Using Docker Compose for NodeJS Development


Reading Time: 9 minutes

Docker is an amazing tool for developers. It allows us to build and replicate images on any host, removing the inconsistencies of dev environments and reducing onboarding timelines considerably.

To provide an example of how you might move to containerized development, I built a simple todo API using NodeJS, Express, and PostgreSQL using Docker Compose for development, testing, and eventually in my CI/CD pipeline.

In a two-part series, I will cover the development and pipeline creation steps. In this post, I will cover the first part: developing and testing with Docker Compose.

Requirements for This Tutorial

This tutorial requires you to have a few items before you can get started.

The todo app here is essentially a stand-in, and you could replace it with your own application. Some of the setup here is specific for this application, and the needs of your application may not be covered, but it should be a good starting point for you to get the concepts needed to Dockerize your own applications.

Once you have everything set up, you can move on to the next section.

Creating the Dockerfile

At the foundation of any Dockerized application, you will find a Dockerfile. The Dockerfile contains all of the instructions used to build out the application image. You can set this up by installing NodeJS and all of its dependencies; however the Docker ecosystem has an image repository (the Docker Store) with a NodeJS image already created and ready to use.

In the root directory of the application, create a new Dockerfile.

/> touch Dockerfile

Open the newly created Dockerfile in your favorite editor. The first instruction, FROM, will tell Docker to use the prebuilt NodeJS image. There are several choices, but this project uses the node:7.7.2-alpine image. For more details about why I’m using alpine here over the other options, you can read this post.

FROM node:7.7.2-alpine

If you run docker build ., you will see something similar to the following:

Sending build context to Docker daemon 249.3 kB
Step 1/1 : FROM node:7.7.2-alpine
7.7.2-alpine: Pulling from library/node
709515475419: Pull complete
1a7746e437f7: Pull complete
662ac7b95f9d: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:6dcd183eaf2852dd8c1079642c04cc2d1f777e4b34f2a534cc0ad328a98d7f73
Status: Downloaded newer image for node:7.7.2-alpine
 ---> 95b4a6de40c3
Successfully built 95b4a6de40c3

With only one instruction in the Dockerfile, this doesn’t do too much, but it does show you the build process without too much happening. At this point, you now have an image created, and running docker images will show you the images you have available:

REPOSITORY          TAG                 IMAGE ID            CREATED             SIZE
node                7.7.2-alpine        95b4a6de40c3        6 weeks ago         59.2 MB

The Dockerfile needs more instructions to build out the application. Currently it’s only creating an image with NodeJS installed, but we still need our application code to run inside the container. Let’s add some more instructions to do this and build this image again.

This particular Docker file uses RUN, COPY, and WORKDIR. You can read more about those on Docker’s reference page to get a deeper understanding.

Let’s add the instructions to the Dockerfile now:

FROM node:7.7.2-alpine

RUN apk update
COPY package.json /tmp/package.json
RUN cd /tmp && npm install --quiet
RUN mkdir -p /usr/app && cp -a /tmp/node_modules /usr/app

WORKDIR /usr/app
COPY ./ /usr/app/

Here is what is happening:

  • Update apk packages
  • Copy the package.json file to tmp
  • Install node_modules in tmp
  • Copy the node_modules to /usr/app
  • Set the working directory to /usr/app
  • Copy all the files from the project’s root to /usr/app

We initially install into tmp to make use of the cache layers I talked about earlier. By doing it this way, we are able to cache node_modules and not install them every time we build the image unless there are new ones to be installed.

You can now run docker build . again and see the results:

Sending build context to Docker daemon 249.3 kB
Step 1/7 : FROM node:7.7.2-alpine
 ---> 95b4a6de40c3
Step 2/7 : RUN apk update
 ---> Running in 9e1ba27dcd8d
v3.4.6-101-g85afbbc []
v3.4.6-83-g67e50bc []
OK: 5972 distinct packages available
 ---> fe85afcf457d
Removing intermediate container 9e1ba27dcd8d
Step 3/7 : COPY package.json /tmp/package.json
 ---> 5bcbc25f16f1
Removing intermediate container 7bdfe092ce5e
Step 4/7 : RUN cd /tmp && npm install --quiet
 ---> Running in 57f5ac4618ec


 ---> 525f662aeacf
Removing intermediate container 57f5ac4618ec
Step 5/7 : RUN mkdir -p /usr/app && cp -a /tmp/node_modules /usr/app
 ---> Running in 05529fe28f41
 ---> 58dc99530a26
Removing intermediate container 05529fe28f41
Step 6/7 : WORKDIR /usr/app
 ---> 394a19b73f96
Removing intermediate container be09c6bcae84
Step 7/7 : COPY ./ /usr/app/
 ---> 7b591e02ded3
Removing intermediate container 7bfb004ad51f
Successfully built 7b591e02ded3

You have now successfully created the application image using Docker. Currently, however, our app won’t do much since we still need a database, and we want to connect everything together. This is where Docker Compose will help us out.

