Developing with Docker & React


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Hello, hello, hello!

My goal with this article is to provide a recipe for dockerizing a React application. Along the way, we'll review important Docker concepts & tools that we can use to improve our productivity & save time. By the end of this article you will:

  • Write a Dockerfile & docker-compose file
  • Understand how "hot reloading" works & how to implement it
  • Learn about volumes, bind mounts, and .dockerignore files

What is Docker?

Docker takes away repetitive, mundane configuration tasks and is used throughout the development lifecycle for fast, easy and portable application development...Docker’s comprehensive end to end platform includes UIs, CLIs, APIs and security that are engineered to work together across the entire application delivery lifecycle.

Docker attempts to solve the ~it runs on your machine but not on mine~ problem that almost all software engineers will inevitably encounter when they attempt to share their creations with the world. We don't need to understand the nitty-gritty details of how Docker works* but there are several important concepts we do need to understand. The first is understanding the difference between images and containers.

*the nitty-gritty details

Images & Containers

Docker images are the basis of containers. An Image is an ordered collection of root filesystem changes and the corresponding execution parameters for use within a container runtime. An image typically contains a union of layered filesystems stacked on top of each other. An image does not have state and it never changes.

A container is a runtime instance of a docker image. A Docker container consists of:

  • A Docker image
  • An execution environment
  • A standard set of instructions

The concept is borrowed from shipping containers, which define a standard to ship goods globally. Docker defines a standard to ship software.

An image is a read-only bundle of source code, libraries, tools, dependencies, assets, and whatever else an application needs to run. Images are defined in a Dockerfile.

A container is a running image. Often, an application will require many containers each depending on: specific ports, environmental variables, and ways to communicate with the host system. docker-compose allows us to manage all of this.

We will be writing both Dockerfile and docker-compose.yml files. The example source code used can be found here. It's a generic React application generated using create-react-app

Dockerizing React for Development

FROM node:alpine3.15


COPY package*.json ./
RUN npm install
COPY . .

CMD ["npm", "start"]


version: '3.8'
      context: .
      - "3000:3000"
      - .:/app
      - /app/node_modules



Here's what is happening, line by line, in our Dockerfile:

  1. Define a new image from node-alpine
  2. Create a working directory called app to house our application
  3. Copy only the package.json && package-lock.json files to the working directory inside the container
  4. Install node_modules
  5. Copy the entire application to the working directory inside the container
  6. Execute the command npm start


Here's what is happening, line by line, in our docker-compose file:

  1. Declare which docker-compose version to use
  2. Define a service called web
  3. Tell the build to use the in the directory set by the context
    • In our case, the current directory: .
  4. Set the CHOKIDAR_USEPOLLING environment variable to true
    • This is Node specific configuration
  5. Bind port 3000 of the host machine to port 3000 of the running container
  6. Bind mount the current . directory to the /app directory
  7. Persist node_modules using a volume: /app/node_modules


Rapid Builds

Docker knows we want quick builds so it will cache each build step to improve the speed at which future containers spin up. We can use this knowledge in combination with Docker volumes and .dockerignore to make our re-build times lightening fast.

# Dockerfile

COPY package*.json .
RUN npm install
COPY . .

# docker-compose.yml

  - /app/node_modules

What we've done is:

  • Separate the dependency installation from the copy application step in our Dockerfile
  • Add the node_module entry into our .dockerignore file to avoid copying dependencies into the container
  • Used a volume to persist the container's node_modules beyond and outside of the container's lifecycle and set a Node environmental variable CHOKIDAR_USEPOLLING=true
    • For the curious, chokidar is a file watcher for Node and we want to tell it to use polling
Hot Reloading

When the user hits "save" their changes should be reflected immediately in the running container. We can achieve this using a bind mount.

Bind mounts have limited functionality compared to volumes. When you use a bind mount, a file or directory on the host machine is mounted into a container. The file or directory is referenced by its absolute path on the host machine. By contrast, when you use a volume, a new directory is created within Docker’s storage directory on the host machine, and Docker manages that directory’s contents.

Here is the bind mount in our docker-compose.yml:

# docker-compose.yml


Now we can code in our editor, smash the save button, and see the changes because our codebase is bound to the container. Docker knows to update our container when files on our host machine change because this binding.

And thats it folks, thanks for reading!

Notes, Links, & Resources