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Running a GUI application in a Docker container

This guide will show you how to run a GUI application headless in a Docker container and even more specific scenarios involving running Firefox and Chrome. If you are not interested about those then you can just stop in the middle of this tutorial.

What the hell is X?

X is a program that sits on a Linux machine with a monitor (so servers usually don’t use X). X’s job is to talk to the Linux kernel in behalf of GUI programs. So if you are playing a game for example, the game (that is, the application) is constantly sending drawing commands to the X server like “draw me a rectangle here”. X forwards all this to the Kernel which will further forward the information to the GPU to render it on the monitor.

X can even receive commands from the keyboard or mouse. When you click to shoot on your game for example, the command “click at 466,333” is sent from your mouse to the kernel, from the kernel to the X and from X to the game. That way the game can have a clue on what is happening!

You will often hear X being called a server and the reason for that is simply because the way the applications send commands to it is through sockets. For that reason the applications are also referred to as clients many times.

If you are reading this then the X is running on your PC. Let’s prove it:

> ps aux | grep X
root      1436  3.2  0.7 687868 94444 tty7     Ssl+ 09:47   2:50 /usr/bin/X -core :0 -seat seat0 -auth /var/run/lightdm/root/:0 -nolisten tcp vt7 -novtswitch

We can see that X is running as root and has PID 1436. An other important thing is to notice the :0 which is called display in X jargon. A display is essentially:

  • A monitor
  • A mouse
  • A keyboard

And this is the bigger picture of how it all looks together:

Now there is a variable in Linux that is used whenever we run a GUI program. That variable is surprisingly called DISPLAY. The syntax of the DISPLAY variable is

<hostname>:<display>.<monitor>

. Let’s check the DISPLAY on our computer:

> echo $DISPLAY
:0

I get :0, which means we use display 0. Notice however that this says nothing about which monitor we use. This makes sense since if you are running 2 or more monitors on your Linux you still have the same environment variables in both of them. It wouldn’t make sense that an environment variable changes just because you echo it from a different screen, would it? For that reason we get the display and not the monitor so that we get the same output on both. As about the hostname, since there is no info about it, the local host is assumed.

On a notice, if you have multiple monitors you can still specify which monitor to run an application by simply typing the full display variable you want. So if you have a monitor 0 and a monitor 1 on the current display, I can run firefox on monitor 1 with:

DISPLAY=:0.1 firefox

Creating a virtual monitor

Instead of running X, we can run a different version of it that can create virtual displays. Xvfb (virtual framebuffer – whatever the hell that means) will create a virtual monitor for us.

So let’s make a new monitor (I assume you have installed xvfb):

Xvfb :1 -screen 0 1024x768x16

This will start the Xvfb server with a display 1 and a virtual screen(monitor) 0. We can access this by simply typing DISPLAY=:1.0 before running our graphical program. In this case the program will start in the virtual screen instead of our monitor.

Let’s make sure that the screen is still running:

> ps aux | grep X
root      1436  3.1  0.7 684580 91144 tty7     Ssl+ 09:47   3:31 /usr/bin/X -core :0 -seat seat0 -auth /var/run/lightdm/root/:0 -nolisten tcp vt7 -novtswitch
manos    22018  0.0  0.1 164960 20756 pts/27   Sl+  11:37   0:00 Xvfb :1 -screen 0 1024x768x16

We see we have the normal display 0. (A way to tell it is the default screen is to see that it runs as root.) We can also see the second display :1 and screen 0 with resolution 1024×768. So what if we want to use it?

Open a new terminal and type:

> DISPLAY=:1.0 firefox
..

This will start firefox at the given display. The reason I use the DISPLAY at the same line is to make sure that the subprocess inherits the variable DISPLAY. An other way to do this is to type:

> DISPLAY=:1.0
> export DISPLAY
> firefox
..

Run a GUI program in a Docker container

We will now create a virtual screen inside a docker container.

