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Containers in Research Workflows: Reproducibility and Granularity


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • How can I use container images to make my research more reproducible?

  • How do I incorporate containers into my research workflow?

  • Understand how container images can help make research more reproducible.

  • Understand what practical steps I can take to improve the reproducibility of my research using containers.

Although this workshop is titled “Reproducible computational environments using containers”, so far we have mostly covered the mechanics of using Docker with only passing reference to the reproducibility aspects. In this section, we discuss these aspects in more detail.

Work in progress…

Note that reproducibility aspects of software and containers are an active area of research, discussion and development so are subject to many changes. We will present some ideas and approaches here but best practices will likely evolve in the near future.


By reproducibility here we mean the ability of someone else (or your future self) being able to reproduce what you did computationally at a particular time (be this in research, analysis or something else) as closely as possible even if they do not have access to exactly the same hardware resources that you had when you did the original work.

Some examples of why containers are an attractive technology to help with reproducibility include:

Sharing images

As we have already seen, the Docker Hub provides a platform for sharing container images publicly. Once you have uploaded a container image, you can point people to its public location and they can download and build upon it.

This is fine for working collaboratively with container images on a day-to-day basis but the Docker Hub is not a good option for long time archive of container images in support of research and publications as:

Archiving and persistently identifying container images using Zenodo

When you publish your work or make it publicly available in some way it is good practice to make container images that you used for computational work available in an immutable, persistent way and to have an identifier that allows people to cite and give you credit for the work you have done. Zenodo is one service that provides this functionality.

Zenodo supports the upload of tar archives and we can capture our Docker container images as tar archives using the docker image save command. For example, to export the container image we created earlier in this lesson:

docker image save alice/alpine-python:v1 -o alpine-python.tar

These tar container images can become quite large and Zenodo supports uploads up to 50GB so you may need to compress your archive to make it fit on Zenodo using a tool such as gzip (or zip):

gzip alpine-python.tar

Once you have your archive, you can deposit it on Zenodo and this will:

In addition to the archive file itself, the deposit process will ask you to provide some basic metadata to classify the container image and the associated work.

Note that Zenodo is not the only option for archiving and generating persistent DOIs for container images. There are other services out there – for example, some organizations may provide their own, equivalent, service.

Reproducibility good practice

Container Granularity

As mentioned above, one of the decisions you may need to make when containerising your research workflows is what level of granularity you wish to employ. The two extremes of this decision could be characterized as:

Of course, many real applications will sit somewhere between these two extremes.

Positives and negatives

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches to container granularity for research workflows described above? Think about this and write a few bullet points for advantages and disadvantages for each approach in the course Etherpad.


This is not an exhaustive list but some of the advantages and disadvantages could be:

Single large container image

  • Advantages:
    • Simpler to document
    • Full set of requirements packaged in one place
    • Potentially easier to maintain (though could be opposite if working with large, distributed group)
  • Disadvantages:
    • Could get very large in size, making it more difficult to distribute
    • May end up with same dependency issues within the container image from different software requirements
    • Potentially more complex to test
    • Less re-useable for different, but related, work

Multiple smaller container images

  • Advantages:
    • Individual components can be re-used for different, but related, work
    • Individual parts are smaller in size making them easier to distribute
    • Avoid dependency issues between different pieces of software
    • Easier to test
  • Disadvantage:
    • More difficult to document
    • Potentially more difficult to maintain (though could be easier if working with large, distributed group)
    • May end up with dependency issues between component container images if they get out of sync

Next steps with containers

Now that we’re at the end of the lesson material, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve learned, how it applies to you, and what to do next.

  1. In your own notes, write down or diagram your understanding of Docker containers and container images: concepts, commands, and how they work.
  2. In the workshop’s shared notes document, write down how you think you might use containers in your daily work. If there’s something you want to try doing with containers right away, what is a next step after this workshop to make that happen?

Key Points

  • Container images allow us to encapsulate the computation (and data) we have used in our research.

  • Using a service such as Docker Hub allows us to easily share computational work we have done.

  • Using container images along with a DOI service such as Zenodo allows us to capture our work and enables reproducibility.