Docker for Beginners: Your Ultimate Guide to Understanding and Using Containers


Welcome to the fascinating world of Docker! This guide is designed to help you understand and master the essential aspects of Docker and Docker Compose. If you’re new to containerization, you’ll find this guide useful for learning how Docker can simplify and improve your development workflow. Here’s what you’ll learn:

The Need for DockerUnderstand why Docker is essential and the problems it solves.
Images vs. ContainersLearn the core concepts and differences between Docker images and containers.
Running a Docker ContainerStep-by-step instructions on how to run your first Docker container.
Naming Your ContainerDiscover the importance of naming containers for easy management.
Running and Stopping Local Docker ContainersLearn how to manage the lifecycle of your Docker containers.
Listing ContainersCommands to list running and all containers for effective management.
Executing Commands Inside a Docker ContainerUse Docker’s exec command to interact with your containers.
Port MappingHow to expose container ports to access your applications externally.
Passing Environment VariablesCustomize container behavior using environment variables.
Publishing Images to Docker HubSteps to share your Docker images with others through Docker Hub.
Dockerizing a Node.js ApplicationA step-by-step guide to containerizing a Node.js application.
Layer CachingOptimize Docker builds by understanding layer caching.
Simplifying Multi-Container Management with Docker ComposeManage multiple Docker containers using Docker Compose.
Table of Contents

Let’s start our journey into Docker, breaking down complex concepts into simple, easy-to-understand steps.

The Need for Docker

In the traditional development process, setting up an application environment could be a tedious and error-prone task. Developers often faced the infamous “it works on my machine” problem, where code running perfectly in one environment would fail in another due to differences in configurations, dependencies, or operating systems.

Docker resolves this by providing a consistent and isolated environment for applications, ensuring they run the same way, regardless of where they are deployed. This consistency is achieved through Docker images and containers.

Images vs. Containers

Let’s break down the core concepts:

  • Images: Think of images as the operating system blueprints. They contain everything needed to run an application—code, runtime, libraries, environment variables, and configurations. An image is a snapshot of your application at a particular point in time.
  • Containers: If images are the blueprints, containers are the running instances. They are like virtual machines but much more lightweight and efficient. A container is an isolated environment where your application runs, created from an image. Multiple containers can be spawned from a single image, each running independently.
Why the Distinction Matters

Understanding the difference between images and containers is crucial because it influences how you build, deploy, and manage your applications. Images are immutable; once created, they don’t change. Containers, on the other hand, are ephemeral and can be started, stopped, and destroyed as needed.

Running a Docker Container

Now that we understand the basics, let’s run our first Docker container. This is where the magic begins!

To run a container using the Ubuntu image, use the following command:

docker run -it ubuntu

Here’s what’s happening:

  • docker run: This command tells Docker to create and run a container.
  • -it: This flag makes the container interactive, allowing you to interact with it via the terminal.
  • ubuntu: This is the name of the image we’re using to create the container.

This command opens a terminal session inside the new container. You’re now running a lightweight, isolated Ubuntu environment!

Naming Your Container

Naming your container makes it easier to manage. Let’s name our Ubuntu container:

docker run -it --name my_ubuntu ubuntu

Now, our container is named my_ubuntu, making it easy to reference later. To start this container in the future, use:

docker start my_ubuntu
run VS start

In Docker, the run and start commands have distinct roles. The docker run command is used to create and start a new container from a specified image. It handles both the creation and initialization of the container in one step, making it a convenient way to quickly launch new containers. Conversely, the docker start command is used to start an existing, stopped container. This means that docker start is useful for resuming the operation of containers that were previously stopped, without creating new ones. Essentially, use docker run when you need to launch a new container, and use docker start when you want to restart an existing one.

Running and Stopping Local Docker Containers

Managing your Docker containers involves starting and stopping them as needed. Here’s how you can do that:

  • Start a Container: docker start container_name This command starts a stopped container, making it active again.
  • Stop a Container: docker stop container_name This command stops a running container, essentially pausing it.

Starting and stopping containers is useful for managing your application’s lifecycle, especially during development and testing phases.

Listing Containers

To keep track of your containers, you need to list them. Docker provides simple commands for this:

  • List Running Containers: docker container ls This command lists all currently running containers.
  • List All Containers: docker container ls -a This command lists all containers, including those that are stopped.

Listing containers helps you manage and keep track of the various environments you have running or have run in the past.

