Docker Registries

Explaining Docker Image IDs

When Docker v1.10 came along, there was a fairly seismic change with the way the Docker Engine handles images. Whilst this was publicised well, and there was little impact on the general usage of Docker (image migration, aside), there were some UI changes which sparked some confusion. So, what was the change, and why does the docker history command show some IDs as <missing>?

$ docker history debian
IMAGE               CREATED             CREATED BY                                      SIZE                COMMENT  
1742affe03b5        10 days ago         /bin/sh -c #(nop) CMD ["/bin/bash"]             0 B  
<missing>           10 days ago         /bin/sh -c #(nop) ADD file:5d8521419ad6cfb695   125.1 MB  

First, some background. A docker image is a read-only template for creating containers, and provides a filesystem based on an ordered union of multiple layers of files and directories, which can be shared with other images and containers. Sharing of image layers is a fundamental component of the Docker platform, and is possible through the implementation of a copy-on-write (COW) mechanism. During its lifetime, if a container needs to change a file from the read-only image that provides its filesystem, it copies the file up to its own private read-write layer before making the change.

A layer or 'diff' is created during the Docker image build process, and results when commands are run in a container, which produce new or modified files and directories. These new or modified files and directories are 'committed' as a new layer. The output of the docker history command above shows that the debian image has two layers.

Historical Perspective

Historically (pre Docker v1.10), each time a new layer was created as a result of a commit action, Docker also created a corresponding image, which was identified by a randomly generated 256-bit UUID, usually referred to as an image ID (presented in the UI as either a short 12-digit hex string, or a long 64-digit hex string). Docker stored the layer contents in a directory with a name synonymous with the image ID. Internally, the image consisted of a configuration object, which held the characteristics of the image, including its ID, and the ID of the image's parent image. In this way, Docker was able to construct a filesystem for a container, with each image in turn referencing its parent and the corresponding layer content, until the base image was reached which had no parent. Optionally, each image could also be tagged with a meaningful name (e.g. my_image:1.0), but this was usually reserved for the leaf image. This is depicted in the diagram below:

Using the docker inspect command would yield:

$ docker inspect my_image:1.0
        "Id": "ca1f5f48ef431c0818d5e8797dfe707557bdc728fe7c3027c75de18f934a3b76",
        "Parent": "91bac885982d2d564c0e1869e8b8827c435eead714c06d4c670aaae616c1542c"

This method served Docker well for a sustained period, but over time was perceived to be sub-optimal for a variety of reasons. One of the big drivers for change, came from the lack of a means of detecting whether an image's contents had been tampered with during a push to or pull from a registry, such as the Docker Hub. This led to robust criticism from the community at large, and led to a series of changes, culminating in content addressable IDs.

Content Addressable IDs

Since Docker v1.10, generally, images and layers are no longer synonymous. Instead, an image directly references one or more layers that eventually contribute to a derived container's filesystem.

Layers are now identified by a digest, which takes the form algorithm:hex; for example:


The hex element is calculated by applying the algorithm (SHA256) to a layer's content. If the content changes, then the computed digest will also change, meaning that Docker can check the retrieved contents of a layer with its published digest in order to verify its content. Layers have no notion of an image or of belonging to an image, they are merely collections of files and directories.

A Docker image now consists of a configuration object, which (amongst other things) contains an ordered list of layer digests, which enables the Docker Engine to assemble a container's filesystem with reference to layer digests rather than parent images. The image ID is also a digest, and is a computed SHA256 hash of the image configuration object, which contains the digests of the layers that contribute to the image's filesystem definition. The following diagram depicts the relationship between image and layers post Docker v1.10:
The digests for the image and layers have been shortened for readability.

The diff directory for storing the layer content, is now named after a randomly generated 'cache ID', and the Docker Engine maintains the link between the layer and its cache ID, so that it knows where to locate the layer's content on disk.

