Command-line Docker Applications


Docker paved the way to encapsulating applications so that you don’t have to go through the dependency hell. This is smoother for services or non-interactive stuff though, and some extra steps are required for command-line applications.

Most of the times I interact with containers, it’s for some service that can live cozily inside its own space pretending it’s a separate server from the rest of the world. It’s no surprise that many people wonder whether it’s better to use containers or virtual machines when seen from this angle.

Many times, though, I code little programs and I appreciate the portability that Docker gives me. Just make sure that the program works properly inside the container, and you get it working wherever Docker can run that container, without worrying about the dependency hell. Sounds amazing, right?

Alas, in those cases I still want to work on stuff (e.g. files) that are on the host machine, not inside the container. This is where Docker’s option -v/--volume comes very handy, allowing to bind-mount a directory inside the host in some place of the container’s filesystem. A typical pattern I adopt is something like this:

docker run -v "$PWD:/mnt" ...

i.e. I bind-mount the current directory in the host to the /mnt path of the container, so that I can work on files in the local directory and whatever can be reached from there.

Problem solved? Not so fast.

There is still a mismatch with users and file permissions. When you run a container, you become a different user inside the container - normally, a user that makes sense inside the container, which means either root in the default case or some user that is included in the container’s /etc/passwd file.

This is where the portability somehow breaks. When setting up the container image, I have to decide which user I want when I install stuff or when I will run the container, which means not just deciding a name/group for the user (which is the least problem) but also committing to identifiers for them. From the operating system’s point of view, these identifiers are the only things that mean something. And, again, these identifiers live inside the container but will affect files in the host.

Example time:

This mismatch needs some solution to make stuff work smoothly on the command line too… we cannot just rely upon luck and hope that the user identifiers in the host and in the container match, can we?!?

In case you’re wondering, you can repeat the whole experience above using the Docker image polettix/docker-mismatch and tag 1.0. Enjoy!

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