Starting Docker Daemon on Demand with Socket Activation

written on Friday, February 03, 2017 by

On my home computer, I use Docker from time to time. Since I don't need it every day, I only start the daemon on demand though.

A pattern that occurs frequently is that I turn on my computer, try to start a container I need, and then the following happens:

$ docker-compose up
ERROR: Couldn't connect to Docker daemon at http+docker://localunixsocket - is it running?

If it's at a non-standard location, specify the URL with the DOCKER_HOST environment variable.

Of course I could then manually start docker, re-run the docker-compose command, and everything would work. But the people behind systemd had some better ideas on how to solve the issue of network services that are only needed infrequently.

Socket Activation

Systemd implements a technique called socket activation. It basically means that instead of starting a service that listens on a socket, a supervisor daemon listens on behalf of those services. When a new connection comes in that wants to talk to that socket, the service is started transparently in the background. The connection is kept alive and handed over to the service as soon as the service is up and running.

One of the downsides of this approach is that the service needs to be aware of socket activation. Luckily support for systemd socket activation was implemented in the Docker daemon in 2014. (Unfortunately it's still missing in PostgreSQL...)

Starting Docker on Demand

Arch Linux ships with appropriate unit files for a socket activated Docker daemon.

The first requirement for socket activation to work, is that the daemon is started appropriately. For Docker, the daemon needs to be started with the -H fd:// argument. This is being done correctly, as you can see in the service file shipped with the docker package:

# /usr/lib/systemd/system/docker.service

Description=Docker Application Container Engine
Documentation= docker.socket

ExecStart=/usr/bin/dockerd -H fd://
# ...

The second component that needs to be present is the socket unit configuration. This is what the file looks like on Arch Linux:

#  /usr/lib/systemd/system/docker.socket

Description=Docker Socket for the API



To start Docker only on demand, we need to disable the service (to prevent it for starting on boot) and to enable the socket.

$ sudo systemctl disable docker.service
$ sudo systemctl stop docker.service
$ sudo systemctl enable docker.socket
$ sudo systemctl start docker.socket

Now if you run any command that tries to connect to the Docker daemon, the service should be started automatically!

$ docker info
Containers: 52
 Running: 2
 Paused: 0
 Stopped: 50
Images: 323
Server Version: 1.12.6


This entry was tagged archlinux, docker, linux, socket_activation and systemd