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Docker

Top 12 Most Useful Docker Alternatives for 2024 [List]

Docker Alternatives

Docker is the most popular developer-oriented containerization platform. It makes it easy to build, run, and share containers that package software into sandboxed environments that have their own filesystem.

In this round-up, we’ll explore 12 Docker alternatives that give you more choices for building and deploying containers.

Should you use Docker in 2024?

In 2024, Docker isn’t your only option for working with containers. Selecting an alternative tool can help you address Docker shortcomings, improve suitability for specific scenarios, and increase parity in how you manage containers across your environments. For example, you might want to avoid running the Docker daemon on your hosts or prefer to use the same container technology in development and production.

Some options mentioned in this article are fully-featured Docker competitors that can act as drop-in replacements, while others are designed to enhance certain parts of the container ecosystem—such as building container images or simplifying operations.

Can you use containers without Docker?

Docker popularized the container movement, and for many it remains synonymous with the “container” term. But nowadays, Docker is just one tool in the container space.

Container fundamentals are standardized by the Open Container Initiative (OCI). OCI-compatible tools—of which Docker is one example—implement agreed specifications that define the functionality of container images and runtimes. Images created with Docker can therefore be used with any other OCI system, and vice versa.

Hence, you no longer need Docker to engage with containers. If you choose to use an alternative platform, then you’re still able to work with existing container content, including the images available in popular registries like Docker Hub. We’ll note which tools are OCI-compatible in the Docker alternatives list below.

Top Docker alternatives

Ready to take a tour of your containerization options? Here are 12 tools you can use, although this is far from being an exhaustive list. We’ve selected options that cover a variety of common use cases and features.

Best Docker alternatives include:

  1. Podman
  2. containerd and nerdctl
  3. LXC
  4. runc
  5. Rancher Desktop
  6. Kubernetes
  7. Red Hat OpenShift
  8. Hyper-V Containers
  9. Buildah
  10. OrbStack
  11. Virtual Machines
  12. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) Solutions

1. Podman

Podman is an open tool for working with containers and images. It’s fully OCI-compliant and can act as a fully-fledged Docker replacement. It works on Windows, macOS, and Linux.

docker desktop alternatives

Unlike Docker, Podman uses a daemonless architecture. This means there’s no extra background process running on your hosts, which can improve performance and reduce your attack surface.

Podman’s CLI is Docker-compatible; most commands can be converted by simply replacing docker with podman, such as podman ps and podman run instead of docker ps and docker run. Podman also has a graphical desktop app, Podman Desktop, which is an open-source alternative to Docker Desktop. It makes it easier to manage your container resources without learning complex commands.

2. containerd and nerdctl

containerd is a daemon-based OCI-compliant container runtime maintained by the CNCF. It’s the default runtime that’s used by Docker, as well as other technologies such as Kubernetes. If you don’t want Docker, then you can manually install containerd as a standalone runtime. The Nerdctl CLI—available as a separate install—can then be used to interact with containerd so you can build and run containers.

docker alternatives for mac

Nerdctl is deliberately designed to be fully Docker-compatible. Docker commands can be directly translated to their Nerdctl counterparts by simply replacing docker with nerdctl—try nerdctl build instead of docker build, for example. Docker Compose commands are supported too.

Setting up containerd and nerdctl is slightly more complex than just using Docker. However, this approach gives you more control over your container stack: you can easily replace the containerd runtime or nerdctl CLI in the future if you need to. It also allows you to access new containerd features that haven’t yet made it into Docker.

3. LXC

Linux Containers (LXC) is an OS-level containerization solution that’s integrated into Linux. They sit between full virtualization and the lightweight application containers provided by OCI tools like Docker.

alternatives to docker desktop

LXC containers are system containers that include a full operating system. Within the container, you can install any software workload that you need. Once a container has been created, it persists on your machine for as long as it’s needed. The management experience is similar to a traditional virtual machine.

In comparison, application or process containerization tools like Docker focus on running a single process within an ephemeral environment. Containers have one task, are short-lived, and exit once their job is done. This model suits many modern development and cloud deployment tasks but can be limiting for more complex software.