> docker run -it ubuntu bash
root@660ddd5cc806:/# apt-get update
root@660ddd5cc806:/# apt-get install xvfb
root@660ddd5cc806:/# Xvfb :1 -screen 0 1024x768x16 &> xvfb.log  &
root@660ddd5cc806:/# ps aux | grep X
root        11  0.0  0.1 169356 20676 ?        Sl   10:49   0:00 Xvfb :1 -screen 0 1024x768x16

So now we are sure that we are running the virtual screen. Let’s access it and run something graphical on it. In this case I will run Firefox and Python+Selenium just as a proof of concept of what is happening.

First I put my display variable and use export to assure that any sub-shells or sub-processes use the same display (with export, they inherit the variable DISPLAY!):

root@660ddd5cc806:/# DISPLAY=:1.0
root@660ddd5cc806:/# export DISPLAY

Now we can simply run a browser

root@660ddd5cc806:/# firefox
(process:14967): GLib-CRITICAL **: g_slice_set_config: assertion 'sys_page_size == 0' failed
Xlib:  extension "RANDR" missing on display ":99.0".
(firefox:14967): GConf-WARNING **: Client failed to connect to the D-BUS daemon:
//bin/dbus-launch terminated abnormally without any error message
..

The errors don’t mean anything. But we can’t be sure, can we? I mean, since we can’t see what’s happening it’s really hard to tell. There are two things we can do, either use ImageMagick to take a snapshot and send it to our host via a socket or we can simply use Selenium. I will do that since most people probably want to achieve all this for testing purposes anyway.

root@0e395f0ef30a:/# apt-get install python-pip
root@0e395f0ef30a:/# pip install selenium
root@0e395f0ef30a:/# python
>>> from selenium import webdriver
>>> browser=webdriver.Firefox()
>>> browser.get("http://www.google.com")
>>> browser.page_source

If you get a bunch of HTML, then we have succeeded!

The Chrome issue

If you try and run Chrome in a Docker container, it won’t work even if you have setup everything correctly. The reason is that Chrome uses something called sandboxing. Reading this I could not let but notice the word jail. Apparently it seems that Chrome uses Linux containers (the same that Docker uses). For this reason you have to put a bit of extra effort to solve this issue since because of technical difficulties it’s not possible to run containers in containers.

There are two workarounds:

  1. Use my docker-enter
  2. Use –privileged when running the container

The second solution is probably the best one. However while testing things, there’s nothing wrong with the first one.

So to make things work (notice I run everything from the start):

> docker run -it --privileged ubuntu bash
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# apt-get update
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# apt-get install wget python-pip xvfb
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# wget -q -O - https://dl-ssl.google.com/linux/linux_signing_key.pub | apt-key add -
OK
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# echo "deb http://dl.google.com/linux/chrome/deb/ stable main" >> /etc/apt/sources.list.d/google.list
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# apt-get update
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# apt-get install google-chrome-stable
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# pip install selenium

I have now installed Selenium, Chrome and Xvfb. Now I am going to make make a virtual monitor and run Chrome:

root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# Xvfb :99 -screen 0 1024x768x16 &> xvfb.log &
[1] 6729
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# DISPLAY=:99.0
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# export DISPLAY
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# google-chrome
Xlib:  extension "RANDR" missing on display ":99.0".
Xlib:  extension "RANDR" missing on display ":99.0".
[6736:6736:1017/143449:ERROR:desktop_window_tree_host_x11.cc(802)] Not implemented reached in virtual void views::DesktopWindowTreeHostX11::InitModalType(ui::ModalType)
ATTENTION: default value of option force_s3tc_enable overridden by environment.
failed to create drawable
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:gl_surface_glx.cc(633)] glXCreatePbuffer failed.
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:gpu_info_collector.cc(27)] gfx::GLContext::CreateOffscreenGLSurface failed
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:gpu_info_collector.cc(89)] Could not create surface for info collection.
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:gpu_main.cc(402)] gpu::CollectGraphicsInfo failed (fatal).
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:sandbox_linux.cc(305)] InitializeSandbox() called with multiple threads in process gpu-process
[6775:6775:1017/143449:ERROR:gpu_child_thread.cc(143)] Exiting GPU process due to errors during initialization
[6736:6736:1017/143449:ERROR:gpu_process_transport_factory.cc(418)] Failed to establish GPU channel.

