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The fundamentals of building a Docker image

Written by
kyle
Kyle Galbraith
Published on
30 May 2023
There are four fundamentals to building a Docker image quickly with docker build. From the moment we create a Dockerfile, we should be thinking about the fundamentals of building a Docker image as fast as possible.
The fundamentals of building a Docker image banner

Docker containers and containerization are popular ways to package and deploy various applications. But, building a Docker image is a skill that begins at the very beginning. From the moment we create a Dockerfile, we should be thinking about the fundamentals of building a Docker image quickly.

In this post, we'll work with an example project to chat through four fundamentals to make building Docker images as fast as possible when using one of the docker commands; the docker build command.

  1. Keeping our Docker build context small by excluding things in our source code for a faster image build
  2. Using a minimal base image for a smaller container image
  3. Leveraging a multi-stage image build for keeping our final Docker container slimmed down
  4. How to use BuildKit cache mounts for a fast image build when you use cache but it invalidates

Example project

Let's create a sample Node API project we can work with throughout to build a new docker image. We will leverage Fastify to create an API that we configure via the fastify-cli.

First, we initialize a project via pnpm or your favorite package manager. Then we install the fastify-cli globally via your preferred package manager:

pnpm add -g fastify-cli

Then, create a new project via the fastify-cli. We use the --lang=ts flag to create a TypeScript project:

fastify-cli generate --lang=ts .

The details of what the API does aren't that important for this post, so we can stick with what generate gives us. We can start the API after running pnpm install via pnpm start and test it out:

pnpm install && pnpm start
{"level":30,"time":1684761301504,"pid":42443,"hostname":"depotmacbook.home","msg":"Server listening at http://127.0.0.1:3000"}

We can test the API out via curl:

curl localhost:3000
{"root":true}

Fundamentals of building a Docker image quickly

Now that we have an example project to containerize, we can start looking at the fundamentals of docker build to build images fast. First, we need a Dockerfile and a .dockerignore file at the root of our git repository.

touch Dockerfile .dockerignore

Fundamental #1: Use a .dockerignore file to exclude files from the build context

The .dockerignore file excludes files from the build context during the build process. We don't want to copy over files that aren't needed to run our application or that we generate during the build.

We exclude things like README files or unnecessary files like our .git directory. We also exclude artifacts that will get generated during the build, like node_modules, because we will install those in our build.

node_modules
.git
.gitignore
README.md
dist/*

Fundamental #2: Use a minimal base image

When building Docker images, it's common to jump to a generic base image like the ubuntu or node:20. But, this has downsides that impact the build command and even docker run down the line.

  1. Generic base images are often large, which means we have to download a lot of data before we can start building our image layers
  2. Large base images can make our final image larger than it needs to be because they include a lot of unnecessary dependencies that we don't need
  3. Large Docker images are slow to build and slow to run

So, instead of reaching for the large base image, we can reach for the slim version instead. Here is an updated Docker file that uses the slim version of the node:20 base image:

FROM node:20-slim
 
ENV PNPM_HOME="/root/.local/share/pnpm"
ENV PATH="${PATH}:${PNPM_HOME}"
 
RUN corepack enable
RUN pnpm add -g fastify-cli
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY package.json pnpm-lock.yaml tsconfig.json ./
RUN pnpm fetch --frozen-lockfile
RUN pnpm install --frozen-lockfile
 
COPY src/ ./src
RUN pnpm build:ts
 
EXPOSE 3000
CMD ["fastify", "start", "-l", "info", "dist/app.js"]

This smaller base image is 244MB instead of 951MB. A smaller base image will make building the Docker image faster. Why? Because we will have less data to download and package up. Our final image is also smaller because we won't have unnecessary dependencies from the larger base image.

Why not alpine?

Another option is to use the alpine base image. But, it's an unofficial Node runtime because it uses musl to implement the C standard library. The difference can cause performance issues, bugs, and application crashes. So for this post, we stick to a slim image instead.

What's happening in the actual Dockerfile?

Our first RUN command is corepack enable so we can access pnpm without installing it ourselves. Next, we install the fastify-cli so that we can use it to start our API.

Then we use the COPY command to copy in our package.json, pnpm-lock.yaml, and tsconfig.json files. With those files copied, we can use another RUN command to execute pnpm install to install our dependencies.

Once our dependencies are installed, we can build our TypeScript files and output them into our dist/ folder via the final RUN command. Lastly, we expose port 3000 for our image to run on and set the CMD instruction to start our API.

We can build and run the image with the following docker commands from our command line:

docker build --tag fastify-example .
docker run --interactive fastify-example
{"level":30,"time":1685107923669,"pid":1,"hostname":"7ac713c84acc","msg":"Server listening at http://0.0.0.0:3000"}
Copy only what you need to install dependencies

Notice that we don't copy over our entire repository (i.e., COPY . .) and only copy the files needed to install our dependencies. If we copy over our entire repository, any code change would invalidate the cache. Invalidating the cache would mean having to reinstall our dependencies. This is a waste of time and resources.

