The spell that reveals your onboarding decade

Every one of us has started somewhere. By telling you what my first computer was, I also convey a lot about the place and time my journey in IT started. For many of my fellows, it was a Commodore C64 or an Atari 500. But even if I don’t tell you about my first machine, there is a simple “magic spell” that you can cast to at least get a hint about the decade my first working days started, 15 years after my first contact with computers.

The spell is just one word: “container”. What a container is and how to use it is bound to the decades. Let me guide you through some typical answers.

Pre-2010 answer

If you entered the industry around the year 2000, a container was a big chunk of software that you preferably installed on an even bigger machine, the infamous “application server”. The container, or “servlet container”, “application container”, or, if you were with the right folks, “enterprise bean container” (in short: EJB-Container) was the central hub to host all of your web applications. If you deployed your application into the container, it handled the rest, like unpacking the web archive, providing resources and publishing to the internet. Typical names of containers were Tomcat, Jetty, JBoss or WildFly. You can probably see them around even today, because the concept itself is appealing. Some aspects of it inevitably lead to problems, though. Resource management was a big topic. Your application wasn’t expected to care for a database connection, a logging context or, sometimes, even security features, because the container provided those things to it. As you can probably imagine, that left your application crippled and unable to function outside a container.

Pre-2010 containers

So if you onboarded more than ten years ago, your first thoughts reacting to the word “container” will be “big machine”, “slow startup” and “logging framework”. There cannot reasonably be more than one container per machine. Maintaining a cluster of containers would be the work of luminaries. Being asked to start a container on your developer machine is a dreadful endeavour. “Booting the container” is a reason to visit the coffee machine.

Post-2010 answer

But if you started your career less than ten years ago, your reaction to the word “container” will be different. Starting in 2013, a technology named “Docker” reinvented an old practice to isolate processes and package them into a transport format. Simplified enough, a container is just the RAM-based projection of an application image. You boot a container by loading the image into RAM. That’s some of the fastest things you can do on a computer (not really, but it fits the story better). Even better, because each container ideally contains just one small application or part of it, you don’t boot one container per machine, you can run dozens at the same time. Each container brings everything it needs with it and only relies on three common external resources being provided: Networking, persistent storage and a facility to dump logging output.

Post-2010 containers

It is good practice to partition your application into several containers of the post-2010 kind. It is good practice to have them talk to each other over network, either real or simulated. The lines between actual computers get blurry real fast with this kind of containering.

As a youngster, your first thoughts reacting to the word “container” will be “just one?”, “scale up” and “log output management”. You see an opportunity to maintain a cluster of containers. Being asked to start a container on your developer machine is a no-brainer. “Booting the container” is a reason to automate your container infrastructure.

The reactions to the word “container” are very different, based on socialization period. In the old days, pre-2010 containers were boss fight adversaries. Nowadays, post-2010 containers are helpful spirits that just need to be controlled.

Post-2020 answer?

What better way to control the helpful spirits but to deploy them to an environment that handles unpacking, wiring, providing resources and publishing to the internet? Your application isn’t expected to care for topics like scalability, cluster robustness or load balancing. The environment, your container cluster platform, handles those things for you. There can only be one cluster platform per cloud. Being asked to start a cluster platform on your developer machine – well, that’s just not possible, sorry. Best we can do is a minified version of it. Our applications tend to function poorly outside a cluster platform.

As you hopefully can see, developers of all decades crave a thing they tend to call “container” that they can throw their software into to have it perform well without all the hassle of operations. But as soon as they give away responsibility for the environment, they also give away the possibility of comfortable “developer machine” operations. The goal is the same, just the technicality what exactly a “container” happens to be changes over time.

What is your “spell” that reveals a lot about the responder?

Containers allot responsibilities anew

Earlier this year, we experienced a strange bug with our invoices. We often add time tables of our work to the invoices and generate them from our time tracking tool. Suddenly, from one invoice to the other, the dates were wrong. Instead of Monday, the entry was listed as Sunday. Every day was shifted one day “to the left”. But we didn’t release a new version of any of the participating tools for quite some time.

What we did since the last invoice generation though was to dockerize the invoice generation tool. We deployed the same version of the tool into a docker container instead of its own virtual machine. This reduced the footprint of the tool and lowered our machine count, which is a strategic goal of our administrators.

By dockerizing the tool, we also unknowingly decoupled the timezone setting of the container and tool from the timezone setting of the host machine. The host machine is set to the correct timezone, but the docker container was set to UTC, being one hour behind the local timezone. This meant that the time table generation tool didn’t land at midnight of the correct day, but at 23 o’clock of the day before. Side note: If the granularity of your domain data is “days”, it is not advisable to use 00:00 o’clock as the reference time for your technical data. Use something like 12:00 o’clock or adjust your technical data to match the domain and remove the time aspect from your dates.

We needed to adjust the timezone of the docker container by installing the tzdata package and editing some configuration files. This was no big deal once we knew where the bug originated from. But it shows perfectly that docker (as a representative of the container technology) rearranges the responsibilities of developers and operators/administrators and partitions them in a clear-cut way. Before the dockerization, the timezone information was provided by the host and maintained by the administrator. Afterwards, it is provided by the container and therefore maintained by the developers. If containers are immutable service units, their creators need to accomodate for all the operation parameters that were part of the “environment” beforehands. And the environment is provided by the operators.

So we see one thing clearly: Docker and container technology per se partitions the responsibilities between developers and operators in a new way, but with a clear distinction: Everything is developer responsibility as long as the operators provide ports and volumes (network and persistent storage). Volume backup remains the responsibility of operations, but formatting and upgrading the volume’s content is a developer task all of a sudden. In a containerized world, the operators don’t know you are using a NoSQL database and they really don’t care anymore. It’s just one container more in the zoo.

I like this new partitioning of responsibilities. It assigns them for technical reasons, so you don’t have to find an answer in each organization anew. It hides a lot of detail from the operators who can concentrate on their core responsibilities. Developers don’t need to ask lots of questions about their target environment, they can define and deliver their target environment themselves. This reduces friction between the two parties, even if developers are now burdened with more decisions.

In my example from the beginning, the classic way of communication would have been that the developers ask the administrator/operator to fix the timezone on the production system because they have it right on all their developer machines. The new way of communication is that the timezone settings are developer responsibility and now the operator asks the developers to fix it in their container creation process. And, by the way, every developer could have seen the bug during development because the developer environment matches the production environment by definition.

This new partition reduces the gray area between the two responsibility zones of developers and operators and makes communication and coordination between them easier. And that is the most positive aspect of container technology in my eyes.