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Containers 101: Docker fundamentals

Chenxi Wang | July 4, 2016
Understand Docker images, containers, and registries and how they deliver the benefits of immutable infrastructure and software reuse

Docker started out in 2012 as an open source project, originally named dotcloud, to build single-application Linux containers. Since then, Docker has become an immensely popular development tool, increasingly used as a runtime environment. Few -- if any -- technologies have caught on with developers as quickly as Docker.

One reason Docker is so popular is that it delivers the promise of "develop once, run anywhere." Docker offers a simple way to package an application and its runtime dependencies into a single container; it also provides a runtime abstraction that enables the container to run across different versions of the Linux kernel.

Using Docker, a developer can make a containerized application on his or her workstation, then easily deploy the container to any Docker-enabled server. There's no need to retest or retune the container for the server environment, whether in the cloud or on premises.

In addition, Docker provides a software sharing and distribution mechanism that allows developers and operations teams to easily share and reuse container content. This distribution mechanism, coupled with portability across machines, helps account for Docker's popularity with operations teams and with developers.  

Docker components

Docker is both a development tool and a runtime environment. To understand Docker, we must first understand the concept of a Docker container image. A container always starts with an image and is considered an instantiation of that image. An image is a static specification of what the container should be in runtime, including the application code inside the container and runtime configuration settings. Docker images contain read-only layers, which means that once an image is created it is never modified.

Figure 1 shows an example of a container image. This image depicts an Ubuntu image with an Apache installation. The image is a composition of three base Ubuntu layers plus an update layer, with an Apache layer and a custom file layer on top.

docker image layers
Figure 1: Docker image layers. 

A running Docker container is an instantiation of an image. Containers derived from the same image are identical to each other in terms of their application code and runtime dependencies. But unlike images, which are read-only, running containers include a writable layer (the container layer) on top of the read-only content. Runtime changes, including any writes and updates to data and files, are saved in the container layer. Thus, multiple concurrent running containers that share the same underlying image may have container layers that differ substantially.

When a running container is deleted, the writable container layer is also deleted and will not persist. The only way to persist changes is to do an explicit docker commit command prior to deleting the container. When you do adocker commit, the running container content, including the writable layer, is written into a new container image and stored to the disk. This becomes a new image distinct from the image by which the container was instantiated.


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