Have You Met Docker's Older Cousin Vagrant?

The technology industry has long accepted virtualization as a great idea, but it’s important to use the right tool for the job.

Containers as a virtualization approach have grown in popularity from a niche Unix concept to widespread use in the form of tools like Docker. Cloud computing makes it easy to load our software into prepackaged virtual environments that can pop in and out of existence as needed, which helps with everything from load balancing on a live production server to testing software against the experimental branch of our favorite libraries. Containers work really well for these examples. However, containers are not always the best tool for the job; sometimes a different virtualization tool is helpful. Virtual machines are another option, and Vagrant is an excellent choice.

In the words of Vagrant creator Mitchell Hashimoto, "Vagrant is for managing development environments." It doesn't get as much press as its cousin Docker, but Vagrant can make your job easier when correctly applied. It creates a fully encapsulated development environment useful in many different situations, such as aligning a team around a single development environment or performing a test update of a production website.

There are times when using Vagrant makes more sense than using Docker. My small team is currently developing a web application. When we first started, we were developing our software within a VirtualBox file we copied and shared across the team. It contained our application files (which we could refresh from a Bitbucket account) as well as a server environment similar to the one in which the app would be running. Whenever we changed something in our box, we had to communicate exactly what we did to all team members so each of us could update our own virtual machine instance. Our fallback option was to create a new virtual machine file to share across the network. While this got the job done, trading VirtualBox files and configuration instructions is one of those things a team only does when "kicking the tires" on a new project before switching to a more permanent solution.

Vagrant provides a much cleaner way to solve the inefficiencies we experienced. A single Vagrant text file and the Bash command "vagrant up" can produce an exact virtual copy of an application development environment. Just add some settings and tie it to a shell script or an automation solution to quickly get it going.

We added a similar setup to our own app repository. Now, the entire team can easily work against the same server configuration, and if that configuration changes, we just update the Vagrant file and the team can quickly provision a new box. This approach saves time and reduces human-based error.

From the viewpoint of a software developer, just one or two Bash commands are needed to use Vagrant. Vagrant setup is completely abstracted away, which is nice because many developers want the provisioning details to be a footnote in the development process. Behind the scenes a Unix shell script installs exactly the software that is needed, updates the application database to the latest schema, and starts a server daemon so the software runs once Vagrant cranks up. A developer on the project can pop open a browser and go to something like "http://localhost:1234" to find the running application without any knowledge of how the magic happens. Since Vagrant can share files between the host and guest machines, everyone can use whichever development tools are desired to get work done in the host while the guest runs the server and the application. Vagrant makes life so much easier.

There are other use cases I could share in which Vagrant is a great choice, but the key point is virtualization encompasses more than just containers. While a container is a valuable tool, it can be a hammer when you really need a saw. A virtual machine solution like Vagrant can be that saw.