Ben Bergstein

Dynamic Public Hostnames by Docker Container Name

May 13, 2020

I’ve previously written about my Docker development workflow. For personal projects, I like to develop on a Digital Ocean Droplet over SSH. This works well with my docker workflow, as I can simply run make build start to build and and start my docker containers, and I’m good to go. This during periods when I am not developing much, I can simply destroy the droplet.

However, when building a project with multiple services, such as a browser or mobile client with a separate REST or GraphQL backend, it is easiest to have hostnames that communicate which service is running rather than simply recalling based on port number. To that end, I run all traffic on port 80 through Nginx, which uses regular expressions to dynamically route to the appropriate container. For example, a request to is routed to port 8080 on a container called container. This allows nice browser bar completion when opening up the page.

This tutorial familiarity with docker and nginx, and assumes you have a server running with DNS records configured for *


Set up dockerized Nginx

We’ll use docker-compose to configure our Nginx server for two reasons:

  1. So we can use Docker networking to route traffic to our service containers using their docker hostnames
  2. Because Docker makes it very easy to spin up an Nginx container.


version: '3.7'

      image: nginx:latest
         - 80:80
         - ./config/nginx.conf:/etc/nginx/nginx.conf
         - ./data/log/nginx:/var/log/nginx
         - default

      name: ${NETWORK}
      external: true

The Makefile simplifies starting and stopping the service:


export NETWORK=nginx-proxy

	docker-compose up -d

	docker-compose down --remove-orphans

	docker network create ${NETWORK}

	docker network rm ${NETWORK}

We’ll start with a basic nginx configuration to ensure the boilerplate works correctly:


events {}

http {
  access_log /var/log/nginx/access.log;

  server {
    location / {
      return 200 "Hello, World";

Now run:

> make deploy-network start
docker network create nginx-proxy
docker-compose up -d
Creating dev-proxy_nginx_1 ... done

And when we navigate to the url of our host, the page looks like this:


It works! Now we can implement the dynamic routing.

Set up dynamic routing in Nginx config

Let’s modify our nginx configuration to route requests based on each segment of the request’s host.

Updated config/nginx.conf

diff --git a/config/nginx.conf b/config/nginx.conf
index 7102663..2fbe752 100644
--- a/config/nginx.conf
+++ b/config/nginx.conf
@@ -1,11 +1,20 @@
 events {}
 http {
   access_log /var/log/nginx/access.log;
+  resolver ipv6=off;
   server {
+    listen 80;
+    server_name   ~^(?<container>.+)\.(?<port>\d+)\..+$;
     location / {
-      return 200 "Hello, World";
+      proxy_pass "http://${container}:$port";
+      proxy_set_header    Host            $host;
+      proxy_set_header    X-Real-IP       $remote_addr;
+      proxy_set_header    X-Forwarded-for $remote_addr;
+      port_in_redirect off;
+      proxy_connect_timeout 300;

Let’s take a closer look at some key lines.

Closer look

Add Docker DNS resolver

resolver ipv6=off;

This tells Nginx to use docker’s dns to resolve hostnames. This is key to successfully proxying traffic to the docker containers.

Server name

server_name ~^(?<container>.+)\.(?<port>\d+)\..+$;

This regular expression contains two captures: <container> and <port>. These captures will be available as variables in the rest of the server configuration. For a url like, the variables will be container=foo and port=80.

Proxy pass directive

proxy_pass "http://${container}:$port";

This directive tells Nginx that for this server name, proxy pass to a host using the variables captured earlier. For the earlier example, traffic will be passed to http://foo:80. With docker networking, this resolves to port 80 on a container named foo.

Restart nginx

Finally, we need to restart nginx after making these changes. We can use our make targets to do this:

> make stop start
docker-compose down --remove-orphans
Stopping dev-proxy_nginx_1 ... done
Removing dev-proxy_nginx_1 ... done
Network nginx-proxy is external, skipping
docker-compose up -d
Creating dev-proxy_nginx_1 ... done

Great! But we need a service on the other end to test out proxy passing.

Start a dummy service

For the purposes of this post, I’ll use jenkins as an example service, as there is a Jenkins Docker Image already available. Jenkins is a good example, BECause it has a frontend that we can open to test our proxy.

Start Jenkins in a docker container

> docker run --name jenkins --network nginx-proxy jenkins/jenkins:lts
Running from: /usr/share/jenkins/jenkins.war
Jenkins is fully up and running

Now navigate to


Bonus: Service Subdomains

Let’s look at one possible enhanced pattern for how to configure dynamic server names.

Service-based routing with docker compose

server_name   ~^(?<service>.+)\.(?<project>.+)\.(?<port>\d+)\..+$;
proxy_pass "http://${project}_${service}_1:$port";

This configuration breaks out container names by service and project, for use with docker compose. You can add this to your nginx configuration as an additional server {} block for added flexibility.

When using this pattern with docker compose, you need to use the same docker network. For our Jenkins example, this would look like this:

Sample docker-compose.yml for Jenkins

version: '3.7'

      image: jenkins/jenkins:lts
         - nginx-proxy

      external: true

The line external: true tells docker that this network already exists, and does not need to be created.


It is pretty simple to set up dynamic routing to docker containers using the above pattern. I’ve found it convenient, as I can simply spin up my projects and quickly navigate in the browser, or configure communication between services. These URLs are easier to remember than simply the domain name and a port. I hope you found this helpful!

© 2020 - 2021 Benjamin Bergstein