Docker Compose Services

Now that you know how to create an image with a Dockerfile, let’s create an application as a service and connect it to a database. Then we can run some setup commands and be on our way to creating that new todo list.

Create the file docker-compose.yml:

/> touch docker-compose.yml

The Docker Compose file will define and run the containers based on a configuration file. We are using compose file version 2 syntax, and you can read up on it on Docker’s site.

An important concept to understand is that Docker Compose spans “buildtime” and “runtime.” Up until now, we have been building images using docker build ., which is “buildtime.” This is when our containers are actually built. We can think of “runtime” as what happens once our containers are built and being used.

Compose triggers “buildtime” — instructing our images and containers to build — but it also populates data used at “runtime,” such as env vars and volumes. This is important to be clear on. For instance, when we add things like volumes and command, they will override the same things that may have been set up via the Dockerfile at “buildtime.”

Open your docker-compose.yml file in your editor and copy/paste the following lines:

version: '2'
    build: .
    command: npm run dev
      - .:/usr/app/
      - /usr/app/node_modules
      - "3000:3000"
      - postgres
      DATABASE_URL: postgres://todoapp@postgres/todos
    image: postgres:9.6.2-alpine
      POSTGRES_USER: todoapp
      POSTGRES_DB: todos

This will take a bit to unpack, but let’s break it down by service.

The web service

The first directive in the web service is to build the image based on our Dockerfile. This will recreate the image we used before, but it will now be named according to the project we are in, nodejsexpresstodoapp. After that, we are giving the service some specific instructions on how it should operate:

  • command: npm run dev – Once the image is built, and the container is running, the npm run dev command will start the application.
  • volumes: – This section will mount paths between the host and the container.
  • .:/usr/app/ – This will mount the root directory to our working directory in the container.
  • /usr/app/node_modules – This will mount the node_modules directory to the host machine using the buildtime directory.
  • links: – This will create a dependency and create the environment variable to network the services together.
  • environment: – The application itself expects the environment variable DATABASE_URL to run. This is set in db.js.
  • ports: – This will publish the container’s port, in this case 3000, to the host as port 3000.

The DATABASE_URL is the connection string. postgres://todoapp@postgres/todos connects using the todoapp user, on the host postgres, using the database todos.

This Compose file uses “links.” The preference here is depends_on, however, Codeship currently doesn’t support depends_on. This will make the transition from local to CI/CD easier at a later step.

The Postgres service

Like the NodeJS image we used, the Docker Store has a prebuilt image for PostgreSQL. Instead of using a build directive, we can use the name of the image, and Docker will grab that image for us and use it. In this case, we are using postgres:9.6.2-alpine. We could leave it like that, but it has environment variables to let us customize it a bit.

environment: – This particular image accepts a couple environment variables so we can customize things to our needs. POSTGRES_USER: todoapp – This creates the user todoapp as the default user for PostgreSQL. POSTGRES_DB: todos – This will create the default database as todos.

Running The Application

Now that we have our services defined, we can build the application using docker-compose up. This will show the images being built and eventually starting. After the initial build, you will see the names of the containers being created:

Pulling postgres (postgres:9.6.2-alpine)...
9.6.2-alpine: Pulling from library/postgres
627beaf3eaaf: Pull complete
e351d01eba53: Pull complete
cbc11f1629f1: Pull complete
2931b310bc1e: Pull complete
2996796a1321: Pull complete
ebdf8bbd1a35: Pull complete
47255f8e1bca: Pull complete
4945582dcf7d: Pull complete
92139846ff88: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:7f3a59bc91a4c80c9a3ff0430ec012f7ce82f906ab0a2d7176fcbbf24ea9f893
Status: Downloaded newer image for postgres:9.6.2-alpine
Building web
Creating nodejsexpresstodoapp_postgres_1
Creating nodejsexpresstodoapp_web_1
web_1       | Your app is running on port 3000

At this point, the application is running, and you will see log output in the console. You can also run the services as a background process, using docker-compose up -d. During development, I prefer to run without -d and create a second terminal window to run other commands. If you want to run it as a background process and view the logs, you can run docker-compose logs.