Executing Commands Inside a Docker Container

Till now, you’ve learned about the run, start, and stop commands to manage your containers. However, sometimes you need to execute commands inside a running container without restarting it or creating a new one. For instance, you’ve used docker run -it to interact with a container’s terminal during creation, but what if the container is already running? This is where the docker exec command comes in handy.

There are times when you’ll need to run commands inside a running container. Docker’s exec command is designed specifically for this purpose. It allows you to execute a command directly inside an existing container, providing a powerful way to interact with your containers without disrupting their operation.

docker exec container_name ls

This command tells Docker to execute the ls command inside the specified container, listing the contents of the container’s file system.

To interact with the container’s terminal directly, use the interactive mode (-it):

docker exec -it container_name bash

This command launches an interactive bash shell inside the container, letting you run commands as if you were directly logged into the container’s terminal. It’s perfect for performing tasks and troubleshooting within a running container.

Port Mapping: Exposing Container Ports

Running applications inside containers often requires exposing specific ports to access them externally. Docker makes port mapping simple and efficient, enabling seamless connectivity to your containerized applications.

Why Port Mapping is Needed

Port mapping is essential because containers are isolated environments, meaning their internal services are not accessible from the outside by default. This isolation is crucial for security and resource management but poses a challenge when you need to interact with services inside the container. Port mapping addresses this by making containerized services accessible via the host machine’s network interfaces.

How Port Mapping Works

Port mapping directs traffic from a port on your host machine to a port inside the container, allowing external access to the containerized services. Here’s a basic example:

docker run -it -p 3000:1025 image_name
  • -p 3000:1025: Maps port 3000 on your host machine to port 1025 inside the container.
  • image_name: Replace this with the name of your Docker image.
Example in Practice

If your application runs on port 1025 inside the container, mapping it to port 3000 on the host machine allows access via http://localhost:3000.

Passing Environment Variables

To pass environment variables to your Docker container, use the -e flag:

docker run -it -p 1025:1025 -e key=value image_name

This command sets the environment variable key to value within the container, allowing you to customize the container’s behavior based on your needs.

Publishing Images to Docker Hub

Docker Hub is a central repository where you can share your Docker images with others or access pre-built images. Think of it as GitHub for Docker images. Here’s how to publish your image:

Why Publish to Docker Hub

Publishing images to Docker Hub makes them easily accessible to others, promoting collaboration and simplifying deployment. It allows users to:

  • Share custom images with teammates or the public.
  • Access a vast library of pre-built images for various applications and services.
  • Streamline the deployment process by pulling images directly from a central repository.
Steps to Publish Your Image
  1. Create a Repository on Docker Hub:
  2. Log In to Docker Hub:
    • If it’s your first time, log in from your terminal:
      bash docker login
  3. Tag and Push Your Image:
    • Tagging your Docker image involves labeling it to match your repository name, which helps in identifying and organizing your images.
    • Tag your image to match the repository name:
      bash docker tag local_image_name akshat_nehra/repository_name
    • Push your image to Docker Hub:
      bash docker push akshat_nehra/repository_name
Example in Practice

Let’s say you have a local image named local_image_name and your Docker Hub username is akshat_nehra. Here’s how you would publish it:

  1. Tag the Image:
   docker tag local_image_name akshat_nehra/repository_name
  1. Push the Image:
   docker push akshat_nehra/repository_name

Now, your image is available on Docker Hub, and others can pull and use it with:

docker pull akshat_nehra/repository_name
Benefits of Publishing to Docker Hub
  • Accessibility: Share your images easily with anyone.
  • Collaboration: Work seamlessly with team members by providing a consistent environment.
  • Resource Availability: Leverage a rich library of pre-built images for faster development and deployment.

Publishing Docker images to Docker Hub is a straightforward process that enhances the distribution and usability of your containerized applications.

Dockerizing a Node.js Application: A Step-by-Step Journey

Imagine you have a Node.js application, and you want to ensure it runs smoothly no matter where it’s deployed. Think of Docker as a magic box that encapsulates your application, along with all its dependencies, in a lightweight, portable container. This ensures your app will behave the same way on your development machine as it does on your production servers.

