Dockerizing Node and Connecting Multiple Containers

This blog post is part of the course Node in Production with Docker and AWS at Node University.

In this tutorial, we will build Node app images and run Docker containers in development and production modes. Here’s an overview:

  1. Create/clone/copy a Node project
  2. Dockerize a Node project
  3. Use Docker networks for multi-container setup

1. Create a Node project

Firstly, you need to have the application code itself before you can containerize anything. Of course, you can copy the existing code from code/banking-api, but it’s better for learning to create the project from scratch. This is what we will do now.

Create a new project folder somewhere on your local computer:

mkdir banking-api
cd banking-api
mkdir api
cd api

Create vanilla/default package.json and install required packages as regular dependencies with exact versions:

npm init -y
npm i [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] -SE

Add the following npm scripts. First to test and the second to run the server using local pm2:

  "scripts": {
    "test": "sh ./",
    "start": "if [[ ${NODE_ENV} = production ]]; then ./node_modules/.bin/pm2-docker start -i 0 server.js; else ./node_modules/.bin/pm2-dev server.js; fi"

There are two CLI commands for pm2: pm2-docker for the container and pm2-dev for local development.

The full relative path ./node_modules/.bin is recommended to make your command more robust. Local installation can be replaced with a global with npm i -g pm2. However, global installation is an extra step outside of package.json and npm i command and won’t allow developers to use different versions of pm2 on one machine.

The source code for the Node+Express API (code/banking-api/api/server.js) is as follows:

const http = require('http')
const express = require('express')
const errorhandler = require('errorhandler')
const app = express()
const monk = require('monk')

const db = monk(process.env.DB_URI, (err)=>{
  if (err) {

const accounts = db.get('accounts')


app.get('/accounts', (req, res, next)=>{
  accounts.find({ }, (err, docs) =>{
    if (err) return next(err)
    return res.send(docs)

app.get('/accounts/:accountId/transactions', (req, res)=>{
  accounts.findOne({_id: req.params.accountId}, (err, doc) =>{
    if (err) return next(err)
    return res.send(doc.transactions)

http.createServer(app).listen(process.env.PORT, ()=>{
  log(`Listening on port ${process.env.PORT}`)

The key here is that we are using two environment variables: PORT and DB_URI. We would need to provide them in Dockerfile or in command-line so the app has them set during running.

Let’s verify your application works without Docker by starting MondoGB and the app itself.


In a new terminal:

DB_URI=mongodb://localhost:27017/db-dev PORT=3000 npm start

Yet, in another terminal:

curl http://localhost:3000/accounts

The result will be []% because it’s an empty database and accounts collection. If you use MongoUI or mongo shell to insert a document to db-dev database and accounts collections, then you’ll see that document in the response.

The app is working and now is the time to containerize it.

2. Dockerize a Node project

Creating Dockerfile

Go back to banking-api and create an empty Dockerfile which must be exactly Dockerfile- no extension and starts with capital letter D:

cd ..
touch Dockerfile

Then, write in banking-api/Dockerfile the base image which is Node v6 based on Alpine (lightweight Linux) followed by other Dockerfile statements.

FROM node:6-alpine

# Set image metadata
LABEL version="1.0"
LABEL description="This is an example of a Node API server with connection to MongoDB. \
More details at and"

# Environment variables
# Add/change/overwrite with docker run --env key=value

# Create api directory
RUN mkdir -p /usr/src/api
# From now one we are working in /usr/src/api
WORKDIR /usr/src/api

# Install api dependencies
COPY ./api/package.json .
# Run build if necessary with devDependencies then clean them up
RUN npm i --production

# Copy keys from a secret URL, e.g., S3 bucket or GitHub Gist
# Example adds an image from a remote URL
ADD "" ./public/node-university-logo.png

# Copy API source code
COPY ./api/ .


# The following command will use NODE_ENV to run pm2-docker or pm2-dev
CMD ["npm", "start"]

Read the comments above, if you are new to Dockerfile statements. For more details, check Docker documentation or Node in Production. Next, we can build the image.

Build the image

Build the image from the banking-api folder where you should have Dockerfile and api folder:

docker build .

Ah. Don’t forget to start the Docker Engine before building. Ideally, you would see 13 steps such as:

docker build .
Sending build context to Docker daemon 23.82 MB
Step 1/13 : FROM node:6-alpine
6-alpine: Pulling from library/node
79650cf9cc01: Pull complete
db515f170158: Pull complete
e4c29f5994c9: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:f57cdd2969122bcb9631e02e632123235008245df8ea26fe6dde02f11609ec57
Status: Downloaded newer image for node:6-alpine
 ---> db1550a2d1e5
Step 2/13 : LABEL version "1.0"
 ---> Running in 769ba6574e60
 ---> 63d5f68d2d01
Removing intermediate container 769ba6574e60
Step 3/13 : LABEL description "This is an example of a Node API server with connection to MongoDB. More details at and"
 ---> Running in f7dcb5dd35b6
 ---> 08f1211cbfe1


Step 13/13 : CMD npm start
 ---> Running in defd2b5776f0
 ---> 330df9053088
Removing intermediate container defd2b5776f0
Successfully built 330df9053088

Each step has a hash. Copy the last hash of the image, e.g., 330df9053088 in my case.

Verify with a host database

As an interim step, we can verify our image by using a host database. In other words, our app will be connecting to the host database from a container. This is good for development. In production, you’ll be using managed database such as AWS RDS or Compose or mLabs or a database in a separate (second) container.

To connect to your local (host) MongoDB instance (must be running), let’s grab your host IP:

ifconfig | grep inet

Look for the one that says inet, e.g., inet netmask 0xffffff00 broadcast means my IP is

Put the IP in the environment variable in the run command for the Docker build of the app image. In other words, substitute the {host-ip} and {app-image-id} with your values:

docker run --rm -t --name banking-api -e NODE_ENV=development -e DB_URI="mongodb://{host-ip}:27017/db-prod" -v $(pwd)/api:/usr/src/api -p 80:3000 {app-image-id}
docker run --rm -t --name banking-api -e NODE_ENV=development -e DB_URI="mongodb://" -v $(pwd)/api:/usr/src/api -p 80:3000 330df9053088

Each option is important. -e passes environment variables, -p maps host 80 to container 3000 (set in Dockerfile), -v mounts the local volume so you can change the files on the host and container app will pick up the changes automatically!

Go ahead and verify by using curl localhost/accounts. Then, modify your server.js without re-building or stopping the container. You can add some text, a route or mock data to the /accounts:

app.get('/accounts', (req, res, next)=>{
  accounts.find({ }, (err, docs) =>{
    if (err) return next(err)
    return res.send(docs)

Hit save in your editor on your host and boom. You’ll see the changes in the response from the app container:

curl localhost/accounts

To stop the container, run

docker stop banking-api

Or get the container ID first with docker ps and then run docker stop {container-id}.

The bottom line is that our Dockerfile is production-ready but we can run the container in dev mode (NODE_ENV=development) with volumes and host database which allows us to avoid any modifications between images and/or Dockerfiles when we go from dev to prod.

3. Use Docker networks for multi-container setup

As mentioned, Dockerfile you created is ready to be deployed to cloud without modifications. However, if you want to run MongoDB or anyother service in a container (instead of a host or managed solution like mLab or Compose), then you can do it with Docker networks. The idea is to create a network and launch two (or more) containers inside of this network. Every container in a network can “talk” to each other just by name.

Creating network

Assuming you want to name your network banking-api-network, run this command:

docker network create --driver=bridge banking-api-network

Verify by getting banking-api-network details or list of all networks:

docker network inspect banking-api-network
docker network ls

You would see something like this:

docker network ls
NETWORK ID          NAME                  DRIVER              SCOPE
e9f653fffa25        banking-api-network   bridge              local
cd768d87acb1        bridge                bridge              local
0cd7db8df819        host                  host                local
8f4db39bd202        none                  null                local

Next, launch vanilla mongo image in banking-api-network (or whatever name you used for your network). The name of the container mongod-banking-api-prod-container will become the host name to access it from our app:

docker run --rm -it --net=banking-api-network --name mongod-banking-api-prod-container mongo

Note: If you didn’t have mongo image, Docker will download it for you. It’ll happen just once, the first time.

Leave this mongo running. Open a new terminal.

Launch App into a Network

This is my command to launch my Node app in a production mode and connect to my mongo container which is in the same network (banking-api-network):

docker run --rm -t --net=banking-api-network --name banking-api -e NODE_ENV=production -e DB_URI="mongodb://mongod-banking-api-prod-container:27017/db-prod" -p 80:3000 330df9053088

The 330df9053088 must be replaced with your app image ID from the previous step when you did docker build .. If you forgot the app image ID, then run docker images and look up the ID.

This time, you’ll see pm2 in a production clustered mode. I have 2 CPUs in my Docker engine settings, hence pm2-docker spawned two Node processes which both listen for incoming connections at 3000 (container, 80 on the host):

docker run --rm -t --net=banking-api-network --name banking-api -e NODE_ENV=production -e DB_URI="mongodb://mongod-banking-api-prod-container:27017/db-prod" -p 80:3000 330df9053088
npm info it worked if it ends with ok
npm info using [email protected]
npm info using [email protected]
npm info lifecycle [email protected]~prestart: [email protected]
npm info lifecycle [email protected]~start: [email protected]

> [email protected] start /usr/src/api
> if [[ ${NODE_ENV} = production ]]; then ./node_modules/.bin/pm2-docker start -i 0 server.js; else ./node_modules/.bin/pm2-dev server.js; fi

[STREAMING] Now streaming realtime logs for [all] processes
0|server   | Listening on port 3000
1|server   | Listening on port 3000

The command is different than in the previous section but the image is the same. The command does NOT have volume and has different environment variables. There’s no need to use a volume since we want to bake the code into an image for portability.

Again, open a new terminal (or use an existing tab) and run CURL:

curl http://localhost/accounts

If you see []%, then all is good.

Inspecting your network with docker network inspect banking-api-network will show you have 2 running containers there:

        "Containers": {
            "02ff9bb083484a0fe2abb63ec79e0a78f9cac0d31440374f9bb2ee8995930414": {
                "Name": "mongod-banking-api-prod-container",
                "EndpointID": "0fa2612ebc14ed7af097f7287e013802e844005fe66a979dfe6cfb1c08336080",
                "MacAddress": "02:42:ac:12:00:02",
                "IPv4Address": "",
                "IPv6Address": ""
            "3836f4042c5d3b16a565b1f68eb5690e062e5472a09caf563bc9f11efd9ab167": {
                "Name": "banking-api",
                "EndpointID": "d6ae871a94553dab1fcd6660185be4029a28c80c893ef1450df8cad20add583e",
                "MacAddress": "02:42:ac:12:00:03",
                "IPv4Address": "",
                "IPv6Address": ""

Using the similar approach, you can launch other apps and services into the same network and they’ll be able to talk with each other.

Note: The older --link flag/option is deprecated. Don’t use it. See


  • No response: Check that the port is mapped in the docker run command with -p. It’s not enough to just have EXPOSE in Dockerfile. Developers need to have both.
  • The server hasn’t updated after my code change: Make sure you mount a volume with -v. You don’t want to do it for production though.
  • I cannot get my IP because your command is not working on my Windows, Linux, ChromOS, etc., see
  • I can’t understand networks. I need more info on networks. See

Wrap Up

Docker plays nicely with Node. Both allow to create very lightweight microservices for a more scalable architecture. Make sure to checkout some free preview lectures in Node in Production with Docker and AWS at Node University.