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Docker automation: How StackEngine plans to bring order to production containers

The surge of interest among developers in Docker and containers is giving operations teams issues that startup StackEngine aims to address.

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Bob Quillin: Management platform for the Docker community. Image: StackEngine

Startup StackEngine says the toolset it launched today will provide a unified approach to managing and automating Docker production apps for the first time.

The Austin, Texas-based company, which also announced $1m in seed funding from Silverton Partners and LiveOak Venture Partners, will be moving its software to a private beta scheme in the next few weeks, with general availability following in the fourth quarter.

A lighter-weight form of virtualisation, containers sit on top of a single Linux instance and are each capable of running an isolated app on a reduced OS under a resources policy. Docker is an open-source project for automating app deployment inside containers.

StackEngine CEO and co-founder Bob Quillin said although containers had been around for years, Docker has captured the imagination of developers worldwide.

"It gives developers a lot of the power they've always wanted with platform as a service and the ability to move containers around, take all their dependencies with them and be able to test something locally on their laptop and give it to their QA team for them to test it and run the same thing in production," Quillin said.

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The Docker operations dashboard. Image: StackEngine

"There's just a lot of flexibility and it takes virtualisation up a level to the next generation from a more of a system-level virtualisation to an OS and application level," he said.

However, the arrival of Docker, with its libraries and standardised ways of handling containers, may have simplified life for developers but it has also created issues for operations and DevOps teams.

"What we're seeing is the operations team now having to say, 'What am I going to with this Docker container? How do I run it in production? How do I manage it, and where do I run it — what systems do I run it on?'. That's really where we're focusing — on that operations bottleneck," Quillin said.

He said operations people in the past have used system-oriented tools such as Puppet and Chef to manage systems and the hosts they run on. Although utilities exist for specific container tasks, operations teams have lacked a platform to manage containers.

"Now I may have a container and I may have 100 or 1,000 containers, so there's a scale issue in terms of where do I run these containers, what systems should I run them on? Is it best to run them in Google, should I run them in Amazon or can I run them locally on bare metal on premise?", Quillin said.

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"The more operational issues relate to running it, changing it and managing it on a production level versus a developer who is sometimes throwing it over the wall to operations, who don't really know what to do with a container right now because they don't have the tools or best practices to manage it."

The StackEngine product, which Quillin said will integrate with existing container tools, offers a management interface that allows users to discover all the containers running inside an environment.

"It's a mesh management layer control plane that looks at all the containers you're running and understands the state of those containers in real time and lets you visualise that," he said.

"Visualisation tools are something that are currently lacking in Docker. They're standard fare for virtualisation and system management tools."

Operations staff will be able to control containers, see how many have stopped, started, or paused, identify any rogue or zombie containers that should not be running, and address version-control issues.

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"What configuration do they have, how do I update that configuration? Those are the operations kinds of issues the DevOps teams are worried about now, once they're asked to manage these kinds of applications," Quillin said.

As well as discovering all the containers across all environments, along with their hosts, the StackEngine software provides a dependency analysis as well as performance troubleshooting.

"Does the current state match the state it should be in, the best practices for that application — the desired state? Then I can troubleshoot. I can drill in and see if there are any performance issues. Is there a CPU issue, a memory issue on that particular host? Do I need to move that particular container?" he said.

"Then if you have a policy or a model of how you want that application to be performing, one of the next things we're working on is how do you then move that container to a place that makes the application work better — orchestration."

StackEngine's co-founders Quillin and Eric Anderson, who have both worked at CopperEgg, Hyper9 and VMware, say they are strong believers in the open-source movement and will be contributing components of their product to the community.

"With Docker today everyone's putting a little bit back in to help the tide rise. All ships float up on that particular situation and we all benefit from that," Quillin said.

"We've learnt from other open-source contributions and we want to contribute back to that too. But also one of the downsides of open source is there's a lot of ad hoc and specific oriented tools that the user has to put together.

"We want to be able to do that for the customer so it becomes a lot more of an enterprise option, something that a company can bring to fruition and use it to manage their production Docker applications."

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