Welcome to "Clouds, Containers, and APIs, Oh My!"


The current excitement around virtualized, container-based server environments such as Docker suggests one possible future for how university IT can re-imagine its infrastructure. What strikes me about the new wave of metaphors at work with a service like Docker is how they are making a direct parallel between the current shift in server infrastructure with the ways in which containers revolutionized the shipping world. Their tagline: “Build, Ship, and Run Any App, Anywhere.” So, for the purposes of our week on the hot seat together, I want to spend some time exploring transportation metaphors as they relate to internet infrastructure, all with the hopes of shedding some light on the technological/cultural shifts happening in in the world of higher ed IT.

Please use this space as a starting point and welcome. Would love to know who is here!


I’m Tom Woodward from VCU in Richmond VA. I work in the ALT Lab and dream of an endless sea of docker containers at my beck and call. I have some experience with APIs and virtual stuff.


I’m Alan Levine, itinerant web geek located in the booming metropolis of Strawberry Arizona. I like bicycles, pickup trucks, trains, and boats, have never been on a container ship. I have dabbling tech experience with APIs, and only a conceptual understanding of containers.

And Jim and Tom are some of the coolest people in our field.


Who brought in the big guns? :slight_smile:


You are the web, Mr. Alan Levine.


Welcome Jim and everybody to our final Hot Seat of this series.
As is with almost everything these days, we live in an open transparent world that encourages people to participate - even beyond the limits of time parameters. Therefore i was not surprised to see the hot seat already started before it starts :slightly_smiling:
I hope we will continue this open exploration together and that we will learn a lot from each other and for some this week might only be the start of something.
Is a ‘container’ still a metaphor we can use in such an open space?



Welcome, @jimgroom, and I have to hand it to you, you certainly raised an interesting topic for us to consider in a new way!

As much as these things seem convenient (hey, love doing once and sharing twice!), though the issue of cost (race to the bottom?) does immediately come up (or down) to me . . .



Hi Jim. It’s Frances Bell here and I haven’t understood much of what I have read so far but the way I look at it that gives me lots of scope for learning :)I am looking forward to seeing you in person at OER16 in Edinburgh. I think that metaphors can be very useful as long as we spot when they have broken down - then try on another one for size.


I don’t know much about containers - other than as a user of containerized stuff that has been set up by other people… Our campus hosting infrastructure is still a generation or two back, with RHEL on VM servers. Progress, but no containers in sight…

One thing I’m curious about is future-proofing. Containers seem (again, to a non-knowing-much person) like a few layers of abstraction that eventually expose what look like conventional services (eventually, something pops out the top that gets recognized as a web server, etc…). How will obsolescence/convergence/acquisition/sunsetting of stuff at various levels of the abstraction be handled? Is that even a concern? Physical servers are easy - just hand someone the box and they have everything in one place (or a VM). Containers are stacked on top of each other in funky ways (which seems awesome and risky for different reasons).


Hi Frances,

Thanks for joining in here, and I must say the reason I want to facilitate this session is that I wasn’t all that clear on this new wave of infrastructure. That said, I was immediately struck by how much the idea of thinking about server infrastructure in terms of shipping containers piqued my imagination. The idea that shipping containers had changed the way we imagined that industry by making portability dead simple. No offloading from ship to dock via stevedores, but rather move a container full of goods from ship to truck via crane in a fraction of the time.

Now, what if we think of where and how we store our data in similar ways in terms of shipping containers. I am running a web server with WordPress, Omeka, and several other applications on my own dedicated server. To move the applications to a new server I need to manually move the files, the databases, etc. and then rebuild the environment elsewhere. With a container the idea is each of these applications would have their own container, and they would move over as a piece. You would theoretically have a small, contained server for each application that would allow you to install, run, and move this application seamlessly between servers.

That’s not all, and it might be a bit of a simplification, and I invite other to correct me, but the idea struck me. The idea that infrastructure was becoming smaller, focused and self-contained. It was moving us closer to the idea of the internet as a utility, which is, at least for me, why the idea of the cloud is fascinating. I think the best description of the cloud I ever heard was this one by Stephen Fry, which is a commercial for DataBarracks:

That helped me understand containers, because to have use-driven infrastructure, you have to be able to develop an architecture that can run at the level of the application.


Hey D’Arcy,

Love that you dropped by, and I was hoping you could explain containers to me :slight_smile: One of the places the metaphor starts to get wild is the way in which folks build interfaces with metaphors on top of this technology. Take, for example, Shipyard, which Tim Owens turned me on to a while ago. What shipyard does is provides you a management interface for your various containers so that you can get a sense of the ways in which the containers are arranged. It’s effectively an API that let’s you track the containers, kind like that device they used in The Wire to track the shipping containers in Baltimore Harbor :slightly_smiling:

I’m being a little silly here, but at the same time I am not. Shipyard is an extension of the metaphor to deal with the issue of managing these independent pieces more seamlessly. In terms of obsolescence, etc., i would think the same issues apply for a dedicated server as they do for a container, the only difference may be that in a container environment the abstraction of the data from the environment may a more seamless path to the next environment—destroy container move data to new container. But given we are still in the fairly early days of these life cycles and I’m still wrapping my head around it I don;t want to pretend to oversell like I did with WordPress :slight_smile:


Thanks very much Jim, you are inspiring me to learn more about containers. When I listened to Stephen Fry talk about the Internet as a utility I wondered about where that metaphor might break down, where the Internet is different from say gas or water. Information seems different because some of it is generated as people interact with computers and networks what Shoshana Zuboff called informating. Zuboff was looking at information within organisations but the web flows across and between organisations as she recognises with her current concerns about surveillance capitalism. For example, I am thinking about how information (some informated) that leaks can generate money for the provider eg Facebook. Will containers protect against this?