So, when a Docker image is pulled from a registry, and the docker history command is used to reveal its contents, the output provides something similar to:

$ docker history swarm
IMAGE               CREATED             CREATED BY                                      SIZE                COMMENT  
c54bba046158        9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) CMD ["--help"]                0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) ENTRYPOINT &{["/swarm"]}      0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) VOLUME [/.swarm]              0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) EXPOSE 2375/tcp               0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) ENV SWARM_HOST=:2375          0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) COPY dir:b76b2255a3b423981a   0 B  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) COPY file:5acf949e76228329d   277.2 kB  
<missing>           9 days ago          /bin/sh -c #(nop) COPY file:a2157cec2320f541a   19.06 MB  

The command provides detail about the image and the layers it is composed of. The <missing> value in the IMAGE field for all but one of the layers of the image, is misleading and a little unfortunate. It conveys the suggestion of an error, but there is no error as layers are no longer synonymous with a corresponding image and ID. I think it would have been more appropriate to have left the field blank. Also, the image ID appears to be associated with the uppermost layer, but in fact, the image ID doesn't 'belong' to any of the layers. Rather, the layers collectively belong to the image, and provide its filesystem definition.

Locally Built Images

Whilst this narrative for content addressable images holds true for all Docker images post Docker v1.10, locally built images on a Docker host are treated slightly differently. The generic content of an image built locally remains the same - it is a configuration object containing configuration items, including an ordered list of layer digests.

However, when a layer is committed during an image build on a local Docker host, an 'intermediate' image is created at the same time. Just like all other images, it has a configuration item which is a list of the layer digests that are to be incorporated as part of the image, and its ID or digest contains a hash of the configuration object. Intermediate images aren't tagged with a name, but, they do have a 'Parent' key, which contains the ID of the parent image.

The purpose of the intermediate images and the reference to parent images, is to facilitate the use of Docker's build cache. The build cache is another important feature of the Docker platform, and is used to help the Docker Engine make use of pre-existing layer content, rather than regenerating the content needlessly for an identical build command. It makes the build process more efficient. When an image is built locally, the docker history command might provide output similar to the following:

$ docker history jbloggs/my_image:latest 
IMAGE               CREATED             CREATED BY                                      SIZE                COMMENT  
26cca5b0c787        52 seconds ago      /bin/sh -c #(nop) CMD ["/bin/sh" "-c" "/bin/b   0 B  
97e47fb9e0a6        52 seconds ago      /bin/sh -c apt-get update &&     apt-get inst   16.98 MB  
1742affe03b5        13 days ago         /bin/sh -c #(nop) CMD ["/bin/bash"]             0 B  
<missing>           13 days ago         /bin/sh -c #(nop) ADD file:5d8521419ad6cfb695   125.1 MB  

In this example, the top two layers are created during the local image build, whilst the bottom layers came from the base image for the build (e.g. Dockerfile instruction FROM debian). We can use the docker inspect command to review the layer digests associated with the image:

$ docker inspect jboggs/my_image:latest 
        "RootFS": {
            "Type": "layers",
            "Layers": [

The docker history command shows the image as having four layers, but docker inspect suggests just three layers. This is because the two CMD instructions produce metadata for the image, don't add any content, and therefore the 'diff' is empty. The digest 5f70bf18a08a is the SHA256 hash of an empty layer, and is shared by both of the layers in question.

When a locally built image is pushed to a registry, it is only the leaf image that is uploaded along with its constituent layers, and a subsequent pull by another Docker host will not yield any intermediate parent images. This is because once the image is made available to other potential users on different Docker hosts via a registry, it effectively becomes read-only, and the components that support the build cache are no longer required. Instead of the image ID, <missing> is inserted into the history output in its place.

Pushing the image to a registry might yield:

$ docker push jbloggs/my_image:latest
The push refers to a repository []  
f22bfbc1df82: Pushed  
5f70bf18a086: Layer already exists  
4dcab49015d4: Layer already exists  
latest: digest: sha256:7f63e3661b1377e2658e458ac1ff6d5e0079f0cfd9ff2830786d1b45ae1bb820 size: 3147  

In this example, only one layer has been pushed, as two of the layers already exist in the registry, referenced by one or more other images which use the same content.