Step 1: Create a Basic Node.js Server

First, let’s set up a simple Node.js server. This server will be the heart of our application, serving responses to incoming requests. Here’s a small snippet of code to get us started:

const http = require('http');

const hostname = '';
const port = 3000;

const server = http.createServer((req, res) => {
  res.statusCode = 200;
  res.setHeader('Content-Type', 'text/plain');
  res.end('Hello World\n');

server.listen(port, hostname, () => {
  console.log(`Server running at http://${hostname}:${port}/`);

Save this file as main.js.

Step 2: Create a Dockerfile

Next, we need a Dockerfile. Think of the Dockerfile as a set of instructions to build our magic box (container). It tells Docker how to set up the environment and what files to include. Here’s how to create it:

  1. Initialize the Container:
    Start with a base image. We’ll use Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution.
  2. Copy Files:
    Transfer our application files into the container.
  3. Install Dependencies:
    Install Node.js and any other dependencies our application needs.
  4. Execute the Application:
    Set the default command to run our Node.js server.

Let’s put these steps into our Dockerfile:

# Step 1: Initialize the Container
    # Use Ubuntu as the base image
    FROM ubuntu

    # Update package lists
    RUN apt-get update 

    # Upgrade all packages
    RUN apt-get upgrade -y

    # Install Node.js
    RUN apt-get install -y nodejs

# Step 2: Copy Files
    # Copy application files to the container
    COPY package.json package.json
    COPY package-lock.json package-lock.json
    COPY main.js main.js

# Step 3: Install Dependencies
    # Install npm dependencies
    RUN npm install

# Step 4: Set the default command to run the application
    ENTRYPOINT ["node", "main.js"]
Step 3: Build the Docker Image

Now that we have our Dockerfile, we need to create our Docker image. This image is a snapshot of our application and its environment, including all necessary files and dependencies.

  1. Open your terminal.
  2. Run the following command:
   docker build -t my_node_app .

Here’s what each part of the command does:

  • docker build: Tells Docker to create an image from a Dockerfile.
  • -t my_node_app: Tags the image with the name my_node_app so you can easily reference it later.
  • .: Specifies the current directory as the build context. This means Docker will use all the files in the current directory (where your Dockerfile and application files are) to build the image.
Understanding the Build Context

The build context is the set of files Docker has access to when building the image. By specifying . (the current directory), you ensure that Docker includes all necessary files like main.js, package.json, and package-lock.json. These files are required to copy into the container during the image creation process.

Using the current directory as the build context ensures Docker can find and use all the files specified in your Dockerfile, making the build process smooth and efficient.

Step 4: Run the Docker Container

Our image is ready, and it’s time to run it. Running the image creates a container, an instance of our application. We’ll map ports so that the app is accessible from our host machine:

docker run -d -p 3000:3000 --name my_node_container my_node_app

Breaking it down:

  • -d: Runs the container in detached mode (background).
  • -p 3000:3000: Maps port 3000 on the host to port 3000 in the container.
  • --name my_node_container: Assigns the name my_node_container to the container.

Now, if you visit http://localhost:3000 in your browser, you should see “Hello World”.

Choosing the Right Base Image

Previously, we used Ubuntu as the base image for our Dockerfile, which required multiple steps to install Node.js. Instead, using a Node.js base image can simplify and streamline the process:

# Use Node.js as the base image
FROM node:18

# Set the working directory

# Copy application files to the container
COPY package*.json ./
COPY main.js ./

# Install npm dependencies
RUN npm install

# Set the default command to run the application
CMD ["node", "main.js"]
Why It’s Important
  1. Simplicity: Pre-installed Node.js reduces Dockerfile complexity.
  2. Efficiency: Smaller image size and faster builds.
  3. Consistency: Ensures a reliable environment optimized for Node.js.

Choosing the right base image, like Node.js for Node.js applications, simplifies your Docker setup and improves efficiency.

Layer Caching: Speeding Up Builds

Docker builds images in layers and caches each layer to speed up future builds. If a layer hasn’t changed, Docker reuses the cached version. If a layer changes, Docker rebuilds that layer and all subsequent layers. The order of statements in your Dockerfile can significantly affect build speed.


Consider two Dockerfiles for the same application:

Inefficient Dockerfile:

# Use Node.js as the base image
FROM node:18

# Set the working directory

# Copy all application files
COPY . .

# Install npm dependencies
RUN npm install

# Set the default command to run the application
CMD ["node", "main.js"]

Optimized Dockerfile:

# Use Node.js as the base image
FROM node:18

# Set the working directory

# Copy package.json and package-lock.json first
COPY package*.json ./

# Install npm dependencies
RUN npm install

# Copy the rest of the application files
COPY . .

# Set the default command to run the application
CMD ["node", "main.js"]

In the Inefficient Dockerfile, the order of statements means that any change in the application files will invalidate the cache for the entire layer that includes copying all files (COPY . .). This forces Docker to reinstall npm dependencies (RUN npm install) every time, even if package.json hasn’t changed.

