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How to Overwrite Files in Docker Containers

Anastasios Antoniadis

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Learn how to effectively overwrite files in Docker containers, including methods for build time using Dockerfile, runtime with Docker Compose, and direct file copy to running containers, along with best practices for maintaining container integrity and security.

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Docker has become an indispensable tool in the development and deployment landscape, offering a way to package applications and their dependencies into containers. Sometimes, developers and operators may need to overwrite files within these containers. This could be for various reasons such as configuration changes, debugging, or applying quick patches. This article provides a comprehensive guide on effectively overwriting files in Docker containers, highlighting different methods and considerations.

Understanding Docker Containers

Before diving into the specifics of overwriting files, it’s essential to understand that Docker containers are instances of Docker images. These images are immutable templates from which containers are spawned. When you start a container, Docker adds a writable layer on top of the image’s layers. Any changes, including file overwrites, are made in this top writable layer.

Method 1: Overwriting Files at Build Time

The most straightforward method to overwrite files is using a Dockerfile at the image build stage. This approach is suitable when the changes are permanent and should be present every time the container is started.

FROM nginx:latest
COPY custom.conf /etc/nginx/nginx.conf

This Dockerfile starts with the official Nginx image and overwrites the nginx.conf file with a custom configuration file. Every container started from this image will include the custom configuration.

Method 2: Using Docker Compose

Docker Compose is a tool for defining and running multi-container Docker applications. You can use it to overwrite files by mounting them as volumes.

version: '3'
    image: nginx:latest
      - ./custom.conf:/etc/nginx/nginx.conf

This docker-compose.yml file mounts custom.conf from the host machine to overwrite /etc/nginx/nginx.conf inside the container. This method is excellent for development environments where files like configurations must be changed frequently.

Method 3: Overwriting Files on a Running Container

Sometimes, you might need to overwrite a file on a running container. Docker provides a way to copy files from the host to the container using the docker cp command.

docker cp custom.conf <container_id>:/etc/nginx/nginx.conf

This command copies custom.conf from the host to overwrite /etc/nginx/nginx.conf in the specified running container. It’s a quick way to apply changes without rebuilding the image or restarting the container.

Considerations and Best Practices

  • Immutability: Containers should be treated as immutable. If you frequently need to overwrite files, consider automating these changes in your Dockerfile or using configuration management tools.
  • Persistence: Remember that changes made to a running container, such as overwriting files, are lost if the container is removed. If the changes are important, ensure they are codified in a Dockerfile or persisted through volumes.
  • Security: Be cautious when overwriting files, especially when using files from untrusted sources. Always validate and sanitize inputs to maintain container security.


Several methods can be used to overwrite files in Docker containers, each suitable for different scenarios. Whether you’re making changes at build time, using Docker Compose for development, or applying quick fixes to a running container, understanding these approaches helps maintain flexibility in your workflow. Always consider the implications of file overwrites and strive for practices that ensure the integrity and reliability of your containers.

Anastasios Antoniadis
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