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Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

byDaniel Eklund | No Comments

This article was originally published on Daniel Eklund’s personal blog , and with his kind permission, we’re sharing it here for Codeship readers.

This post is meant as a Docker 102-level post. If you are unaware of what Docker is, or don’t know how it compares to virtual machines or to configuration management tools, then this post might be a bit too advanced at this time.

This post hopes to aid those struggling to internalize the Docker command line, specifically with knowing the exact difference between a container and an image. More specifically, this post shall differentiate a simple container from a running container.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

I do this by taking a look at some of the underlying details, namely the layers of the union file system. This was a process I undertook for myself in the past few weeks, as I am relatively new to the Docker technology and have found the Docker command lines difficult to internalize.

In my opinion, understanding how a technology works under the hood is the best way to achieve learning speed and to build confidence that you are using the tool in the correct way. Often a technology is released with a certain breathless and hype that make it difficult to really understand appropriate usage patterns. More specifically, technology releases often develop an abstraction model that can invent new terminologies and metaphors that might be useful at first, but make it harder to develop mastery in latter stages.

A good example of this is Git. I could not gain traction with Git until I understood its underlying model, including trees, blobs, commits,tags, tree-ish, etc. I had written about this before in a previous post, and still remain convinced that people who don’t understand the internals of Git cannot have true mastery of the tool.

Image Definition

The first visual I present is that of an image, shown below with two different visuals. It is defined as the “union view” of a stack of read-only layers.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

On the left we see a stack of read-layers. These layers are internal implementation details only, and are accessible outside of running containers in the host’s file system. Importantly, they are read-only (or immutable) but capture the changes (deltas) made to the layers below. Each layer may have one parent, which itself may have a parent, etc. The top-level layer may be read by a union-ing file system (AUFS on my Docker implementation) to present a single cohesive view of all the changes as one read-only file system. We see this “union view” on the right.

If you want to see these layers in their glory, you might find them in different locations on your host’s files system. These layers will not be viewable from within a running container directly. In my Docker’s host system, I can see them at /var/lib/docker in a subdirectory called aufs .

# sudo tree -L 1 /var/lib/docker/ /var/lib/docker/ ├── aufs ├── containers ├── graph ├── init ├── linkgraph.db ├── repositories-aufs ├── tmp ├── trust └── volumes  7 directories, 2 files

Container Definition

A container is defined as a “union view” of a stack of layers the top of which is a read-write layer.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

I show this visual above, and you will note it is nearly the same thing as an image, except that the top layer is read-write. At this point, some of you might notice that this definition says nothing about whether this container is running, and this is on purpose. It was this discovery in particular that cleared up a lot of confusion I had up to this point.

Takeaway: A container is defined only as a read-write layer atop an image (of read-only layers itself). It does not have to be running.

So if we want to discuss containers running, we need to define a running container.

Running container definition

A running container is defined as a read-write “union view” and the the isolated process-space and processes within. The below visual shows the read-write container surrounded by this process-space.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

It is this act of isolation atop the file system effected by kernel-level technologies like cgroups, namespaces, etc that have made Docker such a promising technology. The processes within this process-space may change, delete or create files within the “union view” file that will be captured in the read-write layer. I show this in the visual below:

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

To see this at work run the following command: docker run ubuntu touch happiness.txt . You will then be able to see the new file in the read-write layer of the host system, even though there is no longer a running container (note, run this in your host system, not a container):

# find / -name happiness.txt /var/lib/docker/aufs/diff/860a7b...889/happiness.txt

Image Layer Definition

Finally, to tie up some loose ends, we should define an image layer. The below image shows an image layer and makes us realize that a layer is not just the changes to the file system.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The metadata is additional information about the layer that allows Docker to capture runtime and build-time information, but also hierarchical information on a layer’s parent. Both read and read-write layers contain this metadata.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Additionally, as we have mentioned before, each layer contains a pointer to a parent layer using the Id (here, the parent layers are below). If a layer does not point to a parent layer, then it is at the bottom of the stack.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Metadata location

At this time (and I’m fully aware that the Docker developers could change the implementation), the metadata for an image (read-only) layer can be found in a file called json within /var/lib/docker/graph at the id of the particular layer: /var/lib/docker/graph/e809f156dc985.../json where e809f156dc985... is the elided id of the layer.

The metadata for a container seems to be broken into many files, but more or less is found in /var/lib/docker/containers/<id> where <id> is the id of the read-write layer. The files in this directory contain more of the run-time metadata needed to expose a container to the outside world: networking, naming, logs, etc.

