Building lean Docker images

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

At Localz, we use Docker as the building block for all of our deployments. We like to think of it as a single unit of deployment. If it runs in Docker, it can be deployed and horizontally scaled, and requires less maintenance than running on bare metal.

In this post, I’ll go through the techniques we use to keep our Docker images lean — including using base images, removing build dependencies, utilising build stages, and scratch-based images!

Separating build and runtime dependencies

No matter which language you use — whether it’s Node.js, Go, Python, or something else — it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have both build and runtime dependencies.

In brief, build dependencies are modules, libraries, or packages that are required to setup your application — which may mean compiling, testing or otherwise ‘building’ your code.

Runtime dependencies are specifically required while your application is running. Examples of these are pretty easy to identify — database ORMs, third party SDKs, and any module your project depends on to perform required tasks.

Separating these dependencies can shave down the size of a Docker image both in number of intermediary layers, and size on disk. If you’re deploying a lot of images, reducing image size here and there can result in pretty big savings.

If you’re using Alpine-based images and require build tooling like make and g++, you can install those dependencies, use them, and remove them afterwards:

With build dependencies, the image weighs in at 218 MB. But when we remove them, it is only 67.1 MB — that’s 150.9 MB we’re doing without!

Consolidating shared dependencies into a base image

If you have more than a few applications sharing the same stack and some of the same dependencies, you can create a base image to reduce total build time. This means that rather than re-installing shared dependencies for every build you can pull the layers in binary form, no compilation/installation required!

Let’s take a look at a simple example. Suppose we use Now for deployment, meaning we call now to deploy in our continuous deployment pipeline. Instead of calling npm install -g now for every single build, we can cache this in a parent image and enjoy faster builds.

We define our parent image with:

We can then build this image and tag it as parent

docker build --file parent.Dockerfile --tag parent .

Now we can make a child image which is based upon the parent:

While this example may seem trivial as now doesn't take long to install, if you're using an npm package which uses C/C++ bindings then you might have to deal with compilation time, which can be fairly significant when building in a CI tool that limits CPU cores.

You can read more about base images in the Docker documentation.

Build stages and scratch-based images

This example pertains more to compiled applications. In these cases you can compile your application using one Docker image, and then copy the binary into a scratch image as a single binary. scratch images have no base layers, so they’re super lightweight!

If we were to use golang:1.11.2-alpine3.8 as the base image, rather than scratch, our image would be a whopping 312 MB! With scratch, it’s just 6.32 MB! 😱

That’s it! I hope this proves useful, and if you weren’t already keen on Docker, maybe you are now!

If you’ve got any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter, I’m always keen to help out! ✌️


This blog post is part of the 2018 Localz Advent Calendar series. You can read the rest of the blog posts in the series here.

And don’t forget to hit that 👏 button — it lets people find some of the cool stories we post in the Localz Engineering blog!