Getting Started with Docker

Mar 20, 2014

What is Docker?

Docker is a Container.

While a Virtual Machine is a whole other guest computer running on top of your host computer (sitting on top of a layer of virtualization), Docker is an isolated portion of the host computer, sharing the host kernel (OS) and even its bin/libraries if appropriate.

To put it in an over-simplified way, if I run a CoreOS host server and have a guest Docker Container based off of Ubuntu, the Docker Container contains the parts that make Ubuntu different from CoreOS.

This is one of my favorite images which describes the difference:

docker vs vm

This image is found on these slides provided by Docker.

Getting Docker

Docker isn't compatible with Macintosh's kernel unless you install boot2docker. I avoid that and use CoreOS in Vagrant, which comes with Docker installed.

I highly recommend CoreOS as a host machine for your play-time with Docker. They are building a lot of awesome tooling around Docker.

My Vagrantfile for CoreOS is as follows: = "coreos"
config.vm.box_url = "" "private_network",
        ip: ""

If you like NFS, then perhaps use these settings, which share with CoreOS's writable directory:

# This will require sudo access when using "vagrant up"
config.vm.synced_folder ".", "/home/core/share",
    id: "core",
    :nfs => true,
    :mount_options => ['nolock,vers=3,udp']

If you have VMWare instead of Virtualbox:

config.vm.provider :vmware_fusion do |vb, override|
    override.vm.box_url = ""

And finally, fixing a Vagrant plugin conflict:

# plugin conflict
if Vagrant.has_plugin?("vagrant-vbguest") then
    config.vbguest.auto_update = false

If you're not using CoreOS, then check out this page with install instructions for other flavors of Linux. Note: Ubuntu is what Docker develops on, so that's a safe bet.

If you are using CoreOS, dont be dismayed when it tries to restart on you. It's a "feature", done during auto-updates. You may, however, need to run vagrant reload to restart the server so Vagrant set up file sync and networking again.

Your First Container

This is the unfortunate baby-step which everyone needs to take to first get their feet wet with Docker. This won't show what makes Docker powerful, but it does illustrate some important points.

Docker has a concept of "base containers", which you use to build off of. After you make changes to a base container, you can save those change and commit them. You can even push your boxes up to

One of Docker's most basic images is just called "Ubuntu". Let's run an operation on it.

If the image is not already downloaded in your system, it will download it first from the "Ubuntu repository". Note the use of similar terminology to version control systems such as Git.

Run Bash:

docker run ubuntu /bin/bash

Nothing happened! Well, actually it did. Run docker ps (similar to our familiar Linux ps) - you'll see no containers listed, as none are currently running. Run docker ps -a, however, and you'll see an entry!

CONTAINER ID    IMAGE           COMMAND         CREATED              STATUS      PORTS       NAMES
8ea31697f021    ubuntu:12.04    /bin/bash       About a minute ago   Exit 0                  loving_pare

So, we can see that docker did run /bin/bash, but there wasn't any running process to keep it alive. A Docker container only stays alive as long as there is an active process being run in it.

Keep that in mind for later. Let's see how we can run Bash and poke around the Container. This time run:

docker run -t -i ubuntu /bin/bash

You'll see you are now logged in as user "root" and can poke around the container!

What's that command doing?

  • docker run - Run a container
  • -t - Allocate a (pseudo) tty
  • -i - Keep stdin open (so we can interact with it)
  • ubuntu - use the Ubuntu base image
  • /bin/bash - Run the bash shell

Tracking Changes

Exit out of that shell (ctrl+d or type exit) and run docker ps -a again. You'll see some more output similar to before:

CONTAINER ID    IMAGE           COMMAND         CREATED              STATUS      PORTS       NAMES
30557c9017ec    ubuntu:12.04    /bin/bash       About a minute ago   Exit 127                elegant_pike
8ea31697f021    ubuntu:12.04    /bin/bash       22 minutes ago       Exit 0                  loving_pare

Copy and paste the most recent Container ID (30557c9017ec in my case). Use that ID and run docker diff <container id>. For me, I see:

core@localhost ~ $ docker diff 30557c9017ec
A /.bash_history
C /dev
A /dev/kmsg

We can see that just by logging into bash, we created a .bash_history file, a /dev directory and a /dev/kmsg file. Minor changes, but tracked changes never the less! Docker tracks any changes we make to a container. In fact, Docker allows us make changes to an image, commit those changes, and then push those changes out somehwere. This is the basis of how we can deploy with Docker.

Let's install some base items into this Ubuntu install and save it as our own base image.