You might want to use LXC instead of Docker if you must run multiple workloads in your containers, require greater access to the container operating system, or prefer to use VM-like administration techniques. LXC doesn’t directly support OCI containers, but it is possible to create an LXC container from an OCI image, using a specialized template.

4. runc

runc is an OCI-compliant container runtime that includes a CLI for starting new containers on your host. It’s a lightweight tool, focused on providing the bare essentials for spawning containers.

runc is most commonly included as a low-level component of other container technologies. containerd—a comparatively high-level tool that manages entire container lifecycles—uses runc to actually create container environments, for example.

Nonetheless, it’s possible to use runc to start containers via your own scripts and tooling. It lets you assemble custom container infrastructure without having to directly interact with the Linux kernel features that enable containerization (including cgroups, chroots, and namespaces).

5. Rancher Desktop

Rancher Desktop is an open-source desktop-based solution for working with containers. It’s a developer-oriented tool akin to Docker Desktop but without a commercial license.

docker alternatives windows

Rancher Desktop bundles a complete set of tools from across the container ecosystem. This includes the Docker daemon (although you can use containerd directly instead), Kubernetes cluster support, and accompanying CLIs such as nerdctl and kubectl.

As an all-in-one solution, Rancher Desktop is, therefore, a great option for end-to-end container management on developer workstations. It makes it easier to interact with containers through its accessible interfaces and dashboards. It’s also simple to switch between different Kubernetes versions, which can help you conveniently test upgrades before migrating production environments.

6. Kubernetes

Kubernetes (often abbreviated as K8s) is the most popular container orchestration solution. It automates the process of deploying, managing, and scaling container workloads across physical hosts, including automatic high availability and fault tolerance.

See the detailed Docker vs. Kubernetes comparison.

docker alternatives for kubernetes

As an OCI-compatible tool, Kubernetes can deploy container images built elsewhere, such as those created using a local Docker installation. K8s environments are termed clusters—a collection of physical hosts (“nodes”)—and are administered using the dedicated Kubectl CLI.

Kubernetes is ideal for running containers in production environments that demand strong reliability and scalability. Many teams also use K8s locally, as part of their development workflow, to ensure consistency between dev and prod environments. You can provision managed Kubernetes clusters from major cloud providers or use tools such as Minikube, MicroK8s, and K3s to quickly start your own cluster on your machine.

We encourage you to also explore how Spacelift can help you manage the complexities and compliance challenges of using Kubernetes. It brings with it a GitOps flow, so your Kubernetes Deployments are synced with your Kubernetes Stacks, and pull requests show you a preview of what they’re planning to change. It also has an extensive selection of policies, which lets you automate compliance checks and build complex multi-stack workflows.

Spacelift also offers full flexibility when it comes to customizing your workflow. You can bring your own Docker image and using it as a runner to speed up the deployments that leverage third-party tools. Spacelift’s official runner image can be found here.

If you want to learn more about Spacelift, create a free account today or book a demo with one of our engineers.

7. Red Hat OpenShift

Red Hat OpenShift is a platform for building and deploying cloud applications. Within OpenShift, the Container Platform component specifically accommodates containerized systems within a managed Kubernetes experience.

free docker alternatives

OpenShift is a commercial solution that’s positioned as a container Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). It’s often used by large organizations where multiple teams deploy a large number of diverse workloads, without necessarily understanding low-level details about containers and Kubernetes.

The platform provides a foundational experience for operating containers in production. It incorporates guardrails such as automated upgrades and centralized policy management that let you maintain reliability, security, and governance for your containers while demanding minimal manual administration.

See the OpenShift vs Kubernetes comparison.

8. Hyper-V Containers

Windows containers are a Windows Server technology for packaging and running Windows and Linux containers on Windows hosts. Windows containers can be used with Docker and other tools on Windows systems, but you can’t run a Windows container on a Linux machine.

You’ll need to use Windows containers when you’re containerizing a Windows app. Microsoft provides a selection of base images that provide Windows, Windows Server, and .NET Core operating system layers and APIs for your app to use.

