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RFC 106: Use Docker for local development


Adopt a Docker-based approach for local development instead of the Vagrant VM.


We currently rely on the Vagrant development VM for the day to day dev cycle.

  • It has many documented issues
  • Changes to puppet often result in a broken VM, because the infrastructure team don't use it.
  • We are adopting more cloud-based services into our stack, like S3 and Amazon's Elasticsearch. This means that our development environment doesn't look like production anymore, but we still need code in govuk-puppet.
  • It's hard to keep updated. Running the puppet command will often error and take a long time.
  • GOV.UK is moving to a containerised infrastructure (likely the GDS Supported Platform (GSP))

Possible approaches to local development

  • An approach based on Docker and docker-compose. Ben Thorner has a working prototype called govuk-docker and we have the end-to-end tests running in the same. Other GDS programmes like GOV.UK Pay use this approach.
  • An approach based on GNU Guix package manager, which Chris Baines uses via govuk-guix.
  • Because they are read-only, frontend applications on GOV.UK can be run against production using the --live flag.
  • Developers on the GOV.UK PaaS work by developing against a remote set of services - we’d run many versions of GOV.UK in the cloud, which developers can use in development.
  • Applications can be run locally by installing dependencies manually. This is what some of GOV.UK’s Linux users do.
  • The RE team has been working on local development tooling called gsp-local.
Approach Pro Cons
Vagrant VM Can look like production Resource intensive, brittle
Docker Aligns with future hosting. Reproducible (with caveats). Slow because on a Mac it needs a VM. Development won’t match production/CI exactly until we migrate onto a container-based platform.
Guix Is almost feature complete (runs Signon, TLS) Technology unknown in GOV.UK
Against production Low setup, fast Only works for frontend applications. Still needs local install. Limits you to testing one application at a time.
Remote dependencies Low setup. Can match Production exactly in terms of technologies used Expensive, no offline development
Manual install Fast in development Lots of setup, brittle
gsp-local GOV.UK will move to the GSP at some point Multiple new layers of technology, quite new


We'll adopt a Docker based local development environment. Docker is widely supported in the community and is most aligned with our tech strategy. In the long term we might replace it with a local environment of the GDS Supported Platform.

Impact and follow up work

We'll commit to doing these things:

  • Document how to test puppet locally using Vagrant now that the development VM is going away.
  • Come up with a process of ownership so that the tooling improves over time.

Things we'll need to look out for:

  • Make sure we can limit the number of dependencies we run, to avoid having the environment being too resource intensive.
  • Our local development will diverge more from our production environment. This might lead to more testing on integration. We should be sure this is viable and doesn't become a blocker if lots of people are testing things at the same time.
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