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Top Docker Alternatives

In this guide, we'll look at a variety of Docker alternatives that provide different benefits for your workloads—such as daemonless operation, a simplified management experience, improved container security, and enhanced scalability and orchestration for production environments.

Wiz Experts Team
6 minutes read

Docker is the best known and most popular container tool, but it's not always the right choice for every use case. In this guide, we'll look at a variety of Docker alternatives that provide different benefits for your workloads—such as daemonless operation, a simplified management experience, improved container security, and enhanced scalability and orchestration for production environments.

Using containers without Docker

Many developers consider Docker to be synonymous with containers, but it's actually only one part of the modern container ecosystem. There's a plethora of other container runtimes, image stores, and supporting tools to choose from, each offering their own innovative features beyond those available in Docker.

Most container platforms adhere to the Open Container Initiative (OCI) specifications. These standards enable interoperability between platforms by defining the technical characteristics of container technologies such as images and registries. An OCI image built by one platform can be used to create containers on any other OCI-compatible platform, allowing you to keep using existing images after you switch to a Docker alternative.

How to choose a container tool

It can be difficult to decide which container tool is right for your needs. Docker provides a good starting point for developers because it's an all-in-one platform that covers a full spectrum of container capabilities, from building images to starting containers that use them. However, it's less suited to deploying containers in production, where distributed deployments and scalability are priorities.

When choosing a container tool, you should therefore begin by assessing how well it aligns with your target use case and environment. You might even choose to use different tools for each scenario—this ensures each environment’s unique requirements can be accommodated, which might not be possible if you try to standardize on a single platform for all workloads. 

Once you've identified possible solutions, you should evaluate each tool's developer experience and how it supports your container security posture. This step is critical to ensure your processes will be simple, safe, and reliable.

Top Docker alternatives

Let's take a look at the top seven Docker alternatives and how they can improve your container workflows:

Podman

Podman is the leading drop-in Docker replacement. It's OCI-compliant, fully open-source, and includes both a Docker-compatible CLI and a graphical desktop app that's ideal for developer use.

Figure 1: Podman is a robust alternative to Docker (Source: Podman)

As the Podman CLI functions as a direct equivalent to Docker's, you can substitute podman for docker in most commands—such as podman run instead of docker run and podman build in lieu of docker build. Podman also supports Docker Compose files, and Podman Desktop can be used to start a local Kubernetes cluster on your machine.

Podman should be your preferred choice when you're seeking an alternative to Docker but want to retain Docker's familiar user experience. But unlike Docker, Podman is daemonless so there's no extra background process to consume resources on your host. This model provides a security benefit by eliminating any risk that the Docker daemon will be accidentally exposed on your network.

2. Kubernetes

Kubernetes (K8s) is an orchestration solution for deploying and scaling containerized workloads in distributed environments. It addresses many of the challenges associated with running containers in production by providing higher-level concepts for defining your container and infrastructure requirements using declarative configuration.

Figure 2: Kubernetes is a leading container orchestration tool (Source: Kubernetes)

Kubernetes clusters are a collection of physical hosts (nodes) that run replicas of your containers (pods). You can scale your workloads across your nodes, set resource constraints, and centrally manage RBAC controls to prevent unauthorized user access. If a node becomes unhealthy, Kubernetes will automatically reschedule its pods onto other nodes.

Kubernetes isn't a direct replacement for Docker: It's a complementary technology that's focused on container operations. K8s can't build container images so you must use another OCI-compatible tool like Docker to create your images before you deploy them to your cluster. K8s also has a reputation for complexity and can be unnecessary in simpler deployment scenarios; it requires dedicated knowledge to effectively operate and secure your clusters.

3. Docker Swarm mode

Although part of Docker, Docker Swarm mode is a distinct tool that provides an alternative way to operate your containers. While a regular docker run command launches a single container on your current Docker host, using Swarm mode lets you run multiple container replicas across several hosts, collectively termed a swarm.

