Emil Lerch

Husband, Father, Technologist, Cloud Architect



I recently saw a notice on Hacker News talking about KraftCloud. I’ve seen previous news about UniKraft and Unikernels in general and have more than a passing interest in the technology. This news item had me take another look at the state of the technology, and what I learned was interesting.

What is a Unikernel?

Typically, an application runs on an operating system, which runs on hardware. Sometimes, the operating system is running in a virtual machine, which is supplied by another operating system (called a hypervisor), running on hardware. Sometimes, the application is running in a container on and operating system. Sometimes, containers and/or virtual machines can be nested. It all makes sense based on what you need to do, but this can get confusing, and is often unnecessary. For example, if I want a server that runs a microservice and calls other microservices, do I really need a full operating system that has everything needed to run the latest AAA game while watching streaming video and chatting with my friends? By eliminating everything besides what we need to run my microservice, we gain a lot:

  • Less storage for the operating system, application, and dependencies
  • Less memory usage as we lose all the stuff loaded “just in case”
  • Less CPU as we don’t have services we don’t need
  • Less attack surface for attackers to leverage
  • Faster initialization (boot)
  • Immutable deployment
  • Performance through the ability to tailor the OS to the needs of the application

We can achieve these benefits in a few ways:

  • Smaller docker images
  • Stripped down operating systems
  • Minimalistic hypervisors

But, there’s another way. What if we build our application directly into our operating system? This takes minimalism to the extreme, or logical confusion, depending on your view. This idea has been around since the mid-90’s, but the term “Unikernel” appears to have been coined in a 2013 paper.

Current Landscape

Since 2013, several research projects have been created around Unikernels. A good list can be found on GitHub. You’ll notice that on each kernel has a specific set of languages supported. This is a major drawback to most Unikernels (yes…that’s foreshadowing). Since the application is literally compiled with the kernel, the kernel and the application must be built together, at the same time, with a common set of tools. Typically, the languages are fairly low level, primarily because Unikernels must be written in languages that can speak to “hardware” (where hardware might be a virtual machine provided by KVM, Xen, VirtualBox, Hyper-V).

In my opinion, this has been the major drawback that has kept Unikernels in a niche space. Something for me personally to keep an eye on, but not a technology to get excited about.

When I started to revisit the topic of Unikernels when this news from Unikraft was announced, I took a peek, and noticed they are supporting “any” docker application with their Unikernel. How does this work, if the application is immutably bundled with the kernel?

I took a look, and there are three major Unikernel projects all trying to solve the developer experience and operational experience for Unikernels. OSv was first announced in 2014, took a break from 2015-2018, and has been active since. Nanos and Unikraft trace their roots back to 2017. All three have this magical ability to run multiple languages…so what gives?

Enter Docker

Docker has become enormously popular since its launch in 2013. Developers and operations appreciated the benefits of reproducibility and immutability of docker images. But Docker was interested in creating an open and level playing field, and eventually standardized, in 2017, the format used to create docker images. So, the industry had a standard format for reproducible images that could be used for Unikernels, and Docker also reinforced the trend toward Linux-based microservices.

Without talking to the people on these projects, my assumption is that, in 2017, a few folks had the idea to build a Unikernel with a standard application. That application’s responsibility would be to load and run Linux binaries. Linux binaries use a standard ELF binary format, access the kernel through a standardized set of syscalls, and with OCI, have a standard way of packaging the binaries.

All three have gone down this path, and in 2020, unikernels were split, from a taxonomy perspective, into “Language-based unikernels” and “POSIX-like unikernels”. Evenutally, researchers have said, “rather than create a Unikernel from the ground up with Linux support, why don’t we strip down Linux instead?”. Thus was born, in May 2023, the UniKernel Linux project. I could not find boot time measurements for this project, but the Firecracker project claims to have a custom linux kernel booting in 125ms. I’m a bit skeptical of the UKL’s project ability to compete on that particular metric as Unikraft, for example, claims boots in 6ms. My personal observations on Unikraft are that 6ms is, in fact, about correct.

Why, though, is it important to boot your machine this quickly? Well, the primary thing for me is that 119ms, or the difference between boot times between optimized Linux and, in this case, Unikraft, is also the difference between providing a microservice that needs to run 100% of the time and one that can simply boot up, serve a request, and then shut down completely…


All three of what I consider to be the major players in the Unikernel space offer the same features. All provide Linux binary support with an orchestrator that provides someone with a CLI that feels like docker. Compiling a native application (one that does not use the ELF loader and Linux syscall emulation) is left for the truly daring in each. OSv and Nanos do not provide directions for this at all, and while Unikraft does, I was unable to get a functional kernel on my machine, which was probably the same issue as reported here. Of the three, I’m most excited about Unikraft, for a few reasons:

  1. They have a commercial business in the making, based on the core Unikernel technology. They need the open source kernel fast, compatible, and developer friendly to succeed. They have VC funding to pay people to make this happen, in addition to the open source community. The primary backer of Nanos sells command and control. The primary backer of OSv sells…nothing at the moment?
  2. It seems like they have had a lot more momentum then the others.
  3. They are still open to native apps, and their Linux binary support is actually a separate repo from the core.

On their commercial offering, I joined the beta, and I’m impressed. The performance was as advertised, the developer experience was great, and the “scale to zero” works well. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but “scale to zero” should also work with non-HTTP connections. Their documentation describes what is effectively a load balancer in front of your unikernel deployments, so a service is always there to listen for new connections and trigger your unikernel.

Is it ready to use? I would say no, not yet, at least not in a general sense. The idea here is to have Linux binaries “just work”, and without support for the fork() system call, we get pretty limited. If you craft your binary with the assumption of working in Unikraft, then yes. But that’s not their goal, and it really shouldn’t be ours. While I can’t find it on Unikraft’s roadmap, one of their core team has stated that fork is coming soon. I know I will be watching this space closely.