Development container CLI

This topic covers the development container command-line interface (dev container CLI), which allows you to build and manage development containers, and is a companion to the Development Containers Specification.

Development containers

A consistent, predictable environment is key to a productive and enjoyable software development experience.

Containers (for example Docker containers) have historically been used to standardize apps when they're deployed, but there's a great opportunity to support additional scenarios, including continuous integration (CI), test automation, and full-featured coding environments. A development container provides this working environment and ensures your project has the tools and software it needs, whether it's complex and distributed or just has a few requirements.

Diagram comparing dev versus production containers

Development containers are supported in Visual Studio Code via the Remote - Containers extension and in GitHub Codespaces. This support is backed by devcontainer.json, a structured JSON with Comments (jsonc) metadata format to configure a containerized environment.

As containerizing production workloads becomes commonplace, dev containers have become broadly useful for scenarios beyond VS Code. To promote dev containers in any environment, work has started on the Development Containers Specification, which empowers anyone in any tool to configure a consistent dev environment. The open-source dev container CLI serves as the reference implementation of the specification.

The dev container CLI

When tools like VS Code and Codespaces detect a devcontainer.json file in a user's project, they use a CLI to configure a dev container. The dev container CLI is a reference implementation so that individual users and other tools can read in devcontainer.json metadata and create dev containers from it.

This CLI can either be used directly or integrated into product experiences, similar to how it's integrated with Remote - Containers and Codespaces today. It currently supports both a simple single container option and integrates with Docker Compose for multi-container scenarios.

The CLI is available for review in a new devcontainers/cli repository and you can read more about its development in this issue in the spec repo.

System requirements

To use the VS Code dev container CLI, you'll need the following on your system or CI/DevOps environment:

  1. Node.js (version 14 or greater).
  2. The docker CLI.
  3. Python
  4. C/C++ compiler

The VS Code How to Contribute wiki has details about the recommended toolsets.

Installation

You can try out the dev container CLI, either by installing its npm package or building the CLI repo from sources.

To learn more about building the CLI from sources, go to the CLI repo's README.

npm install

npm install -g @devcontainers/cli

Verify you can run the CLI and see its help text:

devcontainer <command>

Commands:
  devcontainer up                   Create and run dev container
  devcontainer build [path]         Build a dev container image
  devcontainer run-user-commands    Run user commands
  devcontainer read-configuration   Read configuration
  devcontainer exec <cmd> [args..]  Execute a command on a running dev container

Options:
  --help     Show help                                                 [boolean]
  --version  Show version number                                       [boolean]

Running the CLI

Once you have the CLI, you can try it out with a sample project, like this Rust sample.

Clone the Rust sample to your machine, and start a dev container with the CLI's up command:

git clone https://github.com/microsoft/vscode-remote-try-rust
devcontainer up --workspace-folder <path-to-vscode-remote-try-rust>

This will download the container image from a container registry and start the container. Your Rust container should now be running:

[88 ms] dev-containers-cli 0.1.0.
[165 ms] Start: Run: docker build -f /home/node/vscode-remote-try-rust/.devcontainer/Dockerfile -t vsc-vscode-remote-try-rust-89420ad7399ba74f55921e49cc3ecfd2 --build-arg VARIANT=bullseye /home/node/vscode-remote-try-rust/.devcontainer
[+] Building 0.5s (5/5) FINISHED
 => [internal] load build definition from Dockerfile                       0.0s
 => => transferring dockerfile: 38B                                        0.0s
 => [internal] load .dockerignore                                          0.0s
 => => transferring context: 2B                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load metadata for mcr.microsoft.com/vscode/devcontainers/r  0.4s
 => CACHED [1/1] FROM mcr.microsoft.com/vscode/devcontainers/rust:1-bulls  0.0s
 => exporting to image                                                     0.0s
 => => exporting layers                                                    0.0s
 => => writing image sha256:39873ccb81e6fb613975e11e37438eee1d49c963a436d  0.0s
 => => naming to docker.io/library/vsc-vscode-remote-try-rust-89420ad7399  0.0s
[1640 ms] Start: Run: docker run --sig-proxy=false -a STDOUT -a STDERR --mount type=bind,source=/home/node/vscode-remote-try-rust,target=/workspaces/vscode-remote-try-rust -l devcontainer.local_folder=/home/node/vscode-remote-try-rust --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE --security-opt seccomp=unconfined --entrypoint /bin/sh vsc-vscode-remote-try-rust-89420ad7399ba74f55921e49cc3ecfd2-uid -c echo Container started
Container started
{"outcome":"success","containerId":"f0a055ff056c1c1bb99cc09930efbf3a0437c54d9b4644695aa23c1d57b4bd11","remoteUser":"vscode","remoteWorkspaceFolder":"/workspaces/vscode-remote-try-rust"}

