Field Guide To Shipping Containers

In the 1950s, trucking magnate Malcom McLean changed the world when he got frustrated enough with the speed of trucking and traffic to start a commercial shipping company in order to move goods up and down the eastern seaboard a little faster. Within ten years, containers were standardized, and the first international container ship set sail in 1966. The cargo? Whisky for the U.S. and guns for Europe. What was once a slow and unreliable method of moving all kinds of whatever in barrels, bags, and boxes became a streamlined operation — one that now moves millions of identical containers full of unfathomable miscellany each year.

When I started writing this, there was a container ship stuck in the Suez canal that had been blocking it for days. Just like that, a vital passage became completely clogged, halting the shipping schedule of everything from oil and weapons to ESP8266 boards and high-waist jeans. The incident really highlights the fragility of the whole intermodal system and makes us wonder if anything will change.

A rainbow of dry storage containers. Image via xChange

Setting the Standard

We are all used to seeing the standard shipping container that’s either a 10′, 20′, or 40′ long box made of steel or aluminum with doors on one end. These are by far the most common type, and are probably what come to mind whenever shipping containers are mentioned.

These are called dry storage containers, and per ISO container standards, they are all 8′ wide and 8′ 6″ tall. There are also ‘high cube’ containers that are a foot taller, but otherwise share the same dimensions. Many of these containers end up as some type of housing, either as stylish studios, post-disaster survivalist shelters, or construction site offices. As the pandemic wears on, they have become so much in demand that prices have surged in the last few months.

Although Malcom McLean did not invent container shipping, the strict containerization standards that followed in his wake prevent issues during stacking, shipping, and storing, and allow any container to be handled safely at any port in the world, or load onto any rail car with ease. Every bit of the container is standardized, from the dimensions to the way the container’s information is displayed on the end. At most, the difference between any two otherwise identical containers is the number, the paint job, and maybe a few millimeters in one dimension.

Standard as they may be, these containers don’t work for every type of cargo. There are quite a few more types of shipping containers out there that serve different needs. Let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?

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Lightweight OS For Any Platform

Linux has come a long way from its roots, where users had to compile the kernel and all of the other source code from scratch, often without any internet connection at all to help with documentation. It was the wild west of Linux, and while we can all rely on an easy-to-install Ubuntu distribution if we need it, there are still distributions out there that require some discovery of those old roots. Meet SkiffOS, a lightweight Linux distribution which compiles on almost any hardware but also opens up a whole world of opportunity in containerization.

The operating system is intended to be able to compile itself on any Linux-compatible board (with some input) and yet still be lightweight. It can run on Raspberry Pis, Nvidia Jetsons, and x86 machines to name a few, and focuses on hosting containerized applications independent of the hardware it is installed on. One of the goals of this OS is to separate the hardware support from the applications, while being able to support real-time tasks such as applications in robotics. It also makes upgrading the base OS easy without disrupting the programs running in the containers, and of course has all of the other benefits of containerization as well.

It does seem like containerization is the way of the future, and while it has obviously been put to great use in web hosting and other network applications, it’s interesting to see it expand into a real-time arena. Presumably an approach like this would have many other applications as well since it isn’t hardware-specific, and we’re excited to see the future developments as people adopt this type of operating system for their specific needs.

Thanks to [Christian] for the tip!