Dockerizing your Scala apps with sbt-docker

Docker is the new hotness for app deployment – and for good reason. It seems all the infrastructure providers are supporting it, as is Mesos, etc. This is a guide to dockerizing your Scala apps using sbt- docker as well as setting up a dev environment for Docker on OSX. This guide will show how to use the power of Scala and SBT to generate Docker configs and images, and you can never have enough blog posts to teach SBT :)

I’m no Docker expert, but for the last few months my last company has been dockerizing their Scala apps onto an AWS / Mesos / Marathon-based infrastructure. I also just wrapped up dockerizing my main OSS project, the Spark Job Server, as well as helping with docker stuff for a big data training this month. You’ll find the full code from the examples below in the Build.scala file of the Job Server project.

Why Docker?

I’m sure this subject has been beaten to death, and there are some that feel like for JVM / Scala apps, the value of Docker is less because the JVM is already sort of a container environment. So I’ll keep this short and just share what value I’ve found from dockerization.

  1. Right now, if you only had time to package your project or app one way, Docker is the way to go.
  2. For people trying out your open source repo, docker run is as easy and more universal (arguably) than most alternatives. No need to build anything.
  3. Users can easily modify your container without rebuilding it by inheriting from it and overriding files, env vars, etc.
  4. Let’s say you want to package a whole bunch of open source projects together for people to try out – for our training we had to put together Cassandra, Kafka, Spark, and more. Throw them all into one container for convenience.
  5. I personally find the port and file namespacing helps. It minimizes configuration and it’s nice to know your database path is at /database.

That said, getting Docker setup on your dev laptop is nontrivial (unless you run Linux), and debugging Docker apps is just not as easy as on a regular box.

Docker on OSX: My Setup

NOTE: Since I wrote the section below, Docker Machine came out and will supercede boot2docker.

(Feel free to skip this section if you are on Linux) The easiest way to get started with Docker on OSX is using boot2docker. One good guide to set everything up is here. However, I found it easier to work with a real VM in terms of doing file/folder sharing, port forwarding, etc. – it was easier to have control over these aspects.

In brief:

  • Install VirtualBox
  • Download and use an Ubuntu (14.04 or 14.10 server recommended as of this writing) OVA or VM image
  • Set up docker - note the apt package is docker-engine, not, but better to use the script from wget -qO- | sh
  • Configure a host-only network on the VM with static IP address
  • Start docker daemon with TCP bindings instead of the default /var/lib/docker.sock binding:

      sudo echo 'DOCKER_OPTS="-H"' >>/etc/default/docker
      sudo service docker restart
  • Install docker locally on OSX using brew install docker
  • Configure DOCKER_HOST on OSX to point at your static IP:

      export DOCKER_HOST=tcp://

This setup will let you use the Docker daemon in your VM to create the containers, but drive it automatically from any process on OSX itself which calls docker build locally.


You could create your own Dockerfile and call docker manually to create the containers (using docker build -t myuser/myrepo .), but there are some reasons to use a tool integrated with SBT (assuming you use SBT for Scala development):

  • Automatically pull in dependencies, or the correct path/name of your target jars
  • Ensure build dependencies match your runtime environment.
    • For example, for Spark Job Server, it must be built against a specific version of Spark (and Hadoop), and it’s important to include a matching Spark distribution in the container itself.
  • Use the full power of Scala, including build variables, to generate your Dockerfile
  • Incorporate a docker image push into your release process via sbt-release

To get started, add this line to your project/plugins.sbt:

addSbtPlugin("se.marcuslonnberg" % "sbt-docker" % "1.2.0")

Then, add a section to your build.sbt file:

import sbtdocker.DockerKeys._

lazy val dockerSettings = Seq(
    // things the docker file generation depends on are listed here
    dockerfile in docker := {
        // any vals to be declared here
        new sbtdocker.mutable.Dockerfile {
            <<docker commands>>

The next section flushes out some of the docker commands per sbt-docker syntax.

Basic Options


Every Docker container inherits from a base container that has a Linux distro, and for Scala apps, some flavor of the JVM. You will probably want to add a command like from("java:7") here. For Spark Job Server, we also wanted Mesos, so I put from("ottoops/mesos-java7") here. Beware that the standard Java7 base container is OpenJDK, and if you require Sun’s JRE, you need to use one of the countless variants. ottoops uses Sun JRE and is fairly lightweight.


ADD is the standard command in a Dockerfile to add a file to your docker container. You could add entire directories. Note that every ADD is treated as a separate layer by Docker, meaning that if you were to rebuild your container, Docker will skip the ADDs whose source has not changed.

