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On running Windows Docker containers

I went into working with Windows docker containers after having been worked with docker on Linux exclusively. My goal was to have isolated environments for each build in a continuous integration pipeline. That is, each build happens on an exclusive build host (AWS EC2 VM instance) and every database and service the application needs access to for the integration tests (including selenium tets) are run on docker containers on the same host. That is:

  1. Build starts
  2. Spawn containers
  3. Perform setup in the containers - DB migrations for example
  4. Run Tests
  5. Collect logs
  6. Clean up all containers
  7. Tear down


Next, I share some of my findings in the hope that it may be useful to others.

Docker versions

On Windows 10, when we install docker from the docker store, we get the community version of docker. Once you install it, and run docker version, you will get the version stated as 18.03.1-ce or similar.

On Windows server, we have to use the docker enterprise version which can be installed as per this page. When we run docker version on a Windows server host, you will see the version stated as 18.03.1-ee-2 or simiar.

The following PowerShell snippet will install docker engine and docker-compose on Windows server:

# docker engine and docker compose
Install-PackageProvider -Name NuGet -MinimumVersion -Force
Install-Module -Name DockerMsftProvider -Repository PSGallery -Force
Install-Package -Name docker -ProviderName DockerMsftProvider -Force
choco install docker-compose # this needs chocolatey installed

Container Isolation

On Windows 10, docker uses hyperv isolation:

> docker info -f '{{ .Isolation }}'

On Windows server, it uses process isolation:

> docker info -f '{{ .Isolation }}'

(Please note, use powershell for the above command, not cmd issue)

This basically means that on Windows 10, a container is running within a tiny VM. I suspect this is a major reason for the slow container startup and image build times on Windows 10. To learn more, see here and a relevant issue.

Docker commit

docker commit allows us to create a image from a running container. However, on Windows we cannot do that:

> docker commit hopeful_clarke myimage
Error response from daemon: windows does not support commit of a running container

We will have to stop the container and then commit it.

$ docker stop hopeful_clarke
$ docker commit hopeful_clarke myimage

User-defined networks

On Windows 10, multiple nat networks are supported, but on Windows Server with 17.06 EE docker engine, only one nat network is supported. Hence, when using docker-compose, we must specify the following:

      name: nat

The reason for the above is the default behavior of docker-compose is to create a new network for the services which will fail with an error: Problem : Error response from daemon: HNS failed with error : The parameter is incorrect.

See here to learn more.

Using DNS for inter-container communication

All the services running as part of a test cycle are running in the same nat network on Windows server, hence they can all use the container name as host names for the services. Combining it with runtime configuration updates, it worked great. One issue to be aware of is DNS Client caching, and it can be solved using Clear-DNSClientCache powershell command.

failed to create endpoint <service> on network nat

I got this error only a couple of times in all my testing over 2 months. It is filed here.

hcsshim::PrepareLayer failed in Win32

While building images and running containers, an error as follows appeared with varying frequency:

hcsshim::PrepareLayer failed in Win32: This operation returned because the timeout period expired. (0x5b4) layerId=ae8414f34fb31faea64b7bee078b295023db93c8505c67da686750843c853629 flavour=1

On Windows 10, it was very frequent. On Windows server, the frequency is almost never. A situation in which it can happen as discussed in this issue is when an attempt is made to run a number of containers simulataneously. In my case, when I got the issue on Windows server, the number of containers was around 10. However, the most common occurence for me was on Windows 10 while building images.

A retry of the operation usually fixed it. Relevant project - hccshim.

Docker compose and volume mounting

I needed the following voume mount to work:

    image: <image>
      - type: bind
        source: .
        target: C:\app

For this, I needed to use 3.2 as the docker compose yaml version.

Writing Dockerfiles for Windows containers

One of the first things I had to tackle while writing a Dockerfile was that of which slash to use in Path names. Basically, for Dockerfile instructions such as ADD, WORKDIR, COPY, continue using the "Linux" style, "/". For example:

ADD . C:/app

For RUN instruction, you must specify any path using ":\", like so:

RUN Expand-Archive -Path c:\mysql.zip -DestinationPath C:\

When writing multi-line instructions in a Dockerfile, you may be tempted to use "\", but, that can cause problems, since "\" is also a path separator in Windows, so declare a escape character as explained here.

However, I seemed to have success without it - the following snippet works just fine to build a mysql server Windows container:

FROM microsoft/nanoserver
RUN powershell -command \
    Expand-Archive -Path c:\mysql.zip -DestinationPath C:\ ; \
    ren C:\mysql-5.7.22-winx64 C:\MySQL ; \
    New-Item -Path C:\MySQL\data -ItemType directory ; \
    C:\MySQL\bin\mysqld.exe --initialize --init-file=C:\mysql-init.txt --console --explicit_defaults_for_timestamp ; \
    Remove-Item c:\mysql.zip -Force

Volume mounting in NodeJS applications

Trying to do a npm install (for example) on a NodeJS application inside a container with the directory volume mounted from host wouldn't work. The issue is described here.

