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Docker Containers Management: Main Challenges & How to Overcome Them

Stefan Thies Stefan Thies on

Even though containers have been around for ages, it wasn’t until Docker showed up that containers really became widely adopted. Docker has made it easier, faster, and cheaper to deploy containerized applications. However, organizations that adopt container orchestration tools for application deployment face new maintenance challenges.

Orchestration tools like Kubernetes or Docker Swarm are designed to decide which host a container should be deployed to, and potentially do that on an ongoing basis. Although this functionality is great for helping us make better use of the underlying infrastructure, it creates new challenges in production. 

Being able to map container deployments to the underlying container hosts is essential for troubleshooting as the first questions that arise while troubleshooting are “Which specific container is having issues? and “On which host is it running?“. But there is more to learn about container monitoring so let’s see why infrastructure monitoring is different for containers.

Monitoring a container infrastructure is different from traditional server monitoring. First of all, containers present a new infrastructure layer we simply didn’t have before. Secondly, we have to cope with dynamic placement in one or more clusters possibly running on different cloud services. Finally, containers provide new ways for resource management.

Let’s further explore each of these challenges and see what container management best practices you can apply to overcome them and optimize your Docker environment.

New Infrastructure Layers

Docker containers add a new layer to the infrastructure and the mapping of containers to servers lets us see where exactly in our infrastructure each container is running. Modern container monitoring tools must thus discover all running containers automatically in order to capture dynamic changes in the deployment and update the container to host mapping in real-time. Thus, the traditional server performance monitoring that is not designed with such requirements in mind is inadequate for monitoring containers.

New Dynamic Deployment and Orchestration

Container orchestration tools like Kubernetes or Docker Swarm are often used to dynamically allocate containers to the most suitable hosts, typically those that have sufficient resources to run them. Containers might thus move from one host to another, especially while scaling the number of containers up or down or during container redeployments. There is no static relation between hosts and services they are running anymore! For troubleshooting, this means one must first figure out which host is running which containers. And, vice versa, when a host exhibits poor performance, it’s highly valuable to be able to isolate which container is the source of the problem and if any containers suffer from the performance issue.

New Resource Management and Metrics

Docker containers use of resources can be restricted. Using inadequate container resource limits can lead to situations where a container performs poorly simply because it can’t allocate enough resources. 

At the same time, the cluster host itself might not be fully utilized. How could this problem be discovered and fixed? A good example is monitoring memory fail counters – one of the key Docker container metrics or throttled CPU time. In such situations, monitoring just the overall server performance would not indicate any slowness of containers hitting resource limits. Only monitoring of the actual container metrics for each container helps in this situation. 

Setting the right resource limits requires detailed knowledge of the resources a container might need under load. A good practice is to monitor container metrics and adjust the resource limits to match the actual needs or scale the number of containers behind a load balancer.

New Log Management Needs

Docker not only changed the deployment of applications, but also the workflow for log management.

Instead of writing logs to files, Docker logs are console output streams from containers. Docker Logging Drivers collect and forward logs to their destinations. To match this new logging paradigm, legacy applications need to be updated to write logs to the console instead of writing them to local log files. Some containers start multiple processes, therefore log streams might contain a mix of plain text messages from start scripts and unstructured or structured logs from different containerized applications.  

The problem is obvious – you can’t just take both log streams (stderr/stdout) from multiple processes and containers, all mixed up, and treat them like a blob, or assume they all use the same log structure and format. You need to be able to tell which log event belongs to what container, what app, parse it correctly, etc.

To do log parsing right, the origin of the container log output needs to be identified. That knowledge can then be used to apply the right parser and add metadata like container name, container image, container ID to each log event. Docker Log Drivers simplified logging a lot, but there are still many Docker logging gotchas.  Luckily, modern log shippers integrate with Docker API or Kubernetes API and are able to apply log parsers for different applications.

New Microservice Architecture and Distributed Transaction Tracing

Microservices have been around for over a decade under one name or another.  Now often deployed in separate containers it became obvious we needed a way to trace transactions through various microservice layers, from the client all the way down to queues, storage, calls to external services, etc. This created a new interest in Distributed Transaction Tracing that, although not new, has now re-emerged as the third pillar of observability.

New Container Monitoring Tools

Automated and dynamic container deployments require smarter monitoring tools, correlating metadata from various information sources such as the Linux Kernel, the Docker Runtime, and orchestration tools. 

Container Monitoring Tools are aware of the container deployment state. Monitoring agents start capturing metrics dynamically when a new container starts and stops monitoring when it terminates.  Docker is not the only container runtime. Therefore container monitoring tools like Sematext Agent have elaborate mechanisms to correlate data from Linux eBPF Kernel events, container metrics, and orchestration level  APIs such as Docker Remote API, containerd API,  and Kubernetes API. Collection of container events such as start, stop, pause, image pulls, among many others, is essential to get full visibility into container deployments. 

Wrapping Up

Docker is designed to perform complex tasks easier, faster, and with minimal resources. However, adopting new technologies such as Docker is not always that easy, even though the technology is actually meant to streamline the development and deployment process. Containers come with their own challenges. Luckily, Docker is the most popular containerization tool out there and thousands of engineers have played with it. We can put together a comprehensive list of container management best practices for you to apply and skip the trial-and-error “induction” period. Furthermore, if you want to use Docker with Kubernetes, we’ve already prepared two comprehensive guides to help you get started: Kubernetes Monitoring and Kubernetes Logging.