in Cloud

Layering of Docker images

Docker images are great! They are not only portable application containers, they are also building blocks for application stacks. Using a Docker registry or the public Docker index, you can compose setups just by downloading the right Docker image.

But Docker images are not only building blocks for applications, they also use a kind of “build block” themselves: layers. Every Docker image consists of a set of layers which make up the final image.

Layers

Let us consider the following Dockerfile to build a simple Ubuntu image with an Apache installation:

If we build the image by calling docker build -t test/a . we get an image called a, belonging to a repository called test. We can see the history of your image by calling docker history test/a:

The final image a consists of six intermediate images as we can see. The first three layers belongs to the Ubuntu base image and the rest is ours: one layer for every build instruction.

We will see the benefit of this layering if build a slightly different image. Let’s consider this Dockerfile to build nearly the same image (only the text file in the last instruction has a different name):

When we build this file, the first thing we will notice is that the build is much faster. Since we already created intermediate images for the first three instructions (namely FROM..., RUN... and RUN...), Docker will reuse those layers for the new image. Only the last layer will be created from scratch. The history of this image will look like this:

As we see, all layers are the same as for image a, except of the first one where we touch a different file!

Benefits

Those layers (or intermediate images or whatever you call them) have some benefits. Once we build them, Docker will reuse them for new builds. This makes the builds much faster. This is great for contentious integration, where we want to build an image at the end of each successful build (e.g. in Jenkins). But the build is not only faster, the images are also smaller, since intermediate images are shared between images.

But maybe the best things are rollbacks: since every image contains all of its building steps, we can easily go back to a previous step if we want so. This can be done tagging a certain layer. Let’s take a look at image b again:

If we want to make a rollback and remove the last layer (maybe the file should be called c.txt instead of b.txt) we can do so by tagging the layer 9977b78fbad7:

Let’s take a look at the new history:

Our last layer is gone and with the layer the text file b.txt!

Best regards,
Thomas

  • Jorge F. Pastor

    Simple yet fantastic post about this amazing feature of Docker. Thanks!

  • roolebo

    Thomas, thank you for such clear explanation.