A Final Twist

The digests that Docker uses for layer 'diffs' on a Docker host, contain the sha256 hash of the tar archived content of the diff. Before the layer is uploaded to a registry as part of a push, it is compressed for bandwidth efficiency. A manifest is also created to describe the contents of the image, and it contains the digests of the compressed layer content. Consequently, the digests for the layers in the manifest are different to those generated in their uncompressed state. The manifest is also pushed to the registry.

The digest of a compressed layer diff can be referred to as a 'distribution digest', whilst the digest for the uncompressed layer diff can be referred to as a 'content digest'. Hence, when we pull our example image on a different Docker host, the docker pull command gives the following output:

$ docker pull jbloggs/my_image
Using default tag: latest  
latest: Pulling from jbloggs/my_image

51f5c6a04d83: Pull complete  
a3ed95caeb02: Pull complete  
9a246d793396: Pull complete  
Digest: sha256:7f63e3661b1377e2658e458ac1ff6d5e0079f0cfd9ff2830786d1b45ae1bb820  
Status: Downloaded newer image for jbloggs/my_image:latest  

The distribution digests in the output of the docker pull command, are very different to the digests reported by the docker push command. But, the pull will decompress the layers, and the output of a docker inspect command will provide the familiar content digests that we saw after the image build.


Following the changes to image and layer handling in Docker v1.10:

  • A Docker image provides a filesystem for a derived container based on the references it stores to layer diffs
  • Layer diffs are referenced using a digest, which contains an SHA256 hash of an archive of the diff's contents
  • A Docker image's ID is a digest, which contains an SHA256 hash of the image's JSON configuration object
  • Docker creates intermediate images during a local image build, for the purposes of maintaining a build cache
  • An image manifest is created and pushed to a Docker registry when an image is pushed
  • An image manifest contains digests of the image's layers, which contain the SHA256 hashes of the compressed, archived diff contents

What's in a name?

For those unfamiliar with Docker, it's a platform for creating and running isolated workloads in containers based on a template image. The image repositories are stored in registries, which are retrieved using a fully qualified image name (FQIN) as part of a Docker CLI command or API call, as explained here. Docker's method of addressing repositories all seems very logical, but, just recently a situation arose which resulted in some disagreement between project contributors.

Everyone knows that Red Hat is a major platform and cloud provider, as well as having aspirations in the embryonic container market for workloads; it is a partner of Docker Inc, and a significant contributor to the Docker project. It's not unusual for Red Hat to adopt open source technologies, and to make a value-added product available to their customers as a downstream distribution. This is what it did with OpenStack, for example. However, when Red Hat provided its customers with access to Docker 1.5 via its repositories, it came with some 'experimental' code changes not available in the upstream Docker release. This in itself may not have been a big issue, but the nature of the changes caused Docker Inc's CTO and the Docker project's Chief Architect, Solomon Hykes, to take issue. In his view, the changes broke one of the project's architectural principles; that is, that the user should expect the same result when using a CLI command or API call to retrieve images, wherever they might issue the command or call.

In short, Red Hat's code changes provided two new command line options for the Docker engine, enabling an administrator to add and/or block registries that are accessed when a user searches for, or 'pulls' a Docker image. The specific change that causes the issue relates to how short image names are used. In the official upstream version of Docker, use of a short name references a repository located on the public Docker Hub Registry, whereas in Red Hat's downstream version, the repository is enumerated based on a pre-defined order of registries, which may not include the Docker Hub Registry at all. These changes may result in entirely different images being referenced by different Docker users issuing the same CLI command or API call, but using Docker hosts that are configured differently.

Red Hat's rationale for the code changes, is predicated on feedback received by their customers. Large corporate users, for example, may have a requirement to block access to public registries in order to maintain its security perimeter, or to safeguard its intellectual property or corporate data. Without the changes, a user might inadvertently make use of a public Docker image for a container against corporate policy, or 'push' an image containing sensitive corporate data to the public Docker Hub Registry.