In the Optimized Dockerfile, we changed the order of statements:

  1. Copy package.json and package-lock.json first: This ensures that npm dependencies are only reinstalled if these files change.
  2. Install npm dependencies: This layer is now cached unless package.json changes.
  3. Copy the rest of the application files: Changes in application files will only affect this layer, leaving the npm install layer cached if it hasn’t changed.
Why Order Matters
  • Efficiency: Placing frequently changing instructions (like copying application files) at the end ensures that previous layers (like installing dependencies) are reused from the cache.
  • Speed: By minimizing the number of layers that need to be rebuilt, Docker can speed up the build process significantly.
Best Practice

To optimize for layer caching:

  • Place instructions that change less frequently (like setting up the environment and installing dependencies) early in the Dockerfile.
  • Place instructions that change more frequently (like copying application code) towards the end.

By being mindful of the order of statements, you can significantly speed up your Docker builds and make the development process more efficient.

Simplifying Multi-Container Management with Docker Compose

Imagine you have a web application that requires multiple services to run, such as a database and a cache. Managing each of these services individually can be complex and time-consuming. This is where Docker Compose comes in to save the day.

The Problem

Running a single Docker container is straightforward. But what if your application needs multiple containers to work together? For example, a typical web application might need:

  • PostgreSQL for the database
  • Redis for caching

Manually starting and managing these containers, ensuring they communicate correctly, and handling configuration can be tedious.

The Solution: Docker Compose

Docker Compose is a tool that allows you to define and manage multi-container Docker applications with ease. By using a simple YAML file, you can specify all the services your application needs, their configurations, and how they should interact.

How Docker Compose Works
  1. Define Your Services: In a docker-compose.yml file, you list all the containers (services) your application needs, along with their configurations.
  2. Run the Containers: With a single command, Docker Compose will start all the containers, configure the networks, and set up the environment according to your specifications.
Example docker-compose.yml

Here’s an example of a docker-compose.yml file that defines a PostgreSQL database and a Redis cache:

# Define the version of Docker Compose file format
version: "3.8"

# Define the services (containers) that make up the application
  # Define the PostgreSQL database service
    # Use the official PostgreSQL image from Docker Hub
    image: postgres
    # Map port 5432 on the host to port 5432 in the container
      - "5432:5432"
    # Set environment variables for PostgreSQL
      POSTGRES_USER: postgres           # Username for PostgreSQL
      POSTGRES_DB: review               # Database name
      POSTGRES_PASSWORD: password       # Password for PostgreSQL

  # Define the Redis cache service
    # Use the official Redis image from Docker Hub
    image: redis
    # Map port 6379 on the host to port 6379 in the container
      - "6379:6379"
Running Your Multi-Container Application

To create and run your containers, navigate to the directory containing your docker-compose.yml file and run:

docker compose up

This command starts all the services defined in your docker-compose.yml file.

Running in Detached Mode

If you want to run the containers in the background (detached mode), use:

docker compose up -d
Stopping Your Containers

To stop the running containers, use Ctrl + C if running in the foreground, or:

docker compose down

if running in detached mode. This command stops and removes the containers, networks, and volumes defined in your docker-compose.yml file.

Docker Compose simplifies the orchestration of multi-container Docker applications, making it easier to define, run, and manage complex applications with multiple services. By using a simple configuration file and a few commands, you can ensure that all your services work together seamlessly, reducing the complexity and time required to manage your application’s infrastructure.


In this guide, we explored the essential aspects of Docker and Docker Compose. We learned how Docker images and containers work, how to run and manage containers, and the importance of port mapping and environment variables. Additionally, we discussed how to publish Docker images to Docker Hub and use Docker Compose to manage multi-container applications efficiently.

Docker simplifies application deployment by providing consistent environments and resolving the “it works on my machine” problem. Docker Compose further enhances this by making it easy to manage complex applications with multiple services.

By mastering these Docker fundamentals, you can ensure that your applications run smoothly and consistently, no matter where they are deployed. Happy Dockerizing!

Akshat Nehra
Akshat Nehra

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