My solution was to basically:

  • Volume mount host directory: docker run -v ${pwd}:C:\app ..
  • Inside the container, copy the files to another directory - i.e. copy from C:\app to C:\workspace
  • Build within C:\workspace
  • Copy built assets back from C:\workspace to C:\app

Karma test runner with PhantomJS inside a Windows container

I couldn't get phantomjs-prebuilt to work inside a Windows container for some reason. I decided to give a systemwide installation a try and it worked. The following Dockerfile worked for me:

# escape=`
FROM microsoft/windowsservercore

SHELL ["powershell", "-Command", "$ErrorActionPreference = 'Stop'; $ProgressPreference = 'SilentlyContinue';"]
RUN Set-ExecutionPolicy Bypass -Scope Process -Force; iex ((New-Object System.Net.WebClient).DownloadString('https://chocolatey.org/install.ps1'))
RUN choco install -y phantomjs git nodejs yarn

ADD . C:/app
RUN npm install
CMD powershell -File .\RunTests.ps1

A complete example is here.

Running a ASP.NET framework application in Docker

The main application I was setting up the testing environment for was a DotNet framework web application with multiple sites configured in IIS. Coming from a Linux/Nginx/Python/Golang background, I found it quite challenging to find instructions for manually configuring a IIS website without using GUI tools. Visual Studio's Dockerfile worked but I didn't succeed in work for my use-case. I think it will make more sense now. Anyway, thanks to a particular blog post and other posts by the same author, things finally clicked. The following is a snippet of a script that I used:

Write-Output "--- Setting up IIS websites"

# Copy built artifacts 
cp -r site1 C:\inetpub\wwwroot\
cp -r site2 C:\inetpub\wwwroot\

New-IISSite -Name 'site1' -PhysicalPath c:\inetpub\wwwroot\site1 -BindingInformation "*:8080:"
New-IISSite -Name 'site2' -PhysicalPath c:\inetpub\wwwroot\site2 -BindingInformation "*:8081:"

Set-Location C:\inetpub\wwwroot\site1
C:\WebConfigTransformRunner.\Tools\WebConfigTransformRunner.exe .\Configs\AppSetting.config .\Configs\AppSetting.Docker.config .\Configs\AppSetting.config

cat .\Configs\AppSetting.config

Set-Location C:\inetpub\wwwroot\site2
C:\WebConfigTransformRunner.\Tools\WebConfigTransformRunner.exe .\Configs\AppSetting.config .\Configs\AppSetting.Docker.config .\Configs\AppSetting.config

The web config transformation allows us to override/update configuration based on the environment at runtime. Thanks to this post. In addition, i found this post by the same author useful too.

The above script was an entrypoint to the following Dockerfile snippet:

FROM microsoft/dotnet-framework:4.7.2-sdk
RUN Add-WindowsFeature Web-Server; `
    Add-WindowsFeature NET-Framework-45-ASPNET; `
    Add-WindowsFeature Web-Asp-Net45; `
    Remove-Item -Recurse C:\inetpub\wwwroot\*; `
    Invoke-WebRequest -Uri https://dotnetbinaries.blob.core.windows.net/servicemonitor/ -OutFile C:\ServiceMonitor.exe
# Install the rewrite module
# Open issue: https://github.com/Microsoft/aspnet-docker/issues/109
WORKDIR /install
ADD https://download.microsoft.com/download/C/9/E/C9E8180D-4E51-40A6-A9BF-776990D8BCA9/rewrite_amd64.msi rewrite_amd64.msi
RUN Write-Host 'Installing URL Rewrite' ; `
    Start-Process msiexec.exe -ArgumentList '/i', 'rewrite_amd64.msi', '/quiet', '/norestart' -NoNewWindow -Wait

RUN nuget.exe install WebConfigTransformRunner -Version

EXPOSE 51033 51034 51035
HEALTHCHECK --interval=30s --timeout=10s --retries=20 CMD powershell -Command Invoke-WebRequest -UseBasicParsing http://localhost:8080;Invoke-WebRequest -UseBasicParsing http://localhost:8081
ENTRYPOINT [".\StartApp.ps1"]

The reason I use dotnet framework image above is so that I can share the same base image for a different docker image used to build the dotnet framework solution as well.


All docker features I was familiar with on Linux and needed access on Windows to just worked. The experience was definitely 100x better (faster and reliable) on Windows Server than on Windows 10. But, considering that this was for a CI environment, it was a good thing. I wish I had moved to Windows Server earlier for my experimentation.


Besides the above blog posts, other blog posts and countless answers on StackOverflow and , I found it helpful to ask questions on:

Though I didn't work through it myself, the labs here may help as well.

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