Docker architecture. Source: van der Mersch 2016.
Docker architecture. Source: van der Mersch 2016.

A container is a standard unit of software that packages an application with all of its dependencies and libraries. This makes it easy to deploy applications within containers regardless of hardware configuration or operating system. Unlike virtual machines, containers use the host OS rather than bundling an OS with the application.

Docker is a container platform. It provides a complete ecosystem of tools to build container images, pull these images from known registries, deploy containers, and manage or orchestrate running containers across a cluster of machines. Docker has popularized container adoption. Even the phrase "dockerize my app" has become common.

The word "Docker" usually refers to its engine. The commercial offering is called Docker Enterprise. There's also the free community edition that's simply called Docker Engine. Docker was initially available on Linux but later become available on MacOS and Windows as well.


  • What are the benefits of using Docker?
    Memory consumption of VMs vs Dockers. Source: Chaturvedi 2019.
    Memory consumption of VMs vs Dockers. Source: Chaturvedi 2019.

    Docker provides a consistent runtime across all phases of a product cycle: development, testing, and deployment. For example, if development team has upgraded one dependency, other teams must also do the same. If they don't, app may work during development but fail in deployment or work with unexpected side effects. Docker overcomes this complexity by providing a consistent environment for your app. Hence, it's become essential for DevOps practice.

    Docker containers are smaller in size and boot up faster compared to VMs. They're also more cost efficient since many more containers than VMs can run on a machine.

    Docker is open source. There's freedom of choice since any type of application (legacy, cloud native, monolithic, 12-factor) can run in a Docker container. Security is built into the Docker Engine by default. It's powered by some of the best components such as the containerd. There's also powerful CLI and API to manage containers. Via certified plugins, we can extend the capabilities of the Docker Engine.

  • What do you mean by the term "Docker image"?
    A Docker image is built as multiple layers. Source: Kasireddy 2016.
    A Docker image is built as multiple layers. Source: Kasireddy 2016.

    A Docker image is a read-only template from which containers are created. Here's a useful analogy: just as objects are instantiated from classes in object-oriented languages, Docker containers are instantiated from Docker images.

    For example, your application may require an OS and runtimes such as Apache, Java or ElasticSearch. All these can be bundled into a Docker image. Thus, your app can have this exact runtime environment wherever it runs.

    An image is built in multiple read-only layers. At the bottom, we might have bootfs and OS base image such as Debian. Higher layers could have custom software or libraries such as Emacs or Apache. This layering mechanism makes it easy to build new images on top of existing images. When an image gets instantiated into a running container, a thin writable layer is added on top, called Container Layer. This means that all changes go into the topmost layer. In fact, the underlying file system doesn't make a copy of the lower layers since they are read-only. This helps us bring up containers quickly.

  • How do developers share Docker images?
    Dissecting full URL as specified with Docker client. Source: McCarty 2018.
    Dissecting full URL as specified with Docker client. Source: McCarty 2018.

    A remote location where Docker images are stored is called the Docker Registry. Images are pulled from and new images are pushed to the registry. Without registries, it would be difficult to share and reuse images across projects. There are many registries online and Docker Hub is the default one. Just as developers share code via GitHub, Docker images are shared via Docker Hub.

    Besides Docker Hub, here are some other registries: Gitlab, Quay, Harbor, and Portus. Registries from cloud providers include Amazon Elastic Container Registry, Azure Container Registry, and Google Container Registry.

    A collection of images with the same name but different tags is called Docker Repository. A tag is an identifier for an image. For example, "Python" is name of the repository but when we pull the image "Python:3.7-slim", we refer to the image tagged with "3.7-slim". In fact, it's possible to pull by mentioning only the repository name. A default tag (such as "latest") will be used and only that image will be pulled. Thus, these two commands are equivalent: docker pull rhel7 or docker pull .

  • Which are the essential components of the Docker ecosystem?
    A selection of Docker logos. Source: Adapted from Janetakis 2017.
    A selection of Docker logos. Source: Adapted from Janetakis 2017.

    The Docker Engine is a client-server app of two parts: the Docker Client and the Docker Daemon. Docker commands are invoked using the client on the user's local machine. These commands are sent to daemon, which is typically running on a remote host machine. The daemon acts on these commands to manage images, containers and volumes.

    Using Docker Networking we can connect Docker containers even if they're running on different machines. What if your app involves multiple containers? This is where Docker Compose is useful. This can start, stop or monitor all services of the app. What if you need to orchestrate containers across many host machines? Docker Swarm allows us to do this, basically manage a cluster of Docker Engines.

    Docker Machine is a CLI tool that simplifies creation of virtual hosts and install Docker on them. Docker Desktop is an application that simplifies Docker usage on MacOS and Windows.

    Among the commercial offerings are Docker Cloud, Docker Data Center and Docker Enterprise Edition.

  • Which are the command-line interfaces (CLIs) that Docker provides?

