A Small Lesson on env Files in docker-compose

I’ve been working a lot with docker lately and learning learning learning. I have written a 3-part series for my MSDN Mag Data Points column that will be out in April, May and June 2019 issues. I have another YUGE blog post that I will publish to accompany the May article. And I’m working on others.

I explored Docker environment variables and different ways to feed them into a Docker image or container.

My docker-compose file referenced an environment variable named DB_PW without specifying it’s value.

dataapidocker:
image: ${DOCKER_REGISTRY-}dataapidocker
build:
context: .
dockerfile: DataAPIDocker/Dockerfile
environment:
- DB_PW

Docker will read environment variables from the host to discover the value.

But this was a pain. I wasn’t permanently storing the DB_PW on my development machine and had to remember to set it frequently. Elton Stoneman (from Docker) said I should *really* consider using the Docker env file feature. This lets you set variables in an environment file and let the docker-compose file read from that. And I can keep that special file out of my source control. (Always my worry!)

I started by following docs that showed using a file named anything.env. I created a file called hush-hush.env where I specified the variable. This is the full content of the file:

DB_PW=thebigsecret

Then in docker-compose, in the service, the env_file tag lets you point to it. You can even remove the environment tag in the yml file.

dataapidocker:
image: ${DOCKER_REGISTRY-}dataapidocker
build:
context: .
dockerfile: DataAPIDocker/Dockerfile
env_file:
- hush-hush.env

This worked perfectly. My app was able to discover the environment variable in code.

But then I evolved my solution to use another container for my database. The primary container depends on the new mssql container. And the mssql container requires I pass in the database password as an environment variable. Since DB_PW already exists, I can do that easily enough with substitution (via curly braces). Here’s the new docker-compose file:

version: '3.4'
services:
dataapidocker:
image: ${DOCKER_REGISTRY-}dataapidocker
build:
context: .
dockerfile: DataAPIDocker/Dockerfile
env_file:
- hush-hush.env
depends_on:
- db
db:
image: mcr.microsoft.com/mssql/server
volumes:
- mssql-server-julie-data:/var/opt/mssql/data
environment:
SA_PASSWORD: "${DB_PW}"
ACCEPT_EULA: "Y"
ports:
- "1433:1433"
volumes:
mssql-server-julie-data: {}

And there’s an order of operations issue here. When I build the docker-compose file, it complains that DB_PW is not available and my app fails. The db service is not getting the contents of my hush-hush.env file. I tried a number of things, such as adding env_file to the db service. In the end, here’s what I learned.

The substitution use requires that the DB_PW variable be defined in docker-compose. I added that back in to the primary service, but it was not getting the value from hush-hush.env.

But you can have a .env file that has no name. The extension *is* the full name of the file. Docker-compose will read that early enough and provide the value from the .env file to the declared DB_PW. Then all of the pieces fell in place. The mssql container was spun up with the value from DB_PW as its environment variable. And my app code was able to read the environment variable that Docker passed into the running container for its own tasks.

The final docker-compose.yml file looks like this:

version: '3.4'
services:
dataapidocker:
image: ${DOCKER_REGISTRY-}dataapidocker
build:
context: .
dockerfile: DataAPIDocker/Dockerfile
environment :
- DB_PW
depends_on:
- db
db:
image: mcr.microsoft.com/mssql/server
volumes:
- mssql-server-julie-data:/var/opt/mssql/data
environment:
SA_PASSWORD: "${DB_PW}"
ACCEPT_EULA: "Y"
ports:
- "1433:1433"
volumes:
mssql-server-julie-data: {}

And it relies on a file named “.env” with my variable key value pair defined (same as hush-hush.env above).

DB_PW=thebigsecret

Resources:
https://docs.docker.com/compose/environment-variables/

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