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Hands-On with VSCode & "Dev Containers"

mcastellin profile image Manuel Castellin ใƒป6 min read

Today I wanted to give Visual Studio Code a try for the first time. Even though I still haven't found my way around it, I discovered an extension that could really be a game-changer for my workflow! ๐Ÿงจ Thought to share it with you.

The "Remote - Containers" Extension

In simple terms, this extension allows you to use a Docker container as your development environment. ๐Ÿคฏ

Everything will be in it: your code, SDKs, dependencies, OS packages.. everything!

I've been looking forward to something like this for a long time, and I have to say, this VSCode extension is very well thought out.

There are several advantages of using "dev containers"...

  1. Compatibility: your code runs in the exact same environment from your development machine all the way to production
  2. Automation & Speed: the creation of a new dev environment is fully automated. You can restore a broken environment (or onboard a new developer) in seconds
  3. PR Review: you can check out the code from a PR in a new, isolated container without messing with your work
  4. It's CLEAN! I have tons of small projects on my laptop that I can't even find anymore. With dev containers I could: checkout a project -> build a dev container -> develop and commit my changes -> destroy it immediately

How I Created My First Dev Container

I'm now going to show you step by step how I created my first "dev container" today.

I grabbed one of the projects I'll be collaborating with this Hacktoberfest. It's a Django application, so this will require our development environment to run with Python3.

First, install the "Remote - Containers" extension from the VSCode marketplace

Install new extension

Second, press F1 to open VSCode menu and search for "Add Development Container Configuration File".

Add development container configuration file

Next, you need to tell VSCode how you would like to create the configuration file. VSCode provides predefined configuration files for the most popular languages so I found one for Python3 very easily ๐Ÿ˜Š

Use predefined configuration file

Using python3 configuration for this project

You'll then be asked to choose the Python minor version to use, and if you want to install NodeJS in the container (not sure why ๐Ÿค”, but I don't care at this point).

VSCode should have created a new folder for you called .devcontainer and generated two files:

  • a Dockerfile: which is the container definition for your new dev environment
  • a devcontainer.json file: a configuration file you can use to further customize your development container build process

Customize the .devcontainer/Dockerfile

We first look at the Dockerfile and it should look something like this:

# See here for image contents: https://github.com/microsoft/vscode-dev-containers/tree/v0.140.1/containers/python-3/.devcontainer/base.Dockerfile

# [Choice] Python version: 3, 3.8, 3.7, 3.6
FROM mcr.microsoft.com/vscode/devcontainers/python:0-${VARIANT}

# [Option] Install Node.js
RUN if [ "${INSTALL_NODE}" = "true" ]; then su vscode -c "source /usr/local/share/nvm/nvm.sh && nvm install ${NODE_VERSION} 2>&1"; fi

# [Optional] If your pip requirements rarely change, uncomment this section to add them to the image.
# COPY requirements.txt /tmp/pip-tmp/
# RUN pip3 --disable-pip-version-check --no-cache-dir install -r /tmp/pip-tmp/requirements.txt \
#    && rm -rf /tmp/pip-tmp

# [Optional] Uncomment this section to install additional OS packages.
# RUN apt-get update && export DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
#     && apt-get -y install --no-install-recommends <your-package-list-here>

# [Optional] Uncomment this line to install global node packages.
# RUN su vscode -c "source /usr/local/share/nvm/nvm.sh && npm install -g <your-package-here>" 2>&1

What we want to do here, is making sure this container image has everything we need to run our project. In this case, I need to install the required Pip packages listed in the requirements.txt file.

The generated Dockerfile is already suggesting how to do it, I simply have to uncomment a few lines. This is going to be my final Dockerfile:

# [Choice] Python version: 3, 3.8, 3.7, 3.6
FROM mcr.microsoft.com/vscode/devcontainers/python:0-${VARIANT}

# [Option] Install Node.js
RUN if [ "${INSTALL_NODE}" = "true" ]; then su vscode -c "source /usr/local/share/nvm/nvm.sh && nvm install ${NODE_VERSION} 2>&1"; fi

COPY requirements.txt /tmp/pip-tmp/
RUN pip3 --disable-pip-version-check --no-cache-dir install -r /tmp/pip-tmp/requirements.txt \
   && rm -rf /tmp/pip-tmp

Configure .devcontainer/devcontainer.json

The second file generated by VSCode is devcontainer.json. This contains additional information for VSCode to create our development container. Here is how I set it up.

The first section is defining how I want to build my container. I left everything with its default values

        "name": "Python 3",
    "build": {
        "dockerfile": "Dockerfile",
        "context": "..",
        "args": { 
            // Update 'VARIANT' to pick a Python version: 3, 3.6, 3.7, 3.8 
            "VARIANT": "3.8",
            // Options
            "INSTALL_NODE": "false",
            "NODE_VERSION": "lts/*"

Since my Django application is going to run at, I need to forward port 8000 from the host machine into the container, so I uncommented and edited the line below.

