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The Docker executor

GitLab Runner can use Docker to run builds on user provided images. This is possible with the use of Docker executor.

The Docker executor when used with GitLab CI, connects to Docker Engine and runs each build in a separate and isolated container using the predefined image that is set up in .gitlab-ci.yml and in accordance in config.toml.

That way you can have a simple and reproducible build environment that can also run on your workstation. The added benefit is that you can test all the commands that we will explore later from your shell, rather than having to test them on a dedicated CI server.


The Docker executor divides the build into multiple steps:

  1. Prepare: Create and start the services.
  2. Pre-build: Clone, restore cache and download artifacts from previous stages. This is run on a special Docker Image.
  3. Build: User build. This is run on the user-provided docker image.
  4. Post-build: Create cache, upload artifacts to GitLab. This is run on a special Docker Image.

The special Docker Image is based on Alpine Linux and contains all the tools required to run the prepare step the build: the Git binary and the Runner binary for supporting caching and artifacts. You can find the definition of this special image in the official Runner repository.

The image keyword

The image keyword is the name of the Docker image that is present in the local Docker Engine (list all images with docker images) or any image that can be found at Docker Hub. For more information about images and Docker Hub please read the Docker Fundamentals documentation.

In short, with image we refer to the docker image, which will be used to create a container on which your build will run.

If you don't specify the namespace, Docker implies library which includes all official images. That's why you'll see many times the library part omitted in .gitlab-ci.yml and config.toml. For example you can define an image like image: ruby:2.1, which is a shortcut for image: library/ruby:2.1.

Then, for each Docker image there are tags, denoting the version of the image. These are defined with a colon (:) after the image name. For example, for Ruby you can see the supported tags at If you don't specify a tag (like image: ruby), latest is implied.

The services keyword

The services keyword defines just another Docker image that is run during your build and is linked to the Docker image that the image keyword defines. This allows you to access the service image during build time.

The service image can run any application, but the most common use case is to run a database container, e.g., mysql. It's easier and faster to use an existing image and run it as an additional container than install mysql every time the project is built.

You can see some widely used services examples in the relevant documentation of CI services examples.

How is service linked to the build

To better understand how the container linking works, read Linking containers together.

To summarize, if you add mysql as service to your application, this image will then be used to create a container that is linked to the build container. According to the workflow this is the first step that is performed before running the actual builds.

The service container for MySQL will be accessible under the hostname mysql. So, in order to access your database service you have to connect to the host named mysql instead of a socket or localhost.

Define image and services from .gitlab-ci.yml

You can simply define an image that will be used for all jobs and a list of services that you want to use during build time.

image: ruby:2.2

  - postgres:9.3

  - bundle install

  - bundle exec rake spec

It is also possible to define different images and services per job:

  - bundle install

  image: ruby:2.1
  - postgres:9.3
  - bundle exec rake spec

  image: ruby:2.2
  - postgres:9.4
  - bundle exec rake spec

Define image and services in config.toml

Look for the [runners.docker] section:

  image = "ruby:2.1"
  services = ["mysql:latest", "postgres:latest"]

The image and services defined this way will be added to all builds run by that Runner, so even if you don't define an image inside .gitlab-ci.yml, the one defined in config.toml will be used.

Define an image from a private Docker registry

Starting with GitLab Runner 0.6.0, you are able to define images located to private registries that could also require authentication.

All you have to do is be explicit on the image definition in .gitlab-ci.yml.

image: my.registry.tld:5000/namepace/image:tag

In the example above, GitLab Runner will look at my.registry.tld:5000 for the image namespace/image:tag.

If the repository is private you need to authenticate your GitLab Runner in the registry. Read more on using a private Docker registry.

Accessing the services

Let's say that you need a Wordpress instance to test some API integration with your application.

You can then use for example the tutum/wordpress as a service image in your .gitlab-ci.yml:

- tutum/wordpress:latest

When the build is run, tutum/wordpress will be started first and you will have access to it from your build container under the hostname tutum__wordpress or tutum-wordpress.

