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Work with multiple Docker Compose projects locally with consistent service URLs, internal and external to the Docker network
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docker-compose.yml Initial Commit of DCDC Oct 31, 2018

Docker Compose DNS Consistency (DCDC)

DCDC's purpose is to provide an easy way to work with multiple Docker Compose projects locally by:

  1. Exposing fully qualified domain names for each service (ending in .test) using DNS and reverse proxy.
  2. Providing consistent DNS resolution for services internal and external to the Docker network (i.e., db.proj.test is accessible on host machine and also from a service's container).
  3. Requiring as little configuration to projects to make them work with DCDC.

NOTE: DCDC only works with macOS. It is likely possible to work for other operating systems although will require some rejigging.


docker-compose up

Using ./bin/setup configures our host machine's DNS to resolve *.test to (localhost). It also adds and trusts the *.test self-signed certificate to your system's keychain. In addition, it adds all the required external IPs as noted in dnsmasq-ext/

Using docker-compose up will start up the nginx proxy, and both dnsmasq resolvers.

In Other Projects

In other projects (or more specifically their docker-compose.yml files) we can do the following:

version: "3.7"

+    environment:
+     - VIRTUAL_HOST=web.proj1.test
+     - VIRTUAL_PORT=8000
+   dns:

+    ports:
+       -
+    environment:
+       - VIRTUAL_HOST_WITH_HOSTIP=db.proj1.test
+    dns:

+  default:
+    external:
+      name: dcdc_default

These changes do the following:

  • Our services use the default network that is created by our dev project. Being on the same network allows all the containers to communicate with each other.
  • Adding the VIRTUAL_HOST and VIRTUAL_PORT allows us to map HTTP service via the nginx proxy.
  • Adding a host ip on the port assignment of a non-HTTP service allows us to expose that service's port externally.
  • Setting the VIRTUAL_HOST_WITH_HOSTIP environment variable allows us to configure the name of the virtual host for internal/external usage.
  • All services specify the dns to the IP of our internal dnsmasq container's IP, so they can internally resolve the virtual hosts correctly.

How It All Works

Let me see under the hood!

First, let us cover a pain point that exists when using Docker Compose and how we can alleviate it. Ultimately, we will see that this project offers us a great solution.


We have a project (i.e., proj1) that contains an API (api) service. With Docker, we are able to expose the API server's default port (3000). Thus localhost:3000 routes to the API of proj1. We have another project (i.e., proj2) that also contains an API (api) service and is also exposed on the default port of 3000.

Both projects exist as separate repositories and therefore has a different docker-compose.yml file. In isolation, both projects run without any problem, and expose their API service on localhost:3000. The issue is when you want to run both projects at the same time, which might be needed for the development of a new feature or testing a complete flow.

The naive solution is to change one of the exposed ports for a project to 3001 so that the there is no clashing of ports. So for example, proj2's API is now exposed on port 3001 and is reachable at localhost:3001.

There are a few problems here:

  1. This process of ensuring we have no conflicting ports on the host can be painful. Even if the projects aren't related, you can have conflicting ports being exposed. As the number of projects scale this becomes more challenging and likely a place is needed to keep track of used ports (or port ranges).
  2. If the two projects have to communicate to each other internally (i.e., not via the host's web browser), the projects cannot see each other as they are on a different network (by default).
  3. Externally to the Docker network, we refer to the APIs as localhost:<port>, but internally we need to use the service name like proj1. There is a disconnect in how we refer to the services internally and externally to the Docker network.


We can use virtual hosts to give a name to each service (i.e., api.proj1.test), which removes the port clashing problem. As long as the hostnames are unique there are no issues.

There are many approaches to accomplishing this, but ultimately we decided upon using a combination of nginx-proxy and dnsmasq to accomplish this. This article provides a great introduction to the solution.

Essentially, every Docker container which connects/disconnects to the network that nginx-proxy is running on will regenerate the proxy's nginx configuration. The configuration is set to proxy request to containers using a VIRTUAL_HOST environment variable defined in that service's docker-compose.yml. Nginx will proxy requests to their internal containers based on the VIRTUAL_HOST value.

There is a little bit of extra required to make this work on macOS. We need to use dnsmasq to route *.test URLs to our proxy. To keep things containerized we use dnsmasq in Docker and expose the DNS resolution to the host machine (port 53). We also need a dedicated Docker network so that all the services can communicate with each other. To ensure that services are stable we set static IPs for these essential services and set up a default network that all docker-compose.yml files can use.

The First Gotcha -- Internal/External Resolutions

With respect to the pain points, our current solution solves #1 and #2 but doesn't address #3. We have non-clashing services, and due to the nature of how we have set up the services, we use the same default docker network. We still want the Docker services to be consistently accessible from both the host machine and the internal Docker containers.

Effectively, we want the same virtual host resolution to happen on both the Docker network and the host machine. To accomplish this, we need to introduce a second dnsmasq! We will have one for the internal DNS resolution and one for the external DNS resolution. We then specify our project containers to use the internal dnsmasq for it's DNS resolution, while the external one continues to function properly. This way we can refer to api.proj1.test both internally and externally to the Docker network.

The Second Gotcha -- Non-HTTP Services

With our solution so far, HTTP services work in both internal/external cases. The problem arises with non-HTTP services (i.e., databases). With nginx's reverse proxy approach, requests have the hostname in the request's header and this helps route the request to the appropriate service. With non-HTTP services, they cannot pass this information in a header, and thus they don't function properly.

To remedy this situation, we need to route our non-HTTP services directly to unique IPs. Fortunately, we can continue to use the dnsmasq tool to accomplish this.

Internal Changes

For internal usage, we're going to take advantage of docker-gen to dynamically generate a hostfile ( file. This file will list all the non-HTTP services that exist on the connected Docker network, for example:

# The following is the DNS mapping for non-HTTP containers (i.e., databases)
# They are dynamically determined if there is a HostIP set on the service
# and if there is a VIRTUAL_HOST_WITH_HOSTIP environment variable set
# i.e.,
#   ports:
#     -
#   environment:
# --------------------------------------------------------------------------
# DNS for db proj1    db.proj1.test
# DNS for db proj2    db.proj2.test

In the above example, we list out the unique entries for the databases of our projects that point to the IP of their container. By using docker-gen we ensure that this hostfile is valid based on the containers that are running on the network. We also send a HUP signal to dnsmasq after each change to the hostfile so that the DNS changes are reflected correctly.

External Changes

For external usage, we again need to explicitly map a hostname to a container's IP. Unfortunately, Docker on macOS does not allow us to cross into the Docker network and pull out IPs for containers from the host machine. Fortunately, we can do some fancy networking:

  1. Create new IPs on your network interface:
sudo ifconfig lo0 add netmask 0xffffffff
sudo ifconfig lo0 add netmask 0xffffffff
  1. Add the non-HTTP service to dnsmasq-ext's hostfile (i.e., dnsmasq-ext/ using new IP and matching hostname: = db.proj1.test = db.proj2.test
  1. Ensure the docker-compose.yml configuration for the service is setup correctly:
# proj1's docker-compose.yml
  VIRTUAL_HOST_WITH_HOSTIP: "db.proj1.test"

# proj2's docker-compose.yml
  VIRTUAL_HOST_WITH_HOSTIP: "db.proj2.test"

This configuration allows the host machine to resolve db.proj1.test and db.proj2.test to use our new IPs ( and These IPs via Docker routes to the service's exposed ports via the HostIP configuration. Ultimately, we are able to expose non-HTTP ports for the inner service (i.e., database) externally.

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