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What is OpenVZ?
OpenVZ is a container-based virtualization solution that allows site administrators to deploy multiple, independent instances of an Operating System on a web server.
One of the more annoying problems that plagues web application developers is the tendency for environmental changes to affect the way an application operates. Development of software apps is complicated and — even to the best developers — somewhat mysterious. The number of layers of abstraction between high-level programming code and its execution, combined with the typical dependency on dozens or even hundreds of individual libraries and utilities, makes it hard to know if the software that works just fine on your development computer will function properly when deployed to a production server in the cloud.
Developers try to avoid this problem by writing solid, standards-based code instead of relying on weird hacks or tool peculiarities to get things done. But sometimes the line between the right way and the weird way to do something isn’t very clear, especially if you are doing novel and interesting things in your software. And sometimes even the best code breaks when run against a different version of some library or utility that it depends on.
Moreover, different apps might require different versions of the same dependency. Perhaps your ecommerce system has a weird fluke when run on PHP 5.3.2, but the data API run by your shipping department relies on that exact version, and won’t run properly on either 5.3.1 or 5.3.3.
This sort of thing happens all the time, and it is absolutely maddening.
So, what’s the solution?
Containerization is a special form of virtualization, where the idea of running software on a virtual machine is brought down to the level of individual apps.
Virtual machines have existed for awhile, and you are probably familiar with them, at least a bit. A virtual machine is a software emulation of an entire real computer, on which is run a complete operating system and set of applications.
Many web hosts run virtual machines for their web hosting customers. The customer interacts with their own server as if it were a physical machine somewhere, but it is actually just a virtual machine running on commodity hardware in a data center owned by someone else.
This virtualization of servers allows multiple customers to run their web apps and services from a single machine (or cluster of machines) without interfering with each other.
Container-based virtualization (or containerization) brings this idea down to the level of a single app, instead of a single user or customer. A container emulates only the operating system, not the entire machine.
The container runs all the libraries, utilities, and dependencies that the primary app needs to function correctly, and nothing else. The operating system inside the container, and everything else about the environment, can be tweaked or adjusted as needed to get the application running the way it needs to, and this will have no effect on other software being run outside the container.
This also makes deployment much simpler: The idea is that you can run a container on your development machine, build your app, and then copy the entire container to the production server without any loss of continuity or disturbing anything else running on the server.
Containers: An Analogy
In the early days of shipping, cargo was loaded into a boat by hand. Boxes, crates, furniture of all shapes and sizes was just loaded into the hold, secured as well as possible, and then unloaded later. This was done by hand, by dock workers. This was extremely inefficient. Things broke. Things were lost. Cargo shifted around, endangering the balance of the ship. It was difficult to weigh cargo for proper pricing.
Eventually, shipping companies invented the idea of shipping containers. These are large, uniformly sized boxes that can be automatically loaded onto a ship and unloaded from it automatically by cranes and other machinery. The containers can be stacked. They can be placed on the back of a truck or on a train car. They can be uniformly priced. They are loaded by the customer or their agents, instead of people operating the ship. In fact, the people operating the ship don’t have to know anything at all about what is inside the container.
This is almost exactly the same idea with software containers.
OpenVZ is one of the most popular and mature container-based virtualization solutions available. It provides individual, independent installations of the Linux kernal. Each container acts as a stand-alone instance and can run it own apps, reboot independently, and use its own libraries and configuration files.
OpenVZ requires Linux, and the development team highly recommends CentOS or Red Hat Enterprise. The other requirements are widely supported, but require specific Linux expertise to configure properly.
While OpenVZ could, in theory, be set up on most Linux servers (given the right expertise), it is highly recommended that you use a web hosting company that specifically supports OpenVZ and optimizes their servers to run it properly.
OpenVZ Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What are some good reasons to use OpenVZ?
The biggest reason OpenVZ is good is that its open source. While it lacks some of the flexibility of its commercial competitors for virtualization, OpenVZ is as good as the major market leaders at serving multiple Linux virtual machines on a Linux server like CentOS or Red Hat Enterprise. The overall savings and the comparable performance are a tough combination to beat for new developers or hosting providers.
Are there any reasons not to use OpenVZ?
