Get Started, Part 4: Swarms

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes



In part 3, you took an app you wrote in part 2, and defined how it should run in production by turning it into a service, scaling it up 5x in the process.

Here in part 4, you deploy this application onto a cluster, running it on multiple machines. Multi-container, multi-machine applications are made possible by joining multiple machines into a “Dockerized” cluster called a swarm.

Understanding Swarm clusters

A swarm is a group of machines that are running Docker and joined into a cluster. After that has happened, you continue to run the Docker commands you’re used to, but now they are executed on a cluster by a swarm manager. The machines in a swarm can be physical or virtual. After joining a swarm, they are referred to as nodes.

Swarm managers can use several strategies to run containers, such as “emptiest node” – which fills the least utilized machines with containers. Or “global”, which ensures that each machine gets exactly one instance of the specified container. You instruct the swarm manager to use these strategies in the Compose file, just like the one you have already been using.

Swarm managers are the only machines in a swarm that can execute your commands, or authorize other machines to join the swarm as workers. Workers are just there to provide capacity and do not have the authority to tell any other machine what it can and cannot do.

Up until now, you have been using Docker in a single-host mode on your local machine. But Docker also can be switched into swarm mode, and that’s what enables the use of swarms. Enabling swarm mode instantly makes the current machine a swarm manager. From then on, Docker will run the commands you execute on the swarm you’re managing, rather than just on the current machine.

Set up your swarm

A swarm is made up of multiple nodes, which can be either physical or virtual machines. The basic concept is simple enough: run docker swarm init to enable swarm mode and make your current machine a swarm manager, then run docker swarm join on other machines to have them join the swarm as workers. Choose a tab below to see how this plays out in various contexts. We’ll use VMs to quickly create a two-machine cluster and turn it into a swarm.

Create a cluster

VMs on your local machine (Mac, Linux, Windows 7 and 8)

First, you’ll need a hypervisor that can create virtual machines (VMs), so install Oracle VirtualBox for your machine’s OS.

Note: If you are on a Windows system that has Hyper-V installed, such as Windows 10, there is no need to install VirtualBox and you should use Hyper-V instead. View the instructions for Hyper-V systems by clicking the Hyper-V tab above. If you are using Docker Toolbox, you should already have VirtualBox installed as part of it, so you are good to go.

Now, create a couple of VMs using docker-machine, using the VirtualBox driver:

docker-machine create --driver virtualbox myvm1
docker-machine create --driver virtualbox myvm2

VMs on your local machine (Windows 10)

First, quickly create a virtual switch for your virtual machines (VMs) to share, so they will be able to connect to each other.

  1. Launch Hyper-V Manager
  2. Click Virtual Switch Manager in the right-hand menu
  3. Click Create Virtual Switch of type External
  4. Give it the name myswitch, and check the box to share your host machine’s active network adapter

Now, create a couple of VMs using our node management tool, docker-machine:

docker-machine create -d hyperv --hyperv-virtual-switch "myswitch" myvm1
docker-machine create -d hyperv --hyperv-virtual-switch "myswitch" myvm2

List the VMs and get their IP addresses

You now have two VMs created, named myvm1 and myvm2.

Use this command to list the machines and get their IP addresses.

docker-machine ls

Here is example output from this command.

$ docker-machine ls
NAME    ACTIVE   DRIVER       STATE     URL                         SWARM   DOCKER        ERRORS
myvm1   -        virtualbox   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce   
myvm2   -        virtualbox   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce   

Initialze the swarm and add nodes

The first machine will act as the manager, which executes management commands and authenticates workers to join the swarm, and the second will be a worker.

You can send commands to your VMs using docker-machine ssh. Instruct myvm1 to become a swarm manager with docker swarm init and you’ll see output like this:

$ docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker swarm init --advertise-addr <myvm1 ip>"
Swarm initialized: current node <node ID> is now a manager.

To add a worker to this swarm, run the following command:

  docker swarm join \
  --token <token> \
  <myvm ip>:<port>

To add a manager to this swarm, run 'docker swarm join-token manager' and follow the instructions.

Ports 2377 and 2376

Always run docker swarm init and docker swarm join with port 2377 (the swarm management port), or no port at all and let it take the default.

The machine IP addresses returned by docker-machine ls include port 2376, which is the Docker daemon port. Do not use this port or you may experience errors.

As you can see, the response to docker swarm init contains a pre-configured docker swarm join command for you to run on any nodes you want to add. Copy this command, and send it to myvm2 via docker-machine ssh to have myvm2 join your new swarm as a worker:

$ docker-machine ssh myvm2 "docker swarm join \
--token <token> \

This node joined a swarm as a worker.

Congratulations, you have created your first swarm!

Run docker node ls on the manager to view the nodes in this swarm:

$ docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker node ls"
ID                            HOSTNAME            STATUS              AVAILABILITY        MANAGER STATUS
brtu9urxwfd5j0zrmkubhpkbd     myvm2               Ready               Active
rihwohkh3ph38fhillhhb84sk *   myvm1               Ready               Active              Leader

Leaving a swarm

If you want to start over, you can run docker swarm leave from each node.

Deploy your app on the swarm cluster

The hard part is over. Now you just repeat the process you used in part 3 to deploy on your new swarm. Just remember that only swarm managers like myvm1 execute Docker commands; workers are just for capacity.

Configure a docker-machine shell to the swarm manager

So far, you’ve been wrapping Docker commmands in docker-machine ssh to talk to the VMs. Another option is to run docker-machine env <machine> to get and run a command that configures your current shell to talk to the Docker daemon on the VM. This method works better for the next step because it allows you to use your local docker-compose.yml file to deploy the app “remotely” without having to copy it anywhere.

Type docker-machine env myvm1, then copy-paste and run the command provided as the last line of the output to configure your shell to talk to myvm1, the swarm manager.

The commands to configure your shell differ depending on whether you are Mac, Linux, or Windows, so examples of each are shown on the tabs below.

Docker machine shell environment on Mac or Linux

Run docker-machine env myvm1 to get the command to configure your shell to talk to myvm1.

$ docker-machine env myvm1
export DOCKER_HOST="tcp://"
export DOCKER_CERT_PATH="/Users/sam/.docker/machine/machines/myvm1"
export DOCKER_MACHINE_NAME="myvm1"
# Run this command to configure your shell:
# eval $(docker-machine env myvm1)

Run the given command to configure your shell to talk to myvm1.

eval $(docker-machine env myvm1)

Run docker-machine ls to verify that myvm1 is now the active machine, as indicated by the asterisk next to it.

$ docker-machine ls
NAME    ACTIVE   DRIVER       STATE     URL                         SWARM   DOCKER        ERRORS
myvm1   *        virtualbox   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce   
myvm2   -        virtualbox   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce   

Docker machine shell environment on Windows

Run docker-machine env myvm1 to get the command to configure your shell to talk to myvm1.

PS C:\Users\sam\sandbox\get-started> docker-machine env myvm1
$Env:DOCKER_HOST = "tcp://"
$Env:DOCKER_CERT_PATH = "C:\Users\sam\.docker\machine\machines\myvm1"
# Run this command to configure your shell:
# & "C:\Program Files\Docker\Docker\Resources\bin\docker-machine.exe" env myvm1 | Invoke-Expression

Run the given command to configure your shell to talk to myvm1.

& "C:\Program Files\Docker\Docker\Resources\bin\docker-machine.exe" env myvm1 | Invoke-Expression

Run docker-machine ls to verify that myvm1 is the active machine as indicated by the asterisk next to it.

PS C:PATH> docker-machine ls
NAME    ACTIVE   DRIVER   STATE     URL                          SWARM   DOCKER        ERRORS
myvm1   *        hyperv   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce
myvm2   -        hyperv   Running   tcp://           v17.06.2-ce

Deploy the app on the swarm manager

Now that you have my myvm1, you can use its powers as a swarm manager to deploy your app by using the same docker stack deploy command you used in part 3 to myvm1, and your local copy of docker-stack.yml.

You are connected to myvm1 by means of the docker-machine shell configuration, and you still have access to the files on your local host. Make sure you are in the same directory as before, which includes the docker-compose.yml file you created in part 3.

Just like before, run the following command to deploy the app on myvm1.

docker stack deploy -c docker-compose.yml getstartedlab

And that’s it, the app is deployed on a swarm cluster!

Now you can use the same docker commands you used in part 3. Only this time you’ll see that the containers have been distributed between both myvm1 and myvm2.