# Get into Bash
docker run -t -i ubuntu /bin/bash

# Install some stuff
apt-get update
apt-get install -y git ack-grep vim curl wget tmux build-essential python-software-properties

Once that finishes running, exit and run docker ps -a again. Grab the latest container ID and run another diff (docker diff <Container ID>):

core@localhost ~ $ docker diff 5d4bdae290a4

There were, of course, lots of new files added. Let's save this version of our base image so we can use it later. We'll commit these changes, name this image and tag it in one go. We'll use: docker commit <Container ID> <Name>:<Tag>

core@localhost ~ $ docker commit 5d4bdae290a4 fideloper/docker-example:0.1
c07e8dc7ab1b1fbdf2f58c7ff13007bc19aa1288add474ca358d0428bc19dba6  # You'll get a long hash as a Success message

Let's see this image we just created. Run docker images:

core@localhost ~ $ docker images

REPOSITORY                 TAG                 IMAGE ID            CREATED             VIRTUAL SIZE
fideloper/docker-example   0.1                 c07e8dc7ab1b        22 seconds ago      455.1 MB
ubuntu                     13.10               9f676bd305a4        6 weeks ago         178 MB
ubuntu                     saucy               9f676bd305a4        6 weeks ago         178 MB
ubuntu                     13.04               eb601b8965b8        6 weeks ago         166.5 MB
ubuntu                     raring              eb601b8965b8        6 weeks ago         166.5 MB
ubuntu                     12.10               5ac751e8d623        6 weeks ago         161 MB
ubuntu                     quantal             5ac751e8d623        6 weeks ago         161 MB
ubuntu                     10.04               9cc9ea5ea540        6 weeks ago         180.8 MB
ubuntu                     lucid               9cc9ea5ea540        6 weeks ago         180.8 MB
ubuntu                     12.04               9cd978db300e        6 weeks ago         204.4 MB
ubuntu                     latest              9cd978db300e        6 weeks ago         204.4 MB
ubuntu                     precise             9cd978db300e        6 weeks ago         204.4 MB

You'll notice a ton of Ubuntu's here. Since I first used the Ubuntu base image, it loaded knowledge of the variously tagged versions of Ubuntu they have available on the Docker index.

More excitingly, however, is that we also have our own image fideloper/docker-example and its tag 0.1!

Building a Server with Dockerfile

Let's move onto building a static web server with a Dockerfile. The Dockerfile provides a set of instructions for Docker to run on a container. This lets us automate installing items - we could have used a Dockerfile to install git, curl, wget and everything else we installed above.

Create a new directory and cd into it. Because we're installing Nginx, let's create a default configuration file that we'll use for it.

Create a file called default and add:

server {
    root /var/www;
    index index.html index.htm;

    # Make site accessible from http://localhost/
    server_name localhost;

    location / {
        # First attempt to serve request as file, then
        # as directory, then fall back to index.html
        try_files $uri $uri/ /index.html;

That's about as basic as it gets for Nginx.

Next, create a file named Dockerfile and add the following, changing the FROM section as suitable for whatever you named your image:

FROM fideloper/docker-example:0.1

RUN echo "deb precise main universe" > /etc/apt/sources.list
RUN apt-get update
RUN apt-get -y install nginx

RUN echo "daemon off;" >> /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
RUN mkdir /etc/nginx/ssl
ADD default /etc/nginx/sites-available/default


CMD ["nginx"]

What's this doing?

  • FROM will tell Docker what image (and tag in this case) to base this off of
  • RUN will run the given command (as user "root") using sh -c "your-given-command"
  • ADD will copy a file from the host machine into the container
    • This is handy for configuration files or scripts to run, such as a process watcher like supervisord, systemd, upstart, forever (etc)
  • EXPOSE will expose a port to the host machine. You can expose multiple ports like so: EXPOSE 80 443 8888
  • CMD will run a command (not using sh -c). This is usually your long-running process. In this case, we're simply starting Nginx.
    • In production, we'd want something watching the nginx process in case it fails

Once that's saved, we can build a new image from this Dockerfile!

docker build -t nginx-example .

If that works, you'll see Successfully built 88ff0cf87aba (your new container ID will be different).

Check out what you have now, run docker images:

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker images
REPOSITORY                 TAG                 IMAGE ID            CREATED             VIRTUAL SIZE
nginx-example              latest              88ff0cf87aba        35 seconds ago      468.5 MB
fideloper/docker-example   0.1                 c07e8dc7ab1b        29 minutes ago      455.1 MB
...other Ubuntu images below ...

Also run docker ps -a:

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker ps -a
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE                   COMMAND                CREATED              STATUS    PORTS    NAMES
de48fa2b142b        8dc0de13d8be            /bin/sh -c #(nop) CM   About a minute ago   Exit 0             cranky_turing
84c5b21feefc        2eb367d9069c            /bin/sh -c #(nop) EX   About a minute ago   Exit 0             boring_babbage
3d3ed53987ec        77ca921f5eef            /bin/sh -c #(nop) AD   About a minute ago   Exit 0             sleepy_brattain
b281b7bf017f        cccba2355de7            /bin/sh -c mkdir /et   About a minute ago   Exit 0             high_heisenberg
56a84c7687e9        fideloper/docker-e...   /bin/sh -c #(nop) MA   4 minutes ago        Exit 0             backstabbing_turing
... other images ...

