As a Senior DevOps Engineer and Docker Captain, my experience with Docker Compose has proven it to be an indispensable tool in managing complex AI development environments efficiently. This guide delves into the nuances of Docker Compose, offering insights and practical examples to enhance your AI projects. I will discuss how updated features such as environment variable precedence, image management, security enhancements, and more can streamline your development process.

Environment Variables Precedence

Docker Compose now prioritizes OS-level environment variables over those defined in the .env file. This update enhances flexibility in managing service configurations without modifying the .env file. For instance, if DATABASE_URL is defined in both your .env file and as an OS environment variable, Docker Compose will use the OS variable. This is crucial for differentiating configurations across various environments like development, staging, and production.

For further details on configuring environment variables in Docker Compose, refer to the official Docker documentation.

Managing Image Updates

To ensure your services are using the latest images, Docker Compose provides two options:

  1. The --pull flag with the docker compose up command, ensuring the latest version of the specified images is used.
  2. The pull_policy attribute in the compose.yaml, allowing for fine-grained control over image updates, critical for CI/CD pipelines.

Example configuration:

    image: my-image:image-tag
    pull_policy: always  # Options include "never" or "if_not_present"

Enhanced Security with SSH and Secrets

With the integration of Docker’s BuildKit, Docker Compose builds now support more secure handling of sensitive data:

  • Docker Secrets: For managing sensitive data at runtime, Docker Secrets can be emulated locally with files or environment variables.
  • SSH during builds: Enabled by default with Docker’s BuildKit, allowing the secure use of SSH keys during the build process without retaining them in the final image.

Secure SSH usage example:

      context: .
        - default|custom:/path/to/id_rsa

For a comprehensive understanding of SSH and secrets in builds, refer to the BuildKit documentation.

Streamlining Development with Docker Compose “watch”

The watch feature in Docker Compose enhances the development workflow by providing an automated mechanism to monitor changes in your project files and immediately reflect these changes in your service containers. This feature is particularly useful in development environments where rapid iteration is common, allowing developers to see their changes in real time without the need to manually restart the services.

Practical Example of Using “watch”

Consider a Node.js application where you want changes to be immediately visible without manual intervention. Here’s how you can set up Docker Compose watch to automatically synchronize changes:

    image: node:14
      - .:/app
    working_dir: /app
    command: npm start
      NODE_ENV: development
      - "3000:3000"
    labels: "true"

In this configuration:

  • Volumes: The current directory is mounted to /app in the container, ensuring that changes in the local filesystem are reflected inside the container.
  • Working Directory: Set to /app where the application’s source code resides.
  • Command: Executes npm start, typically used to start a Node.js application.
  • Environment: Specifies development mode.
  • Ports: Exposes port 3000 on the container to port 3000 on the host.
  • Labels: Enables the watch feature for this service.

Using “watch” in Your Workflow

To utilize the watch feature after setting up your compose.yaml, start your application using:

docker compose up

Then, in another terminal, activate the watch feature:

docker compose watch

This command monitors for any file changes in your specified volumes and applies them to the running containers. It streamlines the process of testing and viewing changes without needing to rebuild or restart Docker containers manually.

Docker Compose Watch is designed to make development workflows more efficient by reducing the need to manually manage the synchronization between your source code and running services. For developers working on complex applications, this feature can significantly reduce the cycle time between making a change and seeing it in action.

For more detailed information on setting up and using the watch feature effectively, visit the Docker Compose Watch documentation.

Separation of Concerns with Override Files

Using compose.override.yaml allows for a clear distinction between development and production settings, reducing errors and complexity. The include directive further aids in managing complex configurations by allowing the incorporation of multiple Compose files.

For managing multiple Compose files effectively, see the Docker documentation on multiple Compose files.

Reducing Repetition with YAML Anchors

YAML anchors are a handy feature in Docker Compose that reduce duplication by allowing you to define common settings once and reuse them elsewhere in your configuration file:

    image: webapp:latest
    environment: &default_env
      NODE_ENV: production

    image: api:latest
      <<: *default_env
      ADDITIONAL_ENV: development

For a comprehensive understanding of YAML anchors and other syntax in Docker Compose files, refer to the syntax guide.

Optimizing Resource Usage

Setting resource limits is crucial in production environments. Docker Compose’s deploy key allows you to define resource constraints, ensuring balanced resource use across services.


    image: example/webapp
          cpus: '0.50'
          memory: '50M'
          cpus: '0.25'
          memory: '20M'

Integration with Kubernetes

Tools like Kompose facilitate the conversion of Docker Compose files to Kubernetes manifests, making Kubernetes more accessible. However, integrating Docker Compose with Kubernetes can be challenging and requires careful configuration to manage external traffic and service discovery.


Docker Compose remains a powerful tool for AI development, streamlining the management of multi-container applications. Its ability to integrate with Kubernetes and continuously introduce features like watch ensures it stays relevant in the fast-evolving AI landscape. As we advance in AI development, Docker Compose’s adaptability will continue to empower developers, fostering innovation and efficiency in deploying AI solutions.

For a deep dive into Docker Compose and its capabilities, explore the Docker Compose documentation.

My Services

💼 Take a look at my service catalog and find out how we can make your technological life better. Whether it’s increasing the efficiency of your IT infrastructure, advancing your career, or expanding your technological horizons — I’m here to help you achieve your goals. From DevOps transformations to building gaming computers — let’s make your technology unparalleled!

Refill the Author’s Coffee Supplies

💖 PayPal
🏆 Patreon
💎 GitHub
🥤 BuyMeaCoffee
🍪 Ko-fi

Vladimir Mikhalev
I’m Vladimir Mikhalev, the Docker Captain, but my friends can call me Valdemar.

DevOps Community

hey 👋 If you have questions about installation or configuration, then ask me and members of our community: