Quick Start to Docker for Node.js Developers

We use Docker heavily here at Flybase for development, so I thought I’d share this little quick start for diving into Docker.

Getting started with Docker can be tricky as it’s a pretty heady tool to work with. It’s extremely easy to confuse the interfaces for each of these applications.

For example, build, up, start, stop, ps, and save are commands shared across two, if not all three of the applications.

This cheat sheet below covers most of the basic workflow you need to get started with Docker.

Getting Started

Install Docker Toolbox

For Mac and Windows users, just install Docker Toolbox. It provides what you need to get started, including:

  • Docker Machine – for creating Docker hosts (“machines”)
  • Docker Client – for communicating with docker hosts
  • VirtualBox – to create docker hosts in a Linux-based (boot2docker) virtual machine

Working with Docker Machine

List Docker machines

$ docker-machine ls
NAME      ACTIVE   DRIVER         STATE     URL                          SWARM
default            virtualbox     Running   tcp://

Create a new machine

$ docker-machine create --driver virtualbox dev
Creating VirtualBox VM...
Creating SSH key...
Starting VirtualBox VM...
Starting VM...
To see how to connect Docker to this machine, run: docker-machine env dev

Now list machines

$ docker-machine ls
NAME      ACTIVE   DRIVER         STATE     URL                          SWARM
default            virtualbox     Running   tcp://
dev                virtualbox     Running   tcp://

Tell the Docker client to use the new machine

$ eval "$(docker-machine env dev)"

This command evaluates the command docker-machine env dev, which results in updating
environment variables used by the Docker client to communicate with a machine.

This means that any docker commands you issue will be executed for the docker machine named dev.

Stop a machine

$ docker-machine stop dev

Start a machine

$ docker-machine start dev
Starting VM...
Started machines may have new IP addresses. You may need to re-run the `docker-machine env` command.

Get the machine host IP

$ docker-machine ip dev

ssh into the machine

$ docker-machine ssh dev
                        ##         .
                  ## ## ##        ==
               ## ## ## ## ##    ===
           /"""""""""""""""""\___/ ===
      ~~~ {~~ ~~~~ ~~~ ~~~~ ~~~ ~ /  ===- ~~~
           \______ o           __/
             \    \         __/
 _                 _   ____     _            _
| |__   ___   ___ | |_|___ \ __| | ___   ___| | _____ _ __
| '_ \ / _ \ / _ \| __| __) / _` |/ _ \ / __| |/ / _ \ '__|
| |_) | (_) | (_) | |_ / __/ (_| | (_) | (__|   <  __/ |
|_.__/ \___/ \___/ \__|_____\__,_|\___/ \___|_|\_\___|_|
Boot2Docker version 1.8.1, build master : 7f12e95 - Thu Dec 10 03:24:56 UTC 2015
Docker version 1.8.1, build d12ea79

Working with Docker

Launch a container to run a command, such as the bash builtin echo command. The container will be created using the BusyBox image (https://registry.hub.docker.com/_/busybox/). BusyBox is just
a single executable that defines many common UNIX utilities. It’s very small, so it’s convenient
to use for demonstration purposes. You can substitute ubuntu or another Linux distribution.

$ docker run --rm busybox echo hello

Launch a BusyBox container and run an interactive shell

$ docker run --rm -it busybox sh

Working with Node

We’re going to use the Docker Hub Node repository.

Pull node image

$ docker pull node

This downloads latest image to your machine.

Run the node shell in a container and execute some JavaScript.

$ docker run -it --rm node
> console.log('hello from docker')
hello from docker

This runs the node REPL (read-evaluate-print-loop shell) in a container created from the node image.

It runs a REPL because the container runs the default command as defined by the node image CMD, as defined here:


FROM buildpack-deps:jessie
CMD [ "node" ]

Run an alternate shell command in the node container

Override the default CMD by supplying a command after the name of the node image.

