Docker Images vs. Containers

In Dockerland, there are images and there are containers. The two are closely related, but distinct. For me, grasping this dichotomy has clarified Docker immensely.

What’s an Image?

An image is an inert, immutable, file that’s essentially a snapshot of a container. Images are created with the build command, and they’ll produce a container when started with run. Images are stored in a Docker registry such as Because they can become quite large, images are designed to be composed of layers of other images, allowing a miminal amount of data to be sent when transferring images over the network.

Local images can be listed by running docker images:

REPOSITORY                TAG                 IMAGE ID            CREATED             VIRTUAL SIZE
ubuntu                    13.10               5e019ab7bf6d        2 months ago        180 MB
ubuntu                    14.04               99ec81b80c55        2 months ago        266 MB
ubuntu                    latest              99ec81b80c55        2 months ago        266 MB
ubuntu                    trusty              99ec81b80c55        2 months ago        266 MB
<none>                    <none>              4ab0d9120985        3 months ago        486.5 MB

Important Points:

What’s a container?

To use a programming metaphor, if an image is a class, then a container is an instance of a class—a runtime object. Containers are hopefully why you’re using Docker; they’re lightweight and portable encapsulations of an environment in which to run applications.

View local running containers with docker ps:

CONTAINER ID        IMAGE                               COMMAND                CREATED             STATUS              PORTS                    NAMES
f2ff1af05450        samalba/docker-registry:latest      /bin/sh -c 'exec doc   4 months ago        Up 12 weeks>5000/tcp   docker-registry

Here I’m running a dockerized version of the docker registry, so that I have a private place to store my images. Again, some things to note:

How to avoid image and container buildup?

One of my early frustrations with Docker was the seemingly constant buildup of untagged images and stopped containers. On a handful of occassions this buildup resulted in maxed out hard drives slowing down my laptop or halting my automated build pipeline. Talk about “containers everywhere”!

We can remove all untagged images by combining docker rmi with the recent dangling=true query:

docker images -q --filter "dangling=true" | xargs docker rmi

Docker won’t be able to remove images that are behind existing containers, so you may have to remove stopped containers with docker rm first:

docker rm `docker ps --no-trunc -aq`

These are known pain points with Docker, and may be addressed in future releases. However, with a clear understanding of images and containers, these situations can be avoided with a couple of practices: