Simon Emms

Software Engineer, Technical Leader, Solutions Designer

Multi-Arch Docker Containers


Containers have revolutionised computing since they were first popularised by Docker in the first half of the 2010s. Containers have made developing software and deploying it far simpler than it has ever been by creating an artifact that can work across different systems. By maintaining it's own dependencies independent of the host machine, we no longer have to ensure that all developers and deployment environments are using version x.y.z of a language and the correct versions of all our databases.

With the exception of multi-architectural deployments that is.

What is multi-arch

I am currently writing this post on my laptop - it's a 64 bit machine running Ubuntu 19.10. If I run uname -p, it proves that it's a 64 bit machine by printing x86_64. When I come to deploy it to my Raspberry Pi cluster (yes, I'm that cool kids), that'll be on a 32 bit processor - uname -p now gives me armv7l.

This is the description of the processor on the computer itself and it's architecture. When you're running your containers, you get used to largely being able to ignore the host machine and it's capabilities entirely - you might be running Windows or OSX, but if your container is an Ubuntu or Alpine-based image, you'll be doing everything in Linux.

The processor is one of the few things that the container does not virtualise. If you have a 64 bit host machine, your container MUST be compatible with a 64 bit processor. For the most part, this causes us few problems - we all tend to develop on 64 bit machines and deploy to cloud provider of choice who provides us with a fleet of 64 bit machines. This only becomes a problem if we need to support multiple architectures at any stage the of the software development lifecycle.

Why are multi-arch containers a good idea

Until fairly recently, if you wanted to deploy your containerised application, you were pretty-much limited to doing so to 64 bit machines. It was possible to get Docker Swarm onto a Raspberry Pi and Kubernetes was (officially) off limits.

Then along came Scaleway with their very cheap ARM clouds and K3S with a lightweight Kubernetes that was perfect for Raspberry Pis. Now you can have very cost-effective and (with enough nodes) high-performing clusters running on machines lying around your office. These are perfect for development and staging clusters to test out your applications.

In recent years to, the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) has largely been made possible by lightweight processors. I've worked with many IoT companies over the years and it's always useful to be able to have a virtual device with which to interact in development and testing - this process is simplified greatly if you have that software in a container.

If none of these reasons convince you based on your requirements today, think about what the future might bring. There have been persistent rumours that Apple will switch to ARM processors in the future (which may or may not require multi-archness). You also rarely know exactly where your application will be heading in 3+ years time - I've lost count of the number of times I've been told by architects and products owners "no Simon, we definitely will never do x feature" only to find I'm building that exact feature 6 months later.

Finally, it's a very simple change that add almost no time or effort to the build pipeline - for the effort involved, is it not worth just having it there in the background?

Docker Setup

Even those the experimental version of Docker is not recommended for production use, it is fine for building the containers. You do NOT need to enable experimental mode on your deployment machine. As further evidence for it's use, this is how Docker provides multi-arch support for all officially supported containers.

In order to make truly multi-arch containers, we need to use the experimental version of Docker. To do that, go to your command line and edit the file ~/.docker/config.json. This is a JSON file, and you need to ensure that experimental is set to enabled.

  "experimental": "enabled"

It's likely you'll have additional settings in there - leave those as they are. To prove you have enabled experimental mode, type docker manifest --help and you should see the help page.

Next, you need to enable Qemu support for your Docker host instance. Qemu is a generic machine emulator and virtualiser. In simple terms, it allows your machine with one type of processor to emulate other types of processor, allowing your machine to execute scripts on different processor architectures.

This updates the Docker machine instance. It will only need to be done once for your Docker instance. If you restart your machine or the Docker instance, you will need to run it again.

docker run --rm --privileged multiarch/qemu-user-static --reset -p yes

Now you have your Docker instance set up. It's time to consider the Dockerfile. Under normal circumstances, your Dockerfile would start off with using the FROM command to pull in an image, perhaps FROM node:12-alpine. Now you're in the multi-arch world, you cannot simply do that. Since 2017 all Docker images are multi-arch - if you just use the image name, eg node, it queries the manifest against your host machine's processor and pulls that down. On a 64 bit machine, it actually pulls down amd64/node.

To get around that, we need to specify the architecture. Since Docker v17, we can add build arguments before the FROM tag. So you will need to change your Dockerfile like so:

ARG ARCH="amd64"
FROM ${ARCH}/node:12-alpine
CMD [ "uname", "-a" ]

We're defaulting the ARCH argument to amd64 and then telling Docker to pull down that exact image. If we now build two different images, one for amd64 and one for a Raspberry Pi 3B, we should see differences.

docker build -t riggerthegeek/multiarch-test:amd64 .
docker build --build-arg=ARCH=arm32v7 -t riggerthegeek/multiarch-test:arm32v7 .
docker run -it --rm riggerthegeek/multiarch-test:amd64 # String includes x86_64
docker run -it --rm riggerthegeek/multiarch-test:arm32v7 # String include armv7l

Now we have all the images built, we need to combine them into a manifest. As touched on above, a manifest is a way of combining multiple images into a single image, allowing the machine that's pulling the image to decide which one it wants to actually use. There are many use-cases for this, such as whether the host's operating systems is Windows. In our case, we only want to differentiate by the processor.

You will need to push the above images before running this command

docker manifest create riggerthegeek/multiarch-test \
    riggerthegeek/multiarch-test:amd64 \
docker manifest push riggerthegeek/multiarch-test

If you run docker manifest inspect riggerthegeek/multiarch-test now, you will see how the host Docker engine will decide which image to use.

Finally, test your container on an AMD64 machine and on a Raspberry Pi. You should see different results, but notice how you're only specifying the image name, not the tag.

# x86_64 on AMD64, armv7l on Raspberry Pi
docker run -it --rm riggerthegeek/multiarch-test

You have now built a multi-arch Docker image, deployable to both 64 bit machines and Raspberry Pi 3B/3B++.

Building with GitLab

I use GitLab for my CI. Enabling multi-arch builds in GitLab is really simple - it's one environment variable and then the same commands as above. This is my usual setup in my .gitlab-ci.yml - I've removed all branching guards and strategies for brevity.

  DOCKER_CLI_EXPERIMENTAL: enabled # Required for docker manifests - the only change required
  DOCKER_DRIVER: overlay2
  DOCKER_HOST: tcp://docker:2375

  - build
  - publish

# Extensible commands
  image: docker:stable
    - docker:dind
    - docker
    - docker run --rm --privileged multiarch/qemu-user-static --reset -p yes

  extends: .docker_base
  stage: build
    - docker build --build-arg=ARCH=${ARCH} -t ${CI_REGISTRY_IMAGE}/${ARCH}:${CI_COMMIT_SHA} .
    - docker push ${CI_REGISTRY_IMAGE}/${ARCH}:${CI_COMMIT_SHA}

# Build amd64 image
  extends: .docker_build
    ARCH: amd64

# Build arm32v7 image
  extends: .docker_build
    ARCH: arm32v7

# Combine both images in a manifest and publish
   extends: .docker_base
   stage: publish
     - |
         docker manifest create ${CI_REGISTRY_IMAGE}
     - docker manifest push ${CI_REGISTRY_IMAGE}


Building through the emulator is slower. Unless you absolutely have to, I would recommend only building the full manifest on master and develop branches.


Photo by the beatboy

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