Docker for R Package Development

Docker and the rocker projects have been widely touted in the R community as a way to provide reproducibility in analysis by explicitly describing system dependencies for a given project. See An Introduction to Rocker: Docker Containers for R for details of the project goals and use-cases. However a different use case than those described in the paper where docker is also useful is for testing R packages during package development.

Services like Travis-CI are an excellent way to run automated checks for a package on linux environments. However each build takes at least a few minutes to run, so trying to debug something using only travis can be a time consuming, frustrating process. Travis has recently introduced a travis-debug-mode, which allows ssh access into a build, however for public jobs anyone who is looking at the build logs has the same access, so it is not really practical to use.

Docker provides a nice way to setup and run linux environments on a wide variety of distributions. Because these environments are run on your local computer you can have a very tight feedback loop, which can make debugging issues much less time consuming.

Installing Docker

I use MacOS for my primary development machine, and fortunately there is now a nice docker for mac installer available to install the docker client.

installation procedures for the windows client are also available and most popular linux distributions have docker clients in their distributions package manager.

Docker Containers

Before you can begin using docker, you need to decide what container to use. Containers are basically a saved set of instructions on how to setup an environment. Fortunately for R use there are a number of containers already available. In particular the rocker project by Carl Boettiger, Dirk Eddelbuettel, et al. provides a large set of containers with various configurations. Gábor Csárdi’s [rhub] project also uses docker for it’s linux builders which provide a nice way to replicate environments used to build packages on rhub.

I have found the most useful containers for R package development to be

  • rocker/r-ver which provides version specific R on a debian base, e.g. rocker/r-ver:3.1.0 will lets you test on older R versions easily.
  • rocker/r-devel For using recent versions of R-devel. Note in this image the R devel is installed along side the release version of R, you need to access it with RD instead of R.
  • rocker/r-apt, which gives you access to a specific ubuntu releases. This lets you test on older ubuntu releases such as precise or trusty. These releases are used on travis, so using rocker/r-apt:trusty will get you a local environment very close to what is being run with your travis jobs.
  • The rhub containers for fedora, centos and others with both gcc and clang flavors, e.g rhub/fedora-gcc.
  • r-devel-san and r-devel-ubsan-clang which build R using address sanitizers, very helpful for detecting memory errors in C/C++ code used in R packages.

Running docker for development

So once you have picked out what container you want to use how do you actually go about testing your R package with it? Lets say you have a package on your local machine at /a/certain/directory. What I do is

# Change to the directory
cd /a/certain/directory

# Start docker in that directory, mapping the current directory to a directory
# in the docker image using the `rocker/r-apt:trusty` container and starting a
# bash prompt in that container.
docker run -v "$(pwd)":"/opt/$(basename $(pwd))" -it rocker/r-apt:trusty /bin/bash

Docker will then download the files necessary to start the container, and drop you into a bash shell. You can then navigate to /opt/pkgname and you will be in your local package directory.

This installs R, but not your package or its dependencies. One efficient way to do this is to use the remotes package, which has no external dependencies, and is useful if you only want to run R CMD build . && R CMD check *tar.gz to verify building and checking the package works.

remotes::install_local(".", dependencies = TRUE)

If you want to install a full development environment using devtools, roxygen2 and testthat there are a few system dependencies you need also need to install first.

apt-get update &&
apt-get install -y libcurl4-openssl-dev libssl-dev libssh2-1-dev libxml2-dev

devtools does not install testthat and roxygen2 by default, so usually it is best to install all three at once.

install.packages(c("devtools", "testthat", "roxygen2"))

You can then use the same workflow in the docker container as you do normally. You can even continue editing the source files on your local machine using your normal editor. You just need to build and run the code in the container using devtools::load_all() and devtools::test().

Additional tips / notes

As noted above the rocker r-devel builds (and sanitizer builds) install R devel as RD. Make sure you are using that instead of R to run R-devel.

If your package has compiled code and you have been testing it outside of the docker, you likely have old object files in the src/ directory. If you then try to compile it in docker you will get an error invalid ELF header indicating the library was built for the wrong architecture. To fix this clean the object files using devtools::clean_dll() or rm src/*o from the shell.

If you want to run gdb within docker you will need to pass --security-opt=seccomp:unconfined to your docker run command, which disables the security sandboxing used by default in docker and allows you to run executables under gdb. You also need to install gdb apt-get install gdb and run R with it as the debugger R -d gdb.

If you are running the address sanitizers and want to abort on the error (so you can get a backtrace of the location) you can do so with ASAN_OPTIONS=abort_on_error=1 RD -d gdb.

If using docker on MacOS the host can be accessed from the container with the stable ip This is useful if you have a database or other service running on the host machine.


While docker commands are somewhat esoteric, if you use the workflow detailed in this post docker and the rocker project are invaluable tools for verifying your package works on a variety of systems and reproducing errors observed by users.

Jim Hester
Software Engineer

I’m a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix and R package developer.