$ docker run -it --rm node node -v

$ docker run -it --rm node npm -v

Run bash in the container

This will put us into a bash shell in the container

$ docker run -it --rm node bash

In the bash shell in the node container

# node -v

# npm -v

Create a simple node app

In a new directory…

Create a package.json file

  "name": "simple-docker-node-demo",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "scripts": {
    "start": "node app.js"

Create app.js

    console.log('hello world!');

Create a Dockerfile

FROM node:onbuild  

Build an image:

$ docker build -t demo-app .
Sending build context to Docker daemon 4.096 kB
Step 0 : FROM node:onbuild
onbuild: Pulling from library/node
843e2bded498: Already exists
8c00acfb0175: Already exists
# Executing 3 build triggers
Trigger 0, COPY package.json /usr/src/app/
Step 0 : COPY package.json /usr/src/app/
Trigger 1, RUN npm install
Step 0 : RUN npm install
 ---> Running in 85dc900dbab9
npm ...
npm info ok
Trigger 2, COPY . /usr/src/app
Step 0 : COPY . /usr/src/app
 ---> e90767b20603
Successfully built e90767b20603

Docker created an image based on the Dockerfile in the current directory and named it demo-app-1. As part of creating the image, it ran instructions triggered from the ‘onbuild’ base image that we specified in our Dockerfile that included copying the contents of the current directory to /usr/src/app/ and running npm install.

You can see what the instructions look like here:


The triggers are the ONBUILD statements. These will be run when
the image is built that referenced this Dockerfile in its FROM statement.

FROM node:4.0.0

RUN mkdir -p /usr/src/app
WORKDIR /usr/src/app

ONBUILD COPY package.json /usr/src/app/
ONBUILD RUN npm install
ONBUILD COPY . /usr/src/app

CMD [ "npm", "start" ]

Run the demo app in a container

$ docker run --rm demo-app-1    
npm info it worked if it ends with ok
npm info using npm@2.14.2
npm info using node@v4.0.0
npm info prestart simple-docker-node-demo@1.0.0
npm info start simple-docker-node-demo@1.0.0

> simple-docker-node-demo@1.0.0 start /usr/src/app
> node app.js

hello world
npm info poststart simple-docker-node-demo@1.0.0
npm info ok

The node app is trivial, but the mechanics of how this works is the same for more complicated examples. One thing you will probably want to do is export a port for accessing your node application, which we cover in the next section.

Pushing your image

Save your image for spinning up your app in a node container to Docker repository. You can use Docker Hub.

You will need to create an account on Docker Hub, then login from the command line:

$ docker login

Only official images (such as node) can have simple names. To push your own image, you will need to change the name of the image. Instead of demo-app, you will need to create the image using your login name. Mine is ‘freekrai’ so my docker build and docker push commands would look like this:

$ docker build -t freekrai/demo-app .

Or when you build, give it a tag:

$ docker build -t freekrai/demo-app:1.0 .

Or if you forget, tag it after:

$ docker tag <image-id> freekrai:/demo-app:v1

Then push the image to Docker Hub

$ docker push freekrai/demo-app

Create Express API app and expose a port

Modify the demo to make it an express app. Install express:

$ npm install --save express

Update app.js to start an express server

const app = require('express')();
const port = process.env.PORT || 3000;

app.use('/', function(req, res) {
	res.json({ message: 'hello world' });

console.log('listening on port ' + port);

And update Dockerfile

FROM node:onbuild
expose 3000

Rebuild the image

$ docker build -t demo-app:v2 .

Now we can run it, but we want to map port 3000 inside the container to a port we can access from our system. We’ll pick port 49100:

$ docker run --rm -t -p 49100:3000 demo-app:v2

This won’t be an interactive session, so no need for -i, but the -t allows us to send signals from our client, like CTRL-C. As usual, --rm will remove the container for us when it is stopped.

Now we can access the app via port 49100, which will be mapped to port 3000 in the container.

If you’re using Docker on a Mac, the port is actually mapped to the Docker host virtual machine. To determine the IP address, enter this at the command line:

$ docker-machine ip dev

You should be able to test in your browser.

The app looks for the environment variable PORT to be set, otherwise it defaults to 3000. We could specify an alternate port via the environment from the command line like this:

$ docker run --rm -t -p 49100:8080 -e "PORT=8080" demo-app

You will still access the app using the external port 49100, but it is now mapped to port 8080, which is what the app is listening to since the environment variable PORT was set.

Run it as a daemon

$ docker run -d -t -p 49100:3000 --name demo demo-app

Naming containers is always a good idea, especially for daemons.

List it

$ docker ps

Stop it

$ docker stop demo

Remove it

$ docker rm demo

Recommended Reading:

Ready To Build Awesome Apps?
Get started for free