At a new command prompt, you can run docker-compose ps to view your running containers. You should see something like the following:

            Name                            Command              State           Ports
nodejsexpresstodoapp_postgres_1 postgres   Up      5432/tcp
nodejsexpresstodoapp_web_1        npm run dev                     Up>3000/tcp

This will tell you the name of the services, the command used to start it, its current state, and the ports. Notice nodejsexpresstodoapp_web_1 has listed the port as>3000/tcp. This tells us that you can access the application using localhost:3000/todos on the host machine.

/> curl localhost:3000/todos


The package.json file has a script to automatically build the code and migrate the schema to PostgreSQL. The schema and all of the data in the container will persist as long as the postgres:9.6.2-alpine image is not removed.

Eventually, however, it would be good to check how your app will build with a clean setup. You can run docker-compose down, which will clear things that are built and let you see what is happening with a fresh start.

Feel free to check out the source code, play around a bit, and see how things go for you.

!Sign up for a free Codeship Account

Testing the Application

The application itself includes some integration tests built using jest. There are various ways to go about testing, including creating something like Dockerfile.test and docker-compose.test.yml files specific for the test environment. That’s a bit beyond the current scope of this article, but I want to show you how to run the tests using the current setup.

The current containers are running using the project name nodejsexpresstodoapp. This is a default from the directory name. If we attempt to run commands, it will use the same project, and containers will restart. This is what we don’t want.

Instead, we will use a different project name to run the application, isolating the tests into their own environment. Since containers are ephemeral (short-lived), running your tests in a separate set of containers makes certain that your app is behaving exactly as it should in a clean environment.

In your terminal, run the following command:

/> docker-compose -p tests run -p 3000 --rm web npm run watch-tests

You should see jest run through integration tests and wait for changes.

The docker-compose command accepts several options, followed by a command. In this case, you are using -p tests to run the services under the tests project name. The command being used is run, which will execute a one-time command against a service.

Since the docker-compose.yml file specifies a port, we use -p 3000 to create a random port to prevent port collision. The --rm option will remove the containers when we stop the containers. Finally, we are running in the web service npm run watch-tests.


At this point, you should have a solid start using Docker Compose for local app development. In the next part of this series about using Docker Compose for NodeJS development, I will cover integration and deployments of this application using Codeship.

Is your team using Docker in its development workflow? If so, I would love to hear about what you are doing and what benefits you see as a result.

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Join the Discussion

Leave us some comments on what you think about this topic or if you like to add something.

  • CWSpear

    Your Dockerfile could just look like this:

    FROM node:7.7.2-alpine

    WORKDIR /usr/app/

    COPY ./package.json ./
    RUN npm install --quiet

    COPY ./ ./

    There’s no need for the temporary directory. This benefits from the caching you mention in the same way. It also makes for a smaller image (even considering the apk update which doesn’t really seem necessary either way?).

    You should also mention it’s pretty important to put node_modules in the .dockerignore (as well as a build/dist directory if you have a build step for your project).

    • Great feedback. I like the simpler handling, and makes complete sense.

      The apk update is not required here, but I install something on the next part and didn’t delete the line.

      I left out explaining the Dockerfile mostly for length. The repo has it in there already, but adding a notr doesn’t seem out of line.

      Thanks again for reading through.

  • Pingback: Node.js Weekly Update – 12 May, 2017 | Webammer()

  • I find it dangerous to mount the local node_modules to the host. This will seem to work just fine, however, native node modules may misbehave even if you dev machine is a linux box and not specifically alpine. Mileage will vary on Macs, and thinking about Windows makes me nauseous.

    Unless there’s something I’m missing here. I think, development/build concerns should be separated from prod bound concerns (i.e. building the docker image). I’ve a full-stack TypeScript MEAN project that shows a barebones approach to docker-compose, also applying NodeSource security best practices in baking a Node image, I’d appreciate any feedback, if my concerns are off-base here.

    • Thanks for the comment! I did it this way because I wanted to be able to edit my files on my host machine, however when you mount the folder with out mounting the node_module folder, the build time `node_modules` would be overwritten otherwise.

      What I don’t go into detail here, is adding new `node_modules` – which I do directly in the container and not from my local machine. I was saving that for a later post.

      Love your example – really good stuff there.

      • Sounds good! Looking forward to the next blog post. If possible, please emphasize the importance `npm shrinkwrap` when running `npm install` on different environments to achieve repeatable results.

        • Matt Welke

          Wouldn’t using yarn also achieve this?

          • Christian Katzorke

            Yes sure. Beside the lockfile, yarn also provides you consistency/security with using checksums (and an enhanced local registry). But if you can’t or don’t want to (for any reason) use yarn, *please* use at least shrinkwrap. For all projects that last longer then 1 week will end up in unexpected errors on different environments/stages/continuous integration scenarios.