Containers vs. Virtual Machines (VMs): What’s the Difference?

The world of modern software development is a complex and rapidly evolving ecosystem of tools, frameworks, and technologies. Among the most widely used technologies in this space are containers and virtual machines (VMs), which offer developers powerful ways to build and deploy applications.

Understanding the differences between these two technologies is critical for making informed decisions about which to use in specific scenarios. We will explore the nuances of containers and virtual machines, including their architecture, resource usage, and deployment options.

Whether you are a seasoned developer or a newcomer, a deep understanding of these technologies is essential to stay ahead in the rapidly evolving software development landscape.

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What are Containers?

Containers are lightweight and portable virtualized environments that provide a secure and isolated space for running applications. Containers are based on operating system (OS) level virtualization and are designed to package an application with dependencies and libraries into a single, self-contained unit. The application runs consistently across different computing environments, regardless of the underlying hardware or software.

Simply put, containers are like virtual boxes containing everything an application needs to run. The box is isolated from the rest of the computer and can be moved from one computer to another without compatibility issues.

Suggested Read: What is a Hypervisor? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Benefits of Using Containers

Containers offer several benefits over traditional virtual machines, including:

  • Efficiency: Containers use fewer resources than virtual machines, allowing for greater efficiency and faster application deployment.
  • Scalability: Containers are easier to scale up or down depending on application demand, making them ideal for high-traffic applications.
  • Portability: Containers are free to run on any operating system and easily move between computing environments, making them highly portable.
  • Robust Ecosystem: Most container runtime systems offer a hosted public repository of pre-made containers, such as databases or messaging systems. These repositories can be instantly downloaded and executed, saving time for development teams and providing a robust ecosystem of pre-built software components.

What are Virtual Machines or VMs?

A virtual machine (VM) emulates a computer system that runs operating systems and applications like a physical computer. A virtual machine is created using software that creates an abstract layer between the hardware and the operating system, allowing multiple virtual machines to run on a single physical machine.

In simple terms, a virtual machine is like a computer within a computer. It runs its own operating system and applications, but it shares the physical resources of the host machine with other virtual machines.

Benefits of Using Virtual Machines (VMs)

Virtual machines offer several benefits, including:

  • Isolation: Each virtual machine is isolated from the others, which enhances security and stability.
  • Compatibility: Virtual machines run multiple operating systems and applications simultaneously, making them highly compatible with a wide range of software.
  • Hardware abstraction: Virtual machines provide hardware abstraction, allowing multiple virtual machines to run on a single physical machine.

Difference Between Containers And Virtual Machines (VMs)

Full Isolation Security

Virtual machines or VMs run in isolation as a completely standalone system, which makes them immune to any exploits or interference from other virtual machines on a shared host.

In contrast, while containers offer some level of isolation, they share the underlying host operating system with other containers. If a container is compromised, it could impact the other containers on the same host. However, container technology has improved over the years by introducing features like kernel namespaces and groups, which provide additional isolation and security.

Interactive Development

Virtual machines are more dynamic and interactively developed regarding interactive development. Once the basic hardware definition is specified, a virtual machine is just like a bare-bones computer with manually installed software.

Virtual machine snapshots are used to capture the current configuration state. They are restored to that point or spun up to create additional virtual machines with the same configuration.

On the other hand, containers are designed to be lightweight and immutable, with their configuration and dependencies defined upfront. While it makes containers faster and more efficient than virtual machines, it also limits their flexibility for interactive development.

VM and container

Resource Usage

Virtual machines require more resources than containers since each machine runs a full copy of the operating system, requiring more memory, CPU, and storage.

In contrast, containers share the underlying host operating system and only run the required libraries and dependencies, which results in smaller resource footprints.

However, because virtual machines provide full isolation, they run applications with different operating systems or create multiple isolated environments on a single host. Conversely, Containers are better suited for running lightweight applications with similar operating system requirements.


Containers are built on the host operating system and share the kernel with other containers. Containers are designed to be lightweight and portable, with a small footprint and fast startup time; containers efficiently run single applications or microservices. Thus, they are well-suited for cloud-native architectures.

Virtual machines, on the other hand, emulate a complete hardware environment and run an entire operating system stack. Each virtual machine runs its own kernel, implying multiple virtual machines can run on the same physical host with different operating systems. Virtual machines are typically used to run legacy applications or multiple operating systems on the same hardware.

Recommended Read: VDI vs. VM – What Are The Differences Between Both?

Resource Usage

Containers require fewer resources than virtual machines because they share the host operating system and only run the needed libraries and dependencies. It results in smaller resource footprints and faster startup times. Containers dynamically scale up or down to match demand, making them ideal for modern cloud environments.

On the other hand, virtual machines require more resources than containers because each virtual machine runs a copy of the operating system, which requires more memory, CPU, and storage.