It seems that it works. It’s normal that we get the gpu errors since we don’t have a gpu! However I don’t like gambling so we will take it a step further to check that the browser actually works. However for this I will need to download the webdriver for Google Chrome..

root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# apt-get install curl unzip
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# cpu_arch=$(lscpu | grep Architecture | sed "s/^.*_//")
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# version=$(curl 'http://chromedriver.storage.googleapis.com/LATEST_RELEASE' 2> /dev/null)
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# url_file="chromedriver_linux${cpu_arch}.zip"
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# url_base="http://chromedriver.storage.googleapis.com"
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# url="${url_base}/${version}/${url_file}"
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# wget "$url"
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# unzip chromedriver_*.zip -d tmp
root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# mv tmp/chromedriver usr/bin/

Now (FINALLY!) we can test with Selenium:

root@7dd2c07cb8cb:/# python
>>> from selenium import webdriver
>>> browser=webdriver.Chrome()
>>> browser.get("http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source")
>>> browser.page_source

You should get a bunch of HTML code. So there we go!

Common errors

.. Gtk: cannot open display:

DISPLAY has wrong value or you forgot to export it!

References

http://www.x.org/wiki/Development/Documentation/HowVideoCardsWork/
http://www.x.org/archive/X11R7.7/doc/man/man1/Xvfb.1.xhtml
http://blog.mecheye.net/2012/06/the-linux-graphics-stack/
http://people.freedesktop.org/~marcheu/linuxgraphicsdrivers.pdf
http://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/Framebuffer-HOWTO/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Window_System
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Framebuffer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X.Org_Server
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Display_server
http://www.google.com/googlebooks/chrome/med_26.html
http://linux.die.net/man/1/xvfb
https://www.freebsd.org/doc/handbook/x-understanding.html


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Docker talking to docker

The problem

If you are mingling with docker and containers on servers, you’ll at some point want to have two containers communicate with each other.

For example if you have an Apache server, Django+Python and a MySQL server and you want to do tests on different configurations/versions of these, you should probably go the container-way: putting each of them on their own container. However since all these services are interchanged in some way (database has to communicate with web server, apache server has to communicate with django), the containers have to talk with each other somehow.

Possible solutions

There are essentially four ways to accomplish container-to-container communication:

  1. Having containers inside containers
  2. Using volumes (shared folders)
  3. Mapping ports (communication over TCP/IP)
  4. Linking containers (communication over.. TCP/IP?)

I will completely omit the first way since it’s a brainfuck both conceptually and technically (yes, I am aware of Dind). Been there, done that, and it wasn’t pretty.

The second solution is about sharing folders between host and container or between containers by using docker’s --volume flag. This is practical when you want to share files (source code, configuration files etc.) on a local machine. If you want containers on different hosts to communicate however this won’t suffice.

The two remaining solutions is the meat I will try to break down for you (and minimize your flatulence from the learning curve). I did my research and I will do my best to convey what I came down to. But enough talk, let’s start!

Terminal to terminal speaking

I will use netcat to show how all these things work. To remind you, netcat is a Unix tool similar to cat but supposed to work on the network (thus the name net-cat). Practically it’s used when you have to copy/paste from host to an other host, chat with someone fast, or just test communication between two hosts like we do here.

You can test it on your home computer. Open two terminals and type in one of them

netcat -l 8000

and on the other

netcat 127.0.0.1 8000

Whatever you type on one terminal now, will appear on the other one.

Terminal to container speaking

Let’s take this a step further, by containerizing the listening netcat. In a new terminal type:

docker run -i -n -p 9000:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000

that creates a new container with an internal port 2000. The port 9000 is the port on our system. Whatever arrives to that will automatically be forwarded to our container’s port 2000. This is somehow similar to port forwarding on home routers. (I explain more on how this actually works later.)

