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Containerization: A Paradigm Shift for Control Systems Engineering

Containerization has emerged as a pivotal technology in the field of software development and deployment and mirrors the shift that control systems engineers experienced with the adoption of virtual machines many moons ago. Just as virtual machines revolutionized the deployment of applications by abstracting them from the hardware, containerization is taking this abstraction a step further, providing even more robust, scalable, and efficient solutions. This blog explores what containerization is, its significance for industrial automation, and how it applies to industrial scenarios, including deployment on edge devices and integration with technologies like Docker.

Understanding Containerization

At its core, containerization involves encapsulating an application and its dependencies into a container—a lightweight, standalone, executable package. This container interacts with the operating system’s kernel but is isolated from other containers and the host system. This isolation ensures that containers run consistently across any environment, whether it’s on a developer’s laptop, a test environment, or in production, regardless of the underlying infrastructure.

The Evolution from Virtual Machines

Back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, control systems engineers began leveraging virtual machines (VMs) to run multiple operating systems on a single physical hardware unit, thereby reducing costs and improving redundancy. VMs operate an entire guest operating system including the kernel, which can be resource-intensive. Containers, however, share the host system’s kernel and are not burdened with simulating an entire operating system, making them more lightweight and faster to start than VMs. This efficiency is particularly advantageous in environments where rapid scaling and resource optimization are crucial.

Running Containers at the Edge

As industries push more computing to the edge, containers are proving invaluable. They are particularly suited for deployment on industrial hardware such as Industrial PCs and edge-compute capable network components like the Cisco IE3400 industrial ethernet switch. For example, the IE3400 can run a Cyber Vision sensor application which inspects all traffic traversing the switch identifying assets, threats, and traffic anomalies. These devices benefit from containerization by enabling more applications to run closer to where data is produced and actions are performed, thus enhancing the responsiveness and agility of the ICS infrastructure.

Containers and Thin Client Systems

Thin clients, such as those managed by ThinManager, are another area where containerization is making a significant impact. Thin clients typically depend on server-based computing models where the heavy lifting is done on a server, while the thin client simply displays the interface. With containerization, these devices can locally run applications within containers, which are managed centrally. This setup combines the benefits of centralized management with the ability to perform more computing tasks locally, enhancing performance and reliability. A great example of this use case is the ability to deploy a containerized Chrome browser for access to web applications instead of first connecting to a remote host to display the web content.

Docker: Bringing It All Together

Docker is a platform that develops, ships, and runs containers. It has become synonymous with containerization, providing the tools needed to manage the lifecycle of containers. Docker simplifies creating, deploying, and running applications by using containers, offering an ecosystem of standardized units of software that package up code and all its dependencies, so the application runs quickly and reliably from one computing environment to another.


For control systems engineers, containerization offers a transformative approach to deploying and managing applications across various environments. It builds upon the principles familiar to those who have worked with virtual machines but provides a more granular level of control and efficiency. By adopting container technology, engineers can leverage the latest advancements in edge computing and IoT, ensuring that their systems are not only more resilient and flexible but also ready for the future of industrial automation. Docker and other tools enhance this transition, making containerization accessible and manageable within industrial settings. As the industry continues to evolve, embracing these technologies will be key to staying competitive and innovative in the rapidly changing landscape of industrial automation.


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