David NĂ©grier CTO

In this article, I will explain why we decided to build "general purpose" PHP images for Docker, and what you can gain from using one of these images (spoiler alert: it's time).


Have a look at thecodingmachine/php. This project contains a set of Docker images containing PHP with:

  • 3 variants: Apache, CLI or PHP-FPM
  • NodeJS (optional, version 6 or 8)
  • The most common PHP extensions (can be enabled using environment variables)
  • Cron (configurable via environment variables)
  • ... and much more!
Update (2018-11-09): we released v2 of our thecodingmachine/php Docker image.


At TheCodingMachine, we build intranets, extranets and websites for our clients. And we build a lot of these. Each project has slightly different needs. Some require PHP + mysqli extension, others PHP + postgresql extension, others the mongodb and redis extensions. Some will need apcu, others memcache, others GD, etc...

For each of these projects, we used to start with the stock "php" Docker image and to enable extensions using a Dockerfile.

And in each of our projects, we had a Dockerfile that generally contained this:

  • installation of required PHP extensions
  • installation of Composer
  • installation of NodeJS (if we need to run webpack for static assets)

The Dockerfiles were copy-pasted from one project to another, slightly modified, and increasingly becoming harder to track and to read.

We needed to do better. We needed a "universal" PHP image that would be usable in most of our projects and yet, be flexible enough to not incur any cost on performance. And so we began our journey in building the thecodingmachine/php images

General purpose images

Our idea is to build "one-fits-all" PHP images by:

  • building the most common PHP extensions right into the image
  • enabling or disabling these extensions on container startup using environment variables

The images are developer friendly. For instance:

  • they come with the nano editor installed
  • they come with composer
  • the xdebug extension, if enabled, will configure the remote host automatically (and correctly whether you use Linux, Windows or MacOS!)
  • ...

As you probably understand, we are willfully trading some image size for an improved developer experience. More on this later.


We have images for PHP 7.1 and PHP 7.2.

Images are tagged according to PHP version, image version, variant and Node version.

For instance:

                      ^   ^    ^     ^
                      |   |    |     |
             PHP version  |    |     |
                          |    |     |
                Image version  |     |
                               |     |
      Variant (apache, cli or fpm)   |
             Node version (empty, 6 or 8)

By default, images come with these PHP extensions enabled: apcu mbstring mysqli opcache pdo pdo_mysql redis zip soap.

However, you can easily enable or disable any available PHP extension using environment variables:

# Let's enable the PostgreSQL extension and disable the Mysqli extension!

As an alternative, you can enable a bunch of extensions in a single line with the PHP_EXTENSIONS environment variable:

PHP_EXTENSIONS=pgsql gettext imap sockets

You can also change any value of the php.ini file by using the associated PHP_INI_XXX environment variable:

# set the parameter memory_limit=1g
# set the parameter error_reporting=EALL

Finally, if you are using the Apache variant of the image, you can also enable any Apache extension using environment variables:


Utility features

Quite often, when setting up a development environment, or when changing branches (in your development process), there are a number of recurring tasks that need to be performed. Like running composer install, or applying Doctrine migrations, or starting webpack in "watch" mode.

In my development environment, I personally like to run these tasks on container startup. That way, once my environment is started, I'm sure that the project dependencies are up-to-date with my colleagues, that database patches have been applied...

The thecodingmachine/php image allows you to register commands that will be executed on startup. Therefore, my docker-compose.yml looks like this:


version: '3'
    image: thecodingmachine/php:7.1-v1-apache-node8
      STARTUP_COMMAND_1: composer install
      STARTUP_COMMAND_2: vendor/bin/doctrine orm:schema-tool:update
      STARTUP_COMMAND_3: webpack --watch &

Please note these are settings I use exclusively in development.

For production images, I run composer install and webpack build at build time, from the Dockerfile. I do, however, apply database migrations on container startup, even in production.

The image also bundles "cron" to run recurring tasks:


version: '3'
    image: thecodingmachine/php:7.1-v1-apache-node8
      CRON_USER_1: root
      CRON_SCHEDULE_1: * * * * *
      CRON_COMMAND_1: vendor/bin/console do:stuff

Pretty useful as setting up cron in Docker containers is a challenging task. Also, the scripts that run in Cron will have their output redirected to the Docker logs.

Usage in continuous integration environments

The image can be tremendously useful in continuous integration environments.

At TheCodingMachine, we are pretty fond of Gitlab CI. Our CI file now looks like this:

  image: thecodingmachine/php:7.1-v1-cli
    PHP_EXTENSIONS=gd event
    - composer install
    - vendor/bin/phpunit

Woot! So easy!

