Adventures in Docker

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After you’ve taken the time to puzzle through what it is exactly, Docker is nothing short of life changing.

In a nutshell, Docker lets you run programs in separate “containers”, isolating the dependencies each one requires. This is similar to virtualization solutions like VMWare and Virtualbox but Docker is a much more fine grained, customizable tool that operates at a different level.

It took me a week of experimentation to develop a firm grasp of the Docker concepts and how all its pieces work together in practice. I’m now using it at work for development, and I hope to be setting up a configuration for staging soon.

This is a short write-up of what I’ve learned so far.

The Concepts

On a first glance, almost everyone (including me) mistakes Docker as another virtualization technology. It’s not. Virtualization lets you run a machine within a machine. A Docker container is more subtle: it segments or isolates part of your existing Linux operating system.

A container consists of a separate memory space and filesystem (taken from something called an image). A container actually uses the same kernel as your “host” system. Some fancy Linux kernel technologies allow all of this to happen; there is no hardware virtualization going on.

You start using Docker by creating an image or using an existing one made by someone else. An image is a filesystem snapshot. You can build images in an automated fashion using a Dockerfile, which allows you to “script” the running of commands to do things like install software and copy files around.

When you launch a container, Docker makes a “copy” of an image (well, not really, but we’ll pretend for now) and uses that to start a process. The fact that the filesystem is a “copy” is important: if you launch 2 containers using the same image, and the processes in each modify files, those changes happen in each CONTAINER’s filesystem; the image doesn’t change. Processes inside containers only see what’s in the container, so they are isolated from one another. This allows complete dependency separation, at the level of processes.

You can do a lot with containers. You can run multiple processes in them (though this is discouraged). You can start another process in an already running container, so it can interact with the already running process. After a container has stopped (by halting the process running in it), you can start it back up again. Again, any file changes made are in the container’s filesystem; the image remains unchanged.

Issues

There are three issues I’ve personally encountered so far in using Docker:

1) Persistent Storage

Containers are meant to be transient. In a well designed setup, you should, theoretically, be able to spin up new containers and discard old ones all the time, and not lose any data. This means that your persistent storage has to live somewhere else, in one of two places: a special “data container” or a directory mounted from the host filesystem.

Data containers were too complicated and weird, and I couldn’t get them to work the way I expected, so I mounted directories instead. This has the nice side effect that, as Dockerized processes change files, you can see those changes immediately from the host without having to do anything special to access them. I’m not sure, however, what “best practices” are concerning storage.

2) Multi-Container Applications

Many modern applications consist of several processes or require other applications. For example, my project at work consists of a Rails web app, a delayed_job worker process, an Apache Solr instance, and a MySQL database.

Since Docker strongly recommends a one-process-per-container configuration, you need a way to coordinate a set of running processes and make sure they can communicate with one another. Docker Compose does this, allowing you to easily specify whether containers should be able to open connections to each other’s network ports, share filesystems, etc.

Currently, Docker Compose is not yet considered “production ready.” While it addresses the need to orchestrate processes, there is also the problem of monitoring and restarting processes as needed. It’s not clear to me yet what the best tool is for doing this (it may even be a completely orthogonal concern to what Docker does).

3) Running Commands

Sometimes you need to use the Rails CLI to do things like run database migrations or a rake task. Running commands takes a bit of extra effort, since they need to happen in a container. A slight complication is whether to run the command in the existing Rails container or to start another one entirely for that new process. It’s a bit of typing, which is annoying.

The Payoffs

How is Docker life changing? There are several scenarios I encounter ALL THE TIME that Docker helps tremendously with.

* On the same machine, you can run several web applications, which each require different versions of, say, Ruby, Rails, MySQL and Apache, without dealing with software conflicts and incompatibilities.

* Related to the previous point, Docker lets you more easily experiment with different software without polluting your base system with a lot of crap you might never use again.

* There is MUCH less overhead and less wasted memory usage than with virtualization. If you allocate 1GB of RAM to a virtual machine but only use 512MB, the other half goes to waste. Docker containers only use as much memory as the processes themselves take up, plus a small bit of overhead. Since Docker uses unionfs to “copy” (really, overlay) images to container filesystems, the actual disk space used isn’t as much as you might think.

* Since Docker containers are entirely self-contained, they can be deployed in development, staging, and production environments with almost NO differences among them, thereby minimizing the problems that usually arise.

For me, a lot of the benefits boil down to this: virtualization is amazing, but in practice, I don’t use it that much because it’s too heavyweight and too coarse for my needs. A Virtualbox is a whole other machine that I need to think about. By working at the level of Linux processes, Docker is exactly the right kind of tool for managing application dependencies.

A cautionary note: there’s a lot of buzz right now around containers, including efforts at defining vendor-neutral standards, such as appc. Although Docker releases have been rapid and it is already seeing a lot of adoption, it feels bleeding edge to me. It’s exciting but in a few years, it’s entirely possible that another container solution might surpass it to become the de facto standard. The playing field is just too new, which means Docker comes with some risk. But it’s well worth exploring at this early stage, even if only to get a taste of the new ideas shaping systems configuration and deployment that are definitely here to stay.

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