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Docker Compose vs Helm: What are the differences?

Docker Compose and Helm are two popular tools used in the containerization and deployment of applications. While they serve similar purposes, there are key differences between the two.

  1. Configuration Format and Scope: Docker Compose uses a YAML file to define and configure a single application with multiple containers. It focuses on orchestrating containers on a single host or a local machine. In contrast, Helm uses YAML templates to define and configure applications consisting of multiple containers, and it is primarily used for deploying applications on Kubernetes clusters.

  2. Application Deployment: Docker Compose is focused on deploying applications locally or on a single host using Docker. It provides a simple way to define and manage the relationships between containers. On the other hand, Helm is designed for deploying applications on Kubernetes clusters. It provides a package manager-like approach, allowing for easy installation, upgrade, and removal of applications on a Kubernetes cluster.

  3. Versioning and Release Management: Docker Compose lacks built-in support for versioning or release management. Each update requires manually updating the Docker Compose file and re-deploying the application. Helm, on the other hand, provides versioning and release management capabilities out of the box. It allows users to update and roll back to previous versions of an application easily.

  4. Dependency Management: Docker Compose does not have built-in dependency management. If an application relies on other services or containers, the dependencies need to be managed manually. Helm, however, provides a dependency management feature. It allows users to define dependencies between different components or services, ensuring they are deployed in the correct order.

  5. Customizability and Templating: Docker Compose does not provide advanced templating capabilities. Configuration values need to be manually updated or provided outside the Compose file. Helm, on the other hand, offers a robust templating system. It allows users to define and customize deployment configurations using templates, enabling more flexibility and reusability.

  6. Community and Ecosystem Support: Both Docker Compose and Helm have active communities, but Helm is more tightly integrated with the Kubernetes ecosystem. Helm benefits from a larger user base, which results in a wider range of pre-built charts (packages) available for deploying various applications on Kubernetes. Docker Compose, while popular for local development and single-host deployments, has a smaller ecosystem and community.

In summary, Docker Compose is best suited for local development and deploying applications on a single host, while Helm is designed for deploying applications on Kubernetes clusters. Helm provides additional features such as versioning, release management, dependency management, templating, and a larger ecosystem within the Kubernetes community.

Decisions about Docker Compose and Helm
Michael Roberts

We develop rapidly with docker-compose orchestrated services, however, for production - we utilise the very best ideas that Kubernetes has to offer: SCALE! We can scale when needed, setting a maximum and minimum level of nodes for each application layer - scaling only when the load balancer needs it. This allowed us to reduce our devops costs by 40% whilst also maintaining an SLA of 99.87%.

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Pros of Docker Compose
Pros of Helm
  • 123
    Multi-container descriptor
  • 110
    Fast development environment setup
  • 79
    Easy linking of containers
  • 68
    Simple yaml configuration
  • 60
    Easy setup
  • 16
    Yml or yaml format
  • 12
    Use Standard Docker API
  • 8
    Open source
  • 5
    Go from template to application in minutes
  • 5
    Can choose Discovery Backend
  • 4
  • 4
    Easy configuration
  • 4
    Kubernetes integration
  • 3
    Quick and easy
  • 