What are the steps to set up a containerized development environment using Docker?

12 June 2024

Containerization has revolutionized the development world by offering isolated, reproducible, and portable environments. Docker is at the forefront of this revolution, providing developers with the tools to streamline their workflow and manage dependencies more effectively. In this article, we will walk you through the steps to set up a containerized development environment using Docker. From creating a Dockerfile to running your code inside containers, you will gain a clear understanding of how to leverage Docker for your development needs.

Understanding Docker and Containers

To begin, it is crucial to understand what Docker and containers are and why they are essential for modern development practices. Docker is an open-source platform that automates the deployment of applications inside lightweight, portable containers. These containers include everything an application needs to run, such as the base image, libraries, and dependencies.

Containers are isolated environments that ensure your code runs consistently across different systems. By using Docker, you can avoid the "it works on my machine" problem, as the environment setup is identical on any system running the container.

Benefits of Containerized Development

The primary benefit of using Docker for development is consistency. When you set up a containerized development environment, you encapsulate all dependencies and configurations in a container, ensuring that your development and production environments are identical.

Another significant advantage is portability. Docker containers can run on any system that supports Docker, making it easy to move your application between different environments, such as development, testing, and production.

Lastly, Docker enhances collaboration among team members. By sharing Docker images or compose files, your team can synchronize their development environments effortlessly, ensuring everyone is working in the same setup.

Setting Up Your Docker Development Environment

Now that we understand the benefits of Docker, let's dive into the steps to set up a containerized development environment.

Step 1: Install Docker Desktop

The first step is to install Docker Desktop on your local machine. Docker Desktop is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. It provides an easy-to-use interface to manage your Docker containers and images. After downloading and installing Docker Desktop, you can launch it to start using Docker.

Step 2: Create a Dockerfile

A Dockerfile is a text file that contains the instructions to build a Docker image. This file defines the environment your application will run in, including the base image, necessary libraries, and configurations. Below is an example of a simple Dockerfile for a Node.js application:

# Use the official Node.js base image
FROM node:14

# Set the working directory

# Copy package files and install dependencies
COPY package*.json ./
RUN npm install

# Copy the rest of the application code
COPY . .

# Expose the port the app runs on

# Command to run the application
CMD ["node", "index.js"]

Step 3: Build the Docker Image

Once you have your Dockerfile, you need to build the Docker image. Open a terminal, navigate to the directory containing your Dockerfile, and run the following command:

docker build -t my-node-app .

This command builds the Docker image and tags it as my-node-app. You can verify the image by running:

docker images

Step 4: Create a Docker Compose File

While a Dockerfile defines the image, a Docker Compose file (typically named docker-compose.yml) defines services, networks, and volumes. Using Docker Compose, you can manage multi-container applications more efficiently. Below is an example of a Docker Compose file for our Node.js application:

version: '3'
    image: my-node-app
    build: .
      - "3000:3000"
      - .:/app
      NODE_ENV: development

This Compose file defines a service named app that uses the my-node-app image, binds port 3000, and mounts the local directory to the container.

Step 5: Create a Devcontainer Configuration

To further streamline your development workflow, you can set up a devcontainer configuration. A devcontainer allows you to define a complete development environment inside a container. Visual Studio Code (VS Code) supports this through the Dev Containers extension.

Create a .devcontainer directory in your project and add a devcontainer.json file with the following content:

  "name": "Node.js Dev Container",
  "dockerFile": "Dockerfile",
  "appPort": [3000],
  "workspaceFolder": "/app",
  "extensions": [

This configuration specifies that VS Code should use the Dockerfile to build the container, expose port 3000, and install specific extensions.

Running Your Development Environment

With your Dockerfile, Docker Compose file, and devcontainer configuration in place, you are ready to run your development environment.

Running the Container

To start your container, simply run the following command in your project directory:

docker-compose up

This command starts the container and sets up your development environment as defined in the Docker Compose file. Your Node.js application will be running inside the container, and you can access it on localhost:3000.

Working with VS Code

Open your project in Visual Studio Code. If you have the Dev Containers extension installed, VS Code will prompt you to reopen the project in a container. Click "Reopen in Container" to start your dev environment inside the Docker container.

VS Code will build the container, install the specified extensions, and set up the development environment as defined in the devcontainer.json file. You can now work on your project as usual, with the benefits of an isolated and consistent environment.

Debugging Inside the Container

One of the key advantages of using Docker for development is the ability to debug your code inside the container. VS Code provides seamless integration with Docker, allowing you to set breakpoints, inspect variables, and step through your code within the container.

To debug your Node.js application, add a debug configuration in VS Code. Create a .vscode directory in your project and add a launch.json file with the following content:

  "version": "0.2.0",
  "configurations": [
      "type": "node",
      "request": "launch",
      "name": "Debug in Docker",
      "program": "/app/index.js",
      "port": 9229,
      "restart": true,
      "sourceMaps": true,
      "outFiles": ["${workspaceFolder}/**/*.js"]

This configuration defines a debug setup for Node.js, specifying the program to debug and the port to use. You can now start a debug session by selecting "Debug in Docker" from the debug menu in VS Code.

Setting up a containerized development environment using Docker involves several steps, but the benefits are substantial. By creating a Dockerfile, building an image, defining a Docker Compose file, and configuring a devcontainer, you can achieve a consistent, portable, and isolated development environment.

Using Docker, you can ensure that your application runs smoothly across different systems, avoid configuration drift, and facilitate collaboration among team members. Additionally, Visual Studio Code's integration with Docker makes it easy to manage and debug your development environment inside containers.

In conclusion, following these steps will enable you to harness the power of Docker for your development projects, leading to more efficient and reliable workflows. Embrace the future of development with Docker and enjoy the benefits of containerization.

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