Docker Shell vs. Exec Form

Christian Emmer
Christian Emmer
Mar 22, 2021 · 5 min read
Docker Shell vs. Exec Form

The RUN, ENTRYPOINT, and CMD, instructions all have two different forms they can be written in, and those forms change how each of those instructions behaves.

The two forms

  1. Shell form:

    Commands are written without [] brackets and are run by the container's shell, such as /bin/sh -c. Example:

    FROM alpine:latest
    # /bin/sh -c 'echo $HOME'
    RUN echo $HOME
    # /bin/sh -c 'echo $PATH'
    CMD echo $PATH

    Depending on the shell, commands will execute as child processes of the shell, which has some potentially negative consequences at the cost of some features, described below.

  2. Exec form:

    Commands are written with [] brackets and are run directly, not through a shell. Example:

    FROM alpine:latest
    RUN ["pwd"]
    CMD ["sleep", "1s"]

    This removes a potentially extra process in the process tree, which may be desirable.

These are the recommended forms to use for each instruction:

  • RUN: shell form, because of the shell features described below
  • ENTRYPOINT: exec form, because of the signal trapping described below
  • CMD: exec form, because of the signal trapping described below

The general idea is to use the exec form unless you need shell features - and if you need shell features in the ENTRYPOINT or CMD, then consider writing a shell script and executing it with the exec form.

Use cases

There are real use cases where you may not want to follow the above recommendations, so let's explore the main consequences of the two forms.

Variable substitution

In the shell form, commands will inherit environment variables from the shell, such as $HOME and $PATH:

FROM alpine:latest

# Shell: echoes "/root" as set by the shell
RUN echo $HOME

# Exec: echoes "$HOME" because nothing is set
RUN ["echo", "$HOME"]

However, both forms behave the same when it comes to environment variables set by the ENV instruction:

FROM alpine:latest


# Shell: echoes "1.0.0" because Docker does the substitution

# Exec: echoes "1.0.0" because Docker does the substitution
RUN ["echo", "$VERSION"]

Shell features

The main thing you lose with the exec form is all the useful shell features: sub commands, piping output, chaining commands, I/O redirection, and more. These kinds of commands are only possible with the shell form:

FROM ubuntu:latest

# Shell: run a speed test
RUN apt-get update \
 && apt-get install -y wget \
 && wget -O /dev/null \
 && rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/*

# Shell: output the default shell location
CMD which $(echo $0)

Most Dockerfiles are written with the shell form for RUN for the niceties as well as layer reduction.

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Signal trapping & forwarding

Most shells do not forward process signals to child processes, which means the SIGINT generated by pressing CTRL-C may not stop a child process:

# Note: Alpine's `/bin/sh` is really BusyBox `ash`, and when
#   `/bin/sh -c` is run it replace itself with the command rather
#   than spawning a new process, unlike Ubuntu's `bash`, meaning
#   Alpine doesn't exhibit the forwarding problem
FROM ubuntu:latest

# Shell: `bash` doesn't forward CTRL-C SIGINT to `top`

# Exec: `top` traps CTRL-C SIGINT and stops
ENTRYPOINT ["top", "-b"]

This is the main reason to use the exec form for both ENTRYPOINT and SHELL.

CMD as ENTRYPOINT parameters

There's a special version of the exec form for CMD where if the first item in the array isn't a command then all items will be used as parameters for the ENTRYPOINT:

FROM alpine:latest

# Exec: default container command
ENTRYPOINT ["sleep"]

# Exec: not a command, so it becomes a parameter
CMD ["1s"]

This is not possible with the shell form.


In general, use the shell form for RUN, and the exec form for everything else.