Check out our fast Dockerfiles theory & practice post for more background on how that subtle mistake could cause your docker build times to explode.

Fundamental #3: Use a multi-stage build

A multi-stage build uses many FROM statements in our Dockerfile to create many images. We can copy files from one stage to another, which allows us to create a final image that only contains the files we need to run our application. We can also build stages in parallel, which speeds up our builds.

Here is what our Dockerfile looks like with a multi-stage build:

FROM node:20-slim as base
 
ENV PNPM_HOME="/root/.local/share/pnpm"
ENV PATH="${PATH}:${PNPM_HOME}"
RUN corepack enable
RUN pnpm add -g fastify-cli
 
FROM base as dependencies
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY package.json pnpm-lock.yaml tsconfig.json ./
RUN pnpm fetch --frozen-lockfile --prod
RUN pnpm install --frozen-lockfile --prod
 
FROM base as build
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY package.json pnpm-lock.yaml tsconfig.json ./
RUN pnpm fetch --frozen-lockfile
RUN pnpm install --frozen-lockfile
COPY src/ ./src
RUN pnpm build:ts
 
FROM base
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY --from=dependencies /app/node_modules /app/node_modules
COPY --from=build /app/dist /app/dist
EXPOSE 3000
CMD ["fastify", "start", "-l", "info", "dist/app.js"]

We now have four stages in our multi-stage build process:

  1. base - This is the base image we use to install pnpm and fastify-cli
  2. dependencies - We install our dependencies without dev dependencies via the --prod flag
  3. build - We install our dependencies with dev dependencies to build our TypeScript files
  4. Our final image - We copy over our dependencies from the dependencies stage and our built TypeScript files from the build stage using the base stage as our base image

When we run a docker build now, we build each stage in parallel. Then in our final stage, we copy the files from the previous build stages into our final container image that the Docker engine can run. The earlier stages get excluded from the final image. The net result is that we have a final image that is 285MB instead of 412MB.

Fundamental #4: Leverage BuildKit cache mounts

BuildKit cache mounts speed up our builds when the cache gets invalidated and a given layer needs rebuilding. The target of a cache mount is persisted across builds, assuming you have a persistent disk to keep them on. See our post on using BuildKit cache mounts in CI for more in-depth details.

Here is our final Dockerfile with BuildKit cache mounts:

FROM node:20-slim as base
 
ENV PNPM_HOME="/root/.local/share/pnpm"
ENV PATH="${PATH}:${PNPM_HOME}"
 
RUN corepack enable
RUN pnpm add -g fastify-cli
 
FROM base as dependencies
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY package.json pnpm-lock.yaml tsconfig.json ./
RUN --mount=type=cache,id=pnpm,target=/root/.local/share/pnpm/store pnpm fetch --frozen-lockfile --prod
RUN --mount=type=cache,id=pnpm,target=/root/.local/share/pnpm/store pnpm install --frozen-lockfile --prod
 
FROM base as build
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY package.json pnpm-lock.yaml tsconfig.json ./
RUN --mount=type=cache,id=pnpm,target=/root/.local/share/pnpm/store pnpm fetch --frozen-lockfile
RUN --mount=type=cache,id=pnpm,target=/root/.local/share/pnpm/store pnpm install --frozen-lockfile
COPY src/ ./src
RUN pnpm build:ts
 
FROM base
 
WORKDIR /app
COPY --from=dependencies /app/node_modules /app/node_modules
COPY --from=build /app/dist /app/dist
EXPOSE 3000
CMD ["fastify", "start", "-l", "info", "dist/app.js"]

We added a --mount flag to our RUN statements that install our dependencies. This tells BuildKit to store the contents of /root/.local/share/pnpm/store, the virtual store directory for pnpm, across builds. So the next time we build our image, the virtual store will be mounted, and we won't have to download the complete list of dependencies again.

Conclusion

From the moment we create a Dockerfile, we should be thinking about the fundamentals of building a Docker image as fast as possible.

These fundamentals will help us build images fast. They allow us to leverage as much of our previous build results as possible to avoid unnecessary work. They help us keep our image sizes small and our builds & deployments fast.

40x faster builds with Depot

Our CLI, depot build, is a drop-in replacement for docker build that can make your Docker image builds up to 40x faster.

We launch remote Docker image builders supporting x86 and Arm architectures. These remote builders come with 6 CPUs, 32 GB memory, and a persistent 50 GB NVMe cache disk.

With these fundamentals, you can leverage Depot to build your images even faster. We automatically persist your layer cache across builds via a local SSD. It's available instantly during builds and shared with anyone who has access to the project. A developer who builds an image can reuse the result their coworker produced minutes before.

If you want to try out Depot to accelerate your docker build workflow, sign up and try things out via our quickstart guide.

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