Docker is a container infrastructure project facilitating the creation and execution of containers through the use of resource isolation features such as Linux’ cgroups and kernel namespaces.


An image is a self-contained executable package. A container is an instance of an image. The distinction is similar to an executable binary and process instances of it, except that an image is generally self-contained so that it doesn’t depend on system-wide dependencies, for example, and unlike a process, a container runs in a restricted environment 1 separate from the host system.

The advantage of containers is that they’re much lighter-weight and “native” than traditional virtualization, which incurs hardware virtualization, the hypervisor, and the operating system and its necessary processes.


A Dockerfile describes how to construct the image, the image dependencies that it should build on top of, ports and file systems that the host can map into, environment variables to define, and the command to run when the image is instantiated as a container.

# Use an official Python runtime as a parent image
FROM python:2.7-slim

# Set the working directory to /app

# Copy the current directory contents into the container at /app
ADD . /app

# Install any needed packages specified in requirements.txt
RUN pip install --trusted-host -r requirements.txt

# Make port 80 available to the world outside this container

# Define environment variable

# Run when the container launches
CMD ["python", ""]

A Dockerfile must begin with a FROM instruction indicating the base image from which the image builds. Specifically, FROM can only be preceded by one or more ARG instructions which themselves declare arguments used in the FROM lines.

Parser directives take the form # directive=value and must appear at the very top of the Dockerfile.

Environment variables can be expanded by referring to them as $env_var or ${env_var}, with the latter format supporting certain standard Bash modifiers:

  • ${var:-word} indicates to use word as the value if the variable isn’t set.
  • ${var:+word} indicates to use word as the value if the variable is set.

Note that word in the previous examples can itself be another environment variable.

A .dockerignore file can be used exclude files and directories from a resulting image, similar to .gitignore. This file can be made into a whitelist instead of a blacklist by starting with a * rule which excludes everything, then adding exceptions with the ! prefix.

Best Practices

Remember that most instructions add a new layer to the image, so it’s necessary to cleanup artifacts that aren’t needed before moving to the next layer.



FROM <image> [AS <name>]
FROM <image>[:<tag>] [AS <name>]
FROM <image>[@<digest>] [AS <name>]

The FROM instruction initializes a new build stage, setting the base image for subsequent instructions. It can appear multiple times in a single Dockerfile to create multiple images or use one build stage as a dependency for another. Each FROM instruction clears state created by previous instructions.

A build stage can be named by adding AS name to the FROM instruction, then the image built from that stage can be referred to by name in subsequent FROM or COPY --from instructions.

The ARG instruction can be used before any FROM instructions to declare variables that can be expanded and used by FROM instructions. Note that an ARG is outside of a build stage, so it can’t be used within one, i.e. after a FROM, unless explicitly requested by using the ARG instruction to refer to it.

CMD /code/run-app

CMD /code/run-extras

# Explicitly declare it within the build stage
RUN echo ${CODE_VERSION} > image_version


RUN <command>
RUN ["executable", "param1", "param2"]

The RUN instruction executes commands in a new layer on top of the current image, then commits the results, resulting in a committed image used for the next step.

Commands can be executed in an exec() form with an explicit array or with a system() shell form, which uses sh -c on Linux by default and cmd /S /C on Windows. The default shell can be changed with the SHELL command. The exec() form takes a JSON array, so elements require double quotes ".

A line continuation \ can be used to continue a single RUN instruction, causing multiple commands to contribute to a single committed image, as opposed to generating a separate image for each command in the RUN as would be the case if a separate RUN instruction were specified for each command.

When used to apt-get update, it should be combined with apt-get install in the same RUN statement to avoid caching issues, since the apt-get update command would not have changed even if subsequent apt-get install commands did. This is a form of cache-busting, which can also be done by version pinning.

Commands that use pipes and the system() shell form are considered successful as long as the final operation succeeds, regardless of the status of preceding operations. This can be overridden by prefixing set -o pipefail && to the command.


# Exec form
CMD ["executable","param1","param2"]

# Shell form
CMD command param1 param2

# Default arguments for ENTRYPOINT
CMD ["param1","param2"]

The CMD instruction’s main purpose is to provide defaults for the container’s executable and/or its arguments. When an executable is specified, it serves to set the command to be executed when running the image. If no executable is specified, then the image will also require an ENTRYPOINT instruction which does specify an executable. Any arguments specified by CMD are defaults and are automatically overridden when the user specifies any arguments to docker run.

