There are some things that should be installed before we get started:

  • Docker
  • Node JS
  • Visual Studio Code (a.k.a VS Code)


  • Host - this is your computer where you are working. In computer networking terms (roughly saying), it is a computer that communicates with other computers.
  • Docker image - the set of layers/instructions you describe to run (it is more like a sequence, where the order of commands matter).
  • Docker container - instance of your image. Roughly saying, it is like an instance of some “class” (OOP).

Getting Started

Clone this project and let’s get started!

It all starts with npm init

Imagine that you are working on a computer where Node.js is not installed. One way to proceed with initialization of your project is to install Node.js locally using your package manager (e.g. apt) and then proceed with npm init. However, there is a cooler, more portable, and more cross-platform way of doing this; where, no version conflicts occur, no manual explicit configurations are needed to be set up with changing OS environment, etc. In other words, heaven Docker!

Docker is a container management service. The keywords of Docker are develop, ship and run anywhere. The whole idea of Docker is for developers to easily develop applications, ship them into containers which can then be deployed anywhere. What a brilliant and lovely idea for the DevOps workflow.

I assume you have latest Docker installed. Docker uses images (check the definition above) to run containers which are, roughly saying, isolated processes that share the same OS kernel. Note that that Docker containers are NOT magical, lightweight VMs! If you are interested how Docker Containers work behind the scenes, take a look at the following talk given by Jérôme Petazzoni at DockerCon EU.

Let’s initialize our project by using the latest Node.js image. The following command runs an interactive bash terminal, which lets us access the container with Node.js installed in it, and binds a current directory of the host to the /app directory in the container, which lets us persist our files (e.g. package.json, etc.).

docker run -it -v $(pwd):/app node /bin/bash

You will immediately notice that your terminal’s hostname has changed to something like root@b95028b5a79c:/#. Congrats! Now, you are in a container with Node.js present inside! How cool is that, huh? :)

Now, in order to access our files and initialize the project, open the /app folder and run npm init:

cd /app     # opens app folder
npm init    # initialize the Node.js project (creates a package.json)

You can also run ls command to see what’s in the current directory. You will see that you have everything there from the current directory of the host.

Now run exit to exit from the container. Since you have attached a volume using a -v option when running a container, your package.json could be seen in your current directory in the host.

Congratulations! So far, you have managed to initialize a Node.js project using Docker (images and running containers) without actually installing Node.js in your computer. It is quite lovely, isn’t it?

Dockerfile and docker-compose

If your app uses MongoDB as a database service, you already have 2 services interacting (i.e. API <-> DB). If you want to dockerize your multi-service application, then you have to define 2 images for those services using Dockerfiles (one per service).

Docker-compose is another Docker tool which lets us manage multi-container applications. With Docker-compose, it is simpler to manage and scale your services. Docker-compose works almost the same way as the docker command; instead of providing a Dockerfile, you can configure your services by creating the docker-compose.yml file. Though in a bit different way, you can configure the same way as in a Dockerfile: mounting volumes, running commands, pulling images, etc.

For instance, take a look at the image above. We can define a single Dockerfile for the API, and define the configs for Mongo just inside the Compose file. Why don’t we create Dockerfiles for it? Indeed, you could do so and configure your DB (e.g. create users, roles, priviliges, etc. upon initialization). However, in this case, we don’t need to configure anything, we just need the MongoDB service running in the respective container.

NOTE: We would use Dockerfile for the Node.js API service because we have to build the app first, i.e. install its dependencies, transpile (if we use Typescript, etc.). This is how Dockerfile for the Node.js would look like:

# use Node.js version latest
FROM node

# create app folder in the container (not the host)
RUN mkdir -p /app

# sets the working directory inside the container (where RUN/CMD commands will be executed)

# copies package.json from the current directory into the /app folder inside the container
COPY package.json /app

# runs "npm install" command inside the container
RUN ["npm", "install"]

# copy the node_modules and the rest of the files into /app
COPY . /app

So, what have we done? We wrote a sequence of instructions which defines your image. We pulled Node (version 9) from the Docker Hub, created a directory /app inside the container, we “told” Docker to work with the /app directory, and copied everything (i.e. package.json, src folders, readme, etc.) from the current folder of the host machine into the /app folder in the container. And, ultimately, we ran the npm install command inside the container, so we get the dependencies from the package.json installed.

