If you follow best practices then you’re tagging each of your Docker images with a unique tag or version whenever it gets updated. These tags might be the git commit hash, a CI/CD Build number or any other value that is usually generated automatically during your build process.

You might be running your containers using Docker Compose and a docker-compose.yml file, or maybe you’re running things in AWS Elastic Beanstalk with a Dockerrun.aws.json file. No matter how you’re doing it, you probably have some kind of static file somewhere that contain the images and the tags that you want your application to run.

Your docker-compose.yml file might look like this:

version: '3'

        image: username/app:d7s8f12
            - 80:80

Each time your tag updates, you might want the hash d7s8f12 to update to the latest tag. How is this achieved? Using latest tag is generally considered bad practice because it makes it difficult for you to have a good understanding of what version of your code that is running at any given time. So we want to manually inject our latest tag into our Compose file.

Use Linux sed Tool To Replace In Place

Out of the box, Linux comes with a bunch of amazing tools that are super useful for these kinds of minor things. One of these tools is sed which allows you to do text replacements of strings.

By using sed you can automatically update your docker-compose.yml file during your deployment process so that it contains the latest tag that you just built and pushed to your Docker Registry.

Here’s an example of how to use sed :

sed -E -i'' "s/(.*app:).*/\1$COMMIT/" 'docker-compose.yml'

Let’s summarize what we’re doing with this command:

  • -E flag allows us to use extended regular expressions.
  • -i flag allows us to do in place replacements instead of saving the updated version to a new file. The value after the -i flag is the file extension we want to add for the backup of the file. By giving an empty value we don’t store any backup and instead save it to the file we read in.
  • "s/(.*app:).*/\1$COMMIT/" is a regular expression where we add the $COMMIT environment variable to the first match, which in this case is the .* after the (.*app:) . So what this means is that we replace anything behind app: with the value of the $COMMIT environment variable. In this case $COMMIT contains our Docker tag/Commit hash that we want to use.

Note that there’s a difference between Linux and Mac OS X when it comes to using the sed -i flag. On Mac OS X you have to run it as sed -i '' while on Linux you should execute it without a space as sed -i'' .

When you run this command on the example file above, we should now have replaced our commit hash d7s8f12 with our latest commit hash stored inside $COMMIT .

Run a Python Script

Another way you can easily update the contents of your .yml or .json file that defines your containers is by writing a Python script that does it for you. This is more code than just using the sed command, but for some situations, this might be the right solution for you.

To write a Python script that reads in a .yml file, update its contents and then save it, you can achieve that with the following script:

import os
import yaml

if __name__ == "__main__":

    path = os.path.dirname(__file__)

    # Read in compose file
    input_path = "{}{}".format(path, "docker-compose.yml")
    contents = yaml.load(open(input_path).read())

    # Update image string value to the latest tag.
    contents["services"]["app"]["image"] = f"app:{os.environ.get('COMMIT')}"

    # Save file
    output_path = "{}{}".format(path, "outputs/docker-compose.yml")
    with open(output_path, mode="wb") as file:
        file.write(yaml.dump(contents, default_flow_style=False))

You could then run it by just executing python script.py .

Use Environment Variables To Hold Tag

The final and maybe simplest way to make sure that your docker-compose.yml file contains your latest tag is to simply define it as an environment variable instead of hard coding it into your file.

However, this requires the system that runs the docker-compose.yml file to have access to the tag, which might not always be the option, depending on how your infrastructure and deployment looks like you might not always have the ability to update the Environment Variables on the fly of your server.

The way you could use the environment variable directly in your file would be to rewrite it in the following manner:

version: '3'

        image: username/app:${COMMIT}
            - 80:80

Each time you run docker-compose up the system would automatically inject the value of the $COMMIT environment variable into the container definition and pull down the correct tag.


Depending on how your system looks like and what tools or values you have access to during deployment, one of these methods should work for you, and allow you to be explicit about which version of the Docker image that you’re running, instead of using bad practice and always using the latest tag for your container definitions.

Personally, I prefer using the sed tool for all of my deployments. I run all of them on Unix systems so I always have access to sed . If I was doing things on Windows I’d probably use the Python script to update my files with the latest tag.

In the end, there is no right or wrong when it comes to these things. It’s all about being productive and getting things done, so no matter which manner you choose you should feel comfortable as long as you’re getting your deployments done.

Do you have any other methods that you use when it comes to versioning your containers and keeping track on which image that is running on your system? Please share it in the comments below.

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