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The Role of Docker Compose

20th Nov, 2023
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    The Role of Docker Compose

    In recent years, containerization has revolutionized the way software applications are developed, deployed, and managed. As the complexity of the modern application grows, managing multiple containers and their dependencies has become increasingly challenging. Docker Compose a powerful tool provided by Docker, comes to the rescue by providing simplified deployment of multi-container applications by allowing the developers to define, configure, and manage the application stacks in a single declarative YAML file.

    This blog serves as an introduction to Docker Compose, explaining its key concepts, benefits, and used cases, exploring its key features and how it simplifies the management of containerized applications.

    What is Docker Compose? 

    Docker Compose is a tool provided by Docker which is used to run multiple containers as a single service. It makes container run in isolation, but it has connectivity to interact with each other. We can define the services in a YAML file and run with one single command. The Compose file defines the relationships between different containers, their dependencies, environment variables, ports, volumes, and other configuration details. For instance- We have an application which required both NGNIX and MySQL, instead of starting application individually, we can create one file that would start both container as service. 

    Why use Docker Compose? 

    Docker Compose offers several benefits and reasons for its usage in the development and deployment of containerized applications. It provides easy multi-container application management, streamlined development workflow for the applications' services, promotes Reproducibility and consistency, Efficient collaboration, Easier integration testing, Scalability and orchestration, Simplified deployment etc. Overall, Docker Compose simplifies the management and deployment of multi-container applications. It is particularly useful for development teams working on containerized applications or microservices architectures, where multiple services need to be orchestrated and managed together.

    Managing Environment Variables with Docker Compose 

    Managing environment variables with Docker Compose is important  aspect of configuring and deploying applications. Environment variables are dynamic values that can be passed to containers at runtime without modifying the underlying code.

    Here are some ways:-

    1. Using Environment Variables with Docker: When starting a Docker container, we may use the -e or --env flag to supply environment variables. As an example:

    'docker run -e VARIABLE_NAME=value image_name'

    The environment variable 'VARIABLE_NAME' is set to 'value' within the container by this command. Multiple '-e' options can be passed to set different variables.

    2. Using Environment Files with Docker: Using the '--env-file' flag, Docker lets us utilise environment files. Variable assignments in an environment file are in the

    'key=value' format, with each assignment on a distinct line. Create a file called "env_file.txt" with the following information in it, for instance:



    Then, use the environment file when running the container:

    'docker run --env-file env_file.txt image_name'

    3. Managing Environment Variables in Docker Compose: Using the 'environment' field in the 'docker-compose.yml' file, Docker Compose enables you to handle environment variables in your services. Here's an illustration:

    In this illustration, the environment variables 'VARIABLE_NAME' and 'ANOTHER_VARIABLE' will both have their corresponding values set in the 'app' service.

    4. Using Environment Files in Docker Compose: The 'env_file' field in the 'docker-compose.yml' file allows Docker Compose to support using environment files. Make a file with variable assignments, such as 'env_file.txt':                        

    The variables defined in 'env_file.txt' will be available to the 'app' service.

    5. Variable replacement in Docker Compose: The '$VARIABLE_NAME' syntax is supported for variable replacement in Docker Compose. Variables can be exported as shell environment variables or defined in a '.env' file at the same level as your 'docker-compose.yml' file. Refer to the variables in your Compose file after that. For instance:

    'version: '3'
    image: myapp

    Docker Compose will replace '${VARIABLE_NAME}' with the corresponding value from the environment.

    Docker Compose Commands 

    Docker Compose provides several commands to manage and interact with your multi-container application defined in a Compose file.

    Here are some commonly used Dockers Compose commands.

    • docker-compose up: docker-compose up command starts the containers defined in the Compose file. It creates and starts containers for all the services specified in the Compose file, ensuring they are properly linked and networked. If the containers don't exist, it builds the necessary images before starting them. By default, it runs containers in the foreground and logs their output to the console.
    • docker-compose down: This command stops and removes the containers defined in the Compose file. It stops and removes the containers, networks, and volumes created by docker-compose up. By default, it does not remove the images defined in the Compose file.
    • docker-compose build: This command builds or rebuilds the Docker images defined in the Compose file. It rebuilds images if they have changed or if explicitly specified for the --build option. This is useful when user want to update the images or when changes have been made to the Docker file or build context.
    • docker-compose start: This command starts the containers defined in the Compose file. It starts the containers that were created and stopped previously. Unlike docker-compose up, it does not create new containers or rebuild images if they are not present.
    • docker-compose stop: This command stops the containers defined in the Compose file. It stops the running containers without removing them. The containers can be started again using the docker-compose start command.
    • docker-compose restart: This command restarts the containers defined in the Compose file. It stops and then starts the containers again. This is useful in case user want to apply changes or restart the containers after configuration updates.
    • docker-compose ps: This command lists the containers defined in the Compose file and their status. It provides information about the running containers, such as their names, container IDs, and states.
    • docker-compose logs: This command displays the logs of the containers defined in the Compose file. It shows the combined logs of all the containers by default. It can be used with the --follow option to continuously display the logs as new entries are added.
    • docker-compose exec: Execute a command inside a running container defined in the Docker Compose file. This command allows user to run arbitrary commands inside a container, such as running shell commands or executing scripts.

