Declarative Docker Container Service in NixOS

Replace docker-compose with Nix Using Filerun as An Example

Important Update 2020.05.24

After upgrading to 20.03 version of NixOS, the docker container starts to use the container’s actual name instead of its systemd service’s name to address the container. This means that to specify the database container from the filerun web server’s container, you need to change the value of FR_DB_HOST from docker-filerun-mariadb.service to filerun-mariadb.

The Problem

One of the biggest convenience you have in NixOS is that many of the services you want to run are already coded as a “service”. This means that you can easily spin up a service like openssh with

services.openssh.enable = true;

In fact, you can find a whole lot of such predefined services with services. prefix in the NixOS Options site.

I also run FileRun as my NAS server (similar to NextCloud but I found FileRun to be more user friendly and hassle-free). The official setup guide illustrated how to use Docker Compose to run the service. I found it ok to run the services with docker containers, but having to use docker-compose to manage the containers make it less consistent and less automatic comparing with my other services.

  1. Since the service is not managed in the NixOS configuration, I have to manually bring it up and down with docker-compose.
  2. All the other services are managed automatically, and the declarative configuration makes them easier to manage. I want my FileRun instance to enjoy that as well.
  3. In the future I might want to have more container-based services. Experimenting with nix-native docker container-based services can be helpful for that purpose.

Therefore, I decided to write a nix service to replace the docker-compose based solution, which is then documentated in this post.

The Original Docker-Compose

The docker compose (slightly adapted from the online doc provided by FileRun) looks like below:

version: '2'

    image: mariadb:10.1
      MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD: filerunpasswd
      MYSQL_USER: filerun
      MYSQL_PASSWORD: filerunpasswd
      MYSQL_DATABASE: filerundb
      - /home/delegator/filerun/db:/var/lib/mysql

    image: afian/filerun
      FR_DB_HOST: db
      FR_DB_PORT: 3306
      FR_DB_NAME: filerundb
      FR_DB_USER: filerun
      FR_DB_PASS: filerunpasswd
      APACHE_RUN_USER: delegator
      APACHE_RUN_GROUP: delegator
      - db
      - db:db
      - "6000:80"
      - /home/delegator/filerun/web:/var/www/html
      - /home/delegator/filerun/user-files:/user-files

It basically defines 2 docker containers, one for the databse and one for the FileRun web server itself, which is based on PHP and Apache. I know little about both technologies (part of the reason why I left them managed by docker containers with official images).

One thing that worths emphasizing is that in order to setup the communication between those two containers, a link is configured for the web server container.

The Database Container

With the new docker-containers option in NixOS configuration, bring up the MariaDB docker container is as simple as

docker-containers."filerun-mariadb" = {
  image = "mariadb:10.1";
  environment = {
    "MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD" = "randompasswd";
    "MYSQL_USER" = "filerun";
    "MYSQL_PASSWORD" = "randompasswd";
    "MYSQL_DATABASE" = "filerundb";
  volumes = [ "/home/delegator/filerun/db:/var/lib/mysql" ];

This is basically a direct translation of the first half in the previous docker-compose file. Nothing intresting yet.

To verify that it actually works, let’s run docker ps, and it will show the container with name docker-filerun-mariadb.service (note the naming convention). We can get into the docker container with

$ docker exec -it docker-filerun-mariadb.service /bin/bash

And once you are in the docker, the command

mysql -u filerun -prandompasswd filerundb

should get you connected to the database.

Setting up the Bridge Networks

By reading the documentation on docker network, it becomes clear to me that I need to create an user-defined bridge network to put the two docker containers in it, so that they can communicate with each other. This is to replicate the behavior “link” in the docker compose setup.

Bridge network can be created with the command docker network create. In order to ensure that such bridge network is up, I am using a trick that I learned from KJ - write a oneshot systemd service do that. = {
  description = "Create the network bridge filerun-br for filerun.";
  after = [ "" ];
  wantedBy = [ "" ];
  serviceConfig.Type = "oneshot";
   script = let dockercli = "${config.virtualisation.docker.package}/bin/docker";
           in ''
             # Put a true at the end to prevent getting non-zero return code, which will
             # crash the whole service.
             check=$(${dockercli} network ls | grep "filerun-br" || true)
             if [ -z "$check" ]; then
               ${dockercli} network create filerun-br
               echo "filerun-br already exists in docker"

This makes sure that the network will always be there when it is needed. To add the db into the bridge network, one extra line would solve the problem (see the last line).

docker-containers."filerun-mariadb" = {
  image = "mariadb:10.1";
  environment = {
    "MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD" = "randompasswd";
    "MYSQL_USER" = "filerun";
    "MYSQL_PASSWORD" = "randompasswd";
    "MYSQL_DATABASE" = "filerundb";
  volumes = [ "/home/delegator/filerun/db:/var/lib/mysql" ];
  extraDockerOptions = [ "--network=filerun-br" ];

The Web Server Container

The web server then follows pretty much the same way as the Database container.

docker-containers."filerun" = {
  image = "afian/filerun";
  environment = {
    "FR_DB_HOST" = "filerun-mariadb";  # !! IMPORTANT
    "FR_DB_PORT" = "3306";
    "FR_DB_NAME" = "filerundb";
    "FR_DB_USER" = "filerun";
    "FR_DB_PASS" = "randompasswd";
    "APACHE_RUN_USER" = "delegator";
    "APACHE_RUN_USER_ID" = "600";
    "APACHE_RUN_GROUP" = "delegator";
    "APACHE_RUN_GROUP_ID" = "600";
  ports = [ "6000:80" ];
  volumes = [
  extraDockerOptions = [ "--network=filerun-br" ];

It is in the same bridge network. The most important line (marked above) here is to set up the value for the environment variable "FR_DB_HOST". I did some experiment and found that within the same bridge network, one container uses the other container’s name as the hostname. Since NixOS’s docker-containers modules make the convention of naming the container in such a way, I will just put the other container’s name there 1.

Important Notes: If you are using 19.09 or older version of NixOS, the naming convention is actually different for docker containers. Nothing more needs to be changed, just make sure your FR_DB_HOST is set to docker-filerun-mariadb.service inated.

With those, everything should be up and running!


A more comprehensive service for FileRun as demonstrated in this article can be found here. I omitted the details about how to add options and various flexibilities to the service module in this article as those might be distracting.

I found it to be very simple to spin up docker container based services with the docker-containers module. Hope this can help you as well.

  1. It would be much better if I can directly read the container’s name from config.docker-containers.filerun-mariadb, so that it would still work even if the naming convention changes. I could not find such interface in docker-containers module though. ↩︎

Break Yang
Break Yang
Automate Things

I am a software engineer by trade, working on automating things (e.g. cars). I spent my school years studying Math, Control, Economics and Computer Vision.