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Manage Hyper-V containers and VMs with these best practices

Containers and VMs should be treated as the separate instance types they are, but there are specific management strategies that work for both that admins should incorporate.

Containers and VMs are best suited to different workload types, so it makes sense that IT administrators would use both in their virtual environments, but that adds another layer of complexity to consider.

One of the most notable features introduced in Windows Server 2016 was support for containers. At the time, it seemed that the world was rapidly transitioning away from VMs in favor of containers, so Microsoft had little choice but to add container support to its flagship OS.

Today, organizations use both containers and VMs. But for admins that use a mixture, what's the best way to manage Hyper-V containers and VMs?

To understand the management challenges of supporting both containers and VMs, admins need to understand a bit about how Windows Server 2016 works. From a VM standpoint, Windows Server 2016 Hyper-V isn't that different from the version of Hyper-V included with Windows Server 2012 R2. Microsoft introduced a few new features, as with every new release, but the tools and techniques used to create and manage VMs were largely unchanged.

In addition to being able to host VMs, Windows Server 2016 includes native support for two different types of containers: Windows Server containers and Hyper-V containers. Windows Server containers and the container host share the same kernel. Hyper-V containers differ from Windows Server containers in that Hyper-V containers run inside a special-purpose VM. This enables kernel-level isolation between containers and the container host.

Hyper-V management

When Microsoft created Hyper-V containers, it faced something of a quandary with regard to the management interface.

The primary tool for managing Hyper-V VMs is Hyper-V Manager -- although PowerShell and System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) are also viable management tools. This has been the case ever since the days of Windows Server 2008. Conversely, admins in the open source world used containers long before they ever showed up in Windows, and the Docker command-line interface has become a standard for container management.

Ultimately, Microsoft chose to support Hyper-V Manager as a tool for managing Hyper-V hosts and Hyper-V VMs, but not containers. Likewise, Microsoft chose to support the use of Docker commands for container management.

Management best practices

Although Hyper-V containers and VMs both use the Hyper-V virtualization engine, admins should treat containers and VMs as two completely different types of resources. While it's possible to manage Hyper-V containers and VMs through PowerShell, most Hyper-V admins seem to prefer using a GUI-based management tool for managing Hyper-V VMs. Native GUI tools, such as Hyper-V Manager and SCVMM, don't support container management.

As admins work to figure out the best way to manage Hyper-V containers and VMs, it's important for them to remember that both depend on an underlying host.

Admins who wish to manage their containers through a GUI should consider using one of the many interfaces that are available for Docker. Kitematic is probably the best-known of these interfaces, but there are third-party GUI interfaces for containers that arguably provide a better overall experience.

For example, Datadog offers a dashboard for monitoring Docker containers. Another particularly nice GUI interface for Docker containers is DockStation.

Those who prefer an open source platform should check out the Docker Monitoring Project. This monitoring platform is based on the Kubernetes dashboard, but it has been adapted to work directly with Docker.

As admins work to figure out the best way to manage Hyper-V containers and VMs, it's important for them to remember that both depend on an underlying host. Although Microsoft doesn't provide any native GUI tools for managing VMs and containers side by side, admins can use SCVMM to manage all manner of Hyper-V hosts, regardless of whether those servers are hosting Hyper-V VMs or Hyper-V containers.

Admins who have never worked with containers before should spend some time experimenting with containers in a lab environment before attempting to deploy them in production. Although containers are based on Hyper-V, creating and managing containers is nothing like setting up and running Hyper-V VMs. A great way to get started is to install containers on Windows 10.

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