There can only be one CMD instruction in a Dockerfile, so only the final CMD instruction will take effect.

Like RUN, the CMD instruction allows both exec() and system() forms.


LABEL <key>=<value> <key>=<value> <key>=<value> …

The LABEL instruction adds key-value metadata pairs to an image, in a format similar to environment variables. Double quotes " can be used to add spaces, and backslash \ can be used as line continuations to add newlines.

LABEL "com.example.vendor"="ACME Incorporated"
LABEL com.example.label-with-value="foo"
LABEL version="1.0"
LABEL description="This text illustrates \
that label-values can span multiple lines."

It used to be conventional to combine multiple labels into a single LABEL instruction, since each LABEL instruction resulted in a new layer prior to Docker 1.10.

An image’s labels can be viewed with the docker inspect command.


EXPOSE <port> [<port>/<protocol>…]

The EXPOSE function doesn’t actually publish a port, but rather serves as documentation and to inform Docker that the container listens on the specified ports. If no protocol is specified, TCP is assumed.

# Assume TCP


Ports are actually published once the container is run with the -p argument to the docker run command, or the -P argument to publish all exposed ports and map them to higher-order ports.


ENV <key> <value>
ENV <key>=<value> …

The ENV instruction sets an environment variable for use by all descendant instructions.

One form uses a space to separate the key from the value and only supports a single key-value pair, while the second form uses an equal sign = to separate keys from values and so supports multiple key-value pairs in one instruction.

An image’s environment variables can be viewed with the docker inspect command and overridden with the --env argument to the docker run command.

Note that it’s also possible to set an environment variable for the duration of a RUN command through the shell’s own functionality.

The ENV instruction can be used to update the PATH environment variable, to facilitate for example:

ENV PATH /usr/local/nginx/bin:${PATH}
CMD ["nginx"]


ADD <src>… <dest>
ADD ["<src>", … "<dest>"]

The ADD instruction copies files, directories, or remote file URLs from a source to a destination on the image’s filesystem. Each source may contain patterns. The destination path is either absolute or relative to the WORKDIR.

All new files and directories are created with a UID and GID or 0.


COPY <src>… <dest>
COPY ["<src>", … "<dest>"]

The COPY instruction copies files or directories from the specified sources to the specified destination path on the container’s filesystem. Each source may contain filename patterns. The destination path is either absolute or relative to the WORKDIR.

If the destination doesn’t exist, it is created along with any directories along its path.

If a source is a directory, all of its contents (not the directory itself) are copied including the filesystem metadata.

Sources must be descendants of the build’s context. It’s not possible to COPY something from an ancestor.

All new files and directories are created with a UID and GID or 0.

COPY accepts an optional --from=name|index argument that specifies a previous build stage from which to source the applies, either by specifying the name given to the build stage with AS <name> or explicitly specifying the build stage index. If a build stage with the specified name isn’t found, an image with the same name is attempted instead.

Carefully choose the granularity of COPY instructions so that the cache is only invalidated for certain files.


ENTRYPOINT ["executable", "param1", "param2"]
ENTRYPOINT command param1 param2

The ENTRYPOINT instruction can be used to specify the command to run when the container is executed. Additional arguments given to the docker run <image> command are appended after all elements of the exec() form, while the system() form completely prevents CMD or docker run arguments from being applied.

Note that the shell form executes the command as a subcommand sh -c, so the specified executable will not be the container’s PID 1 and will not receive Unix signals, so will not receive the SIGTERM signal from the docker stop command. One way to remedy this is to run it with exec.

The ENTRYPOINT instruction can be overridden with the --entrypoint argument to the docker run command, but only to set the binary to exec().

Only the final ENTRYPOINT instruction takes effect.

It may be useful to specify common “base” arguments through ENTRYPOINT and define additional arguments through CMD, which are more likely to be changed, since arguments to docker run append to those specified in ENTRYPOINT whereas they completely replace those specified in CMD.


VOLUME ["/data", ]
VOLUME /var/log /var/db …

The VOLUME instruction creates a mount point and marks it as holding externally mounted volumes from the native host or other containers. The host directory is specified at run-time.

Any data that already exists at the specified location is used to initialize the newly created volume. However, if any build steps change the data within the volume after it has been declared, the changes are discarded.


