Package version: docker.workshop 0.99.1


1 What is Docker?

I’ve found that it can be difficult to understand what Docker is just from a description. So let’s dive right in and try to explain with a quick example. You’ll need to bring up shellinabox (see below) in order to try the example.

1.1 Using shellinabox

You are welcome to install Docker on your own computer, but our Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) come with Docker already installed. We can access it using shellinabox which provides most of the functionality of a terminal window in your web browser. To use it, open a new web browser window.

Your shellinabox URL is the same as your RStudio URL but with :4200 added to the end. So if your RStudio URL is

Then your shellinabox URL is:

Go to that URL and log in with username ubuntu and password bioc.

1.2 A quick example

before we do anything with docker, let’s take a quick look at the machine we are on. what operating system is it running? to find out, enter the command

cat /etc/*-release

This tells us we are on Ubuntu Linux version 14.04. Let’s take a look at what processes are running on the machine. Enter the command

ps aux

This will list a lot of processes, probably over 100, even though we are hardly doing anything on the machine. The typical machine runs a lot of processes just for its basic operation.

Finally, let’s see what files are in the current directory with


Now let’s try this with Docker. Start a docker container with the command:

docker run -ti --rm debian:latest bash

You’ll see a prompt come up that looks something like this:


The first thing to notice is that this prompt came up instantly.

Let’s try once again the command to see what operating system we are on:

cat /etc/*-release

This tells us we are on Debian version 8.

Now let’s look and see what processes are running, again with

ps aux

This time it only reports two processes, our bash shell and our ps command!

Finally, type


to see what files are present. They are totally different files than the ones we saw on the host machine.

To clean up, type


to leave the container.

1.3 What just happened?

We just demonstrated an essential aspect of Docker: the fact that processes in a Docker container are isolated from those of the host machine. In fact, the Docker container we just started is running a totally different Linux distribution (Debian vs. Ubuntu on the host).

And yet it’s not a virtual machine; if it were, we’d expect to see a whole bunch of processes on it, just like on a normal machine. (Docker uses fairly recent advances in the Linux kernel called cgroups and namespaces to achieve this isolation.) So unlike a virtual machine, we can take advantage of all the speed and hardware of the host machine.

So even though we were running a different Linux distribution in our container (Debian) than on our host (Ubuntu), the container was running in the same kernel as the host. That explains why the container started up so quickly.

Docker’s filesystem is also isolated as we saw by running ls.

So that’s Docker in a nutshell. Isolated processes and filesystem (and network too!). When you see how Docker containers are created (in the next section) you’ll understand all the shipping container metaphors that get tossed around with respect to Docker.

1.4 Creating a container

Let’s say I have created a revolutionary new application that will change the world and bring me riches and fame. The application is a line of shell script that says:

echo "Hello, world!"

But we can pretend it is a very complex application that has a lot of operating system dependencies and is very difficult to build and install. So I’d like to ship my application as a Docker container, to save other users the pain of installing it.

I’d create a file called Dockerfile and put the following in it:

FROM debian:latest
CMD echo "Hello, world!"

Then I’d build the container with:

docker build -t dtenenba/myapp .

Now the container can be run as follows:

docker run dtenenba/myapp

Lo and behold, it spits out “Hello, world!”. So now I can check my Dockerfile into GitHub and anyone can build and run it. I could also push it to Docker Hub (and I have) and then any user could get it (without needing to build it) by doing

docker run dtenenba/myapp 

and the container will be pulled down from the server if it does not already exist on the host. Or you could explicitly pull it (but not run it) with

docker pull dtenenba/myapp

Dockerfiles contain all the instructions necessary to set up a container. Generally this consists of installing dependencies (usually with a package manager) and other prerequisites.

See the full Dockerfile reference for more infromation.

(There’s another way to create a Docker container, but it’s not recommended, so I won’t discuss it. So there!)

