Docker for Devs Part 4: Composing Multi-container Networks with Docker Compose

Docker for Devs using Docker Compose

We’re on fire! If you’ve stayed with us through the first 3 parts of this Docker tutorial, you’ve got a good overall understanding of Docker, been able to establish a base production grade image and forged a containerized development environment of your application that can be edited live. But a real world application is never alone.  Generally, there is a number of moving parts such as databases, cache services, proxy servers just to name a few.  We’ll see how Docker Compose can help us juggle a multi-container environment.

Until now, we have mainly only used the main docker command (and docker-machine for you Docker-Toolbox users).  But, in this part of the tutorial, I’m going to introduce you to a new tool, possibly even more powerful than what have seen so far.
Docker-compose is tool that will allow you to juggle multiple containers, environments, networks and more just as we did with Docker Compose Logo of octopus with containersthe single Docker command tool.  I think their logo says a lot in explaining what can be done.

Docker Compose

Docker Compose is different, but not a complete stray from what we have been doing so far. Just as we did with a single Dockerfile, using a YAML formatted file labeled “docker-compose.yml”, we can define information about an image that we want to build and run.  Instead of a single image/container, Docker Compose allows us to define multiple images to build and containers to run which it refers to each as a service.

Instead of spelling out all the details of Docker Compose, lets reveal its capabilities as we go through the steps to setup our development application environment, this time including a MongoDB database, and a reverse proxy with Nginx, all within an isolated network.


Getting Started

I have made very minor adjustments to our application we started using in the last tutorial.  This time, it will pull the information from a MongoDB database as well as seed the database on initial start.  So as  before, you can grab this slightly altered source code from Github.

Step 1: Generating a Compose File

Until now, we have been running the Docker Build and Run commands along with a number of various tags to build images and generate running containers.  With docker-compose we can do all that in the default “docker-compose.yml file along with a number of other powerful features.

The “docker-compose.yml” file allows us to specify N number of images and containers we want to create and run that Docker Compose sees as services.  So we’re going to generate a “docker-compose.yml” that doesn’t only generate an application image and container but also a separate MongoDB and Nginx container.

Multiple networks using Docker Compose

Step 1a: docker-compose.yml

  1. Create a file in the root of application with the name of “docker-compose.yml”.
  2. Add the following contents to the file:
What did we do?
We have generated a YAML file that contains 3 main sections:
  1. A declared version of 2.1 the docker-compose.yml file. The legacy version of docker-compose.yml is version 1.
  2. Along with a services section that has the details of each image and container we want to build.
  3. Finally, a networks section that allows us to specify an isolated network that running containers generated by the services can join.


Before moving on, there are quite a lot going on in the “docker-compose.yml” worth taking a moment to cover.

Step 1b: Networks

Docker Compose allows us to specify complex custom network topologies if we wanted to.  But in our case we can simply give our network a name which we’ll use to reference each service, along with type of network defined by the “driver”.

For hosting a number of containers on a single host, we can define our network driver to use bridge. The network drive can also support clusters or existing networks.

Step 1c: Services

We defined a section labeled “services” followed by individual named services such as nginx, node, mongo.  Each of these contain the details such as:

  • The context and dockerfile to use when building the image
  • and resulting image name to be generated.
  • Along with the container-name to be used when running an instance of the above image that created.
  • ports, volumes, working_dir which are analogous to the Docker run counterpart we have used in the previous tutorials.
  • In addition, the networks the service should be part of.  Which in our case we have specified the same network we defined under networks.


Step 2: Build Images

We just about ready to learn our first docker-compose command.  But before we do, lets take quick detour and re-prepare our original production image we created in the last tutorial.

Step 2a: Rebuild Production Image

Run the following quick commands from a terminal/prompt:

  1. docker rm hackershall-prod-app
  2. docker mi hackershall-prod-i
  3. From the project root directory:docker build -t hackershall-prod-i -f ./.docker/ .

Step 2b: Docker Compose Build

When it comes to building images with docker-compose we still define dockerfile files.  We have organized all the supporting files for the various services in the docker-compose.yml file such as each service’s dockerfile and something you haven’t seen before, environment files as denoted by the env_file.  Those supporting files reside in the root directory .docker.