USER <user>[:<group>] or

The USER instruction sets the user name (or UID) and optionally the user group (or GID) to use when running the image and any RUN, CMD, and ENTRYPOINT instructions that follow it.

Note that if the user has not primary group then the root group is assumed.

If root privileges aren’t required, a user and group should be created and used. If privileges are required, use gosu.

RUN groupadd -r postgres && useradd --no-log-init -r -g postgres postgres


WORKDIR /absolute/path
WORKDIR relative/to/previous/workdir

The WORKDIR instruction sets the current directory for any RUN, CMD, ENTRYPOINT, COPY, and ADD instructions that follow. It is created if it doesn’t exist, even if it’s not used in any subsequent instructions.

Environment variables can be expanded but only those explicitly set with the ENV instruction.

Relative paths are relative to the previously-set WORKDIR, which can be confusing and difficult to track, so absolute paths are preferred.


ARG <name>[=<default value>]

The ARG instruction can define a variable that users pass at build-time with the --build-arg <name>=<value> argument to the docker build command.

Note that these build-time variables should not be used for secrets since they are visible to any user of the image with the docker history command.

The cache is invalidated when a build-time variable is given a different value from the previous build. All RUN instructions have an implicit dependency on preceding ARG variables, which may trigger cache invalidation.

Environment variables defined with the ENV instruction always override an ARG declaration of the same name.

An ARG declaration is scoped to its current build stage, and so goes out of scope at the end of it.

The ARG instruction can be viewed as a directive to bring the command-line argument into scope, with an optional default value in case there is no command-line argument. This explains why the variable is empty unless the ARG declaration exists for it in the current scope, and why each build stage that requires access to the variable needs to explicitly declare it by repeating the ARG declaration.

FROM busybox
RUN ./run/setup ${SETTINGS}

FROM busybox
RUN ./run/other ${SETTINGS}

Since environment variables are always persisted into the image, a build-time variable can be used to allow build-time overriding of environment variables that are persisted into the image.

FROM ubuntu

# Allow build-time overriding with --build-arg=

# Create environment variable of the same name, seeded with the build-time
# variable if any exists, or the default value "v1.0.0"


Docker pre-defines a certain number of build-time variables, mainly relating to proxies, such as HTTP_PROXY.



The ONBUILD instruction can register any another instruction to trigger and execute when the image is used as a base for another build. The trigger executes in the context of the downstream build which is using this image as a base, as if it had been inserted immediately after the FROM instruction which references this image.



The STOPSIGNAL instruction is used to specify the signal to send to the container to have it exit. This can be a number corresponding to the signal or the signal name such as SIGKILL.



# Disable any inherited health checks

The HEALTHCHECK instruction tells Docker how to check that the container is still working. The command can be in exec() or system() form. The expected exit status of the health check command are:

  1. success: the container is healthy and usable
  2. unhealthy: the container isn’t working correctly
  3. reserved; don’t use this exit code

The command’s stdout and stderr are stored in the health status which can be queried with the docker inspect command.

Containers with a health check specified gains a health status which begins as starting and transitions to healthy whenever a health check passes. After a certain number of consecutive failures it becomes unhealthy.

The HEALTHCHECK instruction allows a set of options:

Option Default
--interval 30s
--timeout 30s
--start-period 0s
--retries 3

The first health check runs --interval seconds after the container is started and on every such interval after a health check completes.

A health check is considered failed if it takes longer than --timeout seconds to complete.

A container is considered unhealthy if it suffers --retries consecutive failures.

The --start-period is a grace period from the container’s time of initialization to allow it time to fully start up, during which health check failures are not counted toward the maximum number of retries, until the first health check success.

Only the final HEALTHCHECK takes effect.


The SHELL instruction can be used to specify the shell command to use for the system() form of commands. The default on Linux is ["/bin/sh", "-c"] and on Windows is ["cmd", "/S", "/C"].

The SHELL instruction can appear multiple times in the same Dockerfile and affects all subsequent instructions.


A Dockerfile can be built into a Docker image with the docker build command. The image is built in a particular context, such as the current directory ., and the file named Dockerfile at the root of that context is used by default, unless one is explicitly specified with the -f argument.

The entire recursive context is sent to the Docker daemon as the build context, potentially sending files that aren’t necessary for building the image, unnecessarily increasing the image size. This can be remedied with a .dockerignore file.

Docker images are usually tagged with the -t argument, which can be provided multiple times to facilitate readjusting the latest tag, for example.