1.5 Dockerfiles and filesystem layers

By the way, I highly recommend The Docker Book by James Turnbull. It’s available as a PDF and is updated frequently. In fact, I like the book so much that I am just going to quote from it fairly liberally about the Docker filesystem:

In a more traditional Linux boot, the root filesystem is mounted read- only and then switched to read-write after boot and an integrity check is conducted. In the Docker world, however, the root filesystem stays in read-only mode, and Docker takes advantage of a union mount to add more read-only filesystems onto the root filesystem. A union mount is a mount that allows several filesystems to be mounted at one time but appear to be one filesystem. The union mount overlays the filesystems on top of one another so that the resulting filesystem may contain files and subdirectories from any or all of the underlying filesystems.

Docker calls each of these filesystems images. Images can be layered on top of one another. The image below is called the parent image and you can traverse each layer until you reach the bottom of the image stack where the final image is called the base image. Finally, when a container is launched from an image, Docker mounts a read-write filesystem on top of any layers below. This is where whatever processes we want our Docker container to run will execute.

This sounds confusing, so perhaps it is best represented by a diagram.

This diagram could be seen as another way to represent the following Dockerfile:

FROM ubuntu
RUN apt-get install -y emacs
RUN apt-get install -y apache2

The purple boxes in the diagram (read from bottom to top) match the lines in the Dockerfile. When Docker builds the Dockerfile, it creates a new image (or filesystem layer) for each command in the Dockerfile.

2 Use Cases

By now I hope you have a basic idea of what Docker is: an easy way to package up an environment to include some application and all of its dependencies. Now perhaps we have enough information to speculate about how Docker could help us:

3 Docker and Root Privileges

One big issue with Docker is that you need to be root to run it, because the kernel features that make Docker work require root privileges. We haven’t seen it in our examples so far because the ubuntu user on the AMI is a member of a group that has root privileges for certain operations. Normally, however, all docker commands must be run as root or prepended by sudo. (This is not necessary on Mac or Windows.)

This does present some problems. Not everyone (especially on shared systems) has root privileges. Sysadmins may be reluctant to run a container with unknown contents as root.

4 What if I’m not on Linux?

You can still run Docker on Windows and Mac, via a lightweight virtual machine called Boot2docker. Just follow the instructions on the Docker installation page.

Windows 10 will include a form of Docker allowing you to run Windows containers.

5 Breaking into the black box

You might be thinking, “well, it’s nice that I can have an application that says ‘Hello world’, but how do I get Docker to compute on my data? How do I run a web application on docker?”

5.1 Working with local files

Here’s a quick Dockerfile that performs some operation on data on my local computer. In this case, I want to make value judgements about the files in a directory. The following Dockerfile will do it:

FROM debian:latest
VOLUME /data
CMD for i in `ls`; do echo $i is awesome; done

I can build it with

docker build -t dtenenba/voldemo .

And run it like this:

docker run -v /etc/:/data dtenenba/voldemo

The -v switch takes two directories (separated by a colon); the first one is a directory on my local filesystem, the second can be thought of as a ‘mount point’ for that directory inside the container. Affirmingly, the above command tells me that every file in my /etc directory is awesome.

In this case, Docker is just listing the files, but it can perform write operations as well. (Since Docker runs as root by default, its output files may not have the permissions you want; read Rocker’s page on the subject for tips on getting around this).

5.2 Exposing the network

This Dockerfile is a very simple web server, but it could be a complex web application:

FROM debian:latest
RUN echo "It works!" > index.html
RUN apt-get update
RUN apt-get install -y python
CMD python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8080

If you build it:

docker build -t dtenenba/webdemo .

… and run it:

docker run --name webserverdemo -p 8080:8080 dtenenba/webdemo .

Similarly to the -v switch, the -p switch maps a port on the host to one on the container.

You can then open it in a web browser and see the riveting message.

