Introducing Docker multi-stage builds

Docker 17.05 (hipster warning: at the moment of writing, only in the Edge channel, not yet in Stable), among other features, introduced multi-stage builds.

This feature allows to use multiple images in a Dockerfile, that can reference each other. Typically, using one image for building your app, where you install all the build tools and development dependencies, and a second one, trimmed down for production.

Before multi-stage, we could see a couple patterns to write Dockerfiles in the community, that would either optimize for image size or build time. Here’s a quick overview:

The everything but the kitchen sink image

That’s where we started, and because we had better things to do than optimize disk space image, we even came back to it before multi-stage existed.

The concept is simple: you start from a somewhat clean system, then you install a compiler toolchain and a bunch of interpreters that you don’t use but that some of your dependencies require to be compiled, the package manager(s) of your choice in the version that most suits your taste, on top of the one that comes with the base image that you will never use, so you can download all your dependencies, maybe even your development dependencies if you want to run some build steps for your own app too.

Then you add your app and you push the whole thing to the Docker registry, because YOLO and storage is cheap anyway, and your connection is fast enough so you can just get a coffee or play a ping pong game while you push or pull your images.

You’re not pushing a container, you’re basically pushing a whole cargo ship that carries not only your container but also a whole bunch of containers that might have been useful at some point to build your app.

But you put an extra layer to “cleanup” at the end so you feel like a good guy and go back to asking your sysadmin to buy a couple more hard drive, even though that extra layer is actually adding a hair to your ridiculously massive image.

The “my time is cheaper than disk space” one-liner

This one consists in putting as many commands as you can into a single RUN instruction. The rule is that you must install and cleanup everything that you don’t need on your production image, in the same layer so it doesn’t take useless space.

Sounds nice, until you realize the intrinsic idea of build dependencies is that you need them to build your app but you don’t want them in your production image. Installing system packages, dependencies, compiling everything, and cleaning up all end up being in the same step that you can’t break down into smaller steps that could be cached.

And you don’t just have to cleanup after yourself, you also need to cleanup for every single tool that you used in the process that might have created temporary files, or just files that you don’t need (/usr/share/man, /tmp, ~/.tmp, ~/.cache, /var/cache, /root/.gnupg, /var/my/package/manager/database, /root/.some-build-tool-cache and a whole bunch of other locations that you won’t know about or will forget anyway).

That’s like the complete opposite of the previous pattern: instead of carrying everything in the final image, you shove the whole thing into a one-liner, and instead of playing a game of ping pong, you participate in an entire bracket tournament while your container downloads and compiles the whole universe to build your app, after all you did was fix a typo in a static file that doesn’t even need to be compiled.

We tried it too, because we thought it would be useful to start caring, but it got extra frustrating to have such slow builds, and watching apt-get install, npm install and native dependencies compilations take the vast majority of every single build when most of the time you know it’s not necessary at all for what you changed.

The smart but little-known hack, aka the builder pattern

The builder pattern is the predecessor of multi-stage builds. It’s the DIY version.

You have a Dockerfile for building, where you do absolutely whatever you want with build tools, dependencies, package manager, compilations and layers without caring about the size (or really anything), and then you have a second Dockerfile for production, off a minimal image, where you install and copy only the stuff that you need for runtime from the builder image. The best of both worlds!

To do that, you need a script that’s going to extract files from the builder image into a temporary directory, add the given files to the production image and remove the temporary directory (between building both images).

That’s cool, but it looks like a hack, feels like a hack (hint: it’s probably a hack), and you need two Dockerfiles and a shell script for this to work.

Multi-stage builds to the rescue

Multi-stage builds is what happens when you take the previous hack and put it in Docker’s core so it doesn’t look like a hack anymore. Clever.

So you don’t need two Dockerfiles, a shell script and a whole bunch of duct tape anymore, you can just keep everything cleanly in your Dockerfile!

Want an example? This is the one we use for our Node.js microservices at Busbud:

FROM node:6-alpine AS builder

RUN apk add --no-cache --virtual .build-deps python make g++
RUN rm /usr/local/bin/yarn && npm install -g yarn

COPY ./package.json ./yarn.lock /app/
RUN yarn --production
RUN apk del .build-deps

FROM alpine:3.5

COPY --from=builder /usr/local/bin/node /usr/local/bin/
COPY --from=builder /usr/lib/ /usr/lib/
COPY --from=builder /app/ /app/
COPY . /app/

CMD ["node", "."]

See how we base the final image off a bare alpine:3.5 and copy only the strict minimum from the builder image?

This way, everything happens with optimal caching in the builder image, and we can have a slim production image that contains only what it needs to run: the node binary and its system libraries, and the application source code and its (compiled) dependencies (no package manager, no forgotten cache directories that would have been used during the build, no Python and C compiler and so on).

Multi-stage builds allow us to have the smallest production image possible, without any tradeoff with build time.


With multi-stage builds, Docker effectively understands that a build needs… building, and provides us proper tooling to build efficiently our apps without affecting the production images.

This is an amazing addition to Docker that responds to a crying need, and that’s why we jumped on it as soon as it was available in Edge.

We’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you for putting this together as it pretty much solved all our problems.

I’m proud to work in a company where we have the freedom to experiment with cutting edge technologies (and eventually adopt them). If you want to join us, don’t forget that we’re hiring!

Source: Busbud engineering