Using the Docker BuildX Plugin for Enhanced Docker Builds

If you’ve ever been immersed in Docker builds, you might have wished for a tool to enhance and streamline the process. Your wish has been granted with buildx, a Docker CLI plugin designed to transform your Docker builds.

Buildx is more than just a plugin. It is a potent instrument, built on the robust Moby BuildKit builder toolkit, that amplifies Docker’s capabilities.

In this post, we will demystify buildx, delve into its key features, guide you through the installation process, and showcase how to utilize it effectively. So, if you’re prepared to elevate your Docker builds, let’s embark on the journey into the world of buildx!

TL;DR: What is Docker buildx?

Docker buildx is a powerful CLI plugin that enhances Docker’s build capabilities. It not only extends existing Docker functionalities but also introduces new ones like multi-node builds and in-container driver support. For a more in-depth understanding and tips on how to use it effectively, continue reading the article.

Example of using Docker buildx:

# Check if buildx is installed
docker buildx version

# If not installed, install it
docker plugin install buildx

# Use buildx
docker buildx build .

Installing buildx

Before you can begin to tap into the power of buildx, it needs to be installed. However, there are a few prerequisites to consider.

Primarily, buildx is included in Docker 19.03 and higher versions, so ensure you have the correct Docker version installed. If not, you’ll need to manually download and install buildx.

The installation process has slight variations depending on your operating system. Let’s dissect it for each platform:

Operating SystemInstallation Method
WindowsBundled with Docker Desktop (Docker 19.03 or later)
macOSPart of Docker Desktop (Docker 19.03 or higher)
LinuxInstalled as a Docker CLI plugin

Windows Installation

For Windows users, buildx is conveniently bundled with Docker Desktop, so if you have Docker 19.03 or later, you’re all set.

macOS Installation

On macOS, buildx is also part of Docker Desktop. However, it’s essential to verify your Docker version to ensure it’s 19.03 or higher.

Linux Installation

Linux users need to install buildx as a Docker CLI plugin. You can download it from the Docker buildx GitHub repository. Follow the instructions provided to install buildx manually.

# Example of installing buildx on Linux

# Download buildx

curl -L "" -o ~/.docker/cli-plugins/docker-buildx

# Make it executable

chmod a+x ~/.docker/cli-plugins/docker-buildx

# Verify installation

docker buildx version


While installing buildx, it’s crucial to be mindful of potential compatibility issues. Docker images are not universally portable across different CPU architectures.

This means that an image built on one CPU architecture may not work on another. However, buildx addresses this issue by allowing you to build multi-platform images.

Docker Versions

One important point to note is the need to match Docker engine versions with buildx for optimal performance. Using incompatible versions can lead to unexpected behavior or errors, so always ensure you’re using compatible versions.

Learning buildx and its Features

Buildx is not just an addition to the Docker CLI plugins; it’s a transformational tool that significantly augments Docker’s build capabilities. So what makes it so unique? Let’s delve into its primary features.

User-friendly interfaceFamiliar to Docker users, making it easy to use
Multi-node buildsDistributes the build process across multiple nodes, boosting efficiency
In-container driver supportEnables builds to be executed directly within Docker containers
‘bake’ commandSimplifies handling of complex build inputs by allowing them to be declared in a file
Compose build command supportAdds another layer of functionality
Parallel multi-stage builds with custom build contextsBoosts efficiency by executing different stages of the build process simultaneously

The buildx build Command

At the core of buildx is the build command. This command serves as the driving force of buildx, enabling you to initiate and manage your Docker builds. The build command is equipped with various flags that you can use to tailor your build process, such as --platform to specify the target platform, and --output to control the output of the build.

# Example of using the 'build' command in buildx

# Build an image using buildx

docker buildx build --platform linux/amd64,linux/arm64 -t myimage:latest .

Using Bake

But the features of buildx don’t stop at enhancing existing Docker functionalities; it introduces new ones as well. One such feature is the ‘bake’ command, which simplifies the handling of complex build inputs by allowing you to declare them in a file.

Furthermore, buildx supports the Compose build command, adding another layer to its functionality.

# Example of using the 'bake' command in buildx

# Declare your build parameters in a file

echo "{"targets":{"app":{"context":".","dockerfile":"Dockerfile"}}}" > bake.hcl

# Use the 'bake' command to execute the build

docker buildx bake -f bake.hcl app

You can also use bake to handle multiple simultaneous build requests:

# Example of using the 'bake' command for managing multiple concurrent build requests

# Declare build parameters for two images in a file

echo "{"targets":{"app1":{"context":"./app1","dockerfile":"Dockerfile"},"app2":{"context":"./app2","dockerfile":"Dockerfile"}}}" > bake.hcl

# Use the 'bake' command to execute the build requests concurrently

docker buildx bake -f bake.hcl app1 app2

Adaptability and Configurations

Buildx is highly adaptable and can be configured to cater to your specific needs. For instance, you can use the create command to create a new builder instance with custom configurations. You can also use the use command to set a default builder.

# Example of creating a new builder instance with custom configurations

docker buildx create --name mybuilder

# Example of setting a default builder

docker buildx use mybuilder

Docker Drivers

Moreover, buildx supports different drivers, including Docker driver, Kubernetes driver, and Containerd driver, further enhancing its adaptability. This means you can select the driver that best aligns with your workflow.