The GitLab Runner creates two alias hostnames for the service that you can use alternatively. The aliases are taken from the image name following these rules:

  1. Everything after : is stripped
  2. For the first alias, the slash (/) is replaced with double underscores (__)
  3. For the second alias, the slash (/) is replaced with a single dash (-)

Configuring services

Many services accept environment variables which allow you to easily change database names or set account names depending on the environment.

GitLab Runner 0.5.0 and up passes all YAML-defined variables to the created service containers.

For all possible configuration variables check the documentation of each image provided in their corresponding Docker hub page.


All variables will be passed to all services containers. It's not designed to distinguish which variable should go where.

Secure variables are only passed to the build container.

Build directory in service

Since version 1.5 GitLab Runner mounts a /build directory to all shared services.

See an issue: #1520

PostgreSQL service example

See the specific documentation for using PostgreSQL as a service.

MySQL service example

See the specific documentation for using MySQL as a service.

The services health check

After the service is started, GitLab Runner waits some time for the service to be responsive. Currently, the Docker executor tries to open a TCP connection to the first exposed service in the service container.

You can see how it is implemented in this Dockerfile.

The builds and cache storage

The Docker executor by default stores all builds in /builds/<namespace>/<project-name> and all caches in /cache (inside the container).

You can overwrite the /builds and /cache directories by defining the builds_dir and cache_dir options under the [[runners]] section in config.toml. This will modify where the data are stored inside the container.

If you modify the /cache storage path, you also need to make sure to mark this directory as persistent by defining it in volumes = ["/my/cache/"] under the [runners.docker] section in config.toml.

Read the next section of persistent storage for more information.

The persistent storage

The Docker executor can provide a persistent storage when running the containers. All directories defined under volumes = will be persistent between builds.

The volumes directive supports 2 types of storage:

  1. <path> - the dynamic storage. The <path> is persistent between subsequent runs of the same concurrent job for that project. The data is attached to a custom cache container: runner-<short-token>-project-<id>-concurrent-<job-id>-cache-<unique-id>.
  2. <host-path>:<path>[:<mode>] - the host-bound storage. The <path> is bind to <host-path> on the host system. The optional <mode> can specify that this storage is read-only or read-write (default).

The persistent storage for builds

If you make the /builds to be the host-bound storage, your builds will be stored in: /builds/<short-token>/<concurrent-id>/<namespace>/<project-name>, where:

  • <short-token> is a shortened version of the Runner's token (first 8 letters)
  • <concurrent-id> is a unique number, identifying the local job ID on the particular Runner in context of the project

The privileged mode

The Docker executor supports a number of options that allows to fine tune the build container. One of these options is the privileged mode.

Use docker-in-docker with privileged mode

The configured privileged flag is passed to the build container and all services, thus allowing to easily use the docker-in-docker approach.

First, configure your Runner (config.toml) to run in privileged mode:

  executor = "docker"
    privileged = true

Then, make your build script (.gitlab-ci.yml) to use Docker-in-Docker container:

image: docker:git
- docker:dind

  - docker build -t my-image .
  - docker push my-image


The Docker executor doesn't overwrite the ENTRYPOINT of a Docker image.

That means that if your image defines the ENTRYPOINT and doesn't allow to run scripts with CMD, the image will not work with the Docker executor.

With the use of ENTRYPOINT it is possible to create special Docker image that would run the build script in a custom environment, or in secure mode.

You may think of creating a Docker image that uses an ENTRYPOINT that doesn't execute the build script, but does execute a predefined set of commands, for example to build the docker image from your directory. In that case, you can run the build container in privileged mode, and make the build environment of the Runner secure.

Consider the following example:

  1. Create a new Dockerfile:

    FROM docker:dind
    ADD / /
    ENTRYPOINT ["/bin/sh", "/"]
  2. Create a bash script ( that will be used as the ENTRYPOINT:

    dind docker daemon
        --host=unix:///var/run/docker.sock \
        --host=tcp:// \
        --storage-driver=vf &
    docker build -t "$BUILD_IMAGE" .
    docker push "$BUILD_IMAGE"
  3. Push the image to the Docker registry.

