. 

A common way to package and deploy microservices is in containers. The entire microservices application can be deployed as a cluster using a container orchestrator. There are several advantages to using containers for microservices, as opposed to full virtual machines or bare metal servers:

  • Containers are lightweight, making it possible to run more microservice instances on one physical host.
  • Containers can be easily automated, integrating closely with CI/CD workflows.
  • Containers are immutable, making it easy to tear down and replace microservice instances when new versions are released.
  • Containers are easily portable between local development environments, on-premise data centers and cloud environments, making it possible to develop microservices in one environment and deploy to another.

Container-Based Application Design

Here is an overview of key design principles to help you create an effective container-based application architecture:

  • Observability—required to ensure runtime environments can observe the health of containers. Observability enables you to automate the lifecycle of your containers. The minimum requirement for observability is application programming interfaces (APIs) that let the runtime perform health checks. You should also configure event logs.
  • Image immutability—containers are built for temporary use. You cannot make changes after deployment. Instead, you need to build a new container image, and then deploy a new container version based on that image. You should then stop the old container, because it is no longer needed. You can automate this process, using orchestrators.
  • Disposability—a major advantage of containerization is the ability to quickly scale, fix, shut down, and launch your application or components of the code. This capability lets you quickly deploy patches and handle sudden changes and capacity demands. To ensure your application can do this, you should use small containers that are reading to be quickly
    disposed of.
  • Security—to protect your cloud-native application, you need to establish container security practices and processes. You can do this by manually configuring security, but be sure to add automation that can support your workload. Minimal security requirements include using trustworthy images, managing access, integrating security testing tools, and adding security scans and controls to automated deployments.

Learn More About Containerized Architecture

Top Docker Security Best Practices

While Docker provides an efficient development and deployment environment, compromised Docker components can infect your entire infrastructure. Docker containers can be used as an access point to other containers and host systems. 

This cheat sheet lists the unique issues posed by Docker containers, how to safeguard against them and how to set up a safe Docker configuration.

Read more: Top Docker Security Best Practices

The Challenges of Docker Secrets Management

In our many conversations with customers, Docker secrets management has come up as a particularly thorny issue that seemed to lack an elegant, cross-platform solution for container environments. Not a new issue in the enterprise space, especially as pertains to large-scale DevOps environments, the challenges of managing secrets become amplified in container environments.

Learn how to manage secrets in Docker using Aqua container security platform.

Read more: The Challenges of Docker Secrets Management

The Container Compliance Almanac: NIST, PCI, GDPR and CSI

Containerized architectures have significantly changed the way software is developed, tested and deployed. These changes have a major impact on compliance. There are major challenges in ensuring containers are compliant, and applying compliant security controls to this new type of infrastructure.

Learn about container compliance challenges, and discover guidelines for container compliance with leading standards and regulations.

Read more: The Container Compliance Almanac: NIST, PCI, GDPR and CSI

Istio Security: Zero-Trust Networking

Istio provides a foundation of application security that sits well with the zero-trust networking model. Zero-trust networking practices are based on the assumption that code is vulnerable and the network is compromised; all communications are encrypted, centrally authorized, and continually validated against mesh policy.

Istio achieves this by pushing centralized policy configuration into the Envoy sidecar proxies. These proxies live in each pod and are the gateways for network ingress and egress for all workloads, where they make policy and security decisions for the traffic in the mesh.

Read more: Istio Security: Zero-Trust Networking