The Google Container Tools team originally built container-diff, a new project to help uncover differences between container images, to aid our own development with containers. We think it can be useful for anyone building containerized software, so we’re excited to release it as open source to the development community.
Containers and the Dockerfile format help make customization of an application’s runtime environment more approachable and easier to understand. While this is a great advantage of using containers in software development, a major drawback is that it can be hard to visualize what changes in a container image will result from a change in the respective Dockerfile. This can lead to bloated images and make tracking down issues difficult.
Imagine a scenario where a developer is working on an application, built on a runtime image maintained by a third-party. During development someone releases a new version of that base image with updated system packages. The developer rebuilds their application and picks up the latest version of the base image, and suddenly their application stops working; it depended on a previous version of one of the installed system packages, but which one? What version was it on before? With no currently existing tool to easily determine what changed between the two base image versions, this totally stalls development until the developer can track down the package version incompatibility.
container-diff helps users investigate image changes by computing semantic diffs between images. What this means is that container-diff figures out on a low-level what data changed, and then combines this with an understanding of package manager information to output this information in a format that’s actually readable to users. The tool can find differences in system packages, language-level packages, and files in a container image.
Users can specify images in several formats – from local Docker daemon (using the prefix `daemon://` on the image path), a remote registry (using the prefix `remote://`), or a file in the .tar in the format exported by “docker save” command. You can also combine these formats to compute the diff between a local version of an image and a remote version. This can be useful when experimenting with new builds of an image that you might not be quite ready to push yet. container-diff supports image tarballs and the registry protocol natively, enabling it to run in environments without a Docker daemon.
Here is a basic Dockerfile that installs Python inside our Debian base image. Running container-diff on the base image and the new one with Python, users can see all the apt packages that were installed as dependencies of Python.