So I’ve been caught up in the docker, packer, and VM discussion a handful of times. I’ve been defending and discussingcoughattackingcough different versions and use cases. Then something happened, something I thought docker is wasn’t what it was, and something I thought packer was isn’t what it is. Welp, there’s some egg on my face eh? So here’s a cheatsheet type post about the difference and POSSIBLE use cases.


As the docker says in their intro slide deck, it’s designed to “ship code.” This is important distinction between this and what a VM does. docker is a souped–up version of lxc or to a lesser extent freebsd jails. It allows you to run an application in it’s own little bubble, but has a shared underlying OS/kernel. (in this case linux) It allows for a quick provisioning of an application disposable and transient applications which is great for development work. You can spin up a “base” build extremely quickly and hack away and it and rollback to a know good spot, without having to reimage/build the machine. In the new TDD world this is great for iterations. I guess a good simile is like you have a pad of paper with a base story printed on each page, you tack on the writing you want at the bottom, and if you don’t like it just tear it away and start again.


So docker is designed for an application? Isn’t that what a VM is designed for? Not exactly. docker shares the kernel and base os, while a VM is it’s own entity. VMs also require a hypervisor of some type that sits on another os; so if you can imagine it, VM = os ontop of hypervisor (that controls the VMs) on top of another os. This has it’s merits, but at the same time it can be cumbersome, for development. It seems VMs use case, compared to something like docker, is more for production deployments, more static content that updates through a deployment system. This can bring in security uses and the like, keep that in mind.


packer in a couple words is this: a way to create base or gold VM images. It’s designed to create a typical/transferable VM image that works with multiple platforms and hypervisors. An example, you have a beloved mail server, you create an image of this box, but you’re boss now says you’re moving cloud providers and have to get it working on digital ocean. packer makes that conversion “simple,” which packs up the image to be portable and transferable. I say simple mainly because honestly I haven’t tried it yet, but I have watched a few youtube tutorials on it.

This post is spurred from my miss understanding of the scope of docker and VMs, and in the process of groking them, rediscovering packer.

So in a nutshell: docker is a wrapper for lxc/jails for linux running an app sharing a common kernel, VMs are separate entities and kernels that more production focused, and packer is a way to create transferable VMs between hypervisors.