As the new world debate of containers vs virtual machines continues, there is also a debate raging about stateful vs stateless containers. Is this really a thing? Is this really happening in a production environment? Do we really need to backup containers, or can we just backup the data sets they access? Containers are not meant to be stateful are they? This debate rages daily on Twitter, reddit and pretty much in every conversation I have with customers.

Now the debate typically starts with the question Why run a stateful container? In order for us to understand that question, first we need to understand the difference between a stateful and stateless container and what the purpose behind them is.

What is a container?

“Containers enable abstraction of resources at the operating system level, enabling multiple applications to share binaries while remaining isolated from each other” *Quote from Actual Tech Media

A container is an application and dependencies bundled together that can be deployed as an image on a container host. This allows the deployment of the application to be quick and easy, without the need to worry about the underlying operating system. The diagram below helps explain this:

stateful containers

When you look at the diagram above, you can see that each application is deployed with its own libraries.

What about the application state?

When we think about any application in general, they all have persistent data and they all have application state data. It doesn’t matter what the application is, it has to store data somewhere, otherwise what would be the point of the application? Take a CRM application, all that customer data needs to be kept somewhere. Traditionally these applications use database servers to store all the information. Nothing has changed from that regard. But when we think about the application state, this is where the discussion about stateful containers comes in. Typically, an application has five state types:

  1. Connection
  2. Session
  3. Configuration
  4. Cluster
  5. Persistent

For the interests of this blog, we won’t go into depth on each of these states, but for applications that are being written today, native to containers, these states are all offloaded to a database somewhere. The challenge comes when existing applications have been containerized. This is the process of taking a traditional application that is installed on top of an OS and turning it into a containerized application so that it can be deployed in the model shown earlier. These applications save these states locally somewhere, and where depends on the application and the developer. Also, a more common approach is running databases as containers, and as a consequence, these meet a lot of the state types listed above.

Stateful containers

A container with stateful data is either typically written to persistent storage or kept in memory, and this is where the challenges come in. Being able to recover the applications in the event of an infrastructure failure is important. If everything that is backed up is running in databases, then as mentioned earlier, that is an easy solution, but if it’s not, how do you orchestrate the recovery of these applications without interruption to users? If you have load balanced applications running, and you have to restore that application, but it doesn’t know the connection or session state, the end user is going to face issues.

If we look at the diagram, we can see that "App 1" has been deployed twice across different hosts. We have multiple users accessing these applications through a load balancer. If "App 1" on the right crashes and is then restarted without any application state awareness, User 2 will not simply reconnect to that application. That application won’t understand the connection and will more than likely ask the user to re-authenticate. Really frustrating for the user, and terrible for the company providing that service to the user. Now of course this can be mitigated with different types of load balancers and other software, but the challenge is real. This is the challenge for stateful containers. It’s not just about backing up data in the event of data corruption, it’s how to recover and operate a continuous service.

Stateless containers

Now with stateless containers its extremely easy. Taking the diagram above, the session data would be stored in a database somewhere. In the event of a failure, the application is simply redeployed and picks up where it left off. Exactly how containers were designed to work.

So, are stateful containers really happening?

When we think of containerized applications, we typically think about the new age, cloud native, born in the cloud, serverless [insert latest buzz word here] application, but when we dive deeper and look at the simplistic approach containers bring, we can understand what businesses are doing to leverage containers to reduce the complex infrastructure required to run these applications. It makes sense that lots of existing applications that require consistent state data are appearing everywhere in production.

Understanding how to orchestrate the recovery of stateful containers is what needs to be focused on, not whether they are happening or not.

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