Manage data in DockerEstimated reading time: 9 minutes
By default all files created inside a container are stored on a writable container layer. This means that:
- The data doesn’t persist when that container no longer exists, and it can be difficult to get the data out of the container if another process needs it.
- A container’s writable layer is tightly coupled to the host machine where the container is running. You can’t easily move the data somewhere else.
- Writing into a container’s writable layer requires a storage driver to manage the filesystem. The storage driver provides a union filesystem, using the Linux kernel. This extra abstraction reduces performance as compared to using data volumes, which write directly to the host filesystem.
Docker has two options for containers to store files in the host machine, so that the files are persisted even after the container stops: volumes, and bind mounts. If you’re running Docker on Linux you can also use a tmpfs mount. If you’re running Docker on Windows you can also use a named pipe.
Keep reading for more information about these two ways of persisting data.
Choose the right type of mount
No matter which type of mount you choose to use, the data looks the same from within the container. It is exposed as either a directory or an individual file in the container’s filesystem.
An easy way to visualize the difference among volumes, bind mounts, and
mounts is to think about where the data lives on the Docker host.
Volumes are stored in a part of the host filesystem which is managed by Docker (
/var/lib/docker/volumes/on Linux). Non-Docker processes should not modify this part of the filesystem. Volumes are the best way to persist data in Docker.
Bind mounts may be stored anywhere on the host system. They may even be important system files or directories. Non-Docker processes on the Docker host or a Docker container can modify them at any time.
tmpfsmounts are stored in the host system’s memory only, and are never written to the host system’s filesystem.
More details about mount types
Volumes: Created and managed by Docker. You can create a volume explicitly using the
docker volume createcommand, or Docker can create a volume during container or service creation.
When you create a volume, it is stored within a directory on the Docker host. When you mount the volume into a container, this directory is what is mounted into the container. This is similar to the way that bind mounts work, except that volumes are managed by Docker and are isolated from the core functionality of the host machine.
A given volume can be mounted into multiple containers simultaneously. When no running container is using a volume, the volume is still available to Docker and is not removed automatically. You can remove unused volumes using
docker volume prune.
When you mount a volume, it may be named or anonymous. Anonymous volumes are not given an explicit name when they are first mounted into a container, so Docker gives them a random name that is guaranteed to be unique within a given Docker host. Besides the name, named and anonymous volumes behave in the same ways.
Volumes also support the use of volume drivers, which allow you to store your data on remote hosts or cloud providers, among other possibilities.
Bind mounts: Available since the early days of Docker. Bind mounts have limited functionality compared to volumes. When you use a bind mount, a file or directory on the host machine is mounted into a container. The file or directory is referenced by its full path on the host machine. The file or directory does not need to exist on the Docker host already. It is created on demand if it does not yet exist. Bind mounts are very performant, but they rely on the host machine’s filesystem having a specific directory structure available. If you are developing new Docker applications, consider using named volumes instead. You can’t use Docker CLI commands to directly manage bind mounts.
Bind mounts allow access to sensitive files
One side effect of using bind mounts, for better or for worse, is that you can change the host filesystem via processes running in a container, including creating, modifying, or deleting important system files or directories. This is a powerful ability which can have security implications, including impacting non-Docker processes on the host system.
tmpfs mounts: A
tmpfsmount is not persisted on disk, either on the Docker host or within a container. It can be used by a container during the lifetime of the container, to store non-persistent state or sensitive information. For instance, internally, swarm services use
tmpfsmounts to mount secrets into a service’s containers.
named pipes: An
npipemount can be used for communication between the Docker host and a container. Common use case is to run a third-party tool inside of a container and connect to the Docker Engine API using a named pipe.
Bind mounts and volumes can both be mounted into containers using the
--volume flag, but the syntax for each is slightly different. For
mounts, you can use the
--tmpfs flag. However, in Docker 17.06 and higher,
we recommend using the
--mount flag for both containers and services, for
bind mounts, volumes, or
tmpfs mounts, as the syntax is more clear.
Good use cases for volumes
Volumes are the preferred way to persist data in Docker containers and services. Some use cases for volumes include:
Sharing data among multiple running containers. If you don’t explicitly create it, a volume is created the first time it is mounted into a container. When that container stops or is removed, the volume still exists. Multiple containers can mount the same volume simultaneously, either read-write or read-only. Volumes are only removed when you explicitly remove them.
When the Docker host is not guaranteed to have a given directory or file structure. Volumes help you decouple the configuration of the Docker host from the container runtime.
When you want to store your container’s data on a remote host or a cloud provider, rather than locally.
When you need to back up, restore, or migrate data from one Docker host to another, volumes are a better choice. You can stop containers using the volume, then back up the volume’s directory (such as
When your application requires high-performance I/O on Docker Desktop. Volumes are stored in the Linux VM rather than the host, which means that the reads and writes have much lower latency and higher throughput.
When your application requires fully native file system behavior on Docker Desktop. For example, a database engine requires precise control over disk flushing to guarantee transaction durability. Volumes are stored in the Linux VM and can make these guarantees, whereas bind mounts are remoted to macOS or Windows, where the file systems behave slightly differently.
Good use cases for bind mounts
In general, you should use volumes where possible. Bind mounts are appropriate for the following types of use case:
Sharing configuration files from the host machine to containers. This is how Docker provides DNS resolution to containers by default, by mounting
/etc/resolv.conffrom the host machine into each container.
Sharing source code or build artifacts between a development environment on the Docker host and a container. For instance, you may mount a Maven
target/directory into a container, and each time you build the Maven project on the Docker host, the container gets access to the rebuilt artifacts.
If you use Docker for development this way, your production Dockerfile would copy the production-ready artifacts directly into the image, rather than relying on a bind mount.
When the file or directory structure of the Docker host is guaranteed to be consistent with the bind mounts the containers require.
Good use cases for tmpfs mounts
tmpfs mounts are best used for cases when you do not want the data to persist
either on the host machine or within the container. This may be for security
reasons or to protect the performance of the container when your application
needs to write a large volume of non-persistent state data.
Tips for using bind mounts or volumes
If you use either bind mounts or volumes, keep the following in mind:
If you mount an empty volume into a directory in the container in which files or directories exist, these files or directories are propagated (copied) into the volume. Similarly, if you start a container and specify a volume which does not already exist, an empty volume is created for you. This is a good way to pre-populate data that another container needs.
If you mount a bind mount or non-empty volume into a directory in the container in which some files or directories exist, these files or directories are obscured by the mount, just as if you saved files into
/mnton a Linux host and then mounted a USB drive into
/mnt. The contents of
/mntwould be obscured by the contents of the USB drive until the USB drive were unmounted. The obscured files are not removed or altered, but are not accessible while the bind mount or volume is mounted.
- Learn more about volumes.
- Learn more about bind mounts.
- Learn more about tmpfs mounts.
- Learn more about storage drivers, which are not related to bind mounts or volumes, but allow you to store data in a container’s writable layer.