Table of contents

The Most Useful and Basic Docker commands

The Most Useful and Basic Docker commands

If you read the previous post where I explain what Docker is for you should already have a pretty simple idea of Docker, but I haven’t posted anything about the most basic docker commands. Here I explain them in detail, and also how to use volumes along with Dockerfiles to automate your container’s creation process.

Images and containers are different

Before we start, it is necessary to clarify that in Docker we work with containers that are created from images. An image is like a read-only template, while the container is the materialization of that template, you could say that it is an instantiated or running image.

You can think of images and containers as classes and their instances in OOP, respectively.

If you are interested in knowing how a container works at the code level, I have a post where I explain how to create a container from scratch using Go .

Basic Docker commands for containers

Running a docker container

To run a container we will use the run command and the name of the image from which it will be derived. You can specify what you want your container to be called with the –name option.

docker run hello-world
docker run --name <container_name> hello-world
Hello from Docker!
This message shows that your installation appears to be working correctly.

After executing the above command, Docker will download the hello-world image and create a container, this container will run, perform its function and finish executing.

Download an image

If you just want to pull an image to make it available, without running it, you can use the command docker pull, followed by the image name.

This command will fetch an image from the repositories and download it to your system.

docker pull hello-world
Using default tag: latest
latest: Pulling from library/hello-world
Digest: sha256:4cf9c47f86df71d48364001ede3a4fcd85ae80ce02ebad74156906caff5378bc

Search for an image

The hello-world image is probably the most boring image out there and you’ll definitely want to look for an image that does more than just print text on the screen.

To search for an image we can use the docker search command. What this command does is to connect to docker hub and search for the image that we indicate.

On Dockerhub there are mysql images, nginx images, alpine linux images, python images, django images, wordpress images, ghost images and just about any other technology, and combinations thereof, you can name.

docker search nginx
nginx Official build of Nginx. 13802               [OK]                
jwilder/nginx-proxy Automated Nginx reverse proxy for docker con…   1885                                    [OK]
richarvey/nginx-php-fpm Container running Nginx + PHP-FPM capable of…   787                                     [OK]

On the other hand, if you prefer to do it in a more visual way you can visit Docker hub . There you can get any kind of image you can imagine, even upload your own. Take a look around and see all the options that are available for download. We won’t be downloading any others for now.

Screenshot from Dockerhub, the official repository for Docker images

See images

If we now run docker images our downloaded image will appear. Look at the low size of the image, it weighs only 13.3kB! Also look at the IMAGE ID** column. Each image, including custom images, has a unique id that represents it and a tag**.

docker images
hello-world latest bf756fb1ae65 8 months ago 13.3kB

Inspect a docker image

To inspect an image just use docker inspect, followed by the image name or id. Docker will print information related to the image in JSON format.

With docker inspect we will be able to see its environment variables, startup commands, associated volumes, architecture and many other features.

docker inspect hello-world
        "Id": "sha256:bf756fb1ae65adf866bd8c456593cd24beb6a0a061dedf42b26a993176745f6b",
        "RepoTags": [

History of an image

Docker history shows us the history of an image; the commands that have been executed and their respective triggers.

docker history hello-world
bf756fb1ae65 9 months ago        /bin/sh -c #(nop)  CMD ["/hello"]               0B

Delete a docker image

To delete an image there is the rmi command, yes like rm, but with the i in “image” below, we will need either its id or its repository and its tag separated by a colon “:”

docker rmi repository:tag
docker rmi <image_id>

If you wanted to delete the hello-world image it would be as follows. Typing docker rmi, followed by the name of the image followed by a colon from its tag.

docker rmi hello-world:latest

View Docker processes

If we want to see the executed processes we use docker ps with the -a option. Please note that our container has an id and also a name, which is generated by Docker automatically if we don’t specify it, in this case “lucid_morse”.

docker ps -a
0f100ae4a21e hello-world        "/hello"       10 minutes ago Exited (0) 10 minutes ago lucid_morse

If we remove the -a option, it will show only the active processes. As the container we created from the hello-world image finished running it will not appear in this list.

docker ps

Delete a container when finished running it

Each time we run docker run a new container is created. To avoid getting full of containers we can delete them automatically when they finish their execution using the –rm option after docker run. Try running the hello-world image again.

docker run --rm hello-world

If you now run docker ps -a again, you will see that no additional container has been created to the one we already had.

docker ps -a
0f100ae4a21e hello-world        "/hello"       10 minutes ago Exited (0) 10 minutes ago lucid_morse

Delete a container

To delete containers, you can use the docker rm command, with the container name or id.

docker rm <container_name_or_id>

How to delete all docker containers

It is quite common to want to delete all containers in Docker. **To do this we need to get all the container ids.