Surveillance capitalism link http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594754


I love that idea of leaks that generate money. And thanks for pointer to Shoshana Zuboff’s work, that something I will be following up on. I love the term “surveillance capitalism” —and one of the ways an open source platform like Sandstorm frames its approach. Sandstorm provides apps like WordPress, Etherpad, Ghost, in a container-like server environment where you have greater control over the application(s) because each of the containers has a separate, private filesystem for storage. What’s more, they give you control over who has access to what application, effectively overriding the access management features of an application like WordPress. So, in effect, Sandstorm is using the Container model to develop a more secure, controlled environment for users. That said, I’m sure it could go the other way. But for a second think about how different this is than the social media silos that are premised on surveillance capitalism.We have a radically different approach, at least conceptually, of thinking folks have their own storage containers with their own data on their own cloud service. There are still many layers of mediated relationships, but you would pay for them and the understanding would be you data is not for sale. Or if it is leaked, it is not the business model. I don’t want to oversell containers, but if we start to think about owning and porting one’s data affordably over the course of a lifetime, it does become an interesting model.


Hi, Howard Spoelstra here (Open University of the Netherlands).

Containers? As in containing, contained, self-contained? Of course containers can and are transported by ship, train, truck in various quantities. Many, some, one. However useful due to their fixed sizes and sometime “personal additions” such as cooling systems, they also have their limitations in exactly these qualities: fixed, cramped, space and duplication of various resources. And of course the sometimes rather idiosyncratic way of packing them. Nevertheless they offer possibilities of fiddling around with their innards to more than just a few knowledgeable admins. Good for experimenting!


As a case in point, this forum software is running in a Docker container alongside 8 other docker container running 8 other Discourse forum instances. What’s nice about this is we can run a kind of multi-site discourse setup via Docker, which points to your idea about experimentation. But more than that by running Docker containers on virtualized server infrastructure like Linode we can do it at a fraction of a Discourse hosted solution thanks to a few recipes online. As you can see, Discourse is pretty slick forum software, and edtech shops could provide this for their communities pretty easily thanks to Docker—in this regards containers and virtualization provide a “New Hack Stack” —and I am referring to a post by Boris Mann that started me down this conceptual path more than two years ago. You could argue containers and virtualization of infrasturcture are this moment’s commodity web hosting LAMP stack. And Docker, Kitematic, etc. have made it easier conceptually and technically.


Hi, I am Joitske Hulsebosch living in the Netherlands (near Rotterdam!). The whole idea of containers was new to me and makes me curious to understand what it is about. I have dived a bit into experience API for learning analytics and understand what a Learning Record Store is and would love to work more with this to track social learning.
With regards containers I taught a problem-based topic at the Rotterdam Business School in collaboration with the harbour. It was very interesting to see how the inland ships suffered from regulations and politics favoring train and road transport. So who are the inland ships loosing out here?


Belated thanks to Jim for faciltating this discussion . It’s been really interesting.


While this discussion feels like it was expanding in some very interesting ways, we have reached the end of our week together with @jimgroom, who facilitated a most interesting and thoughtful set of discussions on Clouds, Containers, and APIs (Oh My!)!

While the Hot Seat will remain open for any future posts or thoughts, we want to thank Jim for inviting us to consider future implementation issues related to academic technologies, if not wider potential future directions on online communication within teaching and learning. Having known Jim in various incarnations over the past <ahem!> years, I always enjoy the perspective he takes as he pushes the envelope, or communication mechanism, in his work.

Who knows how this will all play out, though I envision we may revisit these discussions again while on our journey.

Thanks again, Jim!



Fascinating you are from Rotterdam give that is the example that is used in The Wire clip, so fun. It’s interesting to layer the idea of politics on top of a system like this, because they certainly exist, and who they favor becomes an important question. I’m not sure what regulations are a sticking point for the virtual container business, I would have to look into that. But more generally, the regulation of internet infrastructure as a public utility comes with some important questions around trying to preserve bandwidth spectrum allocation for free, public access. Making sure the shipping company doesn’t become an Amazon monopoly, etc. I guess I would need to look into this in more detail, but the point at which we get to think about the web as a utility the closer we become to trying and make sure it is not priced out of a large part of the population’s access. Kind of like the deregulation of energy with Enron led to an effective collapse of the California economy. How do we avoid the same issues with infrastructure of the internet?