5.2.1 Knowing which URL to open

If you created this Dockerfile on your own Linux machine, you can just go to http://localhost:8080. If you are using boot2docker you can do something like this to get the URL:

echo http://$(boot2docker ip):8000

If you are on this AMI, you can just append :8080 to your RStudio URL, so something like:

5.2.2 Cleaning up

To stop the web server, you can press control-C, or open another window and issue the command:

docker rm -f webserverdemo

6 Composing complex applications from multiple containers

A typical web application might involve several processes; for example, the Bioconductor new package tracker consists of a web application written in Python, a MySQL database, and an SMTP mail server.

Containers can be linked together to facilitate scenarios like this. Two containers can communicate with each other over network ports (without exposing their networks to the host!)

You can make an application like this out of multiple containers, one for each process. (A docker application can consist of multiple processes inside a single container, but it’s considered a best practice to just run one process per container.)

Even better, for common applications like MySQL server, you can just pull down a pre-existing container that’s ready to go. You don’t need to create and build the MySQL server yourself. Similarly, there’s an off the shelf web-app container that just receives email sent to it and displays it in a browser, ideal for testing the email functionality of a web application.

Tying it all together is a tool called Docker Compose (formerly known as Fig). This tool is not part of Docker and needs to be installed separately.

With a YAML file, we declare the dependencies between containers in this application. Here’s the real-life YAML file for the multi-container Docker app we use for testing the new package tracker:

    image: "schickling/mailcatcher" # make sure web app is configured to use port 1025 for email
     - "1080:1080" # web app to read emails
    image: "mysql"
        MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD: mysecretpassword
        MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD: mysecretpassword
    image: "dtenenba/"
     - "db"
     - "smtp"
     - "8080"
     - "roundup:/roundup"
     - "bioc_submit:/bioc_submit"
    command:  "/start/"

I won’t dwell too much on details here (the complete app is on GitHub), but this sets up the three containers and all the information they need to communicate with each other. Each container can access the relevant information by means of environment variables. A single command (docker-compose up) turns on all three containers.

See the docker-compose.yml reference for more on this declarative syntax.

7 Docker and R/Bioconductor

We’ve seen how Docker images can be built on top of one another: our “Hello, World” application was built on top of debian:latest. By the same token, the Bioconductor images are built on top of R and RStudio images provided by the Rocker organization.

The full documentation for these images is at the Bioconductor website.

For devel and release (and going forward, older releases), the following containers are available (the actual container names start with release_ or devel_ and end with one of the following):

7.1 Starting the containers

There are several ways to interact with the containers. The default way is to use RStudio Server. Entering the following command:

docker run -p 8787:8787 --rm bioconductor/devel_base

Will make RStudio Server available on port 8787 of the host. So if your AMI URL is

Add :8787 to the end:

The RStudio login is rstudio and the password is rstudio.

You can also start command-line R with this command:

docker run -ti --rm bioconductor/devel_base R

Or if you plan to run other commands besides R inside the container, start a bash shell:

docker run -ti --rm bioconductor/devel_base bash

7.2 Reproducibility

The key to reproducibility is to know exactly which Docker image you are using so you (or others) can reuse it later.

Bioconductor’s Docker images are tagged. For example, here are the available tags for the devel_base image.

There are three kinds of tags:

So an image can have multiple tags. If today is July 13, 2015, then the most recent devel_base image will be tagged 20150713, 3.2, and latest. The tag 20150713 will always apply to the same image, but the other two tags do not. So for purposes of reproducibility, you should always pay attention to the date tag of the image you’re using. If you didn’t start the image with a specific tag, you can determine the tag of a running container with the docker ps command, for example:

docker run -ti --rm bioconductor/devel_base

And then in another window:

$ docker ps
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE                              COMMAND             CREATED             STATUS              PORTS               NAMES
0af597a23632        bioconductor/devel_base:20150713   "bash"              6 seconds ago       Up 6 seconds        8787/tcp            happy_yalow

This tells me that I am using the image tagged 20150713.

8 References