Learn Docker with NodeJS

Nov 02, 2022 Learn Docker with NodeJS

When it comes to developing or hosting a web server means you have to install a database, nodejs, and all other tools required for your project. Managing and running all these becomes time-consuming and a headache for developers.

That is where docker helps us. It runs the applications in an isolated environment called a container. Compared to a virtual machine docker container is very lightweight and contains everything needed to run the application.

In this post, you will learn about docker by running a nodejs web server with docker. Let’s get started.

If you want to view the completed project files before starting check out this GitHub repository.

Creating a basic NodeJS server

Let’s create a basic express web server first to run with docker. Create a project directory named docker-nodejs and open your terminal or command prompt in that directory. Run npm init -y and then npm install express. It will generate package.json with the default config and install the express framework.

Next, update the package.json type and scripts like below.

Expressjs node web server

Why change the module type? to enable ECMAScript.

Now, create the index.js file in the project directory and paste the code below.

import express from "express";

const app = express();

app.get("/", (req, res) => {
  res.status(200).send("HI 👋");

app.listen(8000, () => {
  console.log("Server is running on http://localhost:8000");

As you can see, we are sending a response on / the endpoint and start listening to the server on port 8000.

Run npm run dev and visit to http://localhost:8000 to check if the server is working or not.

Writing the Dockerfile

What is a Dockerfile? A Dockerfile is like a text file where it contains all the commands a user would run on the command line or terminal.

First, create a Dockerfile file and paste the code below to get an idea of what it looks like.

FROM node:lts-alpine

WORKDIR /project

COPY ["package.json", "package-lock.json", "./"]

RUN npm install

COPY . .


CMD ["npm", "run", "dev"]

Before explaining the code above, we have to know what is a docker container and image. Because to run our web server in docker we have to build an image with the above Dockerfile and create or run a container with that image.

What is a Docker Container?

The docker container is a software package that will contain all resources/dependencies to run your application. For example, your project source files, Nodejs, or if you want to connect your application to a database, it will also contain the database.

What is a Docker Image?

To create a docker container you need to have all resources, configurations, or Instructions about the container. You can think of the image as a template with instructions to create a docker container. We declare all resources, configurations, commands, etc in the Dockerfile that is responsible for building the image.

The above code is a script that we will use later to build the image and create a docker container with it.

Explaining the Dockerfile

Since you learned what is docker container and image it will be easier to understand how the Dockerfile works. Because it’s all about copying the source files and running the npm command.

Let’s talk about FROM command from the first line.

To build an image you can also inherit other images into your image. Since we need nodejs to run our application we are including nodejs image.

But what is lts-alpine after node? This could be like node:16.18.0 where the node is the image name and 16.18.0 is the version of nodejs. But here we are using the lts version of nodejs and alpine means we are using the Alpine Linux nodejs version. The alpine version is more lightweight and smaller in size.

Next, we got the WORKDIR command. When we were creating our basic express server, we created a directory and create files and run commands in that directory. WORKDIR is also the same. we declared a WORKDIR to use that working directory as the default path.

Then with the COPY command, we are copying the package.json and package-lock.json file to the working directory. The pattern works like ["<src1>", "<src2>",..., "<dest>"]. We declared our target files at the beginning of the array and declared the destination folder at the end of the array. By ./ means the current working directory which is the /project folder because we declared this folder as the default path with the WORKDIR command.

Next, we are using the RUN command to run the npm install command to install all the dependencies.

After that, we are using the COPY command again. But this time we are copying everything thing from our project folder to the image.

You might be wondering if you are copying every file then why copy the package.json and package-lock.json file separately?

The reason is to take advantage of cached Docker layers. when we build the image, every step with COPY command will be cached. For example, when we build the image again and we didn’t change or update any files on our project, it will use the cached layers. It won’t copy the files since it’s already been cached.

