Using the docker CLI in a container on macOS

| 7 min read

In this post I explain what I've done to be able to use the Docker client CLI from within a container on my macOS device.

Dev containers

I use dev containers everywhere. I hardly ever work outside of a container on, say, my work laptop (a 2022 Apple MacBook Air M2). Instead, I do everything, or as much as I can, in dev containers.

I'm a command line kind of person, happiest and most productive in a terminal session running the Bash shell, but despite that, I haven't installed any CLI tools locally, not even Homebrew. Heck, I haven't even taken the time to fix the issue with macOS shipping with the zsh as default these days. For me, the host OS is secondary.

Running the docker CLI

I've found that the only commands I issue in the shell on my laptop's OS have been docker commands, to build, start, stop and generally manage my images and containers. I've done this outside my normal dev container based working environments partly because sometimes I have to recreate those working environments, and partly because access to the Docker engine itself (via Docker Desktop) is, at least on a macOS device, a little difficult.

That's because of how Docker is provided on macOS (and Windows) machines generally, which is in a Linux virtual machine. While it's possible to, say, create a bind mount, connecting the Docker engine socket exposed from that VM on the macOS host OS at /var/run/docker.sock to a container, it's fraught with difficulties and I've really only had success when the user inside the container is root. It's all to do with permissions combined with the extra layer of indirection brought about by the fact that the Docker engine is actually running in a Linux VM rather than natively on the macOS host.

From a productivity perspective the "last mile" for me is to be able to do more with Docker from within my dev containers. In other words, run the docker client command, which of course needs to be connected to the Docker engine, and I think I've found a solution that feels clean to me, and doesn't involve bind mounting /var/run/docker.sock nor trying to hammer permissions into shape with a big mallet.

The solution

While it may not be the most compact approach, it works for me, and is also teaching me more about topics I want to dig deeper into anyway, including Docker networking and container-to-container communication.

The solution is based on some great tips from Ákos Takács in one of a myriad discussions on the interwebs about the very problem I've described: Permission for -v /var/run/docker.sock.

It involves running socat. The man page describes it as "a command line based utility that establishes two bidirectional byte streams and transfers data between them. Because the streams can be constructed from a large set of different types of data sinks and sources (see address types), and because lots of address options may be applied to the streams, socat can be used for many different purposes". In other words, a "multipurpose relay" or "so[cket] cat".

In this case, socat is used to relay /var/run/docker.sock, which is the UNIX socket on which the Docker engine is listening, making it available via TCP.

That TCP availability, in the form of a <hostname>:<port> socket, is to be provided by a container running that socat process, in the context of a Docker bridge network, to which the dev container is also connected.

And through the magic of Docker networking, that TCP socket is then made available to the dev container, and being a TCP socket rather than a file-based UNIX one, we've moved away from any permissions issues. Moreover, that exposure is solely within that specific bridge network.

Here's what this solution looks like.

| |
| /var/run/docker.sock |
| ^ |
| | |
| bind mount |
| | |
| +--------|--------------------------devnet--+ |
| | | | |
| | v | |
| | +-----socat-+ +-------dev-+ | |
| | | 3275 |-------| | | |
| | | | | | | |
| | | socat | | tmux/bash | | |
| | | | | | | |
| | | user:root | | user:user | | |
| | +-----------+ +-----------+ | |
| | | |
| +-------------------------------------------+ |
| |

Setting this up manually and step by step can help illustrate each component part.

Creating the network "devnet"

Containers running in the same network can communicate with one another. Containers with names that have been specified explicitly can be reached via that name within the network that they share. This is a great combination of features that I can make use of.

I create a new network called "devnet" like this, being explicit about the type of network (which is default, but it doesn't harm to be explicit):

$ docker network create --driver bridge devnet

Now I can see it in the list of all networks:

$ docker network ls
d8d6d3ae3737 bridge bridge local
969a73295cee devnet bridge local
ee4841fdb953 host host local
b6ce4554097e none null local

So far so good.

Creating the socket cat service "socat"

Now for the container that will provide the socat-powered relay between the UNIX socket at /var/run/docker.sock on the host, and a TCP socket that will be available in the "devnet" network. There's an Alpine based container that is perfect for this.

The key aspects of this container are that it should:

  • run in the "devnet" network
  • use the default (i.e. root) user
  • have a bind mount to the UNIX socket
  • relay that socket to TCP port 2375

I'll give this container the name "socat", and conjure it up like this:

$ docker run \
--name socat \
--network devnet \
--volume /var/run/docker.sock:/var/run/docker.sock \
--detach \
alpine/socat tcp-listen:2375,fork,reuseaddr unix-connect:/var/run/docker.sock

Great. At this point, I have the socket relay mechanism running, and within the "devnet" bridge network, that relay's TCP endpoint is available at socat:2375. Note that it's not generally available at the host level, which is a good thing of course; running netstat -atn | grep 2375 gives no output.