We’re now ready to use our first docker-compose command build


  1. From a terminal/prompt of the root project directory run:

    Output for Docker Compose build command

What did we do?

In that single command of BUILD docker-compose:

  • pulled any dependent images
  • and built specified images in the docker-compose.yml file.


Step 3: Bringing It All Online

Now that we have built all the relevant images with that single command, we are ready for really seeing the power of Docker Compose.  Let’s ask Compose to generate and run all the relevant containers specified in the docker-compose.yml:

  1. Run the command:

……and the following effect occurs

Mind being blown


Ok, maybe it looked more like the follow, but it still had the same effect:

Docker Compose generating and running containers


What did we do?
Using the UP docker-compose:
  • Create the specified network.
  • Generated the nginx, node and mongo specified containers
  • Mongo scripts were ran, admin and various operation accounts created.
  • Nginx, mongodb and Node service was brought online.


Scripts, Environment and Config Files

Though, your development application might not be using MongoDB, Nginx or even Node.js, I wanted to take a quick moment to point out a few details about all that goes on when we bring up the containers.


Environment Files

With the exception of the docker-compose.yml file, all the supporting files live within the .docker directory.  Starting with .envenvironment files.  You’ll see for the “mongo” service in the docker-compose.yml file we provide an env_file property along with the location where it can be found.


The variables in this environment file will be available to the container environment when the Mongo initialization scripts are ran.



We’ve seen the use of shell scripts in the previous tutorials, this isn’t anything new.  However, again we have these nested off into the .docker directory.


The only interesting aspect to point out is the mongo “” script that utilize the environment variables loaded through the listed environment file that establishes authorized accounts to run Mongod server along with the various credentials used by application when querying the database.


Configuration Files

Finally, Nginx operates using a Nginx Config file which dictates its operations and behavior.  Again, we have stored the Nginx config file in the .docker/config directory which the dockerfile for Nginx will copy over to the Nginx image.


Step 4: Test Node Application

Like Before we should be able to hit the running node development application, see the webpack-dev-server connecting for Hot-module reloading for live editing and perform live editing successfully.  But were running the reverse proxy Nginx.


  1. Start up your browser
  2. Browser to http://localhost
    Since we are running nginx and mapping port 80 to port 7000 in the docker-compose.yml service labeled “node”
  3. Verify the application is running:
  4. Running Express.js AppChanges to Shared components such as we did in the last tutorial, will show we can see live edits updated on the running application.


Step 5: Docker Compose Start, Stop or Down and Remove


We seen the power of Docker Compose being able to either build or run a number of images and containers with a single command.  This same capability consist with the ability to bring our environment down.


With our running development application environment including separate Nginx, Node and MongoDB containers, we have a couple options:


Step 5a: Stopping

  1. We can opt to leave everything intact and simply stop all the running containers.  This is analogous to the Docker run command we have seen before.


Step 5b: Down

  1. If we don’t want to leave containers around we can opt to have them removed instead:
Optional: Use the -v flag for removing volumes or they won’t be removed with the containers.


TIP: One of our main goals was to eliminate the need to muck up our host machine with a development environment’s dependencies.  When you’re done with an environment or need to start new, docker-compose down just removed the entire environment.  There is no uninstall x, y and z software or the half-dozen configuration changes to remove.


Step 5c: Start

  1. Assuming, the docker-compose generated containers were stopped and not removed, we can easily start them back up with the start command:


I think you would agree that Docker Compose provides some serious power and capability when it comes to building, and running a network of multiple containers representing a real-life development application environment.  One in which we were able to interact with and conduct live developmental changes to the underlying source code.


However, we still have one last stop on this tutorial and that is the ability to share those underlying images with others, teams, or just for open source initiatives.  That is what will tackle in the next and final tutorial in this series.
About the author

Max McCarty

Max McCarty is a software developer with a passion for breathing life into big ideas. He is the founder and owner of and host of the popular Lock Me Down podcast.