An Introduction to Docker for R Users

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A quick introduction on using Docker for reproducibility in R.

Disclaimer: this blog post is an introduction to Docker for beginners,
and will takes some shortcuts 😉

What is Docker?

Docker is “a computer program that performs operating-system-level
virtualization, also known as ‘containerization’”
Wikipedia. As any
first line of a Wikipedia article about tech, this sentence is obscure
to anyone not already familiar with the content of the article.

So, to put it more simply, Docker is a program that allows to
manipulate (launch and stop) multiple operating systems (called
containers) on your machine (your machine will be called the host)
Just imagine having 10 RaspberryPi with different flavors of Linux, each
focused on doing one simple thing, that you can turn on and off whenever
you need to ; but all of this happens on your computer.

Why Docker & R?

Docker is designed to enclose environments inside an image / a
container. What this allows, for example, is to have a Linux machine on
a Macbook, or a machine with R 3.3 when your main computer has R 3.5.
Also, this means that you can use older versions of a package for a
specific task, while still keeping the package on your machine

This way, you can “solve” dependencies issues: if ever you are afraid
dependencies will break your analysis when packages are updated, build a
container that will always have the software versions you desire: be
it Linux, R, or any package.

Docker images vs Docker containers

On your machine, you’re going to need two things: images, and
containers. Images are the definition of the OS, while the containers
are the actual running instances of the images
. You’ll need to install
the image just once, while the containers are to be launched whenever
you need this instance. And of course, multiple containers of the same
images can be run at the same time.

To compare with R, this is the same principle as installing vs loading a
package: a package is to be downloaded once, while it has to be launched
every time you need it. And a package can be launched in several R
sessions at the same time easily.


A Docker image is built from a Dockerfile. This file is the
configuration file, and describes several things: from what previous
docker image you are building this one, how to configure the OS, and
what happens when you run the container. In a sense, it’s a little bit
like the DESCRIPTION + NAMESPACE files of an R package, which
describes which are the dependencies to your package, gives meta
information, and states which functions and data are to be available to
the users library()ing the package.

So, let’s build a very basic Dockerfile for R, focused on
reproducibility. The idea is this one: I have today an analysis that
works (for example contained in a .R file), and I want to be sure this
analysis will always work in the future, regardless of any update to the
packages used.

So first, create a folder for your analysis, and a Dockerfile:

mkdir ~/mydocker
cd ~/mydocker
touch Dockerfile


Every Dockerfile starts with a FROM, which describes what image we
are building our image from. There are a lot of official images, and you
can also build from a local one.

This FROM is, in a way, describing the dependency of your image ; just
as in R, when building a package, you always rely on another package (be
it only the {base} package).

If you’re going for an R based image, Dirk Eddelbuettel & Carl Boettiger
are maintaining rocker, a collection
of Docker images for R you can use. We’ll use the rocker/r-base in
this blogpost.

FROM rocker/r-base


Once we’ve got that, we’ll add some RUN statements: these are commands
which mimic command line commands. Remember what we want: an image that
will, ad vitam aeternam, run an analysis as if we were still today. So
what we’ll do is use the {checkpoint} package.

The command to make R execute something, from the terminal, is R -e "my
. Let’s add a {checkpoint} installation.

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('checkpoint')"

We need a /root/.checkpoint folder to use {checkpoint}, let’s create
that one with mkdir (make directory).

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('checkpoint')"

RUN mkdir /root/.checkpoint


Now, I need to get the script for my analysis from my machine (host) to
the container. For that, we’ll need to use COPY localfile
. I’ll first create a folder to receive everything,
with mkdir. Note that here, the myscript.R has to be in the same
folder as the Dockerfile on your computer.

Let’s say this is the content of myscript.R:

<span class="n">library</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="n">checkpoint</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">
</span><span class="n">checkpoint</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="s2">"2019-01-06"</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">
</span><span class="n">library</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="n">tidystringdist</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">
</span><span class="n">df</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="o"><-</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="n">tidy_comb_all</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="n">iris</span><span class="p">,</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="n">Species</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">
</span><span class="n">p</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="o"><-</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="n">tidy_stringdist</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="n">df</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">
</span><span class="n">write.csv</span><span class="p">(</span><span class="n">p</span><span class="p">,</span><span class="w"> </span><span class="s2">"p.csv"</span><span class="p">)</span><span class="w">

Here, the {tidystringdist} that will be installed in the machine will
be the one from the date of today, even if I build this image in one
year, or two, or four.

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('checkpoint')"

RUN mkdir /home/analysis

COPY myscript.R /home/analysis/myscript.R


CMD is the command to be run every time you’ll launch the docker. What
we want is myscript.R to be sourced.

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('checkpoint')"

RUN mkdir /home/analysis

COPY myscript.R /home/analysis/myscript.R

CMD R -e "source('/home/analysis/myscript.R')"

Build, and run


Now, go and build your image. From your terminal, in the directory where
the Dockerfile is located, run:

docker build -t analysis .

-t name is the name of the image (here analysis), and . means it
will build the Dockerfile in the current working directory.


Then, just launch with:

docker run analysis

And your analysis will be run 🎉!

Export container content

One thing to do now: you want to access what is created by your analysis
(here p.csv) outside your container ; i.e, on the host. Because yes,
as for now, everything that happens in the container stays in the
container. So what we need is to make the docker container share a
folder with the host. For this, we’ll use what is called Volume, which
are (roughly speaking), a way to tell the Docker container to use a
folder from the host as a folder inside the container

That way, everything that will be created in the folder by the container
will persist after the container is turned off. To do this, we’ll use
the -v flag when running the container, with
path/from/host:/path/in/container. Also, create a folder to receive
the results in both :

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('checkpoint')"

RUN mkdir /home/analysis && mkdir /home/results

COPY myscript.R /home/analysis/myscript.R

CMD cd /home/analysis && R -e "source('myscript.R')" && mv /home/analysis/p.csv /home/results/p.csv

mkdir ~/mydocker/results 
docker run -v ~/mydocker/results:/home/results  analysis

Wait for the computation to be done, and…

ls ~/mydocker/results  


What to do next?

So now, every time you’ll launch this Docker image, the analysis will be
performed and you’ll get the result back. With no problem of
dependencies: the packages will always be installed from the day you
desire. Although, this can be a little bit long to run as the packages
are installed each time you run the container. But as I said in the
Disclaimer, this is a basic introduction to Docker, R and
reproducibility, so the goal was more to get beginners on board with
Docker 🙂

Other things you can do would be:

  • Using {packrat}, and get the
    library bundle in the container.

  • Use remotes::install_version() if you want your analysis to be
    based on package version instead of a time based installation.

FROM rocker/r-base

RUN R -e "install.packages('remotes'); remotes::install_version('tidystringdist', '0.1.2')"

  • Use the Volume trick to bring data into your container, so that
    any data will be analysed in the very same environment.

And other cool stuffs, but that’s for another blog post 😉

Know more about Docker

Some resources:

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