    Since Docker has many components, there are also multiple CLIs:

    • Docker CLI: This is the basic CLI used by Docker clients. For example, docker pull is part of this CLI with "pull" being the child command. These commands are invoked by user using the Docker Client. Commands are translated to Docker API calls that are sent to the Docker Daemon.
    • Docker Daemon CLI: The Docker Daemon has its own CLI, which is invoked using the dockerd command. For example, the command $ sudo dockerd -H tcp:// -H unix:///var/run/docker.sock & asks the daemon to listen on both TCP and a Unix socket.
    • Docker Machine CLI: This is invoked with the command docker-machine.
    • Docker Compose CLI: This is invoked with the command docker-compose. This uses Docker CLI under the hood.
    • DTR CLI: Invoked with docker/dtr, this is the CLI for Docker Trusted Registry (DTR).
    • UCP CLI: Invoked with docker/dtr, this is the CLI for installing and managing Docker Universal Control Plane (UCP) on a Docker Engine.
  • What are Volumes in Docker and where are they useful?

    Containers are meant to be temporary. Any changes made to it at runtime are usually not saved. Sometimes we may save the changes into a new image. Otherwise, changes are discarded. However, there's merit in saving data or state so that other containers can use them. Volumes are therefore used for persistent storage.

    A volume is a directory mounted inside a container. It points to a filesystem outside the container. We can therefore exit containers without losing app data. Newer containers that come up can access the same data using volumes. The important thing is to implement locks or something equivalent for concurrent write access. Volumes can be created via Dockerfile or Docker CLI tool.

    Apart from sharing data or state across containers, volumes are useful for sharing data (such as code) between containers and host machines. They're also useful for handling large files (logs or databases) because writing to volumes is faster than writing to Docker's Union File System (UFS) that uses IO expensive copy-on-write (CoW).

  • What's the purpose of a Dockerfile?
    Dockerfile commands to build a layered Docker image. Source: Grace 2017.
    Dockerfile commands to build a layered Docker image. Source: Grace 2017.

    Dockerfile is nothing more than a text file containing instructions to build a Docker image. Each instruction creates one read-only layer of the image. When the container runs, a new writable layer is created on top to capture runtime changes.

    Let's take the example of a Node.js application. The instruction FROM node:9.3.0-alpine specifies the base image of Node.js version 9.3.0 running on Alpine Linux. ADD instruction can be used to add files. RUN can be used for framework installation or application build. To expose ports from the container, use EXPOSE. To finally launch the app within the container, use the CMD.

    For more details, read Dockerfile Reference and the best practices for writing Dockerfiles.

  • What are some basic Docker commands that a beginner should know?
    A selection of Docker commands showing how they affect containers. Source: Docker Saigon 2016.
    A selection of Docker commands showing how they affect containers. Source: Docker Saigon 2016.

    We describe some Docker commands listed in the official Docker documentation:

    To build a new image from a Dockerfile use the build command. We can then push this to a registry using push. Commands search and pull can be used to find and download an image from registry to our local system. To create a new image from a running container's changes, we can use commit. To list images, use images. A downloaded image can be removed using rmi.

    Once we have an image, we can create and start a container using create and start. Containers can be stopped using stop or kill. A running container can be restarted using restart. We can use rm to remove containers. The command ps will list all running containers. To list stopped containers as well, use "-all" option.

    Commands that deal with processes inside containers include run, exec, pause, unpause and top. Commands that deal with container filesystem include cp, diff, export and import.



Docker is debuted publicly and open sourced at PyCon, Santa Clara. Earlier work on Docker can be traced to 2010.


Red Hat and Docker announce a collaboration around Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and OpenShift.


Docker replaces LXC with libcontainer as the runtime. The latter is written in Golang and developed by the Docker team.

The daemon containerd uses runc. Source: Jernigan 2016.
The daemon containerd uses runc. Source: Jernigan 2016.

Docker, CoreOS and others form the Open Container Initiative (OCI). At the same time, Docker's libcontainer becomes a standalone OCI-compliant runtime called runc. In December 2015, Docker announces containerd, a daemon to manage runc.


By this time, many companies including Cisco, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Huawei and Red Hat are main contributors to Docker. In June, Docker starts to support container orchestration with swarm mode.


A YAML compose file docker-compose.yml can be used to deploy swarm mode services.


Docker releases Docker Enterprise Edition. It renames the free open source product to Docker Community Edition.


Version 1.0 of OCI runtime and image format specifications are released.


Docker celebrates its fifth birthday. By now, there's an estimated 37 billion container downloads, 3.5 million dockerized apps and 450+ customers using Docker Enterprise Edition.


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Further Reading

  1. Develop with Docker
  2. 6 Docker Basics You Should Completely Grasp When Getting Started
  3. Best practices for writing Dockerfiles
  4. Get Docker CE for Ubuntu
  5. Evaluating Container Platforms at scale
  6. Docker Commands With Examples

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Devopedia. 2020. "Docker." Version 12, May 7. Accessed 2023-11-12.
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