Larry Price

And The Endless Cup Of Coffee

An Example Use Case for Docker

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I spent a lot of time last week asking questions about Docker. What is Docker? How could Docker help me day-to-day? How easy is Docker to use? How does Docker like its eggs cooked? Isn’t Docker a brand of sneakers?

What is Docker?

Docker is a utility for maintaining system environments. Docker capitalizes on Linux containers, a method of operating system virtualization which isolates multiple process groups on a single host.

Through a series of commands, Docker pulls up a base system image and applies changes to create a custom image. Docker provides the means to access any of these step-level containers for further manipulation. Docker uses a unique layered system such that sibling layers can utilize the same base images, in contrast to a virtual machine which would require multiple copies of things like operating systems, shared libraries, and shared binaries. The image below is an excellent visualization of the difference between a virtual machine and a Docker container.


Why use Docker?

Docker’s primary job is to take in a series of commands and spit out a clean environment with those settings. This is especially useful in deployment. I can take the Docker ubuntu image, download and install all my dependencies, copy over my application code, and run my application given some environment variables.

All of that should sound somewhat familiar if you’ve ever used heroku. Heroku performs very similar tasks to get your application up and running: take a Linux image, download base tools for ruby/python/nodejs/whatever, install application-specific dependencies (through bundler, flask, npm, etc.), and run your application given some environment. Docker gives you the power of heroku at the development level. …Sort of.

If I can create a Docker container for my application to run in, I can set up a build server to use a container to run my tests. I can use that same container to build a clean staging environment. I can use the staging container to build an identically clean production environment. With that knowledge in hand, I know the exact state of the production environment every time I deploy and I can reproduce it locally.

Theoretically, I can even use Docker for setting up a development environment, although after a few days of attempting this I still think you’re better off running natively.

Of course, Docker keeps a big list of examples from big-name company use-cases if you’re interested.

Example Usage

Brass. Tacks. Let us get down to them, compadre.

You probably want to install Docker first. If you’re not using Linux, have fun installing boot2docker, the rest of us are going to get started without you.

I started by trying to bootstrap my environment for Ollert with Docker. Ollert uses ruby-2.2, QtWebkit (in test), and MongoDB. It uses bundler to install any required ruby gems. Not too complicated, but I’ve noticed it’s never easy to get a new developer’s environment quite right.

We start out with the official ruby:2.2.0 image from the Docker Hub:

$ docker run ruby:2.2.0 echo "B-b-b-b-brass t-t-t-t-tacks!"

OMG that step will take forever if you’ve never downloaded the base debian image. It downloads and sets up quite a few layers. If you’re interested in what it’s doing behind the scenes and you can read Dockerfiles, this file is what’s being executed. Anyway, when it’s done you should see a friendly reminder about what we’ve gotten down to. We use docker run to run (download first if necessary) an image; in this case, the ruby:2.2.0 image. Everything after the image name is the command to run. Now that we’ve downloaded some base images, you can check out your available images using docker images.

Now I need to install my system-level dependencies:

$ docker run ruby:2.2.0 apt-get update

Note how this time the base image was already found in your local repository, resulting in a command that ran pretty quickly (based on your internet speeds (sorry Comcast customers!)). But what have we really done so far? We’ve created two separate containers: one with our initial echo command (useless) and one with all our updates. To see these containers, use docker ps -a. This will give you output similar to the following:

$ docker ps -a
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE               COMMAND                  CREATED             STATUS                      PORTS             NAMES
ad5ddd55f2c2        ruby:2.2.0        "apt-get update"         2 seconds ago       Exited (0) 2 seconds ago                        mad_curie
10cbaac4488c        ruby:2.2.0        "echo 'B-b-b-b-brass"    15 minutes ago      Exited (0) 15 minutes ago                       mad_perlman

These are now the containers available. We can create a new image from the first container using docker commit ad5 rubyapp, which will allow us to use it to create further containers. However, if we were to do this for every command we wanted to execute, we might be here for a while. We could go into bash on the base image and do all of our steps:

$ docker run -it ruby:2.2.0 /bin/bash
root@1be43510341e:/# apt-get update
root@1be43510341e:/# apt-get auto-remove
root@1be43510341e:/# apt-get install -y --force-yes libqtwebkit-dev mongodb

We could then use this image to run our app - however, this is also tedious and a bad solution. We want something that we can see on a granular level and reproduce every time for a base image. Fortunately, Docker provides us an easy way to do this using a DSL. Introducing the Dockerfile:

# base image
FROM ruby:2.2.0

#install system-level dependencies
RUN apt-get update && apt-get autoremove -y && apt-get install -y --force-yes libqtwebkit-dev mongodb

# install gems from /tmp such that bundling is CACHED
ADD Gemfile Gemfile
ADD Gemfile.lock Gemfile.lock
ADD .env .env
RUN bundle install

# load application source
ADD . /usr/src/app
WORKDIR /usr/src/app

# port where application is served

The syntax is a little different, but all we’re doing is telling Docker our base image, issuing commands, and copying files. The ADD command allows us to copy files from our host system. In this case, I copy over . to /usr/src/app in the container. I also copy over my Gemfile separately to cache the bundle so it does not install every time. I then expose the port I want my application to use. Run this file as such:

$ docker build -t rubyapp .

This creates an image called rubyapp and a container for every line of the Dockerfile that is run. Although your first build may take a moment, subsequent builds will be cached and should be significantly faster. Now, if we want to run my application:

$ docker run -d --name rubyappinstance rubyapp foreman start -d /usr/src/app

I use foreman to start my application from the given directory. I tell Docker that the application will be daemonized using the -d flag. If I check my running containers with docker ps, I’ll see my application running. If I want to stop it, I just run docker stop rubyappinstance.

I’m going to stop there for now. In order to get Ollert working properly, I also need to link a Mongo database and change some environment variables in my application, but those are relatively easy tasks.

Is it worth it?

The only conclusion is a definite maybe. Docker is definitely pretty cool. It may be able to help you deploy custom applications easier; for Ollert, it feels like overkill. There is a lot of overhead in downloading core versions of different operating systems, and I already find myself itching to clean up all the leftover Docker images/containers on my machine I used once and never again. After getting the Docker development out of the way (building and testing a Dockerfile), you may save yourself some time in the future if you have to change hosting services or CI environments. Try it out! It’s a pretty neat concept and definitely worth your attention in 2015.