Actually, I can even replace vendor/bin/phpunit by phpunit alone, because ./vendor/bin is part of the PATH. That's right, anything in vendor/bin directory can be accessed from your project's root directory... Did I say developer friendly? :)

File permissions management

Permissions management is a tricky issue when it comes to Docker. Depending on your use case (development or production), and depending on the OS you are using, you can have a wide range of issues to solve. We really tried to do our best to simplify this, without sacrificing security.

File permissions on a development environment

When you are developing using Docker, you typically mount your working directory into the container /var/www/html directory.

For a good development workflow:

  • your IDE must have write access to the files
  • your web-server should have write access to the files (for caching or upload purposes)
  • scripts executed in the container (like composer install or php-cs-fixer) should have write access too

If you are using MacOS or Windows, Docker does not really enforce any permissions in the file system. For instance, any user can modify any files owned by root on a OSX docker mount point.

If you are using Linux on the other hand, things are really more secure (and therefore more tricky). Typically, Docker will enforce the permissions across the mount points. If your run a composer install in the Docker container as root, your files will belong to root on the host file system (something you want to avoid because your IDE won't be able to touch those files).

The thecodingmachine/php image solves this problem by taking the following steps:

  • Out of the box, it has a docker user (whose ID is 1000 by default)
  • Apache is run by this docker user (and not by www-data)
  • On container startup, a script will first try to detect if the /var/www/html directory is mounted or not, and whether it is a Windows, MacOS, or Linux mount.
  • If this is a Linux mount, it will look at the owner of the /var/www/html directory. Let's assume the directory belongs to the user "foobar" whose ID is 1001. Dynamically, the container will change the docker ID to be 1001 (instead of 1000) by default. This is done using the -u flag of the usermod command.
  • Therefore, the ID of the docker user (that is running Apache) and the ID of the mounted directory owner on the host are matching. No more permission issues while developing (Hooray!)

File permissions on a production environment

Of course, on a production environment, you don't want this. On a production environment, you will typically not use any mount. Instead, you will copy your PHP files inside the container's /var/www/html directory. By default, the /var/www/html directory belongs to www-data. The container will detect this and act accordingly.

You should still give back ownership of the Apache processes to the www-data user. This can be done easily using one more environment variable:


Is this following Docker best practices?

Hell no!

In order to develop this image, we violated a number of Docker best-practices.

So you want to be state-of-the-art?

Instead of using thecodingmachine/php, you should do this:

Avoid installing unnecessary packages

thecodingmachine/php contains a lot of pretty useful packages for development, but that are not needed for production (like the nano editor, or all the PHP extensions that you are not enabling).

If you want to be state of the art, you should write your own Dockerfile and install the bare-minimum in the container. Of course, you should store the image on your own registry.

Use multi-stage builds

Some variants of thecodingmachine/php come with NodeJS installed. The expectation is that you will need NodeJS to build your JS/CSS assets (probably using webpack). However, this means that the image will run in production with NodeJS installed, while it is absolutely not necessary (it is used only at build time).

Starting with Docker 17.05, Docker added this wonderful feature named multi-stage builds.

From your Dockerfile, you can call another container to perform build stages. So from your PHP container, you could call a NodeJS container to perform a build, while not storing NodeJS in your own PHP image. Useful.

Each container should have only one concern

thecodingmachine/php images bundle cron. So strictly speaking, they have 2 concerns:

  • one is to answer HTTP requests
  • one is to trigger events at regular intervals

If you want to be state of the art, you should delegate the scheduling of events to a separate container like Tasker or one of the other alternatives.

Image size

Here are a few image size comparison:

Image Size (uncompressed) Variation
php:7.1-apache 392 MB
thecodingmachine/php:7.1-v1-apache 575 MB +183 MB (+47%)
thecodingmachine/php:7.1-v1-apache-node8 664 MB +272 MB (+69%)

So should I use the thecodingmachine/php images?

Well it depends!

If you are working on a single application, for the next years to come, you might want to build your own Dockerfile, completely tailored to your need.

But if, like us, you are working on a new project every 3 months, the benefits of the setup and maintenance of a complete Dockerfile might not be worth it.

Using thecodingmachine/php general purpose images will help you get started quickly, while ensuring a pretty decent quality.

You are trading some additional disk space (which is cheap) for some of your time (which is valuable). This is a great deal!


There are other alternatives to be mentioned:

  • Laradock, which is building tailored images locally. It's pretty cool for setting up a development environment, but less easy to use for continuous integration or deployment in production.
  • Kickoff Docker PHP, which is also building tailored images locally, with a focus and differentiating development and production environment using docker-compose.
  • webdevops/php-apache[-dev] which are Docker PHP images with a big variety of base Docker images (if you want to extend a special Debian version for instance)

About the author

David is CTO and co-founder of TheCodingMachine and WorkAdventure. He is the co-editor of PSR-11, the standard that provides interoperability between dependency injection containers. He is also the lead developper of GraphQLite, a framework-agnostic PHP library to implement a GraphQL API easily.