If you run the following command you will see a list of all the container ids printed. That’s right, it is the same command that we executed previously to see all the Docker processes, the -q option makes it only show us the ids of those processes.

docker ps -aq

Now that we have all the ids, we can use this list with the docker rm command to delete all the containers.

docker rm $(docker ps -aq)

Accessing the terminal in a container

The following command will introduce us into a container created from an image. Technically what docker run -it does is to link the standard input (STDIN) of our operating system with the standard input (STDIN) of our container. This allows us to run a container that we can interact with.

docker run -it <container>

Notice how the terminal prompt will change and we will find ourselves in a terminal from which we will be able to interact.

Try running an ls or pwd. You will notice that you are inside a GNU/Linux operating system. You can create files, modify them, create folders, etc.

If you don’t know anything about GNU/Linux commands you can check my post about the basic GNU Linux commands: cd, ls, rm, etc. to refresh your memory.

bin boot dev etc home lib lib32 lib64 libx32 media mnt opt proc root run sbin srv sys tmp usr var

How to extract a file from a docker container?

To extract a file from a container we use the docker cp command, which is basically an analogue of the Linux cp-command , with the following syntax.

docker cp <container_name>:<path_to_file> <path_to_extract_on_your_computer>

Running a docker container in the background

When we want a container to remain running in the background we use the -d tag, which comes from detach (you can also easily remember it by associating it with “daemon”).

docker run -d nginx

If we now run docker ps, to see the processes that are running in Docker, we can notice that the Nginx server that we started with the previous command is active.

docker ps
8c7fbece083b nginx           "/docker-entrypoint.…"   8 seconds ago Up 6 seconds 80/tcp boring_hugle

How to view a container’s logs

If our container failed to run the way we expected, examining the logs would be a good place to start.

For this task Docker provides us with the docker logs command, to which we will specify the container to inspect. The container from the previous step was assigned the name “boring_hugle”, although yours can have man.

For now don’t worry about errors and warnings.

docker logs <container_name>
/ /docker-entrypoint.d/ is not empty, will attempt to perform configuration
/ Looking for shell scripts in /docker-entrypoint.d/
/ Launching /docker-entrypoint.d/

Executing a command in a running container

To execute a command on a container that is running the exec command will be used. It is important to note that the **container name is used here, not the image. The following command will run bash on the container. Remember that to see the containers running we use “docker ps -a”.

docker exec -it <container_name> bash

The use of docker exec is not limited to entering a terminal. Look what happens if we run the curl command to localhost on the container where Nginx is running.

docker exec -it boring_hugle curl localhost
<!DOCTYPE html>
<title>Welcome to nginx!</title>

Stop a Docker container

To stop a running container just run docker stop, followed by the container name or id.

docker stop <container_name_or_id>

Start a container

If we want to run a container that is stopped we now use docker start.

docker start <container_name_or_id>

Restart a Docker container

If instead we want to restart a running container we can use docker restart.

docker restart <container_name_or_id>

How to expose a container’s port to the outside

So far we have created containers with which we cannot interact from the outside. If we try to open localhost we will see that our Nginx container does not return anything.

Firefox connection error page
Firefox error when trying to access Nginx container

This is because each container has its own network and its own ports. If we want to redirect the ports of the container to the ports of our computer we use the option -p, placing first the port number of our computer separated with a colon of the one that corresponds to the container.

docker run -d --name ngnixServer -p 8080:80 nginx

The above command created an instance of the Nginx web server, so we will redirect, to OUR port 8080, what comes out of YOUR port 80.

When you finish executing this command you can open your browser and check that you are running an Nginx server.

Welcome message from a server

Data persistence with volumes in Docker

The changes we make inside Docker containers, such as creating files, modifying configurations and others, stay there, if we delete the container the information and changes are lost forever.

Data persistence in Docker

Volumes are the tool that will allow us to store information outside the containers and, therefore, remains even if we delete them.

You can think of them as isolated parts in your system, which you can assemble into the container system.

Docker stores these containers in the location “_/var/lib/docker/volumes/volume_name/data”. These folders are only accessible to docker and the root user, so we do not have the permissions to modify their content directly, using our normal user. Review the permissions in GNU/Linux if you have doubts.

Let’s try to make it clearer with an example:

Create a volume when running an image

To create a volume when running a container we specify it with the -v option, followed by the volume we want to assign to the volume, separated by a colon from the location to which we want to assign the volume in the container.

docker run -d -it --name <container_name> -v <volume_name>:/var/lib/mysql ubuntu

If we now enter the terminal of that container.

docker exec -it <container_name> bash

Once in the container we enter the folder /var/lib/mysql and create a file named db.sql

cd /var/lib/mysql
touch db.sql

Now, if we do an ls on the location where Docker stores the volumes we should see the file we just created.

sudo ls /var/lib/docker/volumes/volume_name/_data

There it is! If we now stop and delete the container we will see that our volume still exists.

docker stop <container_name>
docker rm <container_name>
sudo ls /var/lib/docker/volumes/volume_name/_data

He survived the deletion of his container! The db.sql file is part of the volume named volume_name (or whatever you have named it) and to access it again you just have to mount the volume in another container. I will explain how later.

