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Home » UnionFS and Docker: Overview of Union File Systems in Containerization

UnionFS and Docker: Overview of Union File Systems in Containerization


UnionFS is a user-space, stackable file system that unifies multiple file systems, presenting them as a single cohesive file system. It plays a crucial role in containerization platforms like Docker, which use UnionFS to optimize storage, simplify backups, and efficiently manage resources. In this blog post, we’ll explore the relationship between UnionFS and Docker, discussing how they work together, providing an overview of the relevant commands in this context, and diving deeper into the specific features and best practices that make UnionFS an indispensable part of the Docker ecosystem.

UnionFS and Docker: The Layered Approach

Docker is a containerization platform that allows developers to package applications and their dependencies into lightweight, portable containers. UnionFS enables Docker to create layered file systems, which are essential for optimizing container storage and minimizing data duplication. The layered approach of Docker images is based on the following principles:

  1. Base layers: A Docker image starts with a base layer, typically a minimal operating system like Alpine or Ubuntu, which serves as the foundation for the application and its dependencies.
  2. Intermediate layers: Subsequent layers are added to the image to install the required software, libraries, and other dependencies. Each layer represents a change made to the file system, such as adding, modifying, or deleting files.
  3. Application layer: The top layer of a Docker image contains the application code and any configuration files specific to the application.

When a container is launched, Docker uses UnionFS to stack these layers on top of each other, creating a single unified file system. This approach has several advantages:

  1. Space efficiency: UnionFS allows Docker to share files between containers, minimizing storage consumption and reducing overhead.
  2. Speed: UnionFS enables fast container startup times, as only the changed layers need to be loaded.
  3. Versioning and reproducibility: Docker can easily revert to previous versions of an image or create new images by stacking layers in different orders.

UnionFS Implementations in Docker: A Closer Look

As mentioned earlier, Docker supports various UnionFS implementations, known as storage drivers. Let’s take a closer look at each of these storage drivers:

  1. OverlayFS: OverlayFS is a modern, in-kernel implementation of UnionFS supported by most Linux distributions. It uses two directories, the “lowerdir” (read-only) and the “upperdir” (read-write), to create a merged view of the file system. OverlayFS is the default storage driver for Docker on most distributions and is recommended for its performance, compatibility, and simplicity.
  2. AUFS: AUFS (Advanced Multi-Layered Unification File System) is the original storage driver used by Docker. While it offers similar functionality to OverlayFS, it requires additional kernel patches and is not included in the mainline Linux kernel. Due to these factors, AUFS has been largely replaced by OverlayFS in recent Docker installations.
  3. DeviceMapper: DeviceMapper is a block-based storage driver that offers advanced features like thin provisioning and copy-on-write. It uses Linux’s device-mapper framework to create virtual block devices for containers, providing a higher level of isolation between containers compared to file-based storage drivers like OverlayFS. However, DeviceMapper may introduce additional complexity and performance overhead compared to OverlayFS.
  4. Btrfs: Btrfs (B-Tree File System) is a file system with built-in UnionFS capabilities and support for advanced features like snapshots, subvolumes, and compression. Btrfs can be used as a storage driver for Docker, but its adoption has been limited due to concerns about its maturity and stability compared to other options.

Let’s dive into some advanced usage and commands that can help you better manage UnionFS layers within Docker:

Analyzing layer sizes

To analyze the size of each layer in a Docker image, you can use the dive tool. Install it using the package manager specific to your system or download it from the GitHub repository (

Once installed, run the following command to analyze the image layers:


This command will display an interactive interface, allowing you to explore the contents and sizes of each layer in the image.

Flattening images

If you need to reduce the number of layers in a Docker image, you can create a flattened version of the image. This process can be useful for optimizing storage and startup times, but may result in a larger overall image size. To flatten an image, use the following command:

docker export CONTAINER_ID | docker import - FLATTENED_IMAGE_NAME

Replace CONTAINER_ID with the ID of a running container based on the image you want to flatten and FLATTENED_IMAGE_NAME with the desired name for the flattened image.

Squashing layers during build

To create an image with fewer layers during the build process, you can use the --squash flag with the docker build command:

docker build --squash -t IMAGE_NAME .

This command will squash all the new layers created during the build into a single layer, reducing the overall layer count.

Note: The --squash flag requires Docker’s experimental features to be enabled. To enable experimental features, add "experimental": true to your Docker configuration file (usually located at /etc/docker/daemon.json).

UnionFS and Docker: Best Practices Revisited

We previously discussed some best practices for using UnionFS with Docker. Let’s expand on these practices to help you get the most out of UnionFS in your containerization workflow:

  1. Optimize the order of Dockerfile instructions: Group RUN, COPY, and ADD instructions in your Dockerfile in a logical order to minimize the number of layers and cache as many layers as possible. This approach will help reduce build times and overall image size.
  2. Use multi-stage builds: Multi-stage builds are a feature in Docker that allow you to use multiple FROM instructions in a single Dockerfile, each representing a separate build stage. By using multi-stage builds, you can copy only the necessary artifacts from one stage to another, reducing the final image size and eliminating unnecessary dependencies.
  3. Be cautious when using volumes: Volumes are a way to persist data in Docker containers, but they can also bypass the UnionFS layering mechanism. When using volumes, be aware that changes made to the volume data may not be isolated to the container or image layers, potentially leading to unexpected behavior.


Understanding the role of UnionFS in Docker is essential for optimizing container storage, managing resources efficiently, and creating a streamlined containerization workflow. By diving deeper into the features, commands, and best practices associated with UnionFS and Docker, you can maximize the benefits of this powerful file system technology and enhance your containerization experience.


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