Figure 3: Docker Swarm mode documentation (Source: Docker)

Swarm mode can be used as a simpler alternative to Kubernetes. It supports declarative configuration, deployment scaling, and automatic service discovery and load balancing between hosts in the swarm. It's an ideal choice when you're already using Docker but need distributed production deployments without the management overheads associated with Kubernetes.

4. Rancher Desktop

Rancher Desktop is an open-source, developer-oriented container management platform. It bundles a complete stack of common container tools, including a robust graphical interface, the containerd runtime, and Kubernetes support. This "batteries-included" ethos means you can jump straight into your projects without having to manually download or update individual tools.

Figure 4: Rancher Desktop is open source and simple to use (Source: SUSE)

Rancher Desktop is especially well-suited to developers who want to avoid learning complex console commands, as the simple desktop app lets you manage all your containers and associated technologies in one interface. You can also perform vulnerability scans of your container images to spot any potential security weaknesses.

5. Heroku

Heroku is a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provider that lets you automate container deployments without manually configuring any infrastructure. Because you don't always need the complexity or hands-on control of solutions like Kubernetes or Docker Swarm mode, Heroku provides a fully managed option for quickly bringing up live deployments in the cloud.

Figure 5: Heroku is a fully managed option (Source: Heroku)

Heroku can deploy your pre-built container images when you push them to its integrated Container Registry storage solution. The platform can also build your images for you, then immediately deploy them using simple declarative configuration. This saves time and improves software delivery efficiency, especially for devs who are less familiar with container operation. It can also enhance security by removing the need to host and maintain a container runtime, which normally requires root access.

6. Virtual machines

Traditional virtual machines (VMs) created using tools like KVM, VMware, or VirtualBox can still be the best way to create virtual environments for many types of workloads, especially where stringent security requirements apply. Virtual machines provide the highest level of host and hardware isolation, in addition to robust support for data persistence that can be easier to configure for legacy applications.

Because VMs are much heavier than containers, they can be harder to utilize in the cloud and may also be more time-consuming for developers to build, test, and iterate upon. However, in situations where containers aren't suitable, VMs allow you to continue making the most efficient use of your physical resources by still running multiple independent workloads on each host.

7. LXC

LXC is an alternative approach to containerization that's integrated into Linux at the OS level. Whereas OCI tools like Docker focus on application-level containerization (also referred to as process containerization), LXC provides system-level containerization. In this approach, containers each run a full operating system.

Figure 6: LXC is a great choice when you need system-level containerization (Source: linuxcontainers.org)

As a result, LXC containers have a management experience that's closer to traditional virtual machines—while still being lightweight and portable in a similar way to Docker containers. Using LXC also provides container persistence, so you can install multiple workloads in your containers and keep them around for as long as you need. In comparison, Docker containers are ephemeral, run a single process, and are disposed of once that process completes.

LXC is the clear Docker alternative in scenarios where you need system-level containerization and the more granular control that enables. If you find you want to run Docker workloads too, you can use the LXC OCI template to create LXC containers from your OCI images.

Summary

We've explored some leading Docker alternatives and how they enable powerful container workflows for different use cases. Whether you swap to Podman for daemonless local development, use Kubernetes for highly available production apps, or rely on Heroku to rapidly deploy with zero configuration, looking beyond Docker for your next project could bolster your software delivery processes by making container operations more efficient. 

Or, as container tools have good interoperability, you might even choose to keep using Docker in conjunction with other platforms. For example, devs could use Docker to build a test image that's then deployed to a shared Kubernetes cluster for a staging review. 

Whichever combination of tools you select, remember it's vital to use scanning tools and container security best practices to prevent container takeovers, supply chain attacks, and compliance coverage gaps.

Need a solution to reduce your container risks? Try Wiz, an all-in-one cloud security platform for continually analyzing anomalies, vulnerabilities, and compliance risks across your containers, apps, and infrastructure. Wiz gives you complete visibility and real-time threat detection for Docker, Kubernetes, and alternatives, keeping your cloud assets secure. See for yourself: Get a Wiz demo today.

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