First, let’s look at another way to create volumes.

Create volumes in Docker

Docker also allows you to create a volume without running a container by using the docker volume create command, followed by the name you want for your volume. As mentioned above, Docker will create each of these volumes in the location “/var/lib/docker/volumes/volume_name/”.

docker volume create <volume_name>

Inspect volume

If we inspect a volume we will see information related to the volume we created, where it is located in our system, its name and the creation date.

docker volume inspect <volume_name>
        "CreatedAt": "2020-10-05T21:16:44-05:00",
        "Driver": "local",
        "Labels": {},
        "Mountpoint": "/var/lib/docker/volumes/volume_name/_data",
        "Name": "volume_name",
        "Options": {},
        "Scope": "local"

List volumes

To list all available volumes we will use the docker volume ls. command.

docker volume ls
local               <volume_name>

Mount volumes in Docker

To mount a volume, which we have previously created, in a container we use the –mount option, followed by the name of the volume (src) and its destination in the container (dst), separated by a comma

docker run -d --name db --mount src=<volume_name>,dst=/data/db mongo

Delete volumes

To delete a volume we use the docker volume rm command. However, we cannot delete a volume that is in use by a container, so it is necessary to stop and delete its container first.

docker volume rm <volume_name>

Clean volumes

If we have volumes that are not associated to any container we can get rid of all of them with a single command: docker volume prune.

docker volume prune
WARNING! This will remove all local volumes not used by at least one container.
Are you sure you want to continue? [y/N] y

Volumes connected

If we want a folder in our system to synchronize with a folder in our container we can also do it using volumes. Instead of specifying the name of the volume we use the address of the folder to synchronize. Unlike the volumes that Docker managed, which required root permissions here we decide the folder that Docker will use as a volume, so if we have the appropriate permissions, we will be able to modify, create or read files with our current user.

**Any change that we make in our container or in our machine is going to be reflected in both of them, that is to say that if we create or modify a file, it is going to appear in our system as well as inside the container.

The following example creates a container named mongoDB (–name mongoDB), in detach (-d) mode. The -v option will link the folder specified before the colon, with the directory of the container we specify after the colon. At the end is the name of our image, in this case our No-sql database called mongo.

docker run --name mongoDB -d -v /home/user/database/myMongoDb:/data/db mongo

If we want the volume to be read-only, just add “:ro” to the end of our syntax.

docker run --name mongoDB -d -v /Users/user/Dev/database:/data/db:ro mongo

There, this is enough to have a basic idea of the volumes. Finally, the Dockerfile files follow.

Create an image with a Dockerfile

Up to this point everything has been done manually, through the terminal, but what if we want a way to save our transformation process to an image so we can easily share it or put it in git. Dockerfile allows just that and makes it easy to design an image according to our whimsical requirements.

A Dockerfile is a file without extension where we will specify a series of transformations, ordered, that we want to apply to an image. In a Dockerfile we can add custom configuration files, our own code, extra libraries, open custom ports or whatever we want.

It is basically a template or recipe that indicates how our system should look like.

Preparation of a Dockerfile

For this example we are going to create a new folder, where we will create the Dockerfile. Remember, that a **Dockerfile is just a file without extension **.

mkdir dockerTest
cd dockerTest
touch Dockerfile

Now we create a requirements file for pip that includes Django and gunicorn. In case you don’t know, Django is a web development framework and gunicorn is a server often used in conjunction with Django.

printf "Django==3.0.1\ngunicorn==19.7.1" > requirements.txt

Next, we are going to create a project with django to use it as a base for our project. **Make sure you have pip installed on your system or you won’t be able to use django-admin ** In case you can’t download version 3.0.1 you can use any other version and it should also work.

sudo pip install Django==3.0.1
django-admin startproject myDjangoDockerApp

If we now review our current folder we will see the following file and folder structure. If you don’t know Django ignore the files, the important thing for now is that you know that gunicorn only needs to know where the file is to start the server.

├── Dockerfile
├── myDockerDjangoApp
│   ├──
│   └── myDockerDjangoApp
│       ├──
│       ├──
│       ├──
│       └──
└── requirements.txt

Example, creation and analysis of a Dockerfile

With all these files we are going to create a custom image for our Dockerfile. Open the Dockerfile file with your favorite text editor and let’s write the following content.