What you can see here is that for each line in the Dockerfile, a new container (and commit sha) is produced if that line results in a change to the image used. Similar(ish) to version control! (Also, how funny is the name "backstabbing_turing"?)

Finally, run the web server

Let's run this web server! Use docker run -p 80:80 -d nginx-example (assuming you also named yours "nginx-example" when building it).

The -p 80:80 binds the Container's port 80 to the guest machines, so if we curl localhost or go to the server's IP address in our browser, we'll see the results of Nginx processing requests on port 80 in the container.

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker run -d nginx-example
73750fc2a49f3b7aa7c16c0623703d00463aa67ba22d2108df6f2d37276214cc # Success!

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker ps
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE                  COMMAND    CREATED          STATUS         PORTS     NAMES
a085a33093f4        nginx-example:latest   nginx      2 seconds ago    Up 2 seconds   80/tcp    determined_bardeen

Note we ran docker ps instead of docker ps -a - We're seeing a currently active and running Docker container. Let's curl localhost:

core@localhost ~/webapp $ curl localhost/index.htmld
<head><title>500 Internal Server Error</title></head>
<body bgcolor="white">
<center><h1>500 Internal Server Error</h1></center>

Well, we're sorta there. Nginx is working (woot!) but we're getting a 500 error. That's likely because there's no default index.html file for Nginx to fall back onto. Let's stop this docker instance via docker stop <container id>:

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker stop a085a33093f4

To fix this, let's share a directory in between the Container and our host machine. First, create an index.html page from where we'll share it.

# I'm going to be sharing the /home/core/share directory on my CoreOS machine
echo "Hello, Docker fans!" >> /home/core/share/index.html

Then we can start our Docker container again:

docker run -v /home/core/share:/var/www:rw -p 80:80 -d nginx-example
  • docker run - Run a container
  • -v /path/to/host/dir:/path/to/container/dir:rw - The volumes to share. Note rw is read-write. We can also define ro for "read-only".
  • -p 80:80 - Bind the host's port 80 to the containers.
  • -d nginx-example Run our image nginx-example, which has the "CMD" setup to run nginx

Now run curl localhost:

core@localhost ~/webapp $ curl localhost
Hello, Docker fans!

...or better yet, point your browser to your server's IP address!

in browser

Note that the IP address I used is that of my CoreOS server. I set the IP address in my Vagrantfile. I don't need to know the IP address given to my Container in such a simple example, altho I can find it by running docker inspect <Container ID>.

core@localhost ~/webapp $ docker inspect a0b531aa00f4
    "ID": "a0b531aa00f475b0025d8edce09961077eedd82a190f2e2f862592375cad4dd5",
    "Created": "2014-03-20T22:38:22.452820503Z",
    ... a lot of JSON ...
        "NetworkSettings": {
        "IPAddress": "",
        "IPPrefixLen": 16,
        "Gateway": "",
        "Bridge": "docker0",
        "PortMapping": null,
        "Ports": {
            "80/tcp": [
                    "HostIp": "",
                    "HostPort": "80"
    ... more JSON ...

Linking Containers

Not fully covered here (for now) is the ability to link two or more containers together. This is handy if containers need to communicate with eachother. For example, if your application container needs to communiate with a database container. Linking lets you have some infrastrcture be separate from your application.

For example:

Start a container and name it something useful (in this case, mysql, via the -name parameter):

docker run -p 3306:3306 -name mysql -d some-mysql-image

Start your web application container and link it to that container via -d name:db (where db is an arbitrary name used in the container's environment variables):

docker run -p 80:80 -link mysql:db -d some-application-image

In this example, the some-application-image will have environment variables available such as DB_PORT_3306_TCP_ADDR= and DB_PORT_3306_TCP_PORT=3306 which you application can use to know the database location.

Here's an example of a MySQL Dockerfile

The Epic Conclusion

So, we fairly easily can build servers, add in our application code, and then ship our working applications off to a server. Everything in the environment is under your control.

In this way, we can actually ship the entire environment instead of just code.

P.S. - Tips and Tricks

Cleaning Up

If you're like me and make tons of mistakes and don't want the record of all your broken images and containers lying around, you can clean them them:

  • To remove a container: docker rm <Container ID>
  • To remove all containers: docker rm $(docker ps -a -q)
  • To remove images: docker rmi <Container ID>
  • To remove all images: docker rmi $(docker ps -a -q)

Note: You must remove all containers using an image before deleting the image

Base Images

I always use Phusian's Ubuntu base image. It installs/enables a lot of items you may not think of, such as the CRON daemon, logrotate, ssh-server (you want to be able to ssh into your server, right?) and other important items. Read the Readme file of that project to learn more.

Especially note Phusion's use of an "insecure" SSH key to get you started with the ability to SSH into your container and play around, while it runs another process such as Nginx.

Orchard, creators of Fig, also have a ton of great images to use to learn from. Also, Fig looks like a really nice way to handle Docker images for development environments.

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