If you are not familiar with containerization or virtualization, or even lacking in web server management in general, then OpenVZ is probably not the best solution for you to use for creating virtual machines. The biggest flaw with OpenVZ is that it restricts access to any devices that are not already virtual. Because of that, no real (or physical) devices will interact with OpenVZ.
What are the alternatives to OpenVZ?
OpenVZ is actually an open source alternative to Virtuozzo, which is a commercial server software developed by Odin for enterprise-scale virtualization when the operating systems are open source agnostic. Open source alternatives to OpenVZ include VirtualBox from Oracle, QEMU for open-source hosted hypervisors that perform hardware virtualization. Other alternatives to OpenVZ are commercial virtualization technologies like Xen from Citrix and VMware.
Do I have to know how to program to use OpenVZ?
Yes. While you might not need to be a well-skilled web developer to operate OpenVZ as your virtualization platform, you will need to know how to program on Linux servers. Because of the complexity of setting up server software, it is highly recommended that website owners or bloggers looking to setup OpenVZ contract a pro server developer before trying to directly set up the server. Consult with your hosting provider if you need a suggestion for who to contact regarding this highly technical service.
What are the requirements for OpenVZ hosting?
In order to deploy OpenVZ, you are going to need a server compatible with Linux - CentOS or Scientific Linux are the preferred platforms. There are Debian installation instructions on the official wiki, but the preferred method CentOS or Scientific Linux using RHEL 6. You will need to setup a separate partition for your containers. Once that is formatted properly, you need to download the OpenVZ repository file and upload it to your designated repository on the server. Once you have imported a specific key to your server, OpenVZ should be successfully installed and you will be ready to move on to Kernal installation and system configuration.
Are there any additional specific hosting recommendations?
Once you install OpenVZ, install the kernels, configure the system, install the tools and reboot - you still might not have much to look at when the setup is complete. OpenVZ has never had a very successful graphical user interface (GUI). While a GUI was introduced in 2007, it never evolved past version 0.1. Instead of a GUI included for system administration, you will need to download Linux OS templates to help operate your OpenVZ installation as well as the virtual machines you deploy through OpenVZ.
Do I need to be concerned about installation?
If you fully intend on installing OpenVZ yourself and have no experience with installing and configuring virtualization solutions, then yes installation of this software should be a bit concerning. Because OpenVZ is an open source platform, setup and installation is going to require more manual work than one of the commercial alternatives. Consult with your preferred dedicated hosting provider to see if they have a list of server management specialists you may contact prior to starting this project.
What does self-hosted mean? I don’t have to run a server myself, do I?
Self-hosted servers and their associated platforms do not require YOU to personally own the server and manage it to host your site. Instead, self-hosted simply means that hosting is not provided directly by the development team that created the software and systems you are using to run your virtualization platform. In order to use a self-hosted open source virtualization platform, you will need to contract a hosting provider before building your platform and make sure they offer dedicated hosting as an option with their packages.
Do I need managed hosting in order to use OpenVZ as my virtualization platform?
The answer to this question depends on your answer to the question "how much responsibility are you willing to accept for the maintenance of your website?" The more complex your virtualization environment becomes, the greater your need will be for professionally managed services. Shared hosting often comes with some managed services included. If you have a dedicated hosting solution, however, managed services are likely required as part of your agreement. To be fair, this is the case with any self-hosted virtualization platform - not just open source platforms like OpenVZ.
Can I host OpenVZ on a shared hosting plan?
Shared hosting plans are likely incapable of hosting OpenVZ because of the complexity of hosting virtualization platforms that require a considerable amount of resources to scale the reproduction of servers. Instead of using shared hosting for your own personal virtualization projects, you should probably consider deploying a Linux dedicated server.
How does OpenVZ compare to Virtuozzo as a virtualization platform?
OpenVZ is the open-source version of Virtuozzo. While the core framework of the two applications is similar, there are some unique features for each that you should consider before simply selecting one over the other. According to multiple reports from experienced web hosting professionals, Virtuozzo has a better control panel and better kernel hacks - which makes sense given its status as a commercial software. Because of the financial commitment a hosting provider needs to invest with Odin to acquire licensing for Virtuozzo, many hosting providers who offer Virtuozzo have an infrastructure that is more stable. Virtuozzo does a better job of providing memory management and reporting memory usage compared to OpenVZ. Another big benefit to Virtuozzo over OpenVZ is the I/O limiter, which will keep your server from overloading.