Intel takes on CoreOS with its own container-based Linux

Clear Linux, Intel's new container-based distribution, bristles with ideas for how to run containers and perform OS management

Intel takes on CoreOS with its own container-based Linux
Credit: flickr/Jonas Smith

Once upon a time, it was fair game for most any company to put out a Linux distribution and be described as "committed to Linux." Now the same is happening with container-based Linux distributions, such as CoreOS or Red Hat Atomic Host.

Enter the next contestant: Intel. The CPU giant has announced a container-oriented OS project, the Clear Linux Project for Intel Architecture.

The name alone is a giveaway that the project serves as a showcase for Intel's hardware acceleration technologies for virtualization. That aside, most of Intel's goal with Clear Linux is directly reminiscent of what CoreOS and the rest are doing: Use a combination of containers and kernel-native features in Linux to create an OS suited to a modern, modular, service-oriented data center.

In a detailed article at, Intel engineer Arjan van de Ven described Intel's aim to build a container system "where one can use the isolation of virtual-machine technology along with the deployment benefits of containers."

The resulting system, Clear Containers, uses Linux's kernel-native KVM hypervisor, but runs it in such a way that it avoids most of the startup time overhead typically associated with spinning up a KVM instance. Intel also claims it can leverage systemd and a few kernel-level memory-organization tricks to slim down and speed up the process even further.

Other aspects of Clear Linux also hearken back to CoreOS's roots in not only containers, but also system management. Instead of delivering system software as a slew of hundreds of individually updatable packages, each edition of Clear Linux -- including all of its bundled software -- is delivered as a single monolithic unit. Intel says this as an advantage: "With the Clear Linux OS, there is one single number that is sufficient to describe the versions of the software on the server."

That said, any updates pushed to the system are done via a binary-delta technology, so updates to a given version only contain changes, not an entire new copy of Clear Linux. (Updates can also be applied to a snapshot and booted separately, as a safety measure.)

Clear Linux makes no bones about being experimental and maverick, although Intel has already provided notes toward using the system in production -- such as part of an OpenStack setup. It's unlikely that Intel expects Clear Linux to be adopted rapidly into production in the way CoreOS has been, but rather to serve as a way to demonstrate individual OS technologies that could be re-implemented elsewhere.

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