  4. Run Docker executor in privileged mode. In config.toml define:

      executor = "docker"
        privileged = true
  5. In your project use the following .gitlab-ci.yml:

      BUILD_IMAGE: my.image
      image: my/docker-build:image
      - Dummy Script

This is just one of the examples. With this approach the possibilities are limitless.

How pull policies work

When using the docker, docker-ssh, docker+machine or docker-ssh+machine executors, you can set the pull_policy parameter which defines how the Runner will work when pulling Docker images (for both image and services keywords).

Note: If you don't set any value for the pull_policy parameter, then Runner will use the always pull policy as the default value.

Now let's see how these policies work.

Using the never pull policy

The never pull policy disables images pulling completely. If you set the pull_policy parameter of a Runner to never, then users will be able to use only the images that have been manually pulled on the docker host the Runner runs on.

If an image cannot be found locally, then the Runner will fail the build with an error similar to:

Pulling docker image local_image:latest ...
ERROR: Build failed: Error: image local_image:latest not found

When to use this pull policy?

This pull policy should be used if you want or need to have a full control on which images are used by the Runner's users. It is a good choice for private Runners that are dedicated to a project where only specific images can be used (not publicly available on any registries).

When not to use this pull policy?

This pull policy will not work properly with most of auto-scaled Docker executor use cases. Because of how auto-scaling works, the never pull policy may be usable only when using a pre-defined cloud instance images for chosen cloud provider. The image needs to contain installed Docker Engine and local copy of used images.

Using the if-not-present pull policy

When the if-not-present pull policy is used, the Runner will first check if the image is present locally. If it is, then the local version of image will be used. Otherwise, the Runner will try to pull the image.

When to use this pull policy?

This pull policy is a good choice if you want to use images pulled from remote registries but you want to reduce time spent on analyzing image layers difference, when using heavy and rarely updated images. In that case, you will need once in a while to manually remove the image from the local Docker Engine store to force the update of the image.

It is also the good choice if you need to use images that are built and available only locally, but on the other hand, also need to allow to pull images from remote registries.

When not to use this pull policy?

This pull policy should not be used if your builds use images that are updated frequently and need to be used in most recent versions. In such situation, the network load reduction created by this policy may be less worthy than the necessity of the very frequent deletion of local copies of images.

This pull policy should also not be used if your Runner can be used by different users which should not have access to private images used by each other. Especially do not use this pull policy for shared Runners.

To understand why the if-not-present pull policy creates security issues when used with private images, read the security considerations documentation.

Using the always pull policy

The always pull policy will ensure that the image is always pulled. When always is used, the Runner will try to pull the image even if a local copy is available. If the image is not found, then the build will fail with an error similar to:

Pulling docker image registry.tld/my/image:latest ...
ERROR: Build failed: Error: image registry.tld/my/image:latest not found

Note: For versions prior to v1.8, when using the always pull policy, it could fall back to local copy of an image and print a warning:

Pulling docker image registry.tld/my/image:latest ...
WARNING: Cannot pull the latest version of image registry.tld/my/image:latest : Error: image registry.tld/my/image:latest not found
WARNING: Locally found image will be used instead.

That is changed in version v1.8. To understand why we changed this and how incorrect usage of may be revealed please look into issue #1905.

When to use this pull policy?

This pull policy should be used if your Runner is publicly available and configured as a shared Runner in your GitLab instance. It is the only pull policy that can be considered as secure when the Runner will be used with private images.

This is also a good choice if you want to force users to always use the newest images.

Also, this will be the best solution for an auto-scaled configuration of the Runner.

When not to use this pull policy?

This pull policy will definitely not work if you need to use locally stored images. In this case, the Runner will skip the local copy of the image and try to pull it from the remote registry. If the image was build locally and doesn't exist in any public registry (and especially in the default Docker registry), the build will fail with:

Pulling docker image local_image:latest ...
ERROR: Build failed: Error: image local_image:latest not found

Docker vs Docker-SSH

Note: The docker-ssh executor is deprecated and no new features will be added to it

We provide a support for a special type of Docker executor, namely Docker-SSH. Docker-SSH uses the same logic as the Docker executor, but instead of executing the script directly, it uses an SSH client to connect to the build container.

Docker-ssh then connects to the SSH server that is running inside the container using its internal IP.