FROM python:3.6

ADD . /app/

WORKDIR /app/myDockerDjangoApp

RUN pip install -r /app/requirements.txt


CMD ["gunicorn", "myDockerDjangoApp.wsgi"]
  • FROM python:3.6: All Dockerfiles need an image to start from, in this case that image is python:3.6.
  • ENV PYTHONBUFFERED 1: Allows us to read the Python logs in our terminal.
  • ADD . /app/: Adds all files in the current folder to the /app/ folder. Also serves COPY, the difference is that ADD accepts compressed files or a url.
  • WORKDIR /app/myDockerDjangoApp: Sets the /app/myDockerDjangoApp folder as the base folder to use when running commands with CMD, RUN, ADD or COPY.
  • RUN pip install -r /app/requirements.txt: RUN allows to execute commands, which are executed when the image is compiled and saved as a new layer in the image. We will use RUN to install all the dependencies we specified in the requirments.txt file (Django and Gunicorn only).
  • EXPOSE 8000: Expose port 8000 to the outside.
  • ENV PORT 8000: Creates an environment variable called PORT with the value of 8000. This will be used to access the port.
  • CMD [“gunicorn”, “myDockerDjangoApp.wsgi”]: CMD executes a command when starting a container from an image, the commands and arguments are separated as if they were a Python list. In this case, as I mentioned above, gunicorn just needs to know where the wsgi file that django generated automatically is.

Difference between RUN and CMD in Docker

The RUN directive allows you to execute commands inside a Docker image, these commands are executed only once when the image is compiled and are saved in your Docker image, as a new layer. RUN is ideal for permanent changes that affect the image, such as installing packages.

RUN pip install -r requirements.txt

CMD allows you to run a command once the container boots, however any changes in CMD require you to recompile the image. This makes it ideal for booting web servers, or services.

CMD ["gunicorn", "--bind", ":8000", "--workers", "2", "project.wsgi"]

The order is important in a Dockerfile

Compiling a Dockerfile is a sequential process, each step creating an intermediate image that Docker can cache.

Docker uses the stored cache to avoid having to repeat unnecessary steps when a change occurs in a Dockerfile, i.e. if you make a change in one of the steps, Docker will try to use its cached data to avoid repeating all the previous steps.

Therefore, consider the order in which you carry out your instructions to avoid time-consuming and resource-intensive image compilations.

Tip: Place package installations or processes that are unlikely to change first, and place those steps that change frequently, such as your application code, at the end.

Sending build context to Docker daemon 12.8kB
Step 1/8 : FROM python:3.6
 ---> 46ff56815c7c
 ---> Using cache
 ---> c55438b3c6a0
Step 3/8 : ADD . /app/
 ---> Using cache
 ---> ecedebf26f36
Step 4/8 : WORKDIR /app/myDockerDjangoApp
 ---> Using cache
 ---> 83b5ccaa1cc6
Step 5/8 : RUN pip install -r /app/requirements.txt
 ---> Using cache
 ---> 6cb2683c8fa8
Step 6/8 : EXPOSE 8000
 ---> Using cache
 ---> 744b46577c43
Step 7/8 : ENV PORT 8000
 ---> Using cache
 ---> 03111761fb54
Step 8/8 : CMD ["gunicorn", "myDockerDjangoApp.wsgi"]
 ---> Using cache
 ---> 6e3ffe358338
Successfully built 6e3ffe358338
Successfully tagged djangocontainer:0.1

How to compile a Dockerfile

To compile a Dockerfile and create a custom image created from the contents of our file, just run the docker build command and set the location of the Dockerfile. Docker build allows us to specify a tagname and a version, separated by a colon “:”, using the –tag tag. Note that the colon at the end is not a blob on your screen or a bug, but refers to the folder we are in.

docker build --tag djangocontainer:0.1 .

You can see that our image has been created by executing the command docker images

docker images
djangocontainer 0.1 6e3ffe358338 About a minute ago 912MB

Now that we have the image we just need to run it. For this example we will bind our port 8000 to port 8000 of our container, run our container in the background and name it test_container.

docker run -p 8000:8000 -d --name test_container djangocontainer:0.1

Now comes the best part! The moment where we find out if our code works or we made a complete mess.

curl localhost:8000
<!doctype html>
        <meta charset="utf-8">

If we open our browser and enter our localhost on port 8000 we will see the Django rocket indicating that everything worked perfectly. Gunicorn is serving our Django application on port 8000, which we can access through our port of the same number.

Django installation success page, shows welcome message and links to documentation

This tutorial covered only the basics of Docker. Next I will talk about docker compose, the Docker container management tool .

Eduardo Zepeda
Web developer and GNU/Linux enthusiast. I believe in choosing the right tool for the job and that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Better done than perfect. I also believe in the goodnesses of cryptocurrencies outside of monetary speculation.
Read more