So, if there are no changes to the package.json and package-lock.json file it will use the cached layer from previous builds. but when developing our application, we often change our code and other files which will remove the cache layers and rebuild the image as new where it will run the npm install command over and over again.

To stop this from happening we separated the npm install process and after that we copy all the files from the directory. So, the npm install command will only run where there is a new change on the package.json or package-lock.json file.

Docker layer caching mainly works on the RUNCOPY, and ADD commands.

Next, we are using the EXPOSE command to tell docker that our container listens on the 8000 ports at runtime. If you look at the code of our express server that is the port, we are using to access the server.

And finally, we are using the CMD command to run our application. The command is written in JSON array to run the command in the exec form instead of the shell form. For example, the exec form is node app.js and the shell form is /bin/sh -c node app.js.

Create a .dockerignore file

If you look at the line COPY . ., we are copying everything from our project directory along with the node_modules folder too. Since we are running RUN npm install on building the image we don’t need this folder. It is also a bad practice to copy the entire node_modules which will make the image build slower.

Just like .gitignore, docker also supports .dockerignore where you can exclude files and directories from being copied to the working directory.

Let’s create a .dockerignore file and add node_modules like below.


Build Image

So, we are finally ready to build our image after learning everything about how docker works. As we know, we have to build the image first to create and run our docker container.

To do this we will use the docker build command which builds docker images from the Dockerfile. First, let’s run docker build --help on the terminal to see how the command works.

Docker build help command result

As you can see in the image above, it expects a PATH argument which is the project file location. Since the Dockerfile exists in the same project directory we can just use . as the PATH value.

Also, we are going to use the --tag flag to name our image so that we can recognize the image from the docker image list.

Let’s build our image by naming the image nodejs-docker.

docker build --tag nodejs-docker .
Output of docker first image build nodejs

Now, if you try to run the command again you will see docker using the cached layers from the previous one since nothing changed in the source files.

Notice that every step from the Dockerfile is cached separately.

Cached layers on docker build nodejs

But if you try to update your code and run again, you will see docker won’t use cache anymore from that step. But it will use the cache of previous steps because the package.json and package-lock.json weren’t updated.

New layer on step update docker image layers nodejs

Now run the command below to see your docker image list.

docker image ls
Docker image ls nodejs

Running the Image Inside of a Container

To run the Image, we use the docker run command. The docker run command creates a new container with the image and starts the container.

If you run the docker run --help command, you will be able to see all the parameters this command supports. We are going to use three options, -detach, -publish, and -name.

  • The detach option runs the container in detached mode. This means it will create and run the containers in the background. The reason why we are doing this is that we are not going to use this docker run command every time we start our container. This will create new containers every time we run. after the container gets created, we can use the docker container start/stop command to start or stop the containers.
  • The publish option is to expose the port on the host machine. Just because the container is running, you won’t be able to access http:localhost:8000 from your computer. Because the container runs in an isolated environment. So, you have to declare both ports of your container and host machine. The format of the --publish command is [host port]:[container port]. If we want to access http:localhost:8000 from our browser, it will be 8000:8000 or if we want to access from http:localhost:4000 it will be 4000:8000.
  • The name option is to assign a name to your container so that we can run the container by using that name later.

And lastly, we will add the image name to run the image. The final command will look like this.

docker run -d --name nodejs-server -p 8000:8000 nodejs-docker

-d is the short form of -detach and -p is for -publish. Try running this command it will output the ID of the container. Then try visiting http:localhost:8000 to check if your server is running.

If your run docker container ls you will see the list of created containers below.

Docker container ls nodejs

Now try running the docker container stop nodejs-server command. It will stop your running web server. If you want to start again just use the docker container start nodejs-server command again.


So, there you have it. That is how you should run a NodeJS web server with docker. I can’t even imagine running a backend project without docker on my local machine these days. Because installing and running databases, Redis, and all the other tools one by one is very time-consuming.

If you want to learn more about docker there is another tool called Compose in docker where you won’t have to declare ports, names, images, etc. every time you create a container.