Creating the dev container "dev"

Now all I need to do is to start up an instance of my dev container image (which I've recently been revamping, and the image name is currently "newdev"). There are a few things to note about my dev container:

  • I run with user "user", rather than root
  • There's some work data on the file system that I bind mount
  • I expose a couple of ports, so I can connect to services running there from my browser running on the host (4004 for CAP and 8000 for the local instance of this Eleventy-based blogging system)

Now I have the docker client CLI in my dev container, I want to use it to connect to the Docker engine.

But rather than try to connect to it via a bind mount to the /var/run/docker.sock directly, with all the difficulties that entails, I can now connect to it via a TCP socket, specifically the one that my "socat" container is now making available to other containers in the "devnet" bridge network.

The simplest way to make this default in the dev container is to set the DOCKER_HOST environment variable to that socket address (socat:2375) when I instantiate the container.

Here goes:

$ docker run \
--name dev \
--network devnet \
--volume "$HOME/work:/home/user/work" \
--platform linux/amd64 \
--publish "4004:4004" \
--publish "8000:8000" \
--env DOCKER_HOST=socat:2375 \
--tty \
--interactive \
--detach \

A couple of notes on two of the options used:

  • I don't normally use the --detach option when starting my dev container, as I want to jump right into it, but I thought I'd use it here for consistency and also to help with the step by step approach
  • I'm currently building my dev container images with Rosetta, for reasons I'll go into another time, hence the use of --platform linux/amd64

Using docker from within the dev container

Now that I have everything set up, I can jump into my dev container and use the docker CLI as I would normally have had to do in the raw macOS host level context.

First, if I attach to the container, like this: docker attach dev I get my working environment, my PDE (Personalised Development Environment) of choice. My dev container, my home on this (and all other) hosts. It's basically tmux, and I use bash as my shell. Obviously.

Dev Container

The dev container has all my tools installed, one of which is (now that I can more reliably and properly connect) docker. First, I can see that the environment variable DOCKER_HOST is set for me (thanks to the use of that --env option in the container setup):

; env | grep DOCKER

The DOCKER_HOST environment variable is related to the Docker context, which I could set with docker context use but I don't have to now that there's a value set for the variable.

So all my docker invocations will use the context socat:2375 for where to connect.

And it works!

; docker container ls
3c39a1084871 newdev "tmux -u" 11 minutes ago Up 11 minutes>4004/tcp,>8000/tcp dev
5c3f153671e7 alpine/socat "socat tcp-listen:23…" 50 minutes ago Up 50 minutes socat

And I can see that those two containers are indeed in the "devnet" network:

; docker network inspect devnet | jq 'first | .Containers'
"34e1703d91894701f9de1211256e7157ef755f35d3884057163827d515b837be": {
"Name": "dev",
"EndpointID": "a12669474c0bd39767a3dabadea0da8f0247f597f8d4dfa5458a344f933dcc47",
"MacAddress": "02:42:ac:1b:00:03",
"IPv4Address": "",
"IPv6Address": ""
"5c3f153671e7b292e156bd5a5de9c5539aad544c2eea6466303a1623584d4a66": {
"Name": "socat",
"EndpointID": "a83290a0970b04ea2a3257c2c4187413cc9b035589b2a0cc9927137be704325d",
"MacAddress": "02:42:ac:1b:00:02",
"IPv4Address": "",
"IPv6Address": ""

I did for a second want to check that my access wasn't read-only or something, but no - I can pull images and create new containers, of course, too:

; docker run hello-world
Unable to find image 'hello-world:latest' locally
latest: Pulling from library/hello-world
478afc919002: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:ac69084025c660510933cca701f615283cdbb3aa0963188770b54c31c8962493
Status: Downloaded newer image for hello-world:latest

Hello from Docker!
This message shows that your installation appears to be working ...

Not only that, but this hello-world experiment also lets me confirm one more thing - that containers created don't automatically somehow run in the "devnet" network, and indeed they don't (it wouldn't make sense if they did, but it's always nice to check):

; docker container ls \
--all \
--format json \
| jq -r '"\(.Names) (\(.Image))"'
dev (newdev)
socat (alpine/socat)
priceless_cori (hello-world)
; docker inspect dev socat priceless_cori \
| jq 'map({(.Config.Image):.NetworkSettings.Networks|keys})|add'
"alpine/socat": [
"newdev": [
"hello-world": [

Compose all the things

Setting the network and containers up like this manually is great for a blog post like this, but I'd prefer something a little more automated and declarative. So here's a Docker compose file that sets up the same combination:

image: alpine/socat
container_name: socat
- devnet
command: 'tcp-listen:2375,fork,reuseaddr unix-connect:/var/run/docker.sock'
user: root
- type: bind
source: /var/run/docker.sock
target: /var/run/docker.sock
- socat
image: newdev
container_name: dev
- devnet
platform: linux/amd64
stdin_open: true
tty: true
- '$HOME/work:/home/user/work'
- '4004:4004'
- '8000:8000'
DOCKER_HOST: 'socat:2375'
name: devnet
driver: bridge

Now with a simple docker compose up --detach invocation, I can have everything up and running as before:

; docker compose up --detach
[+] Running 3/3
✔ Network devnet Created 0.0s
✔ Container socat Started 0.0s
✔ Container dev Started 0.0s

And now I can attach to my dev container as before with docker attach dev.