Project Atomic + Docker: A post-package world?

July 10, 2014

I recently was talking with a friend over lunch about Project Atomic and Docker, and he asked: are we entering a “post-package” world?

My short answer: No. The slightly longer answer is that we’re seeing an evolution of delivery coupled with a lot of innovation in management and orchestration.

Evolution of delivery

As part of Project Atomic, we’re evolving from the context of a “traditional” distribution, where distribution is a set of packages. The Project Atomic pattern is introducing two new higher order delivery vehicles: Docker, and rpm-ostree (also nicknamed via symlink atomic). The theme behind the name Atomic is that both of these technologies group software into indivisible units of management.

Let’s look at two artifacts from Project Atomic we’re working on in the Fedora distribution that are shipped in this way: the Atomic Cloud Image and the Docker Container Image. An essential fact to note is that both artifacts are composed of RPM packages.

For example, both the host system and container share a set of essentials such as the bash package. In fact, the idea is, at release they will have the same binary version. Both the Docker base image and the Atomic tree are reflecting the upstream RPM content. This is quite crucial for a distribution such as Fedora; both from the perspective of the maintainers as well as the downstream consumers. If you want to check whether an Atomic host or a container is affected by a security vulnerability, you can use the regular rpm -q, or any of the many higher order tools and frameworks built upon that core concept of an inventory of versioned component parts.

Runtime management power

So what’s the value, then, in boxing up the same old packages in new ways? For Docker base images (and derived images), there’s a massive increase in flexibility – it makes Linux containers very, very easy to use. A simple example is that the host system can now be decoupled from the applications; when the Fedora 22 release of Atomic comes out, your Fedora 21 base image containers can function effectively unchanged, except they will have a newer kernel. You can take advantage of newer hardware support in the kernel or other host features, and stage a migration of applications to newer base images.

It’s much easier now to take those same RPM packages for services and multi-instantiate. For example, you can have a Docker base image that contains a mariadb-server RPM, and instantiate multiple writable containers from that, each with their own copy of /etc/my.cnf.

Things get even more interesting with projects like geard, which make it easy to spin up and configure many containers across multiple host systems. This sort of orchestration is much more complex and expensive with virtual machines.

The continuing need for packages

Whenever a single organization starts to produce multiple products, there comes a very strong pull to define a common shared base. And the Project Atomic artifacts are not the only product of Fedora! It still needs to deliver traditional products, such as the Server and Workstation.

In the Server case, for example, there will obviously be a strong continuing demand for a virtualization host system, manifesting as projects such as oVirt. There’s also a case for a system capable of both virtualization and Linux containers.

And I think the Workstation case still makes sense. I use Linux and other Free Software on my desktop for real work – with Docker, it’s quite nice to be able to test server containers locally before pushing them. I can have the same Docker version on my workstation and servers, or decouple them. The distribution mechanism should continue to cover this. For that matter, the desktop system I’m writing from of course has virtual machines running Atomic, thus bringing four deliverables together.

One might ask: does it even make sense to do this many products within the context of a single organization? I think it does. There are a lot of powerful benefits to still receiving atomic host system updates and Docker base images from the same organization. A lot of userspace is shared, and it allows crossover for things like management tooling.

Now, one can of course find sub-groups within the (large) Docker community that are farther down the “post-package” spectrum, but I just don’t think it’s a realistic viewpoint. As an example, look at the upstream docker-registry README.md. While it tells you how to pull the binary Docker from the upstream registry, it also documents how to acquire the individual pieces and run it directly. And there’s real reasons for that, such as being able to build the registry from source code and improve it. To do that, you need the build dependencies, distinct from the runtime. Yes, the README uses pip instead of dpkg/rpm, but the concept is the same.

To be clear then, it’s not about Docker replacing packages: the realistic endpoint is blending the strengths of the two technologies. One example of that some people have been looking at is using Docker as a buildroot construction system for RPM packages.

Finally, on the OSTree side, things are quite a bit simpler. Conceptually, it’s just a way to compose packages on a server (instead of per client), providing each with atomic upgrades. Then rpm-ostree is a tool bridging the world of RPM and OSTree; it’s very much oriented around being a complement to RPM. The rpm-ostree tool also links to hawkey to allow it to inspect and operate on the RPM database inside the trees. More information about that here.

Getting involved

With Project Atomic, we’re not just introducing new software; we’re attempting to change how we deliver software, something deeply fundamental to a distribution project like Fedora. And furthermore, we’re changing how it’s deployed and managed, which impacts application authors and systems administrators. That said, I believe the benefits of Linux containers and Docker are very real.

Want to get involved? Jump in on the Project Atomic community, or see active SIGs and discussions in targeted distributions such as CentOS and the Fedora Cloud group which is hosting the Changes/Atomic Cloud Image. There’s plenty to do in infrastructure and release engineering. Check out fedora-dockerfiles for lots of example Dockerfiles, and try building your own apps. And don’t hesitate to ask questions!

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2 Responses to “Project Atomic + Docker: A post-package world?”


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