$ docker stack ps getstartedlab

ID            NAME        IMAGE              NODE   DESIRED STATE
jq2g3qp8nzwx  test_web.1  username/repo:tag  myvm1  Running
88wgshobzoxl  test_web.2  username/repo:tag  myvm2  Running
vbb1qbkb0o2z  test_web.3  username/repo:tag  myvm2  Running
ghii74p9budx  test_web.4  username/repo:tag  myvm1  Running
0prmarhavs87  test_web.5  username/repo:tag  myvm2  Running

Connecting to VMs with docker-machine env and docker-machine ssh

  • To set your shell to talk to a different machine like myvm2, simply re-run docker-machine env in the same or a different shell, then run the given command to point to myvm2. This is always specific to the current shell. If you change to an unconfigured shell or open a new one, you need to re-run the commands. Use docker-machine ls to list machines, see what state they are in, get IP addresses, and find out which one, if any, you are connected to. To learn more, see the Docker Machine getting started topics.

  • Alternatively, you can wrap Docker commands in the form of docker-machine ssh <machine> "<command>", which logs directly into the VM but doesn’t give you immediate access to files on your local host.

  • On Mac and Linux, you can use docker-machine scp <file> <machine>:~ to copy files across machines, but Windows users need a Linux terminal emulator like Git Bash in order for this to work.

This tutorial demos both docker-machine ssh and docker-machine env, since these are available on all platforms via the docker-machine CLI.

Accessing your cluster

You can access your app from the IP address of either myvm1 or myvm2.

The network you created is shared between them and load-balancing. Run docker-machine ls to get your VMs’ IP addresses and visit either of them on a browser, hitting refresh (or just curl them).

Hello World in browser

You’ll see five possible container IDs all cycling by randomly, demonstrating the load-balancing.

The reason both IP addresses work is that nodes in a swarm participate in an ingress routing mesh. This ensures that a service deployed at a certain port within your swarm always has that port reserved to itself, no matter what node is actually running the container. Here’s a diagram of how a routing mesh for a service called my-web published at port 8080 on a three-node swarm would look:

routing mesh diagram

Having connectivity trouble?

Keep in mind that in order to use the ingress network in the swarm, you need to have the following ports open between the swarm nodes before you enable swarm mode:

  • Port 7946 TCP/UDP for container network discovery.
  • Port 4789 UDP for the container ingress network.

Iterating and scaling your app

From here you can do everything you learned about in parts 2 and 3.

Scale the app by changing the docker-compose.yml file.

Change the app behavior by editing code, then rebuild, and push the new image. (To do this, follow the same steps you took earlier to build the app and publish the image).

In either case, simply run docker stack deploy again to deploy these changes.

You can join any machine, physical or virtual, to this swarm, using the same docker swarm join command you used on myvm2, and capacity will be added to your cluster. Just run docker stack deploy afterwards, and your app will take advantage of the new resources.


You can tear down the stack with docker stack rm. For example:

docker stack rm getstartedlab

Keep the swarm or remove it?

At some point later, you can remove this swarm if you want to with docker-machine ssh myvm2 "docker swarm leave" on the worker and docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker swarm leave --force" on the manager, but you’ll need this swarm for part 5, so please keep it around for now.

On to Part 5 »

Recap and cheat sheet (optional)

Here’s a terminal recording of what was covered on this page:

In part 4 you learned what a swarm is, how nodes in swarms can be managers or workers, created a swarm, and deployed an application on it. You saw that the core Docker commands didn’t change from part 3, they just had to be targeted to run on a swarm master. You also saw the power of Docker’s networking in action, which kept load-balancing requests across containers, even though they were running on different machines. Finally, you learned how to iterate and scale your app on a cluster.

Here are some commands you might like to run to interact with your swarm a bit:

docker-machine create --driver virtualbox myvm1 # Create a VM (Mac, Win7, Linux)
docker-machine create -d hyperv --hyperv-virtual-switch "myswitch" myvm1 # Win10
docker-machine env myvm1                # View basic information about your node
docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker node ls"         # List the nodes in your swarm
docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker node inspect <node ID>"        # Inspect a node
docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker swarm join-token -q worker"   # View join token
docker-machine ssh myvm1   # Open an SSH session with the VM; type "exit" to end
docker-machine ssh myvm2 "docker swarm leave"  # Make the worker leave the swarm
docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker swarm leave -f" # Make master leave, kill swarm
docker-machine start myvm1            # Start a VM that is currently not running
docker-machine stop $(docker-machine ls -q)               # Stop all running VMs
docker-machine rm $(docker-machine ls -q) # Delete all VMs and their disk images
docker-machine scp docker-compose.yml myvm1:~     # Copy file to node's home dir
docker-machine ssh myvm1 "docker stack deploy -c <file> <app>"   # Deploy an app
swarm, scale, cluster, machine, vm, manager, worker, deploy, ssh, orchestration