Containers vs. virtual machines: How to tell which is the right choice for your enterprise

cargo containers
Credit: Håkan Dahlström

Name a tech company, any tech company, and they're investing in containers. Google, of course. IBM, yes. Microsoft, check. But, just because containers are extremely popular, doesn't mean virtual machines are out of date. They're not.

Yes, containers can enable your company to pack a lot more applications into a single physical server than a virtual machine (VM) can. Container technologies, such as Docker, beat VMs at this part of the cloud or data-center game.

VMs take up a lot of system resources. Each VM runs not just a full copy of an operating system, but a virtual copy of all the hardware that the operating system needs to run. This quickly adds up to a lot of RAM and CPU cycles. In contrast, all that a container requires is enough of an operating system, supporting programs and libraries, and system resources to run a specific program.

What this means in practice is you can put two to three times as many as applications on a single server with containers than you can with a VM.

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