$ docker build -t myimage .

The instructions in the Dockerfile are run sequentially and independently by the Docker daemon, committing the result of each one to a new image if necessary, then outputting the ID of the resulting image.

Note that since each instruction is run in isolation, a RUN cd /tmp command will not affect subsequent instructions.

Image Cache

Each instruction is examined by Docker to determine if an existing image in the cache can be reused, in the following manner:

  1. Starting with the cached parent image, compare the next instruction against all images derived from that base image to see if any of them was built with the exact same instruction. Otherwise invalidate the cache.
  2. For ADD and COPY, checksums are calculated for all of the files and the cache is invalidated if there are any discrepancies.
  3. Cache checking doesn’t check files from any other commands, such as RUN apt-get -y update, instead the command string itself is compared.

On cache invalidation, all subsequent commands generate new images.

Multi-Stage Builds

It can be useful to build artifacts within a container environment, but the build environment and other build artifacts can end up unnecessarily bloating the resulting image even though only the resulting binary may be needed.

One way to accomplish this would be to create a separate “build” image then use something like docker cp to extract the resulting binary from it into the actual “production” image.

The newer and more natural manner of accomplishing this is to use multi-stage builds, which simply consists of using multiple FROM instructions to begin new stages of the build and copying any necessary artifacts from previous build stages.

# First build stage builds the binary.
# This brings in package source and build-dependencies which won't
# be needed in the final image.
FROM golang:1.7.3 AS builder
WORKDIR /go/src/
RUN go get -d -v
COPY app.go .
RUN CGO_ENABLED=0 GOOS=linux go build -a -installsuffix cgo -o app .

# Create new build stage.
# Copy only the built binary from the first stage, discarding source
# and build-dependencies.
FROM alpine:latest
RUN apk --no-cache add ca-certificates
WORKDIR /root/
COPY --from=builder /go/src/ .

CMD ["./app"]


Images can be tagged at build-time with the -t argument to build or by using the docker tag command.

Tag names generally consist of three components: repository, name, and version.


For example:


When the :version component is missing, most Docker commands assume :latest.

In order to push an image to a private repository (i.e. not the central Docker registry), it must be tagged with the registry hostname and port.

Tags for associating a local image with a repository on a registry follow a similar format:



A container can be run with the docker run command. The -p argument can be used to map a host port into an exposed container port.

$ docker run -p 4000:80 myimage

The container is run in the foreground unless the -d argument is passed to instruct it to run in detached mode.

All containers running on the host can be listed with the docker container ls command.

A container can be stopped with the docker container stop :id command.

An image on a remote repository can be run by simply referring to it by its remote tag name, and Docker automatically handles obtaining any locally-missing images.

$ docker run -p 4000:80 user/repo:tag

By default, a container’s hostname is set to the container’s ID.


Images can be published to a registry, such as the default Docker registry.

Images should be tagged with the docker tag command with the user/repo:tag format.

$ docker tag myimage blaenk/get-started:part2

The images are then pushed with the docker push command.

$ docker push blaenk/get-started:part2


Active processes can be listed with the docker ps command.

Images in the local Docker image registry can be listed with the docker images command.

The docker attach command can be used to attach to a container’s stdout. It can then be detached with CTRL + p CTRL + q, otherwise the interrupt CTRL + c would propagate that signal to the running program, stopping the container.


Starting a container with a volume that doesn’t exist causes Docker to create it. If the container’s destination directory contains files and folders, they are copied into the volume before the volume is mounted.

Volumes can be created and managed outside the scope of any container.

$ docker volume create my-vol
$ docker volume ls

local               my-vol

$ docker volume inspect my-vol
        "Driver": "local",
        "Labels": {},
        "Mountpoint": "/var/lib/docker/volumes/my-vol/_data",
        "Name": "my-vol",
        "Options": {},
        "Scope": "local"

$ docker volume rm my-vol

If a container generates non-persistent state data it should use a tmpfs mount to avoid storing data permanently and avoid writing into the container’s writable layer, which has performance issues.


Docker’s installation creates three default networks: bridge, none, and host. A container can use the --network argument to specify which network to use.

The bridge network represents the docker0 network present in all Docker installations, which is used by containers by default. This network is visible on the host:

$ ip addr show

docker0   Link encap:Ethernet  HWaddr 02:42:47:bc:3a:eb
          inet addr:  Bcast:  Mask:
          inet6 addr: fe80::42:47ff:febc:3aeb/64 Scope:Link
          RX packets:17 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:8 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:0
          RX bytes:1100 (1.1 KB)  TX bytes:648 (648.0 B)

The none network uses a container-specific network stack which lacks a network interface.