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Tying It All Together

Now, let’s look at the commands in the light of these visual metaphors and implementation details.

docker create &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The ]docker create command adds a read-write layer to the top stack based on the image id. It does not run this container.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

docker start &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker start creates a process space around the union view of the container’s layers. There can only be one process space per container.

docker run &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

One of the first questions people ask (myself included) is “What is the difference between docker start and docker run ?” You might argue that the entire point of this post is to explain the subtleties in this distinction.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

As we can see, the Docker run command starts with an image, creates a container, and starts the container (turning it into a running container). It is very much a convenience, and hides the details of two commands.

Continuing with the aforementioned similarity to understanding the Git system, I consider the docker run command to be similar to the git pull . Like git pull (which is a combination of git fetch and git merge ), the docker run is a combination of two underlying commands that have meaning and power on their own.

In this sense it is certainly convenient, but potentially apt to create misunderstandings.

docker ps

Input (if applicable):

Your host system

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker ps lists out the inventory of running containers on your system. This is a very important filter that hides the fact that containers exist in a non-running state. To see non-running containers too, we need to use the next command.

docker ps -a

Input (if applicable):

Your host system

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker ps -a where the a is short for all lists out all the containers on your system, whether stopped or running.

docker images

Input (if applicable):

Your host system

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The docker images command lists out the inventor of top-level images on your system. Effectively there is nothing to distinguish an image from a read-only layer. Only those images that have containers attached to them or that have been pulled are considered top-level. This distinction is for convenience as there are may be many hidden layers beneath each top-level read-only layer.

docker images -a

Input (if applicable):

Your host system

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

This command docker images -a shows all the images on your system. This is exactly the same as showing all the read-only layers on the system. If you want to see the layers below one image-id, you should use the docker history command discussed below.

docker stop &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker stop issues a SIGTERM to a running container which politely stops all the processes in that process-space. What results is a normal, but non-running, container.

docker kill &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker kill issues a non-polite SIGKILL command to all the processes in a running container.

docker pause &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Unlike docker stop and docker kill , which send actual UNIX signals to a running process, the command docker pause uses a special cgroups feature to freeze/pause a running process-space. The rationale can be found here , but the short of it is that sending a Control-Z (SIGTSTP) is not transparent enough to the processes within the process-space to truly allow all of them to be frozen.

docker rm &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker rm removes the read-write layer that defines a container from your host system. It must be run on stopped containers. It effectively deletes files.

docker rmi &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker rmi removes the read-layer that defines a “union view” of an image. It removes this image from your host, though the image may still be found from the repository from which you issued a docker pull . You can only use docker rmi on top-level layers (or images), and not on intermediate read-only layers (unless you use -f for force ).

docker commit &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images or Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker commit takes a container’s top-level read-write layer and burns it into a read-only layer. This effectively turns a container (whether running or stopped) into an immutable image.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

docker build

Input (if applicable):

Dockerfile plus a Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images with many more layers added atop.

The docker build command is an interesting one as it iteratively runs multiple commands at once.

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

We see this in the above visual which shows how the build command uses the FROM directive in the Dockerfile file as the starting image and iteratively

  1. runs (create and start)
  2. modifies
  3. commits

At each step in the iteration a new layer is created. Many new layers may be created from running a docker build .

docker exec &lt;running-container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The docker exec command runs on a running container and executes a process in that running container’s process space.

docker inspect &lt;container-id&gt; or &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images or Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker inspect fetches the metadata that has been associated with the top-layer of the container or image.

docker save &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The command docker save creates a single tar file that can be used to import on a different host system. Unlike the export command, it saves the individual layers with all their metadata. This command can only be run on an image.

docker export &lt;container-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The docker export command creates a tar file of the contents of the “union view” and flattens it for consumption for non-Docker usages. This command removes the metadata and the layers. This command can only be run on containers.

docker history &lt;image-id&gt;

Input (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

Output (if applicable):

Visualizing Docker Containers and Images

The docker history command takes an image-id and recursively prints out the read-only layers (which are themselves images) that are ancestors of the input image-id.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this visualization of containers and images. There are many other commands (pull, search, restart, attach, etc.) which may or may not relate to these metaphors. I believe though that the great majority of Docker’s primary commands can be easier understood with this effort. I am only two weeks into learning Docker, so if I missed a point or something can be better explained, please drop a comment.

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