Containers and virtual machines also differ in their deployment models. Containers are designed to be deployed as microservices in a distributed architecture, where each container runs a specific function. It makes containers ideal for modern cloud-native applications designed to be highly scalable and resilient.

In contrast, virtual machines are typically used to deploy monolithic applications that require an entire operating system and specific hardware requirements. Virtual machines are also commonly used in on-premises environments, creating isolated environments for testing, development, and production.

Containers vs. Virtual Machines: A Comparison

Feature  Containers  Virtual Machines 
Operating System  Shares the host operating system  Runs a guest operating system 
Resource Usage  Lightweight and efficient  Require more resources than containers 
Deployment  Easier to deploy and scale as microservices. It can be quickly spun up or down.  More complex to deploy and scale. Often it takes longer to spin up or down. 
Isolation  Less isolated, it can share the same kernel as the host OS. It makes it easier to communicate between containers.  Fully isolated from other virtual machines on the same host. 
Security  Less isolated, potential security risk. Containers are only as secure as the underlying host.  Fully isolated, more secure. Security risks are contained within the virtual machine and do not affect the host. 
Resource Sharing  Can share system resources with other containers on the same host.  Can share resources, but not as easily as containers. Resource allocation must be managed more carefully. 
Performance  Fast performance due to its lightweight nature.  Slightly slower performance than containers due to virtualization overhead. 
Use Cases  Ideal for microservices-based architectures, where rapid deployment and scalability are essential.  Ideal for situations where full isolation is required or for running legacy applications that require a specific OS. 

Choosing Between Containers and Virtual Machines

There are several factors to consider when deciding between containers and virtual machines. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

Application Requirements

The first factor to consider is the specific requirements of your application. Virtual machines may be the better choice if your application requires a full operating system, specific hardware requirements, or compatibility with a wide range of operating systems. If your application consists of lightweight microservices that can share the same operating system, containers may be a better fit.

Scalability and Resilience

If you need to deploy your application in a highly scalable and resilient manner, containers may be the better choice. Containers are designed to be deployed as microservices, making it easy to scale up and down as needed. Additionally, if a container fails, the other containers in the same cluster can take over the workload, ensuring high availability and resilience.

Security and Isolation

Virtual machines may be better if security and isolation are critical for your application. Virtual machines provide full isolation from the underlying host operating system, making it difficult for an attacker to access other virtual machines running on the same host. Containers, however, share the underlying host operating system, which could create a security risk.

Resource Utilization

Containers are more lightweight and efficient than virtual machines, making them ideal for running multiple applications on a single host. Virtual machines, on the other hand, require more resources than containers since they run a full copy of the operating system. If you need to run multiple applications on a single host and want to optimize resource utilization, containers may be the better choice.

See How You Can Achieve Zero Trust With ACE VDI


Using Containers and Virtual Machines Together in Desktop as a Service

Desktop as a Service (DaaS) is a cloud computing model that allows users to access virtual desktops from anywhere, using any device. While virtual machines have traditionally been used for DaaS, containers are also becoming popular.

By combining virtual machines and containers, DaaS can provide a better user experience while improving resource utilization and scalability.

Virtual machines provide a full Windows or Linux desktop experience, while containers deliver individual applications or services.

For example, a DaaS provider might use a virtual machine to provide a full Windows desktop environment with access to productivity tools such as Microsoft Office. Individual applications, such as a video conferencing tool or a customer relationship management (CRM) system, could then be delivered via containers.

Also Read: Benefits of Desktop as a Service (DaaS)

This hybrid approach offers several benefits. By using containers to deliver individual applications, DaaS providers can reduce the resource requirements of each virtual machine, allowing them to host more users on a single server. Containers also offer faster startup times and more efficient resource utilization than virtual machines, making them ideal for delivering individual applications.

As a leading provider of managed virtual desktop infrastructure, Ace Cloud Hosting offers a solution leveraging virtual machines and containers to provide a flexible and scalable DaaS solution.

With Ace Cloud Hosting’s solution, users can access a full Windows desktop environment while also being able to quickly launch and use individual applications as needed, with the benefits of both virtual machines and containers.

By using Ace Cloud Hosting’s managed virtual desktops, businesses can improve their productivity, enhance their security, and streamline their IT operations.

About Julie Watson

Julie is a dynamic professional with over 16 years of rich experience as a VDI and Application Hosting expert. At Ace Cloud Hosting, she humanizes disruptive and emerging remote working trends to help leaders discover new and better possibilities for digital transformation and innovation by using cloud solutions with an enterprise-class security approach. Beyond work, Julie is a passionate surfer.
On the weekend, you will find her hanging out with her family or surfing around the North Shore of Oahu.

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