Build a solid WordPress dev environment with Docker


Want to take the fast track and skip the detailed tutorial below? Install Docker for your OS, clone this repo, add your WordPress site files to the wordpress directory, and from the root project directory you just cloned run:

docker-compose up -d --build

Prefer a video walk-through? Follow along with this tutorial on YouTube instead.

A Brief Intro

Before we get started, I'd like to let you know that this article isn’t a deep-dive tutorial into Docker or an explanation on the intricacies of the toolset. It’s more of a casual walk-through that explores the basics in getting a local development environment set up fast using Docker and Docker Compose. This comes as an alternative to the traditional method of installing a LAMP stack directly on your machine.

There may be better or more succinct ways of accomplishing this, but the method below is what I’ve found works the best for me when developing WordPress websites.

For those who don’t know what Docker is, let’s enjoy a brief overview. According to

Docker is a tool designed to make it easier to create, deploy, and run applications by using containers. Containers allow a developer to package up an application with all of the parts it needs, such as libraries and other dependencies, and ship it all out as one package.

You can think of Docker like a VM but stream-lined, cutting out a lot of the bloat that virtual machines tend to be known for.

Why is this helpful or useful? Well if you have multiple production servers running different versions of WordPress, each one requiring a specific PHP or MySQL version, those variables can be replicated in your container definitions. Then, you can be guaranteed that the application will run precisely how it’s intended to, no matter what base machine Docker is installed on.

Sound exciting? Let’s dive in!

Installing Docker

First, let's grab the installer:

Run through the typical application installation process, opening it up after it's complete. You may be asked to authorize Docker via your system password the first time you open it, after which you’ll see the little whale icon appearing in your status bar.

The following diagram shows the structure I’ve been using for my local WordPress Docker projects. You don’t have to follow this exactly, although the rest of this article will assume your project is set up the same.
├── nginx/
│ └── default.conf
├── wordpress/
│ └── (WordPress source files)
├── docker-compose.yml
├── nginx.dockerfile
└── php.dockerfile

In the next few parts I’ll go over what each of these files does, but for now just create them as blank placeholders using the layout above. Additionally, add in (or download) your WordPress site's files under the wordpress/ directory.

Creating Our Stack

A great rule of thumb when using Docker is that each container should provide a single service, or handle a single process. Since we’re creating a LEMP stack, that means we’ll need one for our web server (Nginx), PHP, and MySQL. Docker has a fantastic built-in tool to create and orchestrate these containers, called Compose.

All we need to do is define the services (containers) that we need, and at runtime Docker provisions each one and wraps them all in a virtual umbrella network. This means that each service will be accessible from every other container through the use of a hostname.

To get started, create or open up the docker-compose.yml file in your project root and add the following to the top of it:

version: '3.9'

A quick explanation for what we just added:

  • Version: 3.9, the newest version of the Docker Compose engine, not super useful but opens us up to newer syntax goodies
  • Services: Where we’ll specify the images that’ll make up our stack

Adding Nginx

Directly under the services heading that we specified at the bottom of the docker-compose.yml file above, you’ll add in the following:

context: .
dockerfile: nginx.dockerfile
- 80:80
- ./wordpress:/var/www/html
- php
- mysql

Let's break down everything that this block in the Docker Compose configuration is doing:

First, we're telling Docker to create a container with a name of nginx. It's going to be built from a local Dockerfile called nginx.dockerfile, found in the context element, which is set to the current directory.

Next, we're using the ports directive to tunnel the :80 port from our local machine (the first number) to the :80 port on the nginx container (the second number). This means that once active, listening to localhost:80 on our local machine will stream the response from our nginx container's 80 port.

After that, we're using the volumes attribute. This list is essentially a way to create symlinks between our local filesystem, and a Docker container's filesystem. The best part is that any changes to files in these folders on your machine or the container, mirror to one another. We're setting up a volume from our local wordpress folder, to the nginx container's /var/www/html directory.

Finally, this depends_on directive is a list of other services (or containers) that should be active and spun up before the current container is. Nginx depends on both PHP and MySQL to be ready and active, so those are the ones set here.

