How Docker Enables Agile Software Development

Docker has revolutionized how software is packaged, distributed, and deployed, so it's easy to see why it has become the de facto containerization platform. But have you thought about how Docker actually makes software development, testing, delivery, and deployment more agile? Let's look at how Docker inherently supports several of the founding principles of agile software development.

Docker is the de facto containerization platform, and it has revolutionized how software is packaged, distributed, and deployed. It runs software that is packaged and distributed as Docker images in Docker containers that run on Docker Engine. 

Docker has facilitated the adoption of the microservices architecture, which decouples services components and facilitates making iterative changes to software services. In fact, Docker makes software development and deployment more agile. Here’s how.

Simple, Modular, Sustainable Design

Docker design is sustainable, as it makes a more efficient use of the operating system compared to a virtual machine.

Virtual machines run on top of a hypervisor, which runs on top of an underlying OS, as illustrated in figure 1. Each VM uses up a whole guest operating system, which is not very efficient or sustainable in terms of resource consumption.

Virtual machines

A Docker container does not make use of a whole operating system, instead only employing a snapshot of the underlying OS kernel, thus making it more lightweight and sustainable in terms of resource consumption. Multiple Docker containers run in isolation, with each having its own file system and networking, on top of a single Docker Engine using the same OS kernel, as illustrated in figure 2.

Docker containers

Docker design is simpler, modular, and less resource-intensive, which encourages leaner, more agile development practices.

Efficient Software Delivery

Docker delivers pre-packaged software in the form of reusable, modular Docker images. More specifically, a Docker image is built from a Dockerfile, which consists of instructions and commands to run in order to download, install, and run the software.

A Docker image is a set of layers, with each layer representing an instruction or command in a Dockerfile. This takes away the hassle of downloading and installing individual components of software.

Docker images may be pulled or downloaded from a repository, such as Docker Hub, and are provided for Linux and Windows OS and support several different types of architectures, including amd64, arm32v5, arm32v7, arm64v8, i386, ppc64le, s390x, and windows-amd64. 

Working Software

Docker provides working software in that the software is ready to be run without further configuration. The simple command docker run <image> runs the software packaged in a Docker image and all the dependencies packaged with it. 

For example, if a software depends on a specific version of Java, the Java version is also downloaded and installed with the other software that is downloaded and installed. Running software from a Docker image is illustrated in figure 3.

Running software from a Docker image

Accommodating Changing Requirements

A Docker image is built from a Dockerfile, which consists of Docker syntax instructions. A Dockerfile gets built into a Docker image with the docker build command, and the image is tagged to distinguish the different builds generated from the same Dockerfile.

If some requirement changes, the Dockerfile could be modified accordingly to generate a new image with a new tag. Consequently, multiple versions of software could be made available using different tags.

The default tag is “latest,” and a subsequent Docker image built using a tag that already exists overwrites an earlier image with the same tag. Tagged Docker images for three different versions (v1, v2, and v3) of a Dockerfile are illustrated in figure 4.

Tagged Docker images

Iterative, Test-Driven Development

Because Docker distributes ready-to-install software as pre-packaged Docker images, it supports iterative, test-driven development.

The source code could be hosted on an online repository such as GitHub. A single command docker build creates a Docker image from the source code Dockerfile. The Docker image could be tested in a test environment before deploying in production. A single command docker run deploys the Docker image as running software. The process is illustrated below in figure 5.

Docker build, test, and run

Most Docker container orchestration platforms support rolling upgrades so that software can be updated and deployed iteratively.


Docker lends itself to automation very well. Each of the build, test, and deploy processes could be automated with pipeline-based automation tools such as Jenkins. 

Continuous Integration and Continuous Testing

In the context of Docker, continuous integration refers to integrating source code that is checked into a source code control system (like GitHub) into a Docker image continuously with each successive check-in.

Build automation tools like Jenkins could be used to develop a build pipeline that builds source code on GitHub into a new Docker image each time code is committed to GitHub. The Docker image also could be tested continuously using automated tests in the build pipeline. After testing a Docker image, it could be uploaded to a Docker image repository, such as Docker Hub, using the docker push command, and this process can also be automated in the build pipeline.

As a result, the source code for software could be integrated continuously into a usable form of a Docker image. The Jenkins pipeline for a continuous integration process is illustrated in figure 6.

Jenkins pipeline for continuous integration

Continuous Delivery

Continuous delivery is the next phase in the software development process. Continuous delivery is defined as making usable software available for deployment without actually deploying the software into production.

Continuous delivery may include deploying software into some staging environment after passing CI and running a suite of tests against the software in that environment. A user or administrator has to approve the software for deployment into production. A build pipeline again could be used for continuous delivery, as illustrated in figure 7.

Continuous delivery

Converting a Docker image into production-quality software could involve further testing to sure an image is usable. Some services also require the microservices they depend on to be available in some way to make the service useful.

Continuous Deployment

Continuous deployment fully automates software development, testing, and running an application. The usable software is deployed continuously to production without user intervention by using rolling upgrades, as illustrated in figure 8. A build pipeline could be used for continuous deployment as well. 

Continuous deployment

Collaboration with Software Users

By automating the Docker build, test, deliver, and deployment processes, it becomes easier to collaborate with your software’s end-users.

End-user production deployments of artifacts that have passed through a continuous delivery cycle are valuable. This gives the development team immediate feedback on the software while waiting for the users to be ready to accept a new release on their terms. Because Docker images are tagged, different end-users could use different versions of the same software customized to their needs.

A multi-branch Jenkins pipeline provides for further collaboration with software end users. For example, some of the branches of the pipeline could be allocated to the software end-user team while the other branches are managed by the software development team. The end-users may suggest changes more frequently than when using a non-Docker application, as it is easier to update software packaged, distributed, and deployed with Docker.

A Tool for Agile Work

Docker facilitates modular design for working software, sustainable resource consumption, efficient software delivery, continuous integration, continuous delivery, continuous deployment, and collaboration with end-users, all of which are founding principles of agile software development. In this way, using Docker as your containerization platform can actually help make your software development, testing, delivery, and deployment more agile.

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