You can opt-in to  using Hyper-V Containers as an operating mode for Windows containers. This provides strengthened isolation by running containers within their own Hyper-V virtual machines. Each Hyper-V VM uses its own copy of the Windows kernel to provide hardware-level separation.

Hyper-V containers require a Windows host with Hyper-V enabled. Choosing to use Hyper-V isolated containers provides enhanced security and improved performance tuning for your Windows workloads, compared to the regular process-isolated containers that are created when container tools are used with their default settings. Memory can be dedicated to your Hyper-V VMs, for example, enabling precise distribution of resources between your host and containers.

9. Buildah

Buildah is a tool that specifically facilitates building OCI-compliant container images. It doesn’t include any features for actually running containers.

alternatives for docker

Buildah is ideal as a lightweight solution for creating and managing images. You can easily use it within your own tooling as it’s daemonless and provides a simple CLI. You could also use Buildah to directly interact with OCI images, such as to modify them by adding additional content or running extra commands.

Images can be assembled using an existing Dockerfile or by running CLI commands. Buildah also lets you mount filesystems created by the build process to your host, enabling you to easily inspect output image content.

10. OrbStack

OrbStack is a macOS-only replacement for Docker Desktop. It’s specifically engineered to be faster and more lightweight than Docker’s solution.

docker alternatives macos

OrbStack is an ideal choice as a Docker alternative for macOS users who are regularly working with containers. Because it’s specifically built for macOS, it integrates neatly with the platform and offers full support for all containerization features—volume bind mounts, networking subsystem, and x86 Rosetta emulation included.

Support for Docker Compose and Kubernetes is available too, ensuring OrbStack can replicate all Docker Desktop workflows. A fully-featured CLI is supported alongside the desktop app, in addition to file sharing and remote SSH development features. OrbStack is a proprietary commercial product but it’s free for personal use.

11. Virtual Machines

In some situations, you might find containers simply aren’t the right fit. Traditional virtual machines created in a tool like KVM, VMware Workstation, or VirtualBox can be more appropriate when you require the most robust security, hardware-level isolation, and persistent environments that you can move between physical hosts without any modification or reconfiguration.

Virtualization also allows you to provision multiple operating systems on one physical host. If you’re running Linux servers but need to deploy a Windows-only app, then containerization won’t be possible, as Windows containers can’t run on Linux. Provisioning a virtual machine instead allows you to continue reusing your existing hardware.

12. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) Solutions

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions such as Heroku, AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and Google App Engine are a final option for deploying and operating containers in the cloud with a hands-off approach. These services can automatically build your source code into a container, providing a fully managed environment that lets you stay focused on development.

kubernetes docker alternatives

Using a PaaS removes the complexity of having to install and maintain Docker or another container solution before you can deploy your workloads. This helps you innovate faster without the overheads of configuring your own infrastructure. It also makes deployments more accessible to all engineers, including those without specialized container skills.

docker podman alternatives

However, PaaS solutions can be difficult to customize and they create a risk of vendor lock-in. A PaaS helps you get off the ground quickly, but it can prove limiting as your service develops unique operating requirements. It can also lead to disparities between how services are developed locally—possibly still requiring Docker—and how they’re run in production.

Key points

The containerization space is diverse and growing. Docker remains a popular choice for building and running containers, but it’s far from being your only option, as we’ve seen from the list of alternatives above.

The solution to choose inevitably depends on your use case and the combination of features you’re looking for. If you want a drop-in replacement for Docker that’s fully open-source, then you should look at Podman. However, if you’re growing beyond Docker and want an easier way to operate containers in production, then Kubernetes or a PaaS solution are likely to provide the best flexibility for easily automating and scaling deployments.

When working with containers, remember that some best practices apply whether you’re using Docker or a different tool. You need to properly configure your Dockerfiles for performant, reliable, and secure builds, for example, then scan for vulnerabilities, access control issues, and other issues in your live container environments. This will ensure you can benefit from the versatility of containerized deployments while staying protected from threats.

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