So, who is right in this disagreement? The answer, of course, is that both are right, and the differences of opinion are manifestly characteristic of open source projects. It's simply not possible to uphold the ideal of every community member's requirements being met by a project, because there will always be conflicts of interest and requirements between community members. But at the same time, a project's value and ultimate success rests on its suitability for meeting the needs of its users - in this case, corporations whose aim is to become more agile through expeditious software application delivery. What is important, is how disagreements like these are resolved. The open source realm is littered with unresolved conflict, which ultimately leads to a dichotomy, as projects get forked into two distinct entities. Sometimes this can happen because of perceived undue corporate influence (e.g. Node.js/io.js), as a result of ideological differences (Debian/Devuan), and probably for many other reasons in between.

Docker and Red Hat, however, need each other in order to succeed in the container world. The two organisations are already formal partners, and Red Hat contributes significantly to the project by way of code, as well as membership of the Docker Governance and Advisory Board (DGAB). Whilst this won't be the first or last commercially inspired dilemma to befall the Docker project, it is arguably one of the more significant, and is currently being resolved behind closed doors. In the meantime, a new Red Hat inspired namespace proposal is being discussed for potential inclusion into the Docker Registry 2.0 code.

Referencing Docker Images

Docker images are the templates that derive the nature and behaviour of a container, and Docker stores these images in repositories on hosted registries. An official registry, called the Docker Hub Registry, is hosted by Docker Inc., which contains:

  • A set of official, certified Docker repositories, which are curated by the Docker community
  • Publicly accessible repositories, provided by any individual or organisation with a Docker Hub account
  • Private repositories for individuals and organisations who purchase one of the available plans provided by Docker Inc

The Docker Hub Registry is an incredibly valuable resource, with over 89,000 publicly available repositories of Docker images. But what if you're a security conscious corporation, that wants to keep your intellectual property proprietary, behind a corporate firewall? Or you're a third-party wanting to provide a value add service to your customers? You have a choice; you can either buy a subscription for the commercially supported Docker Hub Enterprise, or you can deploy your own version of the open source registry inside your firewall.

All of these options, however, pose a serious question - how do I address the correct image that I need for my container? For example, how do I make sure that the MySQL image I use for my application is the one that has been carefully crafted by the Database Administrators inside my organisation, rather than the official MySQL image on the public Docker Hub Registry, or even some other random MySQL image provided by an unknown entity on the Docker Hub Registry? This all comes down to specifying the correct image name when you retrieve an image or invoke a container using the Docker CLI or API, and there is a format that needs to be adhered to. A fully qualified image name (FQIN) consists of three main components; a registry location (with an optional port specification), a username, and a repository name (with an optional tag specification):


The hostname and optional port specify the location of the registry, and if these are omitted then Docker defaults to the Docker Hub Registry at The next element in the image name is a username, and once again, if this is omitted, it corresponds to a special username called library. In the Docker Hub Registry, the library username is for the officially, curated Docker images. Finally, a repository name needs to be specified, and optionally an image tag to identify the specific image from its related images in the repository (if the tag is omitted, Docker assumes the tag latest).

Library Images

In order to 'pull' the latest official Ubuntu image, the following Docker CLI command can be invoked:

docker pull ubuntu

In this format, the registry location, username and tag have been omitted. The shortened image name directs the Docker engine to pull the latest library image from the ubuntu repository on the Docker Hub Registry. This could also have been achieved using the longhand format:

docker pull

User Images

In order to pull the latest version of an image called pxe that belongs to the user jpetazzo on the Docker Hub Registry, the following command can be used:

docker pull jpetazzo/pxe

In this example, the registry location has been omitted, and so the default Docker Hub Registry is the target for the Docker engine.

Images on Third-Party Registries

Some third-party organisations host their own Docker registries independent of Docker Inc, which they make available to their customers. In order to pull an image that resides on a third party registry (such as CoreOS', the registry location needs to be supplied along with the username and repository, e.g.:

docker pull

In this case, a tag has been specified as part of the image name in order to differentiate it from other versions of the image.

Images on Self-Hosted Registries

Finally, we can reference an image that resides on a locally configured, self-hosted registry by specifying the registry location and the repository required:

docker pull