Containerize Your Go Developer Environment – Part 1

When joining a development team, it takes some time to become productive. This is usually a combination of learning the code base and getting your environment setup. Often there will be an onboarding document of some sort for setting up your environment but in my experience, this is never up to date and you always have to ask someone for help with what tools are needed.

This problem continues as you spend more time in the team. You’ll find issues because the version of the tool you’re using is different to that used by someone on your team, or, worse, the CI. I’ve been on more than one team where “works on my machine” has been exclaimed or written in all caps on Slack and I’ve spent a lot of time debugging things on the CI which is incredibly painful.

Many people use Docker as a way to run application dependencies, like databases, while they’re developing locally and for containerizing their production applications. Docker is also a great tool for defining your development environment in code to ensure that your team members and the CI are all using the same set of tools.

We do a lot of Go development at Docker. The Go toolchain is great– providing fast compile times, built in dependency management, easy cross compiling, and strong opinionation on things like code formatting. Even with this toolchain we often run into issues like mismatched versions of Go, missing dependencies, and slightly different configurations. A good example of this is that we use gRPC for many projects and so require a specific version of protoc that works with our code base.

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will show you how to use Docker for Go development. It will cover building, testing, CI, and optimization to make your builds quicker.

Start simple

Let’s start with a simple Go program:

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    fmt.Println("Hello world!")

You can easily build this into a binary using the following command:
$ go build -o bin/example .

The same can be achieved using the following Dockerfile:

FROM golang:1.14.3-alpine AS build
COPY . .
RUN go build -o /out/example .
FROM scratch AS bin
COPY --from=build /out/example /

This Dockerfile is broken into two stages identified with the AS keyword. The first stage, build, starts from the Go Alpine image. Alpine uses the musl C library and is a minimalist alternative to the regular Debian based Golang image. Note that we can define which version of Go we want to use. It then sets the working directory in the container, copies the source from the host into the container, and runs the go build command from before. The second stage, bin, uses a scratch (i.e.: empty) base image. It then simply copies the resulting binary from the first stage to its filesystem. Note that if your binary needs other resources, like CA certificates, then these would also need to be included in the final image.

As we are leveraging BuildKit in this blog post, you will need to make sure that you enable it by using Docker 19.03 or later and setting DOCKER_BUILDKIT=1 in your environment. On Linux, macOS, or using WSL 2 you can do this using the following command:

On Windows for PowerShell you can use:

Or for command prompt:

To run the build, we will use the docker build command with the output option to say that we want the result to be written to the host’s filesystem:
$ docker build --target bin --output bin/ .

You will then see that we have the example binary inside our bin directory:

$ ls bin

Simple cross compiling

As Docker supports building images for different platforms, the build command has a platform flag. This allows setting the target OS (i.e.: Linux or Windows) and architecture (i.e.: amd64, arm64, etc.). To build natively for other platforms, your builder will need to be set up for these platforms. As Golang’s toolchain includes cross compilation, we do not need to do any builder setup but can still leverage the platform flag.

We can cross compile the binary for the host operating system by adding arguments to our Dockerfile and filling them from the platform flag of the docker build command. The updated Dockerfile is as follows:

FROM --platform=${BUILDPLATFORM} golang:1.14.3-alpine AS build
COPY . .
RUN GOOS=${TARGETOS} GOARCH=${TARGETARCH} go build -o /out/example .

FROM scratch AS bin
COPY --from=build /out/example /

Notice that we now have the BUILDPLATFORM variable set as the platform for our base image. This will pin the image to the platform that the builder is running on. In the compilation step, we consume the TARGETOS and TARGETARCH variables, both filled by the build platform flag, to tell Go which platform to build for. To simplify things, and because this is a simple application, we statically compile the binary by setting CGO_ENABLED=0. This means that the resulting binary will not be linked to any C libraries. If your application uses any system libraries (like the system’s cryptography library) then you will not be able to statically compile the binary like this.

To build for your host operating system, you can specify the local platform:
$ docker build --target bin --output bin/ --platform local .

As the docker build command is getting quite long, we can put it into a Makefile (or a scripting language of your choice):

all: bin/example
.PHONY: bin/example
   @docker build . --target bin \
   --output bin/ \
   --platform local

This will allow you to run your build as follows:

$ make bin/example
$ make

We can go a step further and add a cross compiling targets to the Dockerfile:

FROM --platform=${BUILDPLATFORM} golang:1.14.3-alpine AS build
COPY . .
RUN GOOS=${TARGETOS} GOARCH=${TARGETARCH} go build -o /out/example .

FROM scratch AS bin-unix
COPY --from=build /out/example /

FROM bin-unix AS bin-linux
FROM bin-unix AS bin-darwin

FROM scratch AS bin-windows
COPY --from=build /out/example /example.exe


Above we have two different stages for Unix-like OSes  (bin-unix) and for Windows (bin-windows). We then add aliases for Linux (bin-linux) and macOS (bin-darwin). This allows us to make a dynamic target (bin) that depends on the TARGETOS variable and is automatically set by the docker build platform flag.

This allows us to build for a specific platform:

$ docker build --target bin --platform windows/amd64 .
$ file bin/
bin/example.exe: PE32+ executable (console) x86-64 (stripped to external
PDB), for MS Windows

Our updated Makefile has a PLATFORM variable that you can set:

all: bin/example


.PHONY: bin/example
   @docker build . --target bin \
   --output bin/ \   --platform ${PLATFORM}

This means that you can build for a specific platform by setting PLATFORM:
$ make PLATFORM=windows/amd64

You can find the list of valid operating system and architecture combinations here:

Shrinking our build context

By default, the docker build command will take everything in the path passed to it and send it to the builder. In our case, that includes the contents of the bin/ directory which we don’t use in our build. We can tell the builder not to do this, using a .dockerignore file:


Since the bin/ directory contains several megabytes of data, adding the .dockerignore file reduces the time it takes to build by a little bit.

Similarly, if you are using Git for code management but do not use git commands as part of your build process, you can exclude the .git/ directory too.

What’s next?

This post showed how to start a containerized development environment for local Go development, build an example CLI tool for different platforms and how to start speeding up builds by shrinking the build context. In the next post of this series, we will add dependencies to make our example project more realistic, look at caching to make builds faster, and add unit tests.

You can find the finalized source this example on my GitHub:

If you’re interested in build at Docker, take a look at the Buildx repository:

Read the whole blog post series here.


0 thoughts on "Containerize Your Go Developer Environment – Part 1"