The sbt-docker syntax for an add is like this:

  add(baseDirectory(_ / "config" / "docker.conf").value, file("app/docker.conf"))

(NOTE: the above assumes SBT >= 0.13.0) The first parameter to add is an SBT path. baseDirectory is a function which returns a file path relative to the base directory where build.sbt is located. The second parameter is the container file path.

Per Docker Best Practices, it is better to use COPY than ADD, so the above becomes:

  copy(baseDirectory(_ / "config" / "docker.conf").value, file("app/docker.conf"))

Adding your Scala assembly jar

Thus far, the examples are things you could have done in your Dockerfile directly, but here is an example of using the power of SBT: adding your assembly jar. Let’s say you want to add an assembly jar when you run docker in sbt, and the assembly jar is from another project. Here is the code from the job server:

lazy val dockerSettings = Seq(
    // Make the docker task depend on the assembly task, which generates a fat JAR file
    docker <<= (docker dependsOn (AssemblyKeys.assembly in jobServerExtras)),
    dockerfile in docker := {
      val artifact = (AssemblyKeys.outputPath in AssemblyKeys.assembly in jobServerExtras).value
      val artifactTargetPath = s"/app/${}"
      new sbtdocker.mutable.Dockerfile {
        copy(artifact, artifactTargetPath)

Let’s break this down:

  • docker <<= (docker dependsOn ... tells SBT that the docker task (to build a container) depends on the output of the assembly task, from project jobServerExtras.
  • val artifact = line finds the full path of the assembly JAR from that project
  • val artifactTargetPath creates the target (inside container) path

Note how we can define vals in the dockerfile in docker block, and use Scala string interpolation in the docker commands!


Exposing a port is super easy:

  expose(9999)    // for JMX  

Note that I like to expose a JMX port for app debugging, and you can configure JMX to use only one port, which makes EC2 and Mesos operation much easier.


The ENV directive in a Dockerfile sets up an environment variable at both container runtime as well as Docker image build time (ie the RUN commands can use it). These are especially useful for reusing vars in both places. An example is, for Spark Job Server, the SPARK_BUILD variable can be used both at docker build time and by the runtime scripts:

    env("SPARK_BUILD", s"spark-${sparkVersion}-bin-hadoop2.4")
    runRaw("""wget$SPARK_BUILD.tgz && \
              tar -xvf $SPARK_BUILD.tgz && \
              mv $SPARK_BUILD /spark && \
              rm $SPARK_BUILD.tgz

The above links the sparkVersion scala variable, which is also used during the jobserver SBT build to fetch dependencies to compile against, to the version of Spark downloaded in the RUN command when the container is built, thus ensuring that a compile and runtime dependency both match. Leaving this as an ENV also makes it easier for others to modify your container.


RUN executes shell commands while building the container. It is typically used to install packages. The sbt-docker syntax offers at least two variants: runRaw which you saw above to execute any text as a shell command (including env var substitution), and run() which allows you to input each arg separately:

  run("mkdir", "-p", "/database")

Use short clear paths – since the container has its own filesystem namespace, there is no reason to avoid short, clear paths, such as /database, /logs, /spark, etc.

If you need lots of RUN commands to set up your container, break them up into multiple RUN commands. Stacking a long list of commands into a giant RUN makes debugging difficult and the entire list has to be re-run; breaking them up means Docker can cache results of individual commands and only re-run what is needed, resulting in huge speedups (especially when many of the RUNs tend to do things like apt-get install).


Docker volumes can be created to persist data beyond the lifetime of a container session, and to make it easier to pass files back and forth. For example, the Spark Job Server uses a volume to persist database state so that it is preserved for subsequent docker run invocations. Be sure to create the directory using a run command.

    // Use a volume to persist database between container invocations
    run("mkdir", "-p", "/database")


Finally, you probably want to specify the script or command to start your app:


Pushing and Releasing

sbt dockerBuildAndPush will build and push the image for you. This is just a convenience - it is equivalent to doing sbt docker, which builds the image in your docker daemon in your Linux VM, and invoking docker push <image-id> from the command line.

You can see the results at the Spark Job Server container on Dockerhub…

NOTE: you need to do docker login first before pushing.

Note that sbt-docker generates a Dockerfile in target/docker/Dockerfile.

General tips on Dockerizing

Docker has best practices for writing Dockerfiles. Some things to think about:

  • Modularity - each docker image is meant to be small and contain only one process. If you find yourself stuffing tons of services into one container, consider breaking them apart.
  • Consider using a Scala base image and not including Scala standard lib - iterate much faster!
  • Ease to start - if possible, have docker run start everything automatically. Users can configure the service using -e to override environment variables or command line arguments.

Happy dockerizing!

Written on August 31, 2015