$ docker attach nonenetcontainer

root@0cb243cd1293:/# cat /etc/hosts   localhost
::1         localhost ip6-localhost ip6-loopback
fe00::0     ip6-localnet
ff00::0     ip6-mcastprefix
ff02::1     ip6-allnodes
ff02::2     ip6-allrouters

root@0cb243cd1293:/# ip -4 addr
1: lo: <LOOPBACK,UP,LOWER_UP> mtu 65536 qdisc noqueue qlen 1
    inet scope host lo
       valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever


The host network adds a container on the host’s network stack, so that there is no isolation between the host and the container in terms of the network, meaning that a container’s server on port 80 is available on port 80 on the host machine.

User-Defined Networks

Containers on the bridge network can communicate with each other through their IP addresses, although Docker doesn’t support automatic service discovery. It’s possible to use a user-defined network to allow containers to resolve to their IP address by container name.

User-defined networks can be used to control which containers can communicate with each other and to enable automatic DNS resolution of container names to IP addresses. Any number of networks can be created and a container can connect to zero or more of them at any given time, and this connection or disconnection can occur at container run-time without restarting. When a container is connected to multiple networks, external connectivity is determined by the first non-internal network in lexicographical order.

A bridged network can be created and a container can connect to it.

The network isolates containers from external networks but containers can expose and publish ports to make a portion of the bridge network available externally.

$ docker network create --driver bridge isolated_nw


$ docker run --network=isolated_nw -itd --name=container3 busybox


The docker_gwbridge network is a local bridge network that is automatically created and used when initializing or joining a swarm or when none of a container’s networks can provide external connectivity.

An overlay network can be created on a manager node running in swarm mode, and the swarm automatically extends the overlay network to nodes that require it for a service.

The Docker daemon runs an embedded DNS server that resolves container names of containers connected to the same user-defined network. If it’s unable to resolve a name, it forwards it to any external DNS servers configured for the container. This embedded DNS server at is listed in the container’s resolv.conf file.

Docker Compose

Docker Compose is a tool that can be used to define and run multi-container Docker applications.

The following Compose file will:

  • pull the specified image
  • run 5 containers of that image as a service named web, limiting each to 10% CPU and 50 MB RAM
  • automatically restart failed containers
  • map host port 80 to web’s port 80
  • have web’s containers share port 80 through a load-balanced network named webnet
  • define webnet load-balanced overlay network
version: "3"
    # replace username/repo:tag with your name and image details
    image: username/repo:tag
      replicas: 5
          cpus: "0.1"
          memory: 50M
        condition: on-failure
      - "80:80"
      - webnet

This application can be run by first initializing the swarm:

$ docker swarm init

Then a service stack can be instanced from the Compose file which we name getstartedlab:

$ docker stack deploy -c docker-compose.yml getstartedlab

A single container running in a service is called a task, and each is given a unique numerically sequential ID, up to the number of replicas specified in the Compose file.

The number of replicas can be changed in the Compose file and the service redeployed without first having to tear the stack down first or kill containers.

Everything can be shut down as follows:

# Take down stack
$ docker stack rm getstartedlab

# Take down the swarm
$ docker swarm leave --force

It’s also possible to use the docker-compose program to simplify this process. The -d argument can be passed to the up sub-command to detach from it, in which case it can be stopped with docker-compose stop. The down sub-command can take a --volumes argument which causes it to also remove the volumes.

# Bring it up.
$ docker-compose up

# Tear it down.
$ docker-compose down

The docker-compose run <service> <cmd> command can be used to run a command in the context of a service.


A Docker swarm is a group of machines running Docker that are joined into a cluster. After joining a swarm, machines are referred to as nodes. Docker commands can continue to be entered, but they’re executed on a cluster by a swarm manager. Only swarm managers can execute commands or authorize other machines to join the swarm as workers, which simply provide capacity and do not have authority to command other machines.

Swarm managers can use various strategies to run containers, such as running it on the least utilized machine, which can be specified in the Compose file.

  1. Note that this restricted environment doesn’t necessarily imply security. A container is not necessarily a secure sandbox. ↩︎

November 20, 2017
329ce08 — May 23, 2024