An R-docker hello world example

This document will run you through the steps to building, running and connecting a docker container that runs R. We will

  • Set up a dockerfile
  • Set up a composer file
  • Build a container
  • Run a container with Rstudio
  • Connect to that container and run a script
  • Write the output back to a mounted data folder on the host
  • Look at how to set up other connections that you might use often

To play along at home, clone or download the directory from



About docker

Docker is a management system/environment for using containers. Containers are built on top of hosts. They share the same kernel and hardware controllers but might have a different linux flavour or set of libraries on top.

We set up container images that are like snapshots of the container we want - all the libraries, files etc. We then run the container to set up a temporary instance that contains all our working files. When we are done we stop the container and all data and any local changes are lost forever!!! To save the output of a container instance we must write the data back to the host or somewehere else that's permanent.

This youtube video is an excellent practical introduction to the world of containers.  For this example I am assuming that you are working on a machine that already has docker installed.

This example

Clone or download the repository from Change directory to R_docker_hello.

Inside this folder you will find:

  • Dockerfile: This lives in the top directory and specifies our build options.
  • Analysis folder: Holds a simple hello_world.R script that we will run in our container
  • Data folder: The simplest input data you will ever see. We will also mount this folder when we run the container and we will write our output back to it.
  • DockerConfig: Everyone likes particular libraries, so I've made a requirements.R that will be run whenever you build your container.


Let's do this...


Inside the Dockerfile

# Base image
FROM rocker/rstudio

## Install extra R packages using requirements.R
## Specify requirements as R install commands e.g.
## install.packages("<myfavouritepacakge>") or
## devtools::install("SymbolixAU/googleway")

COPY ./DockerConfig/requirements.R /tmp/requirements.R 
RUN Rscript /tmp/requirements.R

## uncomment to include shiny server
# #RUN export ADD=shiny && bash /etc/cont-init.d/add

# create an R user
ENV USER rstudio

## Copy your working files over
COPY ./Analysis /home/$USER/Analysis
COPY ./Data /home/$USER/Data

Dockerfiles are used to build up an image. We start FROM a base image. Then we COPY files or RUN extra commands or set specific ENV variables. The Dockerfile lives in the top of the project and should be called Dockerfile with a capital D.

In this example, we are starting from the rocker/studio image. These are public (not official) but they are solid and very well supported. Rocker also have images for r-base (rocker/r-base) and a geospatial suite (rocker/rstudio-geospatial). This has all the basic spatial libraries (sp, sf) installed plus all the stuff you require outside of R to make them work (e.g. GDAL).

To install extra libraries we specify them in requirements.R. On build, this is copied onto the instance and run to install the libraries.

Finally the build copies our files over - the Analysis folder and the Data folder. We put these in the home directory of our user, called rstudio.

Build it

Type the following command into the command line. You must be in the same directory as your Dockerfile.

sudo docker build --rm --force-rm -t rstudio/hello-world .

the --rm --force-rm just forces the container to delete itself once its scripts run or you log out. It just stops us filling up the server with lots of containers doing nothing. Once this has built run

sudo docker image list

to see your image added to the list. We've called it rstudio/hello-world but you can call it anything.

Run it

We want to use this image to access rstudio so we want it running as a background service (i.e. in detacted mode) we use the flag -d to do this. If you want to access a bash shell or other interactive mode, you need to specify -it.

Rstudio runs on port 8787 within the container. We need to map this to an unused port on the host machine with a -p <host port>:<container port> We will use 28787, but this can be any used port.

We will call our container hello-world. This is the simple run command:

sudo docker run -d --rm -p 28787:8787 -e PASSWORD=SoSecret! --name hello-world rstudio/hello-world

Run this command and access the container through your webbrowser at <yourhostip:28787>. Username is rstudio and password is SoSecret!.

EDIT (18/01/2019) The command above used to be

sudo docker run -d --rm -p 28787:8787 --name hello-world rstudio/hello-world

because earlier versions of the Docker image had a default password option of rstudio. In current versions the run will fail unless you specify a password at runtime. Thanks to Renato and triari who pointed this out in the comments below.

In rstudio, type


You will see that you can see the Analysis and Data folder but there are two problems.

  1. In order to write to a file within Docker (through rstudio) you need to have the right userid. With these rocker images you can get that by specifying -e USERID=$UID in the run command. Then you can write and you can make changes to files and save them within the container.
  2. It's all well and good to write to the local container but this data won't be permanent. We can write our output back to the host directory by mounting a host directory as a volume on the container with -v /full/path/to/dir . This is also useful in development as you can make changes in your permanent host folder which are then immediately available on the container without rebuilding it.

Before we fix the problem we need to stop the container that's running (it's no good for us):

sudo docker stop hello-world

Now lets try again. If you look in you will see a better version and explanation. Basically its:

sudo docker run -d --rm -p 28787:8787 --name hello-world2 -e USERID=$UID -e PASSWORD=SoSecret! -v $DATA_DIR:/home/rstudio/Data rstudio/hello-world

Note in the above I have also set the password manually -- you can make it anything you want.

Run the commands above, log into <yourhostip:28787> and try sourcing the script. It should run and write to the Data folder. </yourhostip:28787>

Finally, go back to the command line once more. Type ls Data and you should see the output file there also.

One more thing. In the rstudio window, open up Analysis/ add a line to the bottom - any command you want and save it and run it.

Final question - if I check the contents of Analysis/ on the command line (i.e. back on the host) will it have your new line? Why?

One last challenge:

(Stop the old container first). Now run it again, but set it up so you can make changes into on the command line and immediately have them show up and work in Rstudio.