Currently, there is no specific command to switch drivers in Docker buildx as it automatically uses the best driver available. However, you can create a new instance of buildx with a different driver like this:

docker buildx create --driver kubernetes --use

In this example, a new builder instance will be created that uses the Kubernetes driver and is set as the current active builder.

Note that the adoption of different drivers (like Kubernetes and Containerd) outside of the Docker driver in buildx is considered experimental and not all buildx functionalities are guaranteed to work as expected.

Integration with Docker Context

A unique feature of buildx is its integration with Docker context. This allows you to use buildx with different contexts, such as different Docker daemons or Kubernetes clusters. This feature is especially useful when working with multi-node builds, as it enables you to manage your builds across various environments seamlessly.

To use different Docker contexts, you would first need to create the contexts. Let’s create two contexts that connect to two different Docker environments. Suppose we have two servers – server1 and server2, running Docker.

# Creating Docker contexts
docker context create context1 --docker host=ssh://user@server1
docker context create context2 --docker host=ssh://user@server2

Now, these contexts can be used with buildx. Each Docker context corresponds to a different environment. You can use buildx create command in combination with a Docker context. For instance,

# Create a new builder instance using context1 
docker buildx create context1 --name mybuilder1

# Switch to the new builder instance
docker buildx use mybuilder1

# Now, any buildx command you run, like docker buildx bake, will use the servers specified by context1
docker buildx bake -f docker-compose.yml

# Repeat above steps for context2 to use the second environment for building
docker buildx create context2 --name mybuilder2
docker buildx use mybuilder2
docker buildx bake -f docker-compose.yml

This way Docker context integration with buildx allows you to manage your builds across different environments seamlessly, and it’s especially useful for multi-node builds and distributed building processes.

Constructing Multi-Platform Images with buildx and Emulation

One of the standout features of buildx is its capability to construct multi-platform images.

This feature enables you to create Docker images compatible with various CPU architectures, thus addressing the portability issue that can occasionally surface with Docker images.

To comprehend how buildx constructs multi-platform images, we need to first understand the concept of multi-platform images and emulation.

A multi-platform image is a Docker image that can operate on different CPU architectures, such as AMD64, ARM64, and others. On the other hand, emulation is a technique that enables a system to mimic another.

But how does buildx make this possible? Let’s dissect it.

Using QEMU for Emulation and Cross-Compilation

The need to support multiple architectures gives rise to the concept of cross-compilation.

Buildx utilizes QEMU, an open-source machine emulator and virtualizer, to emulate different CPU architectures. This enables you to construct images for platforms different from the one you’re operating on.

In addition, buildx supports cross-compilation, a process that involves compiling code for a platform different from the one the build process is operating on.

Here is an example script for setting up QEMU for emulation and cross-compilation:

# Enable binfmt_misc
docker run --rm --privileged docker/binfmt:a7996909642ee92942dcd6cff44b9b95f08dad64

This command ensures the binfmt_misc module is enabled in the kernel. binfmt_misc is a capability of the Linux kernel which allows arbitrary executable file formats to be recognized and executed.

This is particularly useful for running programs built for different architectures (e.g., ARM, MIPS, PowerPC) on x86 machines using QEMU user-mode emulation.

After binfmt_misc is enabled, you can verify that it’s active with the following command:

# Verify that it's enabled
cat /proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc/qemu-arm

This command checks the processor-specific register on the host machine. If it has been successfully enabled, you should see the output associated with the ARM executable format.

With this in place, Docker buildx can now use QEMU to cross-compile images for ARM, even on traditional x86_64 hosts.

The Advantages and Limitations of Constructing Multi-Platform Images

Constructing multi-platform images with buildx comes with numerous benefits. It allows you to create Docker images that are portable across different CPU architectures, enabling you to cater to a broader audience. It also supports concurrent image construction for different machines, significantly speeding up the build process.

However, constructing multi-platform images also has some limitations. For instance, not all images can be easily cross-compiled for different platforms, and some software may not function correctly when emulated.

Despite these limitations, the ability to construct multi-platform images significantly enhances the versatility of Docker builds, making buildx an indispensable tool for any Docker user.

Constructing Multi-Platform Images with buildx

Buildx employs a blend of emulation and cross-compilation to construct multi-platform images. It supports a feature known as ‘build farm’, which enables you to distribute the build process across different nodes, each targeting a different platform.

This means you can construct images for different platforms concurrently, significantly accelerating the build process.

# Example of building multi-platform images with buildx

# Create a new builder instance

docker buildx create --use

# Enable multi-platform builds

docker buildx inspect --bootstrap

# Build a multi-platform image

docker buildx build --platform linux/amd64,linux/arm64 -t myimage:latest .

Concluding Thoughts

In this comprehensive exploration of buildx, we’ve traversed the myriad features and capabilities of this potent Docker CLI plugin. From its user-friendly interface and multi-node builds to its in-container driver support and advanced concepts, buildx indeed revolutionizes Docker builds.

The installation process, while slightly varying across platforms, is uncomplicated and sets the stage for the enhanced Docker build experience that buildx delivers. Its user experience is designed to be familiar to Docker users, with the build command acting as the cornerstone of operations.

The capability of buildx to construct multi-platform images addresses the portability issue that can occasionally surface with Docker images. By leveraging QEMU and cross-compilation, buildx can create Docker images that are compatible with diverse CPU architectures.

In summary, buildx not only amplifies Docker’s build capabilities but also introduces new features and concepts that redefine the way you work with Docker. So, if you’re prepared to elevate your Docker builds, buildx is the tool for you.