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Docker for .NET Developers (Part 1) An introduction to Docker for .NET developers

Two words you will very likely be used to hearing quite often within our community at the moment are “microservices” and “Docker”. Both are topics of great interest and are generating excitement for developers and architects. In this new series of blog posts I want to cover Docker, what it is, why it might be of interest and specifically look at what it means for .NET developers. As a little background; my experience with Docker started last year when we began building a new big data analytics system. The requirement was to gather many millions of events from hundreds of individual source systems into ElasticSearch, then provide a way for users to flexibly report over that data, in real time.

Without going deep into specifics, we developed a system of queues, input processors and multiple back end services which analyse the source data. These services work with the data, aggregating it, shaping it for custom reporting and we provide various API services used by a front end SPA UI written in Vue.js. In essence these are microservices since each one is small and self-contained, providing a specific set of related functionality.

We knew we wanted to use ASP.NET Core for the API elements and very soon after that decision, we realised we could also take advantage of the cross platform nature of .NET Core to support easier development for our front end team on their Mac devices.

Historically the front end developers have had to use a Windows VM to work with our projects written in .NET. They pull the latest platform code to their devices, build it and run it so that they can work on the UI elements. This process has some overhead and has been something that we have wanted to streamline for some time. With this fresh project we were able to think about and implement improvements in the process.

The solution that we came up with was to provide Docker images of the back end services that the front end developers could quickly spin up on their development environments. They can do this without the need to run a Windows VM and the result has been a great productivity gain.

As containers and Docker were working so well for use in development, we also decided to use them as our build and deploy process onto the live environment. We are using AWS ECS (EC2 Container Service) to run the containers in the cloud, providing a scalable solution to host the various components.

This is our first time working with Docker and it has been an interesting learning experience for everyone involved. We still have more to learn and I’m sure more ways we can improve the process even further but what we have now is already providing great gains for us.

What is Docker?

There are a lot of articles and videos available via a quick Google that discuss what Docker is. To try and distil the essence, Docker is a containerisation technology and application platform that lets us package and deploy an application or service as an isolated unit containing all of its dependencies. In over simplified terms it can be thought of as a very lightweight, self contained virtual machine.

Docker containers run on top of a shared OS kernel, but in an isolated way. They are very lightweight which is where they offer an advantage over traditional VMs. You can often make better use of the host device(s) by running more containers and better sharing the underlying resource. They have a lighter footprint, containing only the minimum dependencies that they require and they can share the host resources more effectively.

A Docker image can be as small as a few hundred megabytes and can start in a matter of a few seconds or even fractions of a second. This makes them great for scaling since extra containers can be started very rapidly in response to scaling triggers such as a traffic increase or growing queue. With traditional VM scaling you might have a few minutes wait before the extra capacity comes online, by which time the load peak could have caused some issues already.

Key Concepts

As this is an introduction post I wanted to summarise some of the core components and terms that you will need to know when beginning to work with Docker.

Image

A docker image can be considered a unit of deployment. Images are defined by the Docker files and once built are immutable. To customise an image further you can use it as the base image within your next dockerfile. Typically you store built images in a container registry which them makes them available for people to reference and run.

Container

A container is just a running instance of a Docker image. You start an image using the Docker run command and once started your host will have an instance of that image running.

Dockerfile

A dockerfile is how Docker images and the deployment of an application are described. It’s a basic file and you may only require a few lines to get started with your own image. Docker images are built up in layers. You choose a base image that contains the elements you need, and then copy in your own application on top. Microsoft provide a number of images for working with .NET Core applications. I’ll look into the ones we use in future posts.

The nice thing about using a simple text file to describe the images is that it’s easy to include the dockerfile in your repository under source control. We include various dockerfiles in our solutions that enable slightly different requirements.

Docker Compose

A Docker compose file is a basic way to orchestrate multiple images/containers. It uses the YML format to specify one or more containers that make up a single system, or part of a system. Within this file you specify the images that need to be started, what they depend on, what ports they should start under on the host etc. Using a single command you can build all of the images. With a second single command you can tell Docker to run all of the containers.

We use a docker compose file for our front end developers. We define the suite of back end components that need to be running for them to exercise and develop against the API services. They can quickly spin them up with a docker-compose run command to get started.

Host

The host is the underlying OS on which you will run Docker. Docker will utilise shared OS kernel resources to run your containers. Until recently the host would always have been a Linux device but Microsoft have now released Microsoft containers, so it’s possible to use a Windows device as a host for Windows based images. In our case we still wanted to support running the containers on Mac devices, so stayed with Linux based images. There are a couple of solutions to enable using the Linux images on Windows which I’ll go into more detail about in the future. In both cases, you essentially run Linux as a VM which is then your host.

Summary

This was a short post, intended to introduce Docker and some of the reasons that we started to use it for our latest project. ASP.NET Core and .NET Core lend themselves perfectly to cross platform development, and the use of Linux based Docker containers made sharing the back end components with our front end team a breeze. In the next posts I’ll go deeper into how we’ve structured our solutions and processes to enable the front end developers as well as showing building an example project.

Other Posts In This Series

Part 1 – This Post
Part 2 – Docker for .NET Developers Part 2 – Our First dockerfile
Part 3 – Why we started using Docker with ASP.NET Core
Part 4 – Working with docker-compose and multiple ASP.NET Core microservices
Part 5 – Exploring ASP.NET Runtime Docker Images
Part 6 – Using Docker for Build and Continuous Deployment
Part 7 – Setting up Amazon EC2 Container Registry