Now, let’s create the docker-compose.yml file where we will define set the configurations (env variables, volumes, networks, etc.) for the services in our architecture. Here is an example of how to define these:

version: "3"          # use version Compose version 3
services:             # our services
    build: .          # use Dockerfile from current directory at build time
    volumes:          # volumes are there to let us persist data when containers are exited
      - .:/app        # bind a current directory of the host to the /app directory in the container
      - database      # not started until "example-mongo" service is started
    networks:         # let's us be discoverable and reachable by other services in the same network
      - api-net       # join "api-net" network
      - 3000:3000     # bind port 3000 on host to port 3000 on container
    command: npm run start  # execute the following command when the image is running, e.g. run the Node server

    image: mongo      # if tag is not specified, gets latest image (e.g. MongoDB image)
      - MONGO_INITDB_ROOT_USERNAME=admin      # set the root username to "admin"
      - MONGO_INITDB_ROOT_PASSWORD=admin123   # set the root password to "admin123"
      - ./data:/data/db   # persist data from mongodb
      - api-net       # makes "database" reachable (via hostname) by other services in the same network
      - "27017:27017" # bind port

Note that you could leverage links as well, though I personally love networks because of their simplicity: you can reach other services in the same network just by using their service name (in our case, they are api or database). One could also define working directory inside the compose file (by using working_dir field) instead of specifying it in the Dockerfile.

For more details on Docker Compose, I would recommend the following Compose file Reference

Typescript and Node.js

Typescript is a programming language that brings us an optional static type-checking and latest ECMAScript features. By using Typescript, you can leverage the power of OOP, i.e. interfaces, classes, inheritance, polymorphism etc. I would personally recommend to everyone, especially to those who come from the Java/C# side and are just starting out with Javascript. .ts files are compiled to .js files, meaning that Typescript is compiled to Javascript. So, in the end, you end up with Javascript anyway :)

In order to get started with Typescript, we have to install typescript module via npm. We can do this by running our Node container again. Do not forget to attach a volume so the change in package.json is actually saved on our host:

docker run -it -v $(pwd):/app node /bin/bash    # access the Node container
cd /app                                         # get into /app folder
npm install typescript --save-dev               # install and save as development dependency

At the same time, let’s install express and the type for it to run the Express server! Note that I will not be using MongoDB in this case (though you should experiment and try yourself!).

npm install express --save
npm install @types/express --save-dev
exit        # exit the container

As there is already some boilerplate code defined in src/server.ts file, let’s change the package.json so that we first compile the code from TS to JS, and then run it! Make sure you are out of the container.

"build": "tsc",   /* Transpile to JS  */
"start": "npm run build && node ./dist/server.js"  /* Build and run the server */

We also need to create a tsconfig.json file that configures the Typescript compiler. More details on TS compilation configurations, check this link out. Here is our example:

    "compileOnSave": true,
    "compilerOptions": {
        "outDir": "dist",
        "module": "commonjs",
        "target": "es6",
        "noImplicitAny": true,
        "moduleResolution": "node",
        "sourceMap": true,
        "baseUrl": ".",
        "skipLibCheck": true,
        "paths": {
            "*": [
    // includes all typescript files
    "include": [
    // excludes the folder containing the compiled JS files 
    "exclude": [ "./dist"]

Now, let’s create a docker-compose.yml file with which we will run a Node.js server. Here, we will not use a Dockerfile; we will instead configure the API service straight in the Compose yaml file.

version: "3"          # use version Compose version 3
services:             # our services 
    image: node       # use latest node image
    working_dir: /app # set the working directory to /app
    volumes:          # volumes are there to let us persist data when containers are exited
      - .:/app        # bind a current directory of the host to the /app directory in the container
      - 3000:3000     # bind port 3000 on host to port 3000 on container
    command: "npm run start"

Before running the container, we have to install our dependencies. You may not have Node.js in your computer, or you may have a different version, so let’s run a Node container (of latest version) and install our dependencies (do not forget to attach a volume):

docker run -it -v $(pwd):/app node /bin/bash
# we are inside the container
npm install

To run the actual service, type the following command (the -f option specifies the file to run) to run the server:

docker-compose -f docker-compose.yml up

Note if you are getting ERROR: If you are getting the ERROR: Error processing tar file(exit status 1): unexpected EOF, run the following commands:

cd ..       # get out to the parent directory 
sudo chown -R $(whoami) nodejs-debugging/  # this gives you and Docker the rights to the nodejs-debugging folder

If you see Listening on port 3000! message, yay! Open a browser and type localhost:3000, and you will see the server is up. You can also try opening the routes, i.e. /greet and /time.

Debugging with Visual Studio Code

Visual Studio Code (VS Code) has a built-in debugging support for Node.js runtime and can debug any languages that are transpiled to JavaScript.

