Learning Docker – Starting with the basics

Docker is a tool I have been looking to incorporate into my development process for sometime. I have used it many times glossing over the basics and hacking my way through it, but I have not dug in to the finer details of how to operate docker until now. This guide assumes you already have Docker installed.

What is Docker?

Docker is an open-source project for automating the deployment of applications as portable, self-sufficient containers that can run on the cloud, on-premises, or locally. Docker is also a company that promotes and evolves this technology.

Docker allows you to run code inside a container that communicates directly with the host operating system through the Docker engine. Containers are like a computer with an image that is ready to run. The image is like a ready to go hard drive for a container. One of the biggest appeals of Docker is that it allows you to create and run consistent environments, meaning you will not run into situations where code works on someone’s machine but not yours.

Getting started with the basics

Docker is a big topic. We will be exploring it piece by piece and hopefully by the end a clearer understanding of what Docker is, and how to use it will emerge.


Dockerfile is used to build a Docker image. It is a basic file that contains sequential instructions on how to build an image. The name must be capitalized for it to work. Let’s create a project directory with a Dockerfile in it with the following code:

FROM ubuntu


RUN apt-get update

CMD ["echo", "Welcome to Docker"]

Now let’s breakdown each line.


Generally you use an official image on which you build a new Docker image. In this case ubuntu is our base image, which is called the parent image. You can find images hosted here on Docker Hub. If we want to create a base image, we use ‘FROM scratch’ in the Dockerfile. Any other instructions mentioned in the Dockerfile are going to modify the Docker image.


Who the maintainer of the image is.


ENV is a way to create key value pairs. There are two syntaxes one being a one liner.

ENV APP nginx

The above is equivalent to the following:

ENV APP=nginx PORT=80

Then those values can be used in the rest of the Dockerfile.


RUN apt-get update

This line runs code on the shell and allows us to modify the docker image. Multiline instructions can be built using the \ character.

RUN apt-get update && apt-get install –y \
package1 \
package2 \


The CMD directive defines what will be executed when a container is created using the Docker image. We should define only one CMD in a Dockerfile, however if we define multiple CMD instructions in a Dockerfile, only last CMD will get executed. If we specify any command while running the container, the specified command will take precedence and CMD instruction will not get executed. In this case it is a simple echo using the following message provided in the args.

Building the image

Now that we have gone over the basics of our example Dockerfile, let’s build the Docker image using above sample Dockerfile using below command:

docker build -t my_image .

This will build the image named my_image at our current working directory . where the Dockerfile should reside. You will see a whole bunch of output in your terminal, following the pulling of the base image, you will see the RUN command run and finally some more output around building the image. The -t flag is what allows us to tag this image with a name my_image.

Running the image on a container

Now we will run the image on a container. Remember the container is like a computer, and the image is like a special hard drive ready to go. We can run a container with the following command.

docker run --name mycontainer my_image

We should see the output Welcome to Docker on our terminal. Meaning the container started and ran our CMD. This is kind of like a Hello World example of Docker. We will explore more together in future posts!

Wrapping up

Docker uses containers to run images of predefined files, libraries, and code. Images can be built using a Dockerfile which is essentially a list of instructions for how to modify the image. Images can be built on top of parent images allowing ease of extension. Containers are like a computer that runs within the Docker engine to communicate with our host operating system.

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