Homogeneous Pipelines with Docker

Continuous Integration Build Pipelines are a dirty, nasty place. What usually starts out as a couple of simple tasks or bash scripts inevitably ends up as a heap of scripts, Gradle/Rake/Maven/(insert build tool here) tasks, and manually configured jobs held together with a thin layer of Elmer’s glue and Scotch tape.

Why? Partly because modern applications are complex; even simple stacks use multiple languages and tools. And partly because developers are lazy, and sometimes hesitant to “mess with the pipeline.” I don’t often see the amount of rigor in cleanliness applied to them as to other parts of the codebase, leading to unnecessarily complex and unfortunately tangled build pipelines.

So, my current team attacked this head-on using a great piece of technology: Docker! Using Docker as our sole interface to running things in our build pipeline, we sped it up, simplified it, and lived happily ever after.

To give credit where credit is due, the implementation of this pattern was spearheaded by my colleague Amber Houle.

Anatomy of a Pipeline

This is pretty much what our build pipeline looked like in the time before Docker. Notice the amount of variation in what is being invoked in each step! (All these steps could be wrapped up in bash scripts, but I’ve unravelled them here.)

“client” is a JS front-end application. “api” is a Java-based API.

build client:
- npm install # Install JS dependencies
- npm run webpack # Compile to JS
build api:
- gradle build # Compile Java
test client:
- npm install # Install JS dependencies..... again
- npm test # Run JS tests
test api:
- systemctl start postgresql.service # Start up Postgres
- flyway migrate # Migrate the database using Flyway
- gradle test # Run Java tests (unit and integration)
- systemctl stop postgresql.service # Stop Postgres
package client:
- npm install # Install JS dependencies once again :(
- npm run package # Package up the JS into a .zip or .tar
- <push JS code to artifact repository>
package api:
- gradle package # Create an executable .jar
- <push Java code to artifact repository>
deploy to qa:
- <pull code from artifact repo and deploy>

Let’s first examine a build pipeline that you might find using any of the modern open-source distributed build and deploy tools such as Jenkins, Go.cd, or TravisCI. It’s broken down into a series of stages or jobs, which could be run sequentially or in parallel. Because these tools usually run as a master/agent architecture, the server will delegate the actual work of each stage to an available build agent.

Pipeline complexities

While this architecture is scalable and flexible, it creates complexities that you have to manage. Since each stage in your pipeline has a different job to do, all your agents must be configured to perform all needed actions. Some stages need a JavaScript runtime, some need Java, while others need a Postgres database. Traditionally, this calls for provisioning your agents with all the appropriate software ahead of time. And herein lies a dilemma. Manually provisioning might work fine if you only have 1 or 2 agents, but that quickly becomes tedious as the number of dependencies you have increases or the number of agents you need increases. Automated provisioning using Chef or Puppet is an option, but this creates one more piece of code to build, manage, test, and debug.

As each agent picks up a stage to run, it’s going to need some input, which is often just a copy of your source code at a specific revision. Because any agent could be picking up any job at any time, the sequence is usually 1) start with a clean workspace 2) checkout the code 3) install dependencies 4) do stuff. All these steps take time, especially installing dependencies. (There are 3 npm install commands in the pipeline shown above)

Docker as the Pipeline Interface

Docker containers wrap a piece of software in a complete filesystem that contains everything needed to run: code, runtime, system tools, system libraries – anything that can be installed on a server.

What if we extend this statement to say that containers contain everything needed to run…. and build and test? Instead of provisioning build agents with all the individual pieces of software and dependencies that our pipeline needs, let’s provision them with only the Docker Engine. Now, the sequence of steps for any stage becomes 1) Pull down a Docker image 2) Execute docker run https://docs.docker.com/engine/reference/run/.

To pull this off, we first need to create some Docker images with everything our application needs to build and test itself, which we specify with a Dockerfile.

Dockerfile for Java API
FROM java:8
COPY build.gradle ./
COPY src ./src/
RUN gradle jar
ENTRYPOINT ["gradle"]
Dockerfile for database migrations
FROM shouldbee/flyway
COPY ./src/main/resources/db/migration/*.sql ./sql/
ENTRYPOINT ["flyway"]
Dockerfile for JS client
FROM node:6.4.0
COPY package.json ./
RUN npm install
COPY src ./src/
RUN npm run webpack
ENTRYPOINT [ "npm", "run" ]

And this is pretty much what our pipeline evolved into after transitioning to Docker…

build client:
- docker build -t client:${PIPELINE_ID} ./client # Build Docker image
- docker push client:${PIPELINE_ID} # Push it to the container registry
build api:
- docker build -t api:${PIPELINE_ID} ./api
- docker build -t migrations:${PIPELINE_ID} ./api
- docker push api:${PIPELINE_ID}
- docker push migrations:${PIPELINE_ID}
test client:
- docker pull client:${PIPELINE_ID}
- docker run client:${PIPELINE_ID} test # Run `npm run test` inside of the client container
test api:
- docker pull api:${PIPELINE_ID}
- docker pull migrations:${PIPELINE_ID}
- docker run migrations:${PIPELINE_ID} migrate # Run `flyway migrate` inside of the migrations container
- docker run api:${PIPELINE_ID} test # Run `gradle test` inside of the api container

Complexities simplified

Overall, this had a number of positive effects on our build pipeline. First, speed: the time from pipeline start to ready to deploy to a QA environment dropped from ~12 minutes to ~4 minutes! This was largely due to no longer checking out the entire code base, installing dependencies, and re-compiling in each step of the pipeline. Second, simplicity. Configuring new build agents is now easy, as they only need Docker Engine. The single command interface is also cognitively simple. Each call to docker run [COMMAND] in the pipeline acts as a proxy to the task runner already in use in the codebase (e.g gradle [COMMAND] or npm run [COMMAND]), making it work just like local development without Docker.

The main possible issue I see with this is that the Docker container has a large surface area, which kind of goes against the advice from Docker to keep images as slim and trim as possible. I normally would not include all my test code into the deployable artifact that will eventually end up on my production server. Instead we have copied all the source and test code into the image. This could introduce dependency issues, such as security holes that may exist in libraries pulled in by test code. I have not observed this in practice though.

You will also notice that we push the Docker image to the registry right away. This ensures that the artifact that passes down the pipeline is exactly the same all the way through build, test, and deploy. But, it also means we are creating an artifact for un-verified code. What if the tests fail for a certain commit, but we have already created and pushed the Docker image? Do we leave it in the registry? Remove it? So far, we have just left them there, so not sure how this will play out in the long term.

Overall, this pattern has worked well for the team! Would love to hear your opinions and experiences with Docker in a build pipeline.