Okay, let's crack open that nginx.dockerfile and add the following contents to it:

FROM nginx:stable-alpine
ADD ./nginx/default.conf /etc/nginx/conf.d/default.conf

Pretty simple, huh? We're doing all of two things here:

  1. Setting up our container with the Docker Hub Nginx image, stable-alpine version. Alpine means that the base OS will be Alpine Linux, a light-weight container-friendly distro.

  2. Copying a local config file in our project's nginx folder, and replacing it over the default.conf file that exists in the nginx/conf.d folder.

Lastly for the Nginx portion of our dev environment, open up the nginx/default.conf file on your local system, and add in the following basic Nginx configuration that WordPress recommends:

upstream php {
server unix:/tmp/php-cgi.socket;
server php:9000;
server {
listen 80;
server_name wordpress-docker.test;
root /var/www/html;
index index.php;
location / {
try_files $uri $uri/ /index.php?$args;
location ~ \.php$ {
include fastcgi.conf;
fastcgi_intercept_errors on;
fastcgi_pass php;
location ~* \.(js|css|png|jpg|jpeg|gif|ico)$ {
expires max;
log_not_found off;

Alright, let's move on to the next part, MySQL!

Adding MySQL

In our docker-compose.yml file, after our nginx service, let's add a new block for MySQL:

image: mysql:latest
restart: always
- 3306:3306

This is all we need for our database. First, instead of building from a custom Dockerfile like our nginx container, we're using an image from the Docker Hub directly with the image attribute. In this case, the latest version of MySQL.

Next, we're setting this restart attribute to always, if for any reason the container goes down, we want it to spin back up on its own. Also like with the nginx container, we're exposing the default MySQL port (3306) from the container to our local machine.

Finally, the MySQL image expects a few environment attributes, which is a list of key value pairs, passed through on spin-up to the container. Using the above, we set the name and username of the database, as well as the password.

✨ Getting closer!

Adding PHP

Like with nginx, we'll be building this service from a custom Dockerfile. Let's add the following to the bottom of our docker-compose.yml file:

context: .
dockerfile: php.dockerfile
- ./wordpress:/var/www/html

With the PHP service, we don't need to expose any ports to our local system, since we really don't have any practical use for that. We are however, attaching the WordPress source files to the same directory that our nginx root is set to.

Again, we're building from a custom Dockerfile, so let's open up php.dockerfile and add in the following contents:

FROM php:7.4-fpm-alpine
ADD ./php/www.conf /usr/local/etc/php-fpm.d/www.conf
RUN addgroup -g 1000 wp && adduser -G wp -g wp -s /bin/sh -D wp
RUN mkdir -p /var/www/html
RUN chown wp:wp /var/www/html
WORKDIR /var/www/html
RUN docker-php-ext-install mysqli pdo pdo_mysql && docker-php-ext-enable pdo_mysql

This Dockerfile is a bit bigger and more complex than the one we created for nginx. Let's break it down and see what's happening.

First, we're building the container from the PHP 7.4 FPM version, with Alpine Linux as the base.

Next, we're copying over a local file, www.conf in the php directory, and replacing it with the default www.conf on the container.

After that, we're running a few commands to create a user called wp, and use them as the owner of the site root files.

Finally, we're setting the working directory to the site root, and running the docker-php-ext-install command. This is a super helpful built-in command for this container, which as its name implies, installs PHP extensions and configures the necessary configuration files to use them. We're using that command to install mysqli, pdo, and pdo_mysql.

Okay, I think we're all done with the setup, so let's see if this runs!

Starting Docker

We have all of our individual pieces in order, now it’s finally time to assemble our Docker network! Open up a terminal window and navigate to the root directory of this project. Then, run:

docker-compose up --build

Since this is our first time starting up these containers, and since some of them are using custom Dockerfiles (php, nginx), we include this --build option which is a shortcode for docker-compose build. Building the containers compiles custom images from the Dockerfile commands that we've specified.

After Docker pulls the images and runs the commands for each of your containers, they'll individually come online under an umbrella network named after your project folder. Then, the output for each of your containers will start streaming to the active terminal.