    These are some of the commonly used Docker Compose command. Docker Compose commands can be run where docker compose is installed. To install docker compose you can refer official doc. To know more details of listed command we can use –help to get more information and options for each command.

    docker-compose <command> --help 

    For more commands you can refer Docker Compose official Documentation: Visit Here

    How to define application in Docker Compose

    For getting started with Docker compose ,please refer to Docker Compose example of configuration file (docker-compose.yml) for a web application composed of two services: a web server and a database.

    In this example:

    The version: '3' specifies the Docker Compose version of file syntax to use.

    We have defined two services: web and db.

    The web service is built using a Docker file located in the ./web directory. You would need to have a Docker file in that directory to build the web service image.

    The ports section maps port 8080 on the host to port 80 on the container, allowing access to the web server running inside the container.

    The depends on section specifies that the web service depends on the db service, ensuring that the database container is started before the web container.

    The db service uses the mysql:5.7 image from the Docker Hub.

    The environment section sets environment variables for the MySQL container, including the root password, database name, username, and password.

    To use this Docker Compose file, save it as docker-compose.yml, navigate to the directory containing the file in the terminal, and run the following command:

    docker-compose up

    Docker Compose will then build the web service image (if necessary), start the containers for the web and database services, and link them together according to the specified configuration. Web application can be accessed at http://localhost:8080.

    docker-compose down to stop and remove the containers, docker compose network, and volumes created by the Compose file.

    Docker Compose Advantages

    Docker Compose offers several benefits for managing and orchestrating multi-container Docker applications:

    1. Easy application definition: Docker Compose allows to define application's services, networks, and volumes in a declarative YAML file which makes easy for the application to define and maintain the complex application architectures, including multiple containers and their dependencies, through a single configuration file.
    2. Environment variables and configuration: Docker Compose allows to mention the environment variable and configuration options across different environments, making it easier and more flexible for customization with containers, thereby making the configuration management process simpler.
    3. Ecosystem integration: Docker Compose integrates seamlessly with other Docker tools and services, such as Docker Registry, Docker Swarm, and Docker Machine which allows to leverage the application management capabilities as per requirement.
    4. Simplified local development: Docker Compose is particularly useful for local development environments by allowing developers to define and run all the required services and dependencies locally without cluttering their host machine. Developers can easily manage different docker compose versions of dependencies, test against specific configurations, and avoid conflicts between different applications or projects.
    5. Service Orchestration of multi-container applications: Docker Compose allows developer to define and manage multiple services as a single unit. It simplifies the management of complex application architectures with the help of start, stop, and scale services with single command making it easier to manage the lifecycle and enables to scale application easily by adding or removing containers.
    6. Isolation and resource management: Each service defined in Docker Compose runs in its own container, providing isolation between services. This allows application to run multiple services on a single host without interference or resource conflicts. In addition to same, docker compose allows to specify exact versions of containers and dependencies making it ensure that application will run consistently across different environment such as development, testing and production.
    7. Efficient development and testing:  Docker compose provide consistent and portable environment for the development and testing process. With the help of single command, developer can spin up the entire environment without any much manual configuration and setup.

    In case you want to go through in-depth knowledge about containers and their management or planning for Kubernetes certification, you can easily enroll in our comprehensive Course on Docker and Kubernetes.

    Docker Compose Limitations

    Docker Compose is powerful tool for running multi container application. However, it come with some limitations, which are explained below:

    1. Lack of High Availability : Docker Compose doesn’t provide in built provision for high availability i.e., container restarts or failover scenarios are not handled automatically. For creating highly available and the fault tolerance  system , team need to rely on the external solutions, such as container monitoring tools or container orchestration platforms.
    2. Lack of Advanced Configuration Management: Docker Compose lacks advanced configuration management capabilities and not much suitable for handling the secrets management. For advance configuration management in the application, we need to use external tools or container orchestration platforms that provide built-in support for secrets management and the configuration.
    3. Limited-Service Discovery and Load Balancing: Docker Compose offers basic service discovery and load balancing via its internal DNS resolver and built-in load balancing. Therefore, it is not suitable to provide advanced service discovery features or support dynamic load balancing algorithms. We need to consider using external service mesh solutions or container orchestration platforms.
    4. Lack of Scalability: Docker Compose support scaling containers or managing complex cluster configurations across multiple hosts. For extensive scalability and orchestration capabilities of application , we might need to consider using more advanced container orchestration tools like Docker Swarm or Kubernetes.
    5. Lack of Networking: Docker Compose can provide basic level networking such as -creating docker compose network and defining service-level connections. But for complex network or the advanced networking requirements for application , more robust solution is needed such as Kubernetes Ingress or a dedicated service mesh solution.
    6. Challenges with Dependency Management: Docker Compose is helpful in defining the dependencies between services and start up in the correct order. In case of advanced dependency management example performing health checks before/after  starting dependent services , external tools are required.
    7. Lack of built-in monitoring and logging: Docker Compose does not include built-in monitoring and logging features. We need to integrate Docker logging drivers and external monitoring tools, such as Prometheus and Grafana for logging and monitoring set up.

