Saturday, February 07, 2015

Container-less development

In the Java world been hearing a lot lately about container-less development. (Note, I'm not talking about containers such as docker.) Whether it's to help build microservices, to reduce complexity for Java EE developers, or some other reasons, moving away from containers seems to be the theme of the day. One of the core aims behind the movement away from containers appears to be simplifying the lives of application developers and that's definitely a good thing.

 In general anything we can do to improve the development experience is always a good thing. However, I worry that the idea of moving away from containers is not necessarily going to make the lives of developers easier in the long term. Let's spend a moment to look at some of the things we've heard as complaints for container-driven development. I'll paraphrase, but ... "They make it too complex to do easy things." Or "Containers are just too bloated and get in the way of agile development." Or "The notion of containers is an anti-pattern from the 20th century." Or even "Testing code in containers is just too hard."

Now before we try to address these concerns, let's look at something I said to Markus in a recent interview. "Any container, whether it's something like docker, the JVM or even a Java EE application server, shouldn't really get in your way as a developer but should also offer you the capabilities you need for building and running your applications in a way that is easy to use, understand and manage. If you think about it, your laptop is a container. The operating system is a container. We take these for granted because over the years we've gotten really really good at building them to be unobtrusive. Yet if you look under the covers at your typical operating system, it's doing a lot of hard work for you and offering you capabilities such as process forking and scheduling, that you don't know you need but you do need them."

It's easy to make blanket statements like "containers are bad for agile development" or "containers are not fit for modern web apps", but the reality is somewhat different. Of course there may be specific examples of containers where these statements are correct, but let's try and remain objective here! As I mentioned to Markus, we're using containers in our daily development lives and not even aware of them most of the time. A good container, whether an operating system or a Java EE application server, shouldn't get in your way but should be there when you need it. When you don't need it, it's sitting in the background consuming limited memory and processor time, perhaps still ensuring that certain bad things don't happen to your application while it's running and which you didn't even consider initially, e.g., how often do you consider that your operating system is providing red zone protection for the individual processes?

As I said, a good container shouldn't get in your way. However, that doesn't mean it isn't needed. Many applications start out a lot simpler than they end up. You may not consider security initially, for instance, but if your application/service is going to be used by more than you and especially if it's going to be available globally, then it's something you're going to need eventually and a good container should be able to either take care of that for you opaquely or offer a simple to use interface. In essence, a good (ideal?) container should be like your favourite operating system - doing things in the background that you need but don't want to really understand, and offering easy to use APIs for those services you do need.

For enterprise users (and I include Web developers in that category) those services would include security, data management (RDBMS, NoSQL), messaging (not everything will communicate using HTTP) and transactions (yes, some people may not like them but they're essential for many types of application to ensure consistency in a local and distributed case). I'm not going to suggest that there's any such thing as the ideal/perfect container in the Java world today. There are definitely some implementations that would want you to consider seriously looking at container-less solutions! However, there are several implementations that have made significant strides in improving the developer experience and pushing themselves into the background, becoming part of the substrate. And a number of developer tools have sprung up to help developers further, such as Forge and Arquillian.

If you consider what lead to the rise of containers, it wasn't because someone somewhere thought "Oh wouldn't it be good if I threw everything and the kitchen sink into a deployment environment". Believe it or not there was a time before containers. Back then we didn't have multi-threaded languages. Everything was interconnected individual services, communicating using bespoke protocols. Your application was probably one or more services and clients, again communicating to get things done. If all of these services ran on the same machine (entirely possible) then once again you could consider the operating system as your application deployment container.

These services were there for a reason though: applications needed them! The development of containers as we know them today was therefore a natural evolution given improvements in language capabilities and hardware performance (reduce the interprocess communication at the very least). Granted we may not have focussed enough on making the development of applications with containers a seamless and natural thing. But that doesn't obviate the need.

Consider the container-less approach. For some applications this may be the right approach, just as we've never said that container-based development (or Java EE) was right for all applications. But as the complexity of the application or individual service grows and there's a need for more functionality (e.g., caching or security) then application developers shouldn't have to worry about which caching implementation is the best for their environment, or which version works well with the other functional components they're relying upon. Eventually container-less frameworks will start to address these concerns and add the "missing" features, whether as interconnected individual (micro?) services in their own address spaces or co-located with the application code/business logic but (hopefully) in an opaque manner that doesn't get in the way of the developer. Once we start down that road we're heading towards something that looks very similar to a container.

Rather than throw away the inherent benefits of containers, I think we should be working to make them even easier to use. Maybe this requires changes in standards, where those containers are based upon them. Maybe it's giving feedback to the container developers on what's getting in the way. Maybe it's working with the container-less efforts to build next generation containers that fit into their development and deployment experience seamlessly. There are a number of ways this can go, but none of them are really container-less.


Duncan Doyle said...

This was actually the thought I was having when thinking about container-less deployments in a reply I was writing to an e-mail discussion on this topic. Just the sheer amount of libraries you need on a classpath when deploying a very simple app outside of a container makes you think: "But wait .... isn't this somewhat like a ..... container." I really don't understand how needing so many JARs on your class path makes your app easier to deploy and manage.

Look at it, for example, from a security perspective. @ Red Hat, we make sure that security issues are solved in our app-server, and that customers don't need to care about it. Are you on version X of EAP? Then you're vulnerable to these security issues, which are solved when you upgrade to version Y. Now try to that when you have a classpath full of individual Hibernate, Infinispan and Weld libs ..... Can you imagine the fun to manage 50 of such apps ....???

Frank said...

Thanks Mark for this article!
I attended your Java One 2016 presentation, enjoyed it a lot and quoted you in a blog posting related to tech quotes around
microservices. The explanation is mine, but let me know if anything is wrong with that quote.

kind regards!

Mark Little said...

Thanks Frank. I saw your post the other week and linked to it in my most recent entry :) Thanks for attending the session and I'm glad you found it interesting!