Note: If you instead want to run this in the background and not see any console output, use docker-compose up -d to use detached mode.

After this completes, head over to your browser and navigate to localhost, and if everything worked successfully, you should see the WordPress installation screen!

Installing WordPress

This step doesn't differ much than if you were installing WordPress on a server or typical local dev environment. Select your language, and then enter in your database credentials.

If you used the same environment variables in your docker-compose.yml file as the ones earlier, that would be

  • Database Name: wp
  • User Name: wp
  • Password: secret
  • Database Host: mysql

That last one is correct, mysql is the database host. Why not localhost?

Remember that each service (nginx, php, and mysql) are running in their own individual containers. The php service is handling the submission of this form and the processing of the WordPress source files. If we used localhost here, the PHP container would interpret that as itself, and look for a MySQL installation in its own container.

That doesn't exist, though. Our MySQL installation is in a separate container. But, because we're using Docker Compose and that umbrella network, the mysql container is available to every other container using its service name as the hostname, mysql.

Clicking submit, and you should be able to finish up the installation by adding in your site name and desired login information!

💥 Boom! We have a WordPress site running locally with Docker!

Adding WP-CLI

There's a super helpful command-line tool for managing WordPress sites, plugins, and users, called wp-cli. As an addition to our local dev environment, I'd like to add this and use it with our site.

I could install it locally using their documentation, but if I don't have (or want to install) the dependencies for it on my local machine, I couldn't use it. Instead, let's add it with Docker and have our containers do the work for us.

First, we'll have to open up our docker-compose.yml file and add a new service at the bottom:

context: .
dockerfile: php.dockerfile
entrypoint: ['wp', '--allow-root']
- ./wordpress:/var/www/html

Since this tool runs on PHP, we're building it off of the same Dockerfile that our php service is running on. We're also mounting the same volume as well, wordpress to /var/www/html. The only new thing on this block, is an attribute called entrypoint.

Entrypoint is either a single string, or an array of strings, representing a command (and its arguments) that the container runs when spun up. We're replacing the default entrypoint of the PHP service from the Docker Hub image, with an array of two strings that compiles into the command wp --allow-root.

Using this is super easy, instead of having to ssh into a container like a VM, we use the docker-compose run command which expects a service name and a list of arguments that get passed to the entrypoint we just specified.

In our project root, we can get a list of all of the users on our WordPress site by running:

docker-compose run --rm wp user list

Which is equivalent to running wp user list inside of the container.

An individual container is spun up using the php.dockerfile that we specified in the wp service. Then, the arguments are passed to the wp --allow-root entrypoint, and the output is streamed to our console. Finally, since we specified the --rm option, once the command completes, the container that ran it is destroyed and any memory is freed up.

All of this, with zero WordPress dependencies installed on our actual system!

End of the Line

Well, there we have it! We’ve installed Docker, set up and configured a docker-compose.yml file, and built a LEMP stack of three containers wrapped in a single network. We've exposed ports on that network to access our website and database, and have even ran wp-cli commands using docker-compose’s run method.

Moving forward, if you want to bring down the containers and network, it’s as simple as navigating to your project’s root folder and running:

docker-compose down

This will both bring down, and destroy, the containers and any associated non-volume data that was stored in them.

Docker has made local development an absolute breeze for me, especially when it comes to juggling multiple WordPress projects spanning different versions. I can easily have one project running on a Docker network with a PHP container using 7.1, and if I wanted to see how my current project would perform in PHP 8 it’s as simple as changing a single character in php.dockerfile, re-building, and bringing the docker-compose network back up.

I won't deny one caveat, you’ll get no better local development performance than running your stack directly on your machine’s hardware. I've weighed the tradeoff of performance for versatility, ease of use, parallel environments, and customization, and have decided it's just too handy to continue running dependencies like PHP and MySQL on my local hardware.

If you have any questions, comments, or want to chat more about PHP and web development in general, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter. I also run a monthly newsletter called The VOLT, for info tid-bits and tips on PHP, JavaScript, and Docker-related development.

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