Using three-stage Dockerfile for accessing build output

July 09, 2020 • GitHub

Multi-stage Dockerfiles are a tried and true method for minimising the bloat of published docker images. The workflow is pretty typical:

  1. Build an artifact using a full-fat build image
  2. Move it to a minimal runtime image where it can be executed

Here’s a simple example. I have a TypeScript file called helloworld.ts. It greets people. I want to compile this file to JavaScript and run it with node. Here’s a typical two-stage Dockerfile that will achieve that:

FROM node:14-buster as build
WORKDIR /project
COPY package.json .
COPY package-lock.json .
RUN npm i

COPY helloworld.ts .
# Build to dist/helloworld.js
RUN ["npm", "run-script", "build"]

FROM node:14-buster-slim as runtime
COPY --from=build /project/dist/helloworld.js .
ENTRYPOINT ["node", "helloworld.js"]

I can use this Dockerfile to build an image and run it as a container quite easily:

docker build -t helloworld .
docker run --rm helloworld Albert
# Hello Albert!

Neato! So what’s the problem?

The problem

I don’t always want to run the thing I’m building! Often (but not always) I just want to obtain the build output. This can be useful for uploading the artifact - such as for a GitHub release - and is achieved by adding an extra step to the process:

  1. (As before) Build an artifact using a full-fat build image
  2. Move it to a scratch image where it can be exported
  3. (As before) Move it to a minimal runtime image where it can be executed

But how to add this second step to the Dockerfile?

FROM node:14-buster as build
WORKDIR /project
COPY package.json .
COPY package-lock.json .
RUN npm i

COPY helloworld.ts .
# Build to dist/helloworld.js
RUN ["npm", "run-script", "build"]

FROM scratch as outputCOPY --from=build /project/dist/helloworld.js .
FROM node:14-buster-slim as runtime
COPY --from=build /project/dist/helloworld.js .
ENTRYPOINT ["node", "helloworld.js"]

As before, I can build and run the script easily enough:

docker build -t helloworld .
docker run --rm helloworld Albert
# Hello Albert!

But now I’ve got a new trick up my sleeve for extricating the build output from the container:

DOCKER_BUILDKIT=1 docker build -t helloworld --target output -o dist .
ls dist
# helloworld.js

The key here is using a build target in combination with the -o flag. This flag is enabled by activating BuildKit using the environment variable. With -o, Docker will copy all the files from an image’s filesystem into a specified folder once the build is complete. Using a scratch image for the output stage means that we’re left with only the single artifact from the build stage.

The best part of this process is that I know that the artifact I’m building is exactly the same as what would end up in the final running Docker image. It minimises the number of miscellaneous build scripts or Dockerfiles I would otherwise need and keeps all the build steps contained in a single source of truth.

This approach is compatible with Docker-based CI/CD solutions such as GitHub actions; Docker-out-of-Docker can be used to run these build commands within a docker Docker image. It’s all a bit ridiculous, but works well.

Where have I used this?

I took advantage of a three-stage Dockerfile in mqcontrol where it’s being used for cross-compilation binary output. That project also has a special requirement in that there are multiple runtime base images depending on what commands mqcontrol will run. That makes it a perfect candidate for a separate build output stage.

Additionally, I’ve made a minimal repository for the examples above. Find it at albertnis/demo-three-stage-dockerfile. Check out the actions which automate releases and packages all using the one core Dockerfile for building.