The Ultimate Guide to Writing Dockerfiles for Go Web-apps

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You probably want to use Docker with Go, because:

  1. Packaging as a container is required if you’re running it on Kubernetes (like me!)
  2. You have to work with different versions of Go on the same machine.
  3. You need exact, reproducible, shareable and deterministic environments for development as well as production.
  4. You need a quick and easy way of building and deploying a final compiled binary.
  5. You might want to get started quickly (anyone with Docker installed can start coding right away without setting up any other dependencies or GOPATH variables).

Well, you’ve come to the right place.

We’ll incrementally build a basic Dockerfile for Go, with live reloading and package management, and then extend the same to create a highly optimized production ready image with ~100x reduction in size. If you use a CI/CD system, image size might not matter, but when docker push and docker pulls are involved, a leaner image will definitely help.

If you’d like to jump right ahead to the code, check out the GitHub repo:

go-docker - Sample code and dockerfiles accompanying the blog post The Ultimate Guide to Writing Dockerfiles for Go…



  1. The Simplest One
  2. Package Management & Layering
  3. Live Reloading
  4. Single Stage Production Build
  5. Multi Stage Production Build
  6. Bonus: Binary Compression using UPX
  7. [Update] Dep instead of Glide
  8. [Update] Scratch instead of Alpine

Let’s assume a simple directory structure. The application is called go-docker and the directory structure is as shown below. All source code is inside src directory and there is a Dockerfile at the same level. main.go defines a web-app listening on port 8080.

├── Dockerfile
└── src
    └── main.go

1. The Simplest One

We are using debian jessie here since some commands like go get require git etc. to be present. Also, all Debian packages are available in case we need them. For production version we’ll use a smaller image like alpine.

Build and run this image:

$ cd go-docker
$ docker build -t go-docker-dev .
$ docker run --rm -it -p 8080:8080 go-docker-dev

The app will be available at http://localhost:8080. Use Ctrl+C to quit.

But this doesn’t make much sense because we’ll have to build and run the docker image every time any change is made to the code.

A better version would be to mount the source code into a docker container so that the environment is contained and using a shell inside the container to stop and start go run as we wish.

$ cd go-docker
$ docker build -t go-docker-dev .
$ docker run --rm -it -p 8080:8080 -v $(pwd):/go/src/app \
             go-docker-dev bash
[email protected]:/go/src/app# go run src/main.go

These commands will give us a shell, where we can execute go run src/main.go and run the server. We can edit main.go from host machine and run the code again to see changes, as the the files are mounted directly into the container.

But, what about packages?

2. Package Management & Layering

Package management in Go is still in an experimental stage. There are a couple of tools around, but my favorite is Glide. We’ll install Glide inside the container and use it from within.

Create two files called glide.yaml and glide.lock inside go-docker directory:

$ cd go-docker
$ touch glide.yaml
$ touch glide.lock

Change the Dockerfile to the one below and build a new image.

If you look closely, you can see that glide.yaml and glide.lock are being added separately (instead of doing a ADD . .), resulting in separate layers. By separating out package management to a separate layer, Docker will cache the layer and will only rebuild it if the corresponding files change, i.e. when a new package is added or an existing one is removed. Hence, glide install won’t be executed for every source code change.

Let’s install a package by getting into the container’s shell:

$ cd go-docker
$ docker build -t go-docker-dev .
$ docker run --rm -it -v $(pwd):/go/src/app go-docker-dev bash

[email protected]:/go/src/app# glide get

Glide will install all packages into a vendor directory, which can be gitignore-d and dockerignore-d. It uses glide.lock to lock packages to specific versions. To (re-)install all packages mentioned in glide.yaml, execute:

$ cd go-docker
$ docker run --rm -it -p 8080:8080 -v $(pwd):/go/src/app \
             go-docker-dev bash

[email protected]:/go/src/app# glide install

The go-docker directory has grown a little bit now:

├── Dockerfile
├── glide.lock
├── glide.yaml
├── src
│   └── main.go
└── vendor/

Don’t forget to add vendor to .gitignore and .dockerignore.

3. Live Reloading

codegangsta/gin is my favorite among all the live-reloading tools. It is specifically built for Go web servers. We’ll install gin using go get:

We’ll build the image and run gin so that the code is rebuilt whenever there is any change inside src directory.

$ cd go-docker
$ docker build -t go-docker-dev .
$ docker run --rm -it -p 8080:8080 -v $(pwd):/go/src/app \
             go-docker-dev bash

[email protected]:/go/src/app# gin --path src --port 8080 run main.go

Note that the web-server should take a PORT environment variable to listen to since gin will set a random PORT variable and proxy connections to it.

All edits in src directory will trigger a rebuild and changes will be available live at http://localhost:8080.

Once we are done with development, we can build the binary and run it, instead of using the go run command. The binary can be built and served using the same image or we can make use of Docker multi-stage builds to build using a golang image and serve using a bare minimum linux container like alpine.

4. Single Stage Production Build

Build and run the all-in-one image:

$ cd go-docker
$ docker build -t go-docker-prod .
$ docker run --rm -it -p 8080:8080 go-docker-prod

The image built will be ~750MB (depending on your source code), due to the underlying Debian layer. Let’s see how we can cut this down.

5. Multi Stage Production Build

Multi stage builds lets you build programs in a full-fledged OS environment, but the final binary can be run from a very slim image which is only slightly larger than the binary itself.

The binary here is ~14MB and the docker image is ~18MB. Thanks to alpine awesomeness.

Want to cut down the binary size itself? Read ahead.

6. Bonus: Binary Compression using UPX

At Hasura, we have been using UPX everywhere, our CLI tool binary which is ~50MB comes down to ~8MB after compression, making it easy to download. UPX can do extremely fast in-place decompression, without any extra tools since it injects the decompressor into the binary itself.

The UPX compressed binary is ~3MB and the docker image is ~6MB.

~100x reduction in size from where we started from.

7. Dep instead of Glide

dep is a prototype dependency management tool for Go. Glide is considered to be in a state of support rather than active feature development, in favour of dep. Executing dep init in a directory with glide.yaml and glide.lock will create Gopkg.toml and Gopkg.lock by reading the glide files.

Adding a new package using dep is similar to glide:

$ dep ensure -add

glide install equivalent is dep ensure.

8. Scratch instead of Alpine

Alpine is useful when you have to quickly access the shell inside the container and do some debugging. For example, shell comes to the rescue while debugging DNS issues in a Kubernetes cluster. We can run ping/wget etc. Also, if your application makes API calls to external services over HTTPS, ca-certificates need to be present.

But, if you don’t need a shell or ca-certs, but just want to run the binary, you can use scratch as the base for the image in multi-stage build.

The resulting image is just 1.3 MB, compared to the 6MB apline image.

Any suggestions to improve the ideas above? Any other use-cases that you’d like to see? Do let me know in the comments or join the discussion on HackerNews & Reddit.

Update (24th Feb 2018): Added sections 7 and 8.

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Shahidh K Muhammed

Shahidh K Muhammed

Design Engineer by training, Polyglot (machine & human) by day, Cook by night, #GraphQL #Kubernetes #Biriyani

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