Belt & Suspenders: Why put a .pex file inside a Docker container?

Recently I have been talking about deploying Python, and some people had the reasonable question: if a .pex file is used for isolating dependencies, and a Docker container is used for isolating dependencies, why use both? Isn’t it redundant?

Why use containers?

I really like glyph’s explanation for containers: they isolate not just the filesystem stack but the processes and the network, giving a lot of the power that UNIX was supposed to give but missed out on. Containers isolate the file system, making it easier for code to write/read files from known locations. For example, its log files will be carefully segregated, and can be moved to arbitrary places by the operator without touching the code.

The other part is that none of the reasonable options packages Python and this means that a pex file would still have to be tested with multiple Pythons, and perhaps do some checking at start-up that it is using the right interpreter. If PyPy is the right choice, it is the choice the operator would have to make and implement.

Why use pex?

Containers are an easy sell. They are right on the hype train. But if we use containers, what use is pex?

In order to explain, it is worthwhile comparing a correctly built runtime container that is not using pex, with one that is: (parts that are not relevant have been removed)

ADD wheelhouse /wheelhouse
RUN . /appenv/bin/activate; \
    pip install --no-index -f wheelhouse DeployMe
COPY twist.pex /

Note that in the first option, we are left with extra gunk in the /wheelhouse directory. Note also that we still have to have pip and virtualenv installed in the runtime container. Pex files bring the double-dutch philosophy to its logical conclusion: do even more of the build on the builder side, do even less of it on the runtime side.

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