Service discovery and links

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Docker Cloud creates a per-user overlay network which connects all containers across all of the user’s hosts. This network connects all of your containers on the subnet, and gives every container a local IP. This IP persists on each container even if the container is redeployed and ends up on a different host. Every container can reach any other container on any port within the subnet.

Docker Cloud gives your containers two ways find other services:

  • Using service and container names directly as hostnames

  • Using service links, which are based on Docker Compose links

Service and Container Hostnames update automatically when a service scales up or down or redeploys. As a user, you can configure service names, and Docker Cloud uses these names to find the IP of the services and containers for you. You can use hostnames in your code to provide abstraction that allows you to easily swap service containers or components.

Service links create environment variables which allow containers to communicate with each other within a stack, or with other services outside of a stack. You can specify service links explicitly when you create a new service or edit an existing one, or specify them in the stackfile for a service stack.

When a service is scaled up, a new hostname is created and automatically resolves to the new IP of the container, and the parent service hostname record also updates to include the new container’s IP. However, new service link environment variables are not created, and existing ones are not removed, when a service scales up or down.

Using service and container names as hostnames

You can use hostnames to connect any container in your Docker Cloud account to any other container on your account without having to create service links or manage environment variables. This is the recommended service discovery method.

Hostnames will always resolve to the correct IP for the service or container, and will update as the service scales up, scales down, or redeploys. The Docker Cloud automatic DNS service resolves the service name to the correct IP on the overlay network, even if the container has moved or is now on a different host.

Discovering containers on the same service or stack

A container can always discover other containers on the same stack using just the container name as hostname. This includes containers of the same service. Similarly, a container can always discover other services on the same stack using the service name.

For example, a container webapp-1 in the service webapp can connect to the container db-1 in the service db by using db-1 as the hostname. It can also connect to a peer container, webapp-2, by using webapp-2 as the hostname.

A container proxy-1 on the same stack could discover all webapp containers by using the service name webapp as hostname. Connecting to the service name resolves as an A round-robin record, listing all IPs of all containers on the service webapp.

Discovering services or containers on another stack

To find a service or a container on another stack, append .<stack_name> to the service or container name. For example, if webapp-1 on the stack production needs to access container db-1 on the stack common, it could use the hostname db-1.common which Docker Cloud will resolve to the appropriate IP.

Discovering services or containers not included in a stack

To find a container or service that is not included in a stack, use the service or container name as the hostname.

If the container making the query is part of a stack, and there is a local match on the same stack, the local match will take precedence over the service or container that is outside the stack.

Tip: To work around this, you can rename the local match so that it has a more specific name. You might also put the external service or container in a dedicated stack so that you can specify the stack name as part of the namespace.

Docker Cloud’s service linking is modeled on Docker Compose links to provide a basic service discovery functionality using directional links recorded in environment variables.

When you link a “client” service to a “server” service, Docker Cloud performs the following actions on the “client” service:

  1. Creates a group of environment variables that contain information about the exposed ports of the “server” service, including its IP address, port and protocol.

  2. Copies all of the “server” service environment variables to the “client” service with an HOSTNAME_ENV_ prefix.

  3. Adds a DNS hostname to the Docker Cloud DNS service that resolves to the “server” service IP address.

Some environment variables such as the API endpoint are updated when a service scales up or down. Service links are only updated when a service is deployed or redeployed, but are not updated during runtime. No new service link environment variables are created when a service scales up or down.

For the explanation of service linking, consider the following application diagram.

Imagine that you are running a web service (my-web-app) with 2 containers (my-web-app-1 and my-web-app-2). You want to add a proxy service (my-proxy) with one container (my-proxy-1) that will balance HTTP traffic to each of the containers in your my-web-app application, with a link name of web.

Several environment variables are set on each container at startup to provide link details to other containers. The links created are directional. These are similar to those used by Docker Compose.

For our example app above, the following environment variables are set in the proxy containers to provide service links. The example proxy application can use these environment variables to configure itself on startup, and start balancing traffic between the two containers of my-web-app.

Name Value
WEB_1_PORT tcp://
WEB_1_PORT_80_TCP tcp://
WEB_2_PORT tcp://
WEB_2_PORT_80_TCP tcp://

To create these service links, you would specify the following in your stackfile:

    - my-web-app:web

This example snippet creates a directional link from my-proxy to my-web-app, and calls that link web.

Note: Hostnames are updated during runtime if the service scales up or down. Environment variables are only set or updated at deploy or redeploy. If your services will scale up or down frequently, you should use hostnames rather than service links.

In the example, the my-proxy containers can access the service links using following hostnames:

Hostname Value

The best way for the my-proxy service to connect to the my-web-app service containers is using the hostnames, because they are updated during runtime if my-web-app scales up or down. If my-web-app scales up, the new hostname web-3 automatically resolves to the new IP of the container, and the hostname web is updated to include the new IP in its round-robin record.

However, the service link environment variables are not added or updated until the service is redeployed. If my-web-app scales up, no new service link environment variables (such as WEB_3_PORT, WEB_3_PORT_80_TCP, etc) are added to the “client” container. This means the client does not know how to contact the new “server” container.

Service environment variables

Environment variables specified in the service definition are instantiated in each individual container. This ensures that each container has a copy of the service’s defined environment variables, and also allows other connecting containers to read them.

These environment variables are prefixed with the HOSTNAME_ENV_ in each container.

In our example, if we launch our my-web-app service with an environment variable of WEBROOT=/login, the following environment variables are set and available in the proxy containers:

Name Value

In our example, this enables the “client” service (my-proxy-1) to read configuration information such as usernames and passwords, or simple configuration, from the “server” service containers (my-web-app-1 and my-web-app-2).

Docker Cloud specific environment variables

In addition to the standard Docker environment variables, Docker Cloud also sets special environment variables that enable containers to self-configure. These environment variables are updated on redeploy.

In the example above, you will also find the following environment variables in the my-proxy containers:

Name Value
DOCKERCLOUD_SERVICE_API_URI /api/v1/service/651b58c47-479a-4108-b044-aaa274ef6455/
DOCKERCLOUD_CONTAINER_API_URI /api/v1/container/20ae2cff-44c0-4955-8fbe-ac5841d1286f/
DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_API_URI /api/v1/node/d804d973-c8b8-4f5b-a0a0-558151ffcf02/
DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_HOSTNAME d804d973-c8b8-4f5b-a0a0-558151ffcf02


  • WEB_DOCKERCLOUD_API_URL is the Docker Cloud API resource URI of the linked service. Because this is a link, the link name i the environment variable prefix.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_SERVICE_API_URI and DOCKERCLOUD_SERVICE_API_URL are the Docker Cloud API resource URI and URL of the service running in the container.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_CONTAINER_API_URI and DOCKERCLOUD_CONTAINER_API_URL are the Docker Cloud API resource URI and URL of the container itself.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_API_URI and DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_API_URL are the Docker Cloud API resource URI and URL of the node where the container is running.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_CONTAINER_HOSTNAME and DOCKERCLOUD_CONTAINER_FQDN are the external hostname and Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) of the container itself.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_SERVICE_HOSTNAME and DOCKERCLOUD_SERVICE_FQDN are the external hostname and Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) of the service to which the container belongs.

  • DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_HOSTNAME and DOCKERCLOUD_NODE_FQDN are the external hostname and Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) of the node where the container is running.

These environment variables are also copied to linked containers with the NAME_ENV_ prefix.

If you provide API access to your service, you can use the generated token (stored in DOCKERCLOUD_AUTH) to access these API URLs to gather information or automate operations, such as scaling.

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