Docker Desktop on Mac vs. Docker Toolbox

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

If you already have an installation of Docker Toolbox, read these topics first to learn how Docker Desktop on Mac and Docker Toolbox differ, and how they can coexist.

The Docker Toolbox environment

Docker Toolbox installs docker, docker-compose, and docker-machine in /usr/local/bin on your Mac. It also installs VirtualBox. At installation time, Toolbox uses docker-machine to provision a VirtualBox VM called default, running the boot2docker Linux distribution, with Docker Engine with certificates located on your Mac at $HOME/.docker/machine/machines/default.

Before you use docker or docker-compose on your Mac, you typically use the command eval $(docker-machine env default) to set environment variables so that docker or docker-compose know how to talk to Docker Engine running on VirtualBox.

This setup is shown in the following diagram.

Docker Toolbox Install

The Docker Desktop on Mac environment

Docker Desktop on Mac is a Mac-native application, that you install in /Applications. At installation time, it creates symlinks in /usr/local/bin for docker and docker-compose and others, to the commands in the application bundle, in /Applications/

Here are some key points to know about Docker Desktop on Mac before you get started:

  • Docker Desktop uses HyperKit instead of Virtual Box. Hyperkit is a lightweight macOS virtualization solution built on top of Hypervisor.framework in macOS 10.10 Yosemite and higher.

  • When you install Docker Desktop on Mac, machines created with Docker Machine are not affected.

  • Docker Desktop does not use docker-machine to provision its VM. The Docker Engine API is exposed on a socket available to the Mac host at /var/run/docker.sock. This is the default location Docker and Docker Compose clients use to connect to the Docker daemon, so you can use docker and docker-compose CLI commands on your Mac.

This setup is shown in the following diagram.

Docker Desktop for Mac Install

With Docker Desktop on Mac, you only get (and only usually need) one VM, managed by Docker Desktop. Docker Desktop automatically upgrades the Docker client and daemon when updates are available.

Also note that Docker Desktop can’t route traffic to containers, so you can’t directly access an exposed port on a running container from the hosting machine.

If you do need multiple VMs, such as when testing multi-node swarms, you can continue to use Docker Machine, which operates outside the scope of Docker Desktop. See Docker Toolbox and Docker Desktop coexistence.

Setting up to run Docker Desktop on Mac

  1. Check whether Toolbox DOCKER environment variables are set:

     $ env | grep DOCKER

    If this command returns no output, you are ready to use Docker Desktop.

    If it returns output (as shown in the example), unset the DOCKER environment variables to make the client talk to the Docker Desktop Engine (next step).

  2. Run the unset command on the following DOCKER environment variables to unset them in the current shell.

     unset DOCKER_HOST

Now, this command should return no output.

      $ env | grep DOCKER

If you are using a Bash shell, you can use unset ${!DOCKER_*} to unset all DOCKER environment variables at once. (This does not work in other shells such as zsh; you need to unset each variable individually.)

Note: If you have a shell script as part of your profile that sets these DOCKER environment variables automatically each time you open a command window, then you need to unset these each time you want to use Docker Desktop.

If you install Docker Desktop on a machine where Docker Toolbox is installed..

Docker Desktop replaces the docker and docker-compose command lines in /usr/local/bin with symlinks to its own versions.

See also Unset environment variables in the current shell in the Docker Machine topics.

Docker Toolbox and Docker Desktop coexistence

You can use Docker Desktop and Docker Toolbox together on the same machine. When you want to use Docker Desktop make sure all DOCKER environment variables are unset. You can do this in bash with unset ${!DOCKER_*}. When you want to use one of the VirtualBox VMs you have set with docker-machine, just run a eval $(docker-machine env default) (or the name of the machine you want to target). This switches the current command shell to talk to the specified Toolbox machine.

This setup is represented in the following diagram.

Docker Toolbox and Docker Desktop for Mac coexistence

Using different versions of Docker tools

The coexistence setup works as is as long as your VirtualBox VMs provisioned with docker-machine run the same version of Docker Engine as Docker Desktop. If you need to use VMs running older versions of Docker Engine, you can use a tool like Docker Version Manager to manage several versions of docker client.

Checking component versions

Ideally, the Docker CLI client and Docker Engine should be the same version. Mismatches between client and server, and host machines you might have created with Docker Machine can cause problems (client can’t talk to the server or host machines).

If you have already installed Docker Toolbox, and then installed Docker Desktop, you might get a newer version of the Docker client. Run docker version in a command shell to see client and server versions. In this example, the client installed with Docker Desktop is Version: 19.03.1 and the server (which was installed earlier with Toolbox) is Version: 19.03.2.

$ docker version
Version:      19.03.1

Version:      19.03.2

Also, if you created machines with Docker Machine (installed with Toolbox) then upgraded or installed Docker Desktop, you might have machines running different versions of Engine. Run docker-machine ls to view version information for the machines you created. In this example, the DOCKER column shows that each machine is running a different version of server.

$ docker-machine ls
NAME             ACTIVE   DRIVER         STATE     URL                         SWARM   DOCKER    ERRORS
aws-sandbox      -        amazonec2      Running   tcp://            v19.03.1
default          *        virtualbox     Running   tcp://           v19.03.2
docker-sandbox   -        digitalocean   Running   tcp://           v19.03.1

There are a few ways to address this problem and keep using your older machines. One solution is to use a version manager like DVM.

Migrating from Docker Toolbox to Docker Desktop on Mac

Docker Desktop does not propose Toolbox image migration as part of its installer since version 18.01.0. You can migrate existing Docker Toolbox images with the steps described below.

In a terminal, while running Toolbox, use docker commit to create an image snapshot from a container, for each container you wish to preserve:

$ docker commit nginx

Next, export each of these images (and any other images you wish to keep):

$ docker save -o nginx.tar sha256:1bc0ee792d144f0f9a1b926b862dc88b0206364b0931be700a313111025df022

Next, when running Docker Desktop on Mac, reload all these images:

$ docker load -i nginx.tar
Loaded image ID: sha256:1bc0ee792d144f0f9a1b926b862dc88b0206364b0931be700a313111025df022

Note these steps will not migrate any docker volume contents: these must be copied across manually.

Finally (optional), if you are done with Docker Toolbox, you may fully uninstall it.

How do I uninstall Docker Toolbox?

You might decide that you do not need Toolbox now that you have Docker Desktop, and want to uninstall it. For details on how to perform a clean uninstall of Toolbox on Mac, see How to uninstall Toolbox in the Toolbox Mac topics.

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