You can then run commands in this dev container:

devcontainer exec --workspace-folder <path-to-vscode-remote-try-rust> cargo run

This will compile and run the Rust sample, outputting:

[33 ms] dev-containers-cli 0.1.0.
   Compiling hello_remote_world v0.1.0 (/workspaces/vscode-remote-try-rust)
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 1.06s
     Running `target/debug/hello_remote_world`
Hello, VS Code Remote - Containers!
{"outcome":"success"}

These steps above are also provided in the CLI repo's README.

Automation

If you'd like to use the dev container CLI in your CI/CD builds or test automation, you can find examples of GitHub Actions and Azure DevOps Tasks in the devcontainers/ci repository.

Pre-building

The devcontainer build command allows you to quickly build a dev container image following the same steps as used by the Remote - Containers extension or GitHub Codespaces. This is particularly useful when you want to pre-build a dev container image using a CI or DevOps product like GitHub Actions.

build accepts a path to the folder containing a .devcontainer folder or .devcontainer.json file. For example, devcontainer build --workspace-folder <my_repo> will build the container image for my_repo.

Example of building and publishing an image

For example, you may want to pre-build a number of images that you then reuse across multiple projects or repositories. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Create a source code repository.

  2. Create dev container configuration for each image you want to pre-build, customizing as you wish (including dev container Features). For example, consider this devcontainer.json file:

    {
      "build": {
        "dockerfile": "Dockerfile"
      },
      "features": {
        "ghcr.io/devcontainers/features/docker-in-docker:1": {
          "version": "latest"
        }
      }
    }
    
  3. Use the devcontainer build command to build the image and push it to your image registry. See documentation for your image registry (such as Azure Container Registry, GitHub Container Registry, or Docker Hub) for information on image naming and additional steps like authentication.

    devcontainer build --workspace-folder <my_repo> --push true --image-name <my_image_name>:<optional_image_version>
    
  4. Create a simplified devcontainer.json file in repositories where you'd like to use the image - the devcontainer.json should either use the image property or reference the image in an associated Docker Compose file. Include any dev container Features you added in your pre-build configuration. For example:

    {
      "image": "ghcr.io/your-org/your-image-name",
      "features": {
        "ghcr.io/devcontainers/features/docker-in-docker:1": {
          "version": "latest"
        }
      }
    }
    

On the other hand, if you only intend to use the pre-built image from one repository, you can use the cacheFrom property in devcontainer.json or cache_from in a related Docker Compose file instead. This will download the image and treat its image layers like a local cache even if this is the first time you've created the Dockerfile on your machine. Like the option above, be sure to include any dev container Features. For example:

{
  "build": {
    "dockerfile": "Dockerfile",
    "cacheFrom": "ghcr.io/your-org/your-image-name"
  },
  "features": {
    "ghcr.io/devcontainers/features/docker-in-docker:1": {}
  }
}

Avoiding problems with images built using Docker

Given Dockerfiles and Docker Compose files can be used without VS Code or the devcontainer CLI, you may want to let users know that they should not try to build the image directly. You may learn more in the advanced dev container documentation.

Feedback

The dev container CLI and specification are under active development and we welcome your feedback, which you can provide in this issue, or through new issues and pull requests in the devcontainers/cli repository.

Next steps