    // Use 'forwardPorts' to make a list of ports inside the container available locally.
    "forwardPorts": [8000],

I suggest you take the time to read through the file to find out about all the available options, but here is what mine looks like after the changes:

// For format details, see https://aka.ms/devcontainer.json. For config options, see the README at:
// https://github.com/microsoft/vscode-dev-containers/tree/v0.140.1/containers/python-3
    "name": "Python 3",
    "build": {
        "dockerfile": "Dockerfile",
        "context": "..",
        "args": { 
            // Update 'VARIANT' to pick a Python version: 3, 3.6, 3.7, 3.8 
            "VARIANT": "3.8",
            // Options
            "INSTALL_NODE": "false",
            "NODE_VERSION": "lts/*"

    // Set *default* container specific settings.json values on container create.
    "settings": { 
        "terminal.integrated.shell.linux": "/bin/bash",
        "python.pythonPath": "/usr/local/bin/python",
        "python.linting.enabled": true,
        "python.linting.pylintEnabled": true,
        "python.formatting.autopep8Path": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/autopep8",
        "python.formatting.blackPath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/black",
        "python.formatting.yapfPath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/yapf",
        "python.linting.banditPath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/bandit",
        "python.linting.flake8Path": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/flake8",
        "python.linting.mypyPath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/mypy",
        "python.linting.pycodestylePath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/pycodestyle",
        "python.linting.pydocstylePath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/pydocstyle",
        "python.linting.pylintPath": "/usr/local/py-utils/bin/pylint"

    // Add the IDs of extensions you want installed when the container is created.
    "extensions": [

    // Use 'forwardPorts' to make a list of ports inside the container available locally.
    "forwardPorts": [8000],

    // Use 'postCreateCommand' to run commands after the container is created.
    // "postCreateCommand": "pip3 install --user -r requirements.txt",

    // Uncomment to connect as a non-root user. See https://aka.ms/vscode-remote/containers/non-root.
    // "remoteUser": "vscode"

Opening The Project as a Dev Container

Now that everything is ready, we press F1 again and search for the "Reopen in Container" option.

Reopen in container

VSCode will now create a new development container from the Dockerfile and devcontainer.json you created.

Project files in your workspace are now synchronized with the container and VSCode will edit them directly in it.

You'll notice the green strip at the bottom left of the screen indicating VSCode is not attached to our Python 3 dev container.

Project with dev container view

And to test our brand new environment, let's run the application with python manage.py runserver

Run Django application

Yay! The application is now running on port 8000 and forwarded correctly through localhost!

Browser view

This was my experience with Dev Containers today...

I'm impressed with this VSCode extension so far and I'm looking forward to learning more about it by using it every day.

Hope this intro will inspire someone else to get started with Dev Containers in VSCode.

Thank you for reading through the end!

Posted on by:

mcastellin profile

Manuel Castellin


Software engineer with a passion for Containers and DevOps ๐Ÿ‘จ๐Ÿปโ€๐Ÿ’ป | Follow me on YouTube! ๐ŸŽฌ https://bit.ly/3hTkyWU


Editor guide

I'd be curious to see if this is really more usefull than just using a full Docker configuration with a shared volume inside of it. I mean, don't get me wrong, this is a pretty amazing extension here, but when working in a team, everyone has to use VSCode. Where with just a plain Docker configuration, you don't care about the editor


I totally agree with you. One big advantage I can see with VSCode is how it handles projects with lots of files.

You probably know that Docker for Mac or Windows have huge issues with shared volumes performance and it's always been a massive problem when you work with large repos. It seems dev containers use rsync without mounting the host directory into the container.

I think it's interesting that you can also use any Dockerfile you already have in your project, and use the devcontainer.json to customize the dev container build with:

  • additional build args
  • post-start and post-attach commands

If you then use a docker-compose file, you don't need to change it but use an extension file like described here.


Docker for Mac or Windows indeed have speed issues with file sharing. But, since the last Windows update and the integration on Docker in WSL2, thoses issues are gone. Stays the problem for Mac, but if I remember correctly, volume sharing on Mac was not as bad as Windows used to be, was it?

I guarantee it is still pretty bad.. the write performance is still 60 times slower than your normal hard drive ๐Ÿ˜ญ that makes it impossible to run an Ant build where every single Java file is touched


But yes, otherwise, for a POC or personnal project, I most definitely can imagine myself using it


It'll be nice to see how I can use it with an existing project with more developers using different IDEs. I'll post additional thoughts when I have the chance to try it ๐Ÿ‘


I personally just use WSL2 w/ Arch or Ubuntu for most my development stuff, but containerized environments could definitely be useful.


Drop me a comment if you are curious about this extension and I will elaborate on this in a future post!