Docker Context


This guide shows how contexts make it easy for a single Docker CLI to manage multiple Swarm clusters, multiple Kubernetes clusters, and multiple individual Docker nodes.

A single Docker CLI can have multiple contexts. Each context contains all of the endpoint and security information required to manage a different cluster or node. The docker context command makes it easy to configure these contexts and switch between them.

As an example, a single Docker client on your company laptop might be configured with two contexts; dev-k8s and prod-swarm. dev-k8s contains the endpoint data and security credentials to configure and manage a Kubernetes cluster in a development environment. prod-swarm contains everything required to manage a Swarm cluster in a production environment. Once these contexts are configured, you can use the top-level docker context use <context-name> to easily switch between them.

For information on using Docker Context to deploy your apps to the cloud, see Deploying Docker containers on Azure and Deploying Docker containers on ECS.


To follow the examples in this guide, you'll need:

  • A Docker client that supports the top-level context command

Run docker context to verify that your Docker client supports contexts.

You will also need one of the following:

  • Docker Swarm cluster
  • Single-engine Docker node
  • Kubernetes cluster

The anatomy of a context

A context is a combination of several properties. These include:

  • Name
  • Endpoint configuration
  • TLS info
  • Orchestrator

The easiest way to see what a context looks like is to view the default context.

$ docker context ls
default *     Current...      unix:///var/run/docker.sock                             swarm

This shows a single context called "default". It's configured to talk to a Swarm cluster through the local /var/run/docker.sock Unix socket. It has no Kubernetes endpoint configured.

The asterisk in the NAME column indicates that this is the active context. This means all docker commands will be executed against the "default" context unless overridden with environment variables such as DOCKER_HOST and DOCKER_CONTEXT, or on the command-line with the --context and --host flags.

Dig a bit deeper with docker context inspect. In this example, we're inspecting the context called default.

$ docker context inspect default
        "Name": "default",
        "Metadata": {
            "StackOrchestrator": "swarm"
        "Endpoints": {
            "docker": {
                "Host": "unix:///var/run/docker.sock",
                "SkipTLSVerify": false
        "TLSMaterial": {},
        "Storage": {
            "MetadataPath": "\u003cIN MEMORY\u003e",
            "TLSPath": "\u003cIN MEMORY\u003e"

This context is using "swarm" as the orchestrator (metadata.stackOrchestrator). It is configured to talk to an endpoint exposed on a local Unix socket at /var/run/docker.sock (Endpoints.docker.Host), and requires TLS verification (Endpoints.docker.SkipTLSVerify).

Create a new context

You can create new contexts with the docker context create command.

The following example creates a new context called "docker-test" and specifies the following:

  • Default orchestrator = Swarm
  • Issue commands to the local Unix socket /var/run/docker.sock
$ docker context create docker-test \
  --default-stack-orchestrator=swarm \
  --docker host=unix:///var/run/docker.sock

Successfully created context "docker-test"

The new context is stored in a meta.json file below ~/.docker/contexts/. Each new context you create gets its own meta.json stored in a dedicated sub-directory of ~/.docker/contexts/.

Note: The default context behaves differently than manually created contexts. It does not have a meta.json configuration file, and it dynamically updates based on the current configuration. For example, if you switch your current Kubernetes config using kubectl config use-context, the default Docker context will dynamically update itself to the new Kubernetes endpoint.

You can view the new context with docker context ls and docker context inspect <context-name>.

The following can be used to create a config with Kubernetes as the default orchestrator using the existing kubeconfig stored in /home/ubuntu/.kube/config. For this to work, you will need a valid kubeconfig file in /home/ubuntu/.kube/config. If your kubeconfig has more than one context, the current context (kubectl config current-context) will be used.

$ docker context create k8s-test \
  --default-stack-orchestrator=kubernetes \
  --kubernetes config-file=/home/ubuntu/.kube/config \
  --docker host=unix:///var/run/docker.sock

Successfully created context "k8s-test"

You can view all contexts on the system with docker context ls.

$ docker context ls
default *      Current       unix:///var/run/docker.sock (default)   swarm
k8s-test                     unix:///var/run/docker.sock (default)   kubernetes
docker-test                  unix:///var/run/docker.sock                                     swarm

The current context is indicated with an asterisk ("*").

Use a different context

You can use docker context use to quickly switch between contexts.

The following command will switch the docker CLI to use the "k8s-test" context.

$ docker context use k8s-test

Current context is now "k8s-test"

Verify the operation by listing all contexts and ensuring the asterisk ("*") is against the "k8s-test" context.

$ docker context ls
NAME            DESCRIPTION                               DOCKER ENDPOINT               KUBERNETES ENDPOINT               ORCHESTRATOR
default         Current DOCKER_HOST based configuration   unix:///var/run/docker.sock (default)   swarm
docker-test                                               unix:///var/run/docker.sock                                     swarm
k8s-test *                                                unix:///var/run/docker.sock (default)   kubernetes

docker commands will now target endpoints defined in the "k8s-test" context.

You can also set the current context using the DOCKER_CONTEXT environment variable. This overrides the context set with docker context use.

Use the appropriate command below to set the context to docker-test using an environment variable.

Windows PowerShell:

> $env:DOCKER_CONTEXT='docker-test'


$ export DOCKER_CONTEXT=docker-test

Run a docker context ls to verify that the "docker-test" context is now the active context.

You can also use the global --context flag to override the context specified by the DOCKER_CONTEXT environment variable. For example, the following will send the command to a context called "production".

$ docker --context production container ls

Exporting and importing Docker contexts

The docker context command makes it easy to export and import contexts on different machines with the Docker client installed.

You can use the docker context export command to export an existing context to a file. This file can later be imported on another machine that has the docker client installed.

By default, contexts will be exported as a native Docker contexts. You can export and import these using the docker context command. If the context you are exporting includes a Kubernetes endpoint, the Kubernetes part of the context will be included in the export and import operations.

There is also an option to export just the Kubernetes part of a context. This will produce a native kubeconfig file that can be manually merged with an existing ~/.kube/config file on another host that has kubectl installed. You cannot export just the Kubernetes portion of a context and then import it with docker context import. The only way to import the exported Kubernetes config is to manually merge it into an existing kubeconfig file.

Let's look at exporting and importing a native Docker context.

Exporting and importing a native Docker context

The following example exports an existing context called "docker-test". It will be written to a file called docker-test.dockercontext.

$ docker context export docker-test
Written file "docker-test.dockercontext"

Check the contents of the export file.

$ cat docker-test.dockercontext
meta.json0000644000000000000000000000022300000000000011023 0ustar0000000000000000{"Name":"docker-test","Metadata":{"StackOrchestrator":"swarm"},"Endpoints":{"docker":{"Host":"unix:///var/run/docker.sock","SkipTLSVerify":false}}}tls0000700000000000000000000000000000000000000007716 5ustar0000000000000000

This file can be imported on another host using docker context import. The target host must have the Docker client installed.

$ docker context import docker-test docker-test.dockercontext
Successfully imported context "docker-test"

You can verify that the context was imported with docker context ls.

The format of the import command is docker context import <context-name> <context-file>.

Now, let's look at exporting just the Kubernetes parts of a context.

Exporting a Kubernetes context

You can export a Kubernetes context only if the context you are exporting has a Kubernetes endpoint configured. You cannot import a Kubernetes context using docker context import.

These steps will use the --kubeconfig flag to export only the Kubernetes elements of the existing k8s-test context to a file called "k8s-test.kubeconfig". The cat command will then show that it's exported as a valid kubeconfig file.

$ docker context export k8s-test --kubeconfig
Written file "k8s-test.kubeconfig"

Verify that the exported file contains a valid kubectl config.

$ cat k8s-test.kubeconfig
apiVersion: v1
- cluster:
  name: cluster
- context:
    cluster: cluster
    namespace: default
    user: authInfo
  name: context
current-context: context
kind: Config
preferences: {}
- name: authInfo
        cmd-args: config config-helper --format=json
        cmd-path: /snap/google-cloud-sdk/77/bin/gcloud
        expiry-key: '{.credential.token_expiry}'
        token-key: '{.credential.access_token}'
      name: gcp

You can merge this with an existing ~/.kube/config file on another machine.

Updating a context

You can use docker context update to update fields in an existing context.

The following example updates the "Description" field in the existing k8s-test context.

$ docker context update k8s-test --description "Test Kubernetes cluster"
Successfully updated context "k8s-test"