Playing Catch-up with Docker and Containers

on Feb 17, 2017

This article is essentially a guide to getting started with Docker for people who, like me, have a strong IT background but feel a little behind the curve when it comes to containers. We live in an age where new and wondrous technologies are being introduced into the market regularly. If you’re an IT professional, part of your job is to identify which technologies are going to make it into the toolbox for the average developer, and which will be relegated to the annals of history.

Docker is one of those technologies that sounded interesting when it first debuted in 2013, but was easy to ignore because at the time it was not clear whether Docker would ever graduate beyond something that developers liked to play with in their spare time. Personally, I didn’t pay close attention to Docker containers in Docker’s early days. They got lost amid all the other noise in the IT world.

That’s why, in 2016, as Docker continued to rise in prominence, I realized that I’d missed the container boat. Docker was becoming a must-know technology, and I was behind the curve.

If you’re reading this, you may well be in a similar position. But there’s good news:

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Container technology, and Docker specifically, are not hard to pick up and learn if you already have a background in IT. Sure, containers can be a little scary when you’re first getting started, just like any new technology. But rest assured that it’s not too late to get on the container train, even if you weren’t writing Docker files back in 2013.

I’ll explain what Docker is and how container technology works, then go through the first steps in setting Docker up on your workstation and getting a container running that you can interact with. Finally, I’ll direct you to some of the resources I used to familiarize myself with Docker, so you can continue your journey.

What is Docker and How Does it Work?

Docker is technology that allows you to create and deploy an application together with a filesystem and everything needed to run it. The Docker container, as it is called, can be installed on any machine, as long as the Docker engine has been installed, and can be expected to always run in the same manner. A physical machine with the Docker Engine installed can host multiple Docker containers, each sharing the resources of the host machine.

You may already be familiar with machine virtualization, either as a result of running local virtual machines using VMware on your workstations, or interacting with cloud services like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. Container technology is similar in some ways, and different in others. Let’s start by comparing the two by looking at the diagram below which shows the basic structure of a machine hosting Docker containers, and another hosting virtual machines.

In both cases the host machine has its infrastructure and host operating system. Virtual machines then require a hypervisor which is software or firmware that allows virtual machines to be hosted. The virtual machines themselves each contain their own operating system and the application, together with its required binaries, libraries and any other dependencies.

Similarly, the machine hosting the Docker containers has its own infrastructure and operating system. Instead of the hypervisor, it has the Docker Engine installed, and this is what interacts with the containers. Each container holds its application and the required binaries, libraries and other dependencies. It is important to note that they don’t require their own guest operating system. This allows the containers to be significantly smaller in size, and able to be distributed, deployed and started in a fraction of the time taken by virtual machines.

Other key differences are that virtual machines have specifically allocated access to the system resources, while Docker containers share host system resources through the Docker engine.

Installing Docker and Discovering Docker Hub

I can’t think of a better way to learn about new technology than to install it, and get your hands dirty. Let’s install the Docker Engine on your workstation and a simple Docker container. Before we can deploy a container, we’ll need the Docker Engine. This is the platform that will host the container and allow it to interact with the underlying operating system. You’ll want to pick the appropriate download from the Docker products page, and install it on your workstation. Downloads are available for OS X, Windows, Linux, and a host of other operating systems.

Once we have the Docker platform installed, we’re now ready to get a container running. Before we do that though, let’s familiarize ourselves with Docker Hub. Docker Hub is a central repository for Docker Container images. Let’s pretend that you’re working on a Windows machine, and you’d like to deploy an app on SUSE Linux. If you go to Docker Hub, and search for OpenSuse, you’ll be shown a list of repositories. At the time of writing there were 212 repositories listed. You’ll want to look for the “official” repository. The official repositories are maintained by a team of engineers sponsored by Docker. Official repositories have clear documentation and promote best practices.

Now search for BusyBox. Busybox is a tiny Unix distribution, which provides all of the functionality we’ll need for this example. If you go to the official repository, you’ll be able to read some good documentation on the image. Let’s get a BusyBox container running on your workstation.

Getting Your First Container Running

Assuming you’ve installed the Docker Engine, open a new command prompt on your workstation. If you’re on a Windows machine, I’d recommend using the Docker Quick Start link which was included as part of your installation. This will launch an interactive shell that will make it easier to work with Docker. You don’t need this on IOS or other Linux-based system.