Since the VS Code Node.js debugger communicates to the Node.js runtimes through wire protocols, the set of supported runtimes is determined by all runtimes supporting the wire protocols:

  • legacy: the original V8 Debugger Protocol which is currently supported by older runtimes.
  • inspector: the new V8 Inspector Protocol is exposed via the --inspect flag in Node.js versions >= 6.3. It addresses most of the limitations and scalability issues of the legacy protocol.

As we are running a server from a Docker container, we have to attach a remote debugger. We need to add a launch configuration to the .vscode folder, i.e. launch.json. Here is an example of the launch configuration file:

    "version": "0.2.0",
    "configurations": [
            "type": "node",
            "request": "attach",
            "name": "Remote Debugging",
            "address": "",
            "port": 9229,
            "localRoot": "${workspaceFolder}/dist",
            "remoteRoot": "/app/dist",

We set a remote root to be path in the container, where our program lives.

Now, in order to add remote debugging, we have to add another script to package.json:

"debug": "npm run build && node --inspect-brk= ./dist/server.js"

The debug script will build (i.e. transpile the TS code) project and will start Node runtime in debugging mode accessible remotely on port 9229 (remember the port we specified above?).

Let’s create another Compose file, which we will use for running the server in the debug mode:

version: "3"          # use version Compose version 3
services:             # our services 
    image: node       # use latest node image
    working_dir: /app # set the working directory to /app
    volumes:          # volumes are there to let us persist data when containers are exited
      - .:/app        # bind a current directory of the host to the /app directory in the container
      - 3000:3000     # bind port 3000 on host to port 3000 on container
      - 9229:9229     # bind port 9229 for debugging
    command: "npm run debug"

The only differences are that we are now running in debug mode and we attached extra port for debugging (9229).

Type the following command in the terminal so you can run the debug server:

docker-compose -f docker-compose.debug.yml up

And you will see the following message

api_1 | Debugger listening on ws://

Yay! Now, as the debugger is listening on, we have to start debugging via VS Code. If you click CTRL + SHIFT + D keys, the “debug” mode will open. You will see the “Remote Debugging” slider upper-left corner and the button (looks like green triangle). E.g.:

Be courageous and click on the green triangle button. Congratulations! You have just started debugging your app using VS Code and Docker containers!

Bonus round! Simplifying debugging further …

Launching container manually, and proceeding to Debug view on VS Code may be a bit of a daunting and annoying task. However, we can automate that and make our lives a bit easier: let’s make it so that we can start debugging by just clicking F5 key! :squirrel:

Let’s first create the tasks file inside the .vscode directory, where our configurations for the VS Code reside. Copy-paste the following into the tasks.json:

    "version": "2.0.0",
    "tasks": [
            "label": "launch-debug-container",
            "command": "docker-compose -f docker-compose.debug.yml up",
            "type": "shell",
            "group": "build",
            "isBackground": true

Tasks help you automate building and testing your app. Whenever you start debugging, they may help you build your app first. There may be many tasks per launch configuration, so you can automate anything that annoys you and the steps you constantly repeat whenever you start debugging.

In the task above, we label it as “launch-debug-container” and make it execute a command to start the containers specified in the docker-compose.debug.yml file.

Now, how do we perform a task when we actually launch our debugging? We have to adjust launch.json by adding another field in our “Remote Debugging” configuration:

  /* ... */
  "preLaunchTask": "launch-debug-container"
  /* ... */

By giving a label from tasks.json to the preLaunchTask property, our task will be executed first before launching our debugger. Note that I also change timeout to 60 seconds (default is 10 sec), as the containers docker-compose.debug.yml take some time to start.

In addition, we want our containers to be stopped and removed after the debugging. If you don’t want to do so, then you are done! Otherwise, if you don’t like the containers still running after you have finished debugging, let’s add another task that will execute a command to stop and remove containers after the debugging session.

Add the following to the list of tasks in your tasks.json:

    "label": "end-debug-container",
    "command": "docker-compose -f docker-compose.debug.yml down",
    "type": "shell",
    "group": "build",
    "isBackground": true

This will turn the containers down whenever you finish the debugging process. Let’s also adjust the launch configuration in the launch.json by adding a postDebugTask property:

  /* ... */
  "postDebugTask": "end-debug-container"
  /* ... */

Now is the moment … Just click F5 and your debugging starts automagically. If you exit debugging, you will see the containers terminating. Good job!

Note: if you are getting The specified task cannot be tracked error, click the Debug anyway button and your debugger will start.


Thank you + Feedback

Thank you and good job for reading the entire tutorial! It’s been a long markdown to read; anyway, you have just learned something new which will help you a lot debugging your Node.js apps and become a better developer!

Constructive feedback is always welcome via issues on this repo.

PS. If something does not work, or if you have any problems, please open an issue in this repo and I will do my best to help you asap.