    Docker Compose vs Docker CLI

    Docker Compose and the Docker CLI (Command Line Interface) are both tools provided by Docker ecosystem to manage and orchestrate containerized applications, but both comes with different features and purpose.

    Docker CLI: The Docker CLI is the command-line tool used to interact with Docker. It provides a set of commands to build, run, and manage Docker containers and images.

    With the Docker CLI, we can create and run the containers, perform actions like pulling Docker images from registries, managing container lifecycles (start, stop, restart), manage docker compose network, and more. It is a powerful and flexible tool for working with Docker at the command line.

    On the other hand, Docker Compose is a tool that simplifies the management of multi-container Docker applications and used for defining and running multi-container Docker applications.

    It uses a declarative YAML file to define the services, networks, and volumes required by an application. This file is called a "docker-compose.yml" file. Docker Compose offers additional functionality beyond what Docker CLI offer . It is builds on top of the Docker CLI and utilizes its functionalities. It is designed to provide the management of multi-container applications, configure network bridges, manage volumes, scale services, and more. It also simplifies the entire process of defining and running applications by stacking the application  in a single file and easily spin up the entire environment with a single command.

    In summary, Docker CLI is the fundamental tool for managing Docker resources at a low level, whereas Docker Compose, a higher-level tool is specifically designed to streamline the orchestration of multi-container applications. Depending on the application and team’s needs, Docker CLI can be used for individual container management and Docker Compose for multi-container application deployment and management.


    In conclusion, Docker Compose is a valuable tool for managing multi-container applications. Many tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and IBM, have also adopted Docker to improve their development workflows, achieve faster deployments, and simplify application management. Its simplicity, consistency, and scalability features make it an ideal choice for developers and operations teams looking to streamline their development and deployment workflows. Still left with any doubt regarding the DevOps course, you can reach out to support team DevOps Certification courses online, team will be happy to assist you with queries. Additionally, by obtaining the Certified Kubernetes Administrator certification, you can expand your knowledge and expertise in managing Kubernetes clusters and applications. By leveraging Docker Compose, developers can focus on building and delivering high-quality applications while Docker takes care of the complexities of container orchestration and management.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1How do I scale services in Docker Compose?

    For proceeding with scaling, we can add "-scale" flag along with command: "docker-compose up" to start as required number of replicas for your service. 

    Syntax: docker-compose scale <service name> = <no of instances> 

    This needs to be noted that scale command is deprecated, so there is need to use Up command with -scale 

    Before this, we need to define docker file and docker-compose.yml for the services that make up application.

    2Can I use Docker Compose with Docker Swarm?

    Yes, Docker Compose can be used together with Docker Swarm to deploy and manage multi-container applications in a swarm cluster. By combining Docker Compose with Docker Swarm, we can leverage the scalability and orchestration capabilities provided by Docker Swarm. This help in managing the multi-container applications across a cluster of machines, enabling high availability, load balancing, and fault tolerance.

    3How does Docker Compose integrate with other orchestration tools like Kubernetes and Amazon ECS?


    Docker Compose can be integrated with orchestration tools like Kubernetes with the help of plugins and specified tools. Kubernetes provides its own orchestration solution, and the Docker Compose file can be translated into Kubernetes deployment descriptors using the Kompose tool. Kompose tool takes existing compose file and convert it to Kubernetes resources which can be deployed on a Kubernetes cluster.

    Amazon ECS:

    To use docker compose with amazon ECS, “ecs-cli” tool, which is an ECS command-line interface tool provided by Amazon. With the use of compose command in ecs-cli tool, we can directly deploy Docker Compose files to ECS clusters. Ecs-cli converts the Docker Compose to ECS task definitions and other required resources.

    4What are some advanced features of Docker Compose?

    Docker Compose offers several advanced features that enhance the functionality and flexibility of the managing containerized applications

    Multiple Compose Files: Docker Compose uses project name to isolate the environment from one to another.

    Other than this, it provides Service Health checks, easily scales services defined in Compose file, set resource limits for containers, such as CPU and memory constraints, provides flexible network configuration options, Extensibility with Compose File Templates etc. Leveraging these features; can help to ensure optimal performance and reliability for the applications. 


    Kanav Preet


    Kanav is working as SRE in leading fintech firm having experience in CICD Pipeline, Cloud, Automation, Build Release  and Deployment. She is passionate about leveraging technology to build innovative and effective software solutions. Her insight, passion and energy results in her engaging a strong clientele who move ahead with her ideas. She has done various certifications in  Continuous delivery & DevOps (University of Virginia), tableau , Linux (Linux foundation) and many more.

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