Enter the following command:

$ docker run -it --rm busybox

This will search the local machine for the latest BusyBox image, and then download it from DockerHub if it isn’t found. The process should take only a couple of seconds, and you should have something similar to the the text shown below on your screen:

$ docker run -it --rm busybox
Unable to find image `busybox:latest` locally
latest: Pulling from library/busybox
4b0b=bc1c4050b: Pull complete
Digest: sha256”817q12c32a39bbe394944ba49de563e08f1d3c5266eb89723256bc4448680e
Status: Downloaded newer image for busybox:latest
/ #

We started a new Docker container, using the BusyBox image. We used the -it parameters to specify that we want an interactive, pseudo TTY session, and the –rm flag indicates that we want to delete the container once we exit it.

If you execute a command like ‘ls’ you’ll see that you have access to a new Linux filesystem. Play around a little, and when you’re done, enter `exit` to exit the container, and remove it from the system.

Congratulations! You’ve now created, interacted with, and shut down your own Docker container.

Creating Your Own Docker Image

Being able to start up and close down a container is fun, but it doesn’t have much practical use. Let’s start a new container, install something on it, and then save it as a container for someone else to use. We’ll start with a Debian container, install Git on it, and then save it for later use.

This time, we’ll start the container without the –rm flag, and we’ll specify a version to use as well. Type the following into your command prompt:

$ docker run -it debian:jessie

You should now have a Debian container running—specifically the jessie tag/release from Docker Hub.

Type the `git` command when you have the container running. You should observe something similar to the following:

[email protected]:/# git
bash: git: command not found

So it appears this container doesn’t have Git installed. Let’s rectify that situation by installing Git:

[email protected]:# apt-get update && apt-get install -y git

This may take a little longer to run, but it will update the apt-get utility, and then install Git. When it finishes up, type `git` again.


At this point, we have a container started, and we’ve installed Git. We started the container without the –rm parameter, so when we exit it, it won’t destroy the container. Let’s exit now. Type `exit`.

Now we want to get the ID of the container we just ran. To find this, we type the following command:

$ docker ps -a

You should now see a list of recent containers. My results looked similar to what’s below:

CONTAINER ID       IMAGE            COMMAND       CREATED        STATUS                          PORTS       NAMES
4a4882a7ed59       debian:jessie    “/bin/bash”   9 minutes ago  Exited (1) About a minute ago               hungry_fermet

It can be a little hard to read, especially if the results get wrapped in your command window. What we’re looking for is the container ID, which in my case was 4a4882a7ed59. Yours will be different, but similar in format. Run the following command, replacing my container ID with yours. Test:example are arbitrary names as well—Test will be the name of your saved image, and example will be the version or tag of that image.

$ docker commit 4a4882a7ed59 test:example

You should see a sha256 response once the container is saved. Now, run the following to list all the images available on your local machine:

$ docker images

Docker will list the images on your machine. You should be able to find a repository called test with a tag of example. Let’s see if it worked. Start up your container using the following command, assuming you saved your image with the same name and tag as I did.

$ docker run -it test:example

Once you have it running, try and execute the git command. It should return with a list of possible options for Git.

You did it! You created a custom image of Debian with Git installed. You’re practically a Docker Master at this point.

Following the Container Ecosystem

Using containers effectively also requires a familiarity with the trends that are defining the container ecosystem. In 2013, when Docker debuted, the ecosystem consisted of, well, Docker. But it has changed in big ways since then.

Orchestrators, which automate the provisioning of infrastructure for containers, have evolved and become an essential part of large-scale container deployment. Storage options have become more sophisticated, simplifying the task of moving data between containers and external, persistent storage systems. Monitoring solutions for containers have been extended from basic tools like the Docker stats command to include commercial monitoring and APM tools designed for containers. And Docker now even runs on Windows as well as Linux (albeit with some important caveats, like limited networking support at this time).

Discussing all of the container ecosystem trends in detail is beyond the scope of this article. But in order to make the most of containers, you should follow the news in the container ecosystem to gain a sense of what is coming next as containers and the solutions that support them become more and more sophisticated.

Continuing to Learn About Containers

Obviously this just scratches the surface of what containers offers, but this should give you a good start, and afford you enough of a base of understanding to create, modify and deploy your own containers locally. If you would like to know more about Docker,  the Web is full of useful tutorials and additional information:


Mike Mackrory is a Global citizen who has settled down in the Pacific Northwest – for now.  By day he works as a Senior Engineer on a Quality Engineering team and by night he writes, consults on several web based projects and runs a marginally successful eBay sticker business.  When he’s not tapping on the keys, he can be found hiking, fishing and exploring both the urban and the rural landscape with his kids.

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