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Chart the future of VMware containers: VIC and Pivotal

VMware has dropped Photon in favor of VIC and a new partnership with Pivotal. Learn the differences between these platforms and what future they might signal for VMware containers.

Container technology has had something of a moment over the past couple years, and it's easy to understand why....

Containers come at a low cost, are fast, are easy to deploy and promise greater scalability. During this period of impressive growth, VMware developed its own set of container platforms to meet the growing demand -- vSphere Integrated Containers and Photon Platform. The particular way they ran containers set the two platforms apart, but VMware has since dropped Photon and instead partnered with Pivotal to produce Pivotal Container Service. Take a look at these five tips to learn more about these platforms, VMware containers in general and what the future might hold.

New VIC components pit VMware against Docker

VMware designed VIC and its suite of complementary features to challenge Docker as a container platform. VIC is a platform for the container deployment and management within VMs on vSphere clusters. It's best for users who want their container and VM-based applications to have the same platform.

VMware has positioned itself against Docker with features like VMware vRealize Log Insight, vRealize and NSX, which offer much of the same functionality as Docker Datacenter. VMware Harbor, a counterpart to Docker Trusted Registry, is a registry server that keeps Docker images safe and deploys containers into production. VMware Admiral, another VMware container component, is a web interface for container management that similarly matches Docker Universal Control Plane by offering the ability to monitor and provision containers.

Photon OS: Built with VMware platforms in mind

As part of its first foray into the realm of containers, VMware designed VMware Photon OS to provide container support for vSphere. Photon OS was optimized for VMware platforms and offered vSphere users the ability to use Photon for efficient use of containers in VMware environments. Photon OS offered container lifecycle management, as well as compatibility with development tools that enabled the seamless movement of containers from development to production. VMware achieved a small, high-performance OS runtime by trimming all the Linux modules that weren't necessary to run containers on vSphere. Photon OS has been featured in numerous VMworld conferences and has improved from open source refinement. According to VMware, Photon OS will continue to play an important role; version 2.0, released in November 2017, introduces features, such as secure remote management, native Kubernetes and NSX-T compatibility. 

The subtle differences between Photon and VIC

Photon Controller and VIC were both VMware container utilities that presented different ways to manage containers. VIC is designed for efficient memory usage and ease of management; it can run on an ESXi host or be deployed from a vCenter Server. Photon Controller was designed to simplify environments through an interface to grant direct container management information. VIC supports detailed security procedures through the virtual container host that enables multi-tenancy and allows for VMs and containers to be monitored and managed by the same tool set. VIC and Photon Controller had subtle differences, but they both enabled containers on VMware environments, while the Photon OS actually deployed the containers.

VMware shifts its container strategy

PKS will offer the ability to deploy and operate Kubernetes for enterprise applications.

Photon Platform used to be a staple of past VMworld conferences. It was set to be VMware's prime platform for cloud-native applications and even saw a version released on GitHub. VMware pivoted at VMworld 2017, instead announcing a partnership with Pivotal Container Service (PKS) to get vSphere Kubernetes support. PKS will offer the ability to deploy and operate Kubernetes for enterprise applications. As of now, VMware no longer appears to maintain Photon Controller, as the GitHub repository indicates. Though VMware still supports Photon OS, this is likely only because vCenter 6.5 needs it to run. So, Photon Platform appears to be effectively dead. In its stead, VIC remains as VMware's main container infrastructure product. VIC can run VMs as containers, like Photon could, but it uses vSphere with vCenter instead of a custom ESXi and controller. It appears that VMware's needs have shifted from requiring a container-specific product, like Photon Platform, to needing integration between container and VM orchestration platforms.

Pivotal partnership signals future of VMware containers

VMware's partnership with Pivotal shifts its container strategy in order to support Kubernetes in vSphere and attract enterprises that want to run containers on premises. This service is built on the open source project Kubo, but VMware and Pivotal will sell commercial support services that fit alongside it to companies that run containers in production vSphere environments. PKS offers the ability to integrate with VMware NSX, as well as the ability to use the service on Google Cloud Platform. The NSX integration might be especially attractive because its networking and security functions will be able to extend traditional, enterprise security policies to containers. Though VIC is still supported and updates remain in the pipeline, its future now seems hazy. Photon's future seems hazier still, with VMware pulling plans to sell Photon Platform as a commercial product due to low adoption.

This was last published in November 2017

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