The flag -n is a deprecated flag for networking. In practice without the -n flag, everything will work as before but for some weird reason there will be an initial lag for the first netcat message. So if you don’t use it, just wait a bit longer.

text3782

We should now have a container running a “listening” netcat. Let’s open a terminal (on the same host) to try and talk with it:

netcat 127.0.0.1 9000

Or from a different host:

netcat <computer IP> 9000

Keep in mind that different containers on the same machine can have the exact same internal IP but not the same system one. So you can create a bunch of containers as long as you change the system’s IP:

docker run -d -p 9000:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000
docker run -d -p 9001:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000
docker run -d -p 9002:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000

It’s all legit baby!

Container to container speaking

We take this a step further by having the listening container as before but instead of opening a terminal to connect to it, we will create a new container on a different host.

text3783

So create a new container on the first host (same command as before)

docker run -i -p 9000:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000

Then we create a new container on the second machine (or same):

docker run -i -t ubuntu bash
root@879ad5d4251a:/#

On the new prompt that we get we can netcat directly to the first host:

root@879ad5d4251a:/# netcat 10.2.202.156 9000

This should work as a charm as long as you use your LAN IP.

There are some weird networking behaviours. For example if you netcat by using the IP of the container (eth0 inside container) there is an initial lag but after some seconds the message arrives. The same behaviour occurs if you omit the -n flag but use the LAN IP (which otherwise works). If I start a bash session in the container and listen to 9000 with netcat there, then it works flawlessly. Weird stuff indeed.

A whole network under the city

I omitted quite some information in an effort to jumpstart you. This information is however crucial if you want to use port forwarding and container communication on different hosts. There’s a concept that will save yourself some headaches:

There is a whole virtualized network when we use Docker.

Let me prove that to you. I create two containers and then I check the IPs of them and the IPs of the host. I do that by running ifconfig on each terminal.

docker_IPs_internal

Putting it all down sums up to the below picture.

docker_virtual_network

You see, Docker creates a virtual IP for each container we create. Furthermore on our host we have a virtual interface called docker0. That can be considered the router. Now on the same host we are able to communicate with any container if we know their IP.

Now, if a container is listening on a specific port we are able to communicate with it by knocking on its door with a pair of IP address and port number.

Let’s use this new knowledge on the previous example with netcat. Let’s assume that container 1 is listening on internal port 2000 and system port 9000 (like before):

docker run -i -p 9000:2000 ubuntu netcat -l 2000

We can connect to it in all these ways:

netcat 172.17.0.2 2000
netcat 127.0.0.1 9000
netcat localhost 9000
netcat 10.2.202.156 9000

The significant information here is that we can directly speak to the container if we know its IP. Pay attention also to that we need to use the correct port in that case.

Container to container speaking via links

So what are those so called links? Nothing special actually. It’s just some variables passed from one container to an other. In most cases these variables will hold things like IPs, ports, etc. Thus it’s just a step of simplifying things for us – in the end we will probably just use these variables to connect as before.

Let’s see how it works. Start by creating a first container that will act as a server:

docker run -i -t -p 8000:8000 --name myserver ubuntu bash

and then a second container that will act as a client:

docker run -i -t --name myclient --link myserver:myserver ubuntu bash

Nothing special huh? Well the magic happens if you inside the client (second container) run:

root@3b00d48e549a:/# ping $MYSERVER_PORT_8000_TCP_ADDR

You will successfully ping the other container. $MYSERVER_PORT_8000_TCP_ADDR is simply a variable set by docker on the newly created container, the one with the --link flag. You can see all variables with the command env. Depending on what flags you passed to the container, you will see appropriate things. In practice, if you don’t use the -p flag, you won’t see anything interesting (useful).

