Docker Desktop Filesystem Caching: Faster with Mutagen

gray tortoise walking on green grass field

I started down the Docker path for my local dev environment six years ago. As soon as an alpha version of Docker for Mac was available, I installed it to replace my boot2docker-based VM. I mentioned at the time that its one major drawback was performance of the osxfs filesystem. All these years later, and it’s still sluggish compared to the native filesystem.

I’ve tried various solutions to mitigate the issue. NFS volumes could give a minor performance boost for some applications, but its effects were negligible for my own dev experience. I tried docker-sync for a while, but constantly ran into problems with the sync lagging or stalling. Mutagen seemed similarly promising, but would run into the same issues.

Exciting News!

‘Twas with great delight that I read the announcement that the Docker Desktop team would finally be implementing a solution. That brings us, a couple months later, to today, where I’ve had the opportunity to test it out.

The syncing solution is built on top of Mutagen. Though I’ve had my issues with it in the past, I’m hopeful that the Docker Desktop team’s official blessing and support will help the tool become efficient, stable, and reliable. It took a little bit of troubleshooting to get to a working installation, so I thought it best to document my steps.

Configuration

To start with, the official “Edge” release of Docker Desktop for Mac is outdated (yup, that’s what I said). Instead, you can find links to newer versions in the GitHub forums. Today I’m running on build 45494, which I found in a discussion about excluding files from the sync. This build resolves two key issues that I ran into with the Edge release. First, it opens up file permissions on the synced files to resolve write permission errors. Second, it adds support for a global Mutagen config.

The Mutagen config is an essential tool for excluding certain files/directories from the sync. In my particular case, I don’t want my node_modules directories to sync. I use nvm and run my node commands on my host machine. Excluding these directories can cut a large chunk off of the synchronization time. So I created my config file at ~/.mutagen.yml with the following rules:

sync:
  defaults:
    ignore:
      vcs: true
      paths:
        - node_modules

Only after this file is in place can I configure caching according to the documentation. If you enable it beforehand, you’ll have to remove the directory from your config, restart Docker Desktop, and then re-add it.

Troubleshooting

I ran into some errors with symlinks in my project directory. Mutagen will complain and refuse to sync if there are absolute symlinks in the cached directory. Fortunately, I was able to remove them from my current projects. Otherwise, and option might have been to use the global config to ignore them.

The debugging output is not particularly helpful. When Mutagen encounters an error, all you get is an “Error” status in the File Sharing settings of Docker Desktop. Another comment in the forum showed me the proper path to viewing the error. The docker daemon’s HTTP API will show the state of the sync, along with any error messages (note that jq is here to make the output prettier).

curl -X GET --unix-socket ~/Library/Containers/com.docker.docker/Data/docker-api.sock http:/localhost/cache/state | jq

With all of my errors resolved, I can now start up my containers with the synced directories. The application performance is noticeably faster, with WordPress pages loading in a few hundred milliseconds instead of a few seconds. This shaved about 80-90% off of the total time to run my automated test suites under the osxfs mounts.

Docker Desktop file sharing settings

After a couple of days running, I haven’t seen any show-stopping issues with this new caching. Nice work, Docker Desktop team. I’m looking forward to watching this tool stabilize and improve.

2 thoughts on “Docker Desktop Filesystem Caching: Faster with Mutagen”

  1. This was very helpful, thank you! I’m still not sure I’m implementing this right though, how do you configure your docker-compose.yml file to work with the cached directories, or is it all done automagically?

  2. It is, indeed, “automagic”. As a comment in the GitHub discussion mentions, you can see in your Docker Desktop UI if it’s mounting the Mutagen-synced directory. https://github.com/docker/for-mac/issues/1592#issuecomment-631997612

    It’s important to note that your mounted directory must be entirely within the cached directory (as mentioned in the docs: https://docs.docker.com/docker-for-mac/mutagen-caching/#best-practices). If you’re mounting a parent directory, the subdirectory will use the default osxfs instead of the Mutagen sync.

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