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Differences between a Dockerfile, Docker Image and Docker Container

Being able to identify what something is can lead to learning complex topics faster. Here's how these 3 Docker concepts tie together.

In casual conversation you may hear phrases like:

“Yeah, I’m using Docker containers”
“Yay, I built my app with Docker”
“I have many Docker images being used in production”
“Sure, let’s get the containers up and running”
While none of those phrases are technically wrong, they don’t really tell you the full story on how a few Docker related files and concepts tie together and it can be very confusing to learn something new when you hear phrases like that used all over the place.

I don’t know about you, but I learn best when I can identify and relate to whatever I’m trying to learn. It’s that magic thing that lets me go from thinking “…WTF am I reading?” to using it to solve my own problems without any trouble.

So let’s see how a Dockerfile, Docker image and Docker container all come together.

It All Starts With a Dockerfile
A Dockerfile is a file that you create which in turn produces a Docker image when you build it.

Just by breaking down that sentence we can start making a few assumptions, such as:

A Docker image can be created by taking 2 actions
The first action is to create a thing called a Dockerfile
The second action is to run some type of build command that uses the Dockerfile
A Docker image is a file or file-like thing, since it gets “built”
Those assumptions are correct, but let’s put them on the back burner for now and talk a little bit more about the Dockerfile.

A Dockerfile is a text file that Docker reads in from top to bottom. It contains a bunch of instructions which informs Docker HOW the Docker image should get built.

You can relate it to cooking. In cooking you have recipes. A recipe lets you know all of the steps you must take in order to produce whatever you’re trying to cook.

The act of cooking is building the recipe.

A Dockerfile is a recipe (or blueprint if that helps) for building Docker images, and the act of running a separate build command produces the Docker image from that recipe.

If You Build It, They Will Run (Usually)
The act of running a Docker image creates a Docker container, that’s it.

Here’s an easy thing to relate to if you’re a software developer:

In the world of object oriented programming, you often deal with classes. You can think of a Docker image as a class, where as a Docker container is an instance of that class.

Personally I’m not a fan of that analogy because it’s not the most accurate thing in the world but sometimes having a “good enough” relation is enough to grasp something and that analogy is definitely “good enough”.

So at the end of the day, we can sum things up as:

A Dockerfile is a recipe for creating Docker images
A Docker image gets built by running a Docker command (which uses that Dockerfile)
A Docker container is a running instance of a Docker image
If you want to identify and see how a few different Docker tools work together then check out another article I put together that lets you get to know Docker’s ecosystem.

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