The --name flag is needed when we use linking as we need an identifier for the container. When we do the linking we need pass the name of the other container, the one that we want to link to and an alias for it. The alias is used merely as a prefix for the variable names. For example if we used --link myserver:dingdong instead of --link myserver:myserver then the variable above would be $DINGDONG_PORT_8000_TCP_ADDR.

That’s pretty much all to linking! By using these variables you can get the IPs and ports of other containers on the same host. That’s an important annotation. You can only link to a container running on the same hosts. For communicating to containers on distant hosts you’ll need to use port mapping as explained earlier.

Useful commands

Show which ports are opened by docker

sudo netstat -tulpn | grep docker


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Docker in a development enviroment

Intro

A few days ago I wrote a tutorial on how to setup docker and use it between different machines. Now that was a nice first insight on how to jump-start using docker. It was also a nice way to showcase the possibilities and limitations of Docker.

In this post I will give some practical information on how to use docker as a developer.

Setup

To use Docker for development of software we want mainly three things:

  • Have our source code on the host machine. That way we can use GUI editors and whatever tools we want from outside the container.
  • Be able to have multiple terminals to the same container. This is good for debugging
  • Setup a docker image which we will use for running our program. I will use Django and Python for that.

And for the visual brains out there:
container_host_communication
As you see in the pic, I am using Ubuntu as my host machine. At the same machine I have a folder with the source code and two terminals. Then I run a container with OpenSUSE. The folder and terminals reside ont he host machine but they communicate directly with the container. I will describe below how to achieve all this.

Multiple terminals

The easiest way to have multiple terminas is to use a small tool called nsenter. The guide can be found at https://github.com/jpetazzo/nsenter but it sums up to running this one-liner from any folder:

> docker run --rm -v /usr/local/bin:/target jpetazzo/nsenter

That installs nsenter on the host machine. After that, we can use it directly. So let’s try it. Open bash in a container with ubuntu as our basic image:

> docker run -t -i ubuntu /bin/bash
root@04fe75de21d4:/# touch TESTFILE
root@04fe75de21d4:/# ls
TESTFILE  boot	etc   lib    media  opt   root	sbin  sys  usr
bin	  dev	home  lib64  mnt    proc  run	srv   tmp  var

In the terminal above, I created a file called TESTFILE. We will try to open a second terminal and check to see the file from it.

To use xsenter we need the process ID of the container. Unfortunately we can’t use ps aux but rather have to use docker’s inspect command. I open a new terminal and type the below

> PID=$(docker inspect --format {{.State.Pid}} 04fe75de21d4)
> sudo nsenter --target $PID --mount --uts --ipc --net --pid

The string 04fe75de21d4 I gave is the ID of my container. If everything went ok, your terminal prompt will change to the same ID:

root@04fe75de21d4:/# ls
TESTFILE  bin  boot  dev  etc  home  lib  lib64  media	mnt  opt  proc	root  run  sbin  srv  sys  tmp	usr  var

See the TESTFILE there? Congrats! Now we have a second terminal to the exact same container!

Share a folder between host and container

Now I want to have a folder on my host computer and be able and access it through a container.

Luckily for us there is a built-in way to do that. We just have to specify a flag -v to docker. First let’s make a folder though that will be mounted:

> mkdir /home/manos/myproject

Let’s now mount it into the container:

> sudo docker run -i -t -v /home/manos/myproject:/home/myproject ubuntu /bin/bash
> root@7fe33a71ac2f:/#

If I now create a file inside /home/manos/myproject the change will be reflected from inside the container and vice versa. Play a bit with it by creating and deleting files from either the host or from inside the container to see for yourself.

Create a user in the container

It is wise to have a normal user in your image. If you don’t then you should create one and save the image. That way the source files can be opened from a normal user on your host – you won’t need to launch your IDE with root privileges.

> adduser manos
..

Follow the instructions and then commit your image. That way whenever you load the image again, you will be having user manos. To change to user manos just type

> su manos

All files you create now, will be accesible by a normal user at the host machine. Something else you could do is to somehow

Real life scenario: Python, Django and virtualenv

I wanted to learn Django. Installing Django is commonly made with the package manager pip, but pip has a bad history of breaking up things since it doesn’t communicate with Debian’s apt. So at some point if you installed/uninstalled python stuff with apt, pip wouldn’t know about it and vice versa. In the end you would end up with a broken python environment. That’s why a tool called virtualenv is being used – a tool that provides isolation. Since we have docker though which also provides isolation we can simply use that.

So what I really want:

  1. Have the source code on my host.
  2. Run django and python inside a container.
  3. Debug from at least two terminals.

Visually my setup looks as something like this:

docker_dev_setup_labels_900x500

I assume you have an image with django and python installed. Let’s call the image py3django.

Firstly create the folder where you want your project source code to be. This is the folder that we will mount. My project resides in /home/manos/django_projects/myblog for example.

Once it’s created I just run bash on the image py3django. This will be my primary terminal (terminal 1):

> sudo docker run -i -t -p 8000:8000 -v /home/manos/django_projects/myblog:/home/myblog py3django /bin/bash
root@2fe3611c1ec2:/home#

The flag -p makes sure that docker doesn’t choose a random port for us. Since we run Django we will want to run a web server with a fixed port (on 8000). The flag -v mounts our host folder /home/manos/django_projects/myblog to the container’s folder /home/myblog. py3django is the image I have.

Now we have a folder where we can put our source code and a working terminal to play with. I want though a second terminal (terminal 2) to run my python webserver. So I open a second terminal and type:

> sudo nsenter --target $(docker inspect --format {{.State.Pid}} 2fe3611c1ec2) --mount --uts --ipc --net --pid
> root@2fe3611c1ec2:/#

Mind that I had to put the appropriate container ID in the command above.

Now all this is very nice but admittedly it’s very complex and it will be impossible to remember all these commands and boring to type them each single day. Therefore I suggest you create a BASH script that initiates the whole thing.

For me it took a whole day to come up with the script below:

#! /bin/bash

django_project_path="/home/manos/django_projects/netmag" # Path to project on host
image="pithikos/py3django_netmag_rmved"                  # Image to run containers on

echo "-------------------------------------------------"
echo "Project:  $django_project_path"
echo "Image  :  $image"


# 1. Start the container in a second terminal
proj_name=`basename $django_project_path`
old_container=`docker ps -n=1 -q`
export docker_line="docker run -i -t -p 8000:8000 -v $django_project_path:/home/$proj_name $image /bin/bash"
export return_code_file="$proj_name"_temp
rm -f "$return_code_file"
gnome-terminal -x bash -c '$docker_line; echo $? > $return_code_file'
sleep 1
if [ -f "$return_code_file" ] && [ 0 != "$(cat $return_code_file)" ]
then
	echo
	echo "--> ERROR: Could not load new container."
	echo "    Stop any other instances of this container"
	echo "    if they are running and try again."
	echo 
	echo "    To reproduce the error, run the below:"
	echo "    $docker_line"
	echo
	rm -f "$return_code_file"
	exit 1
fi
rm -f "$return_code_file"


# 2. Connect to the new container
while [ "$old_container" == "`docker ps -n=1 -q`" ]; do
	sleep 0.2
done
container_ID=`docker ps -n=1 -q`
sudo nsenter --target $(docker inspect --format {{.State.Pid}} $container_ID) --mount --uts --ipc --net --pid

This script starts a container on a second terminal and then connects to the container from the current terminal. If starting the container fails, an appropriate message is given. django_project_path is the full path to the folder on the host with the source code. The variable image holds the name of the image to be used.

You can combine this with devilspie, an other nice tool that automates the position and size of windows when they’re launched.

In case you wonder about the top window with all the containers, that’s simply a watch command, a tool that updates regularly a command. In my case I use watch with docker ps. Simple stuff:

> watch docker ps

I use this because I personally like having an overview on the running containers. That way I don’t end up with trillions of forgotten containers that eat up my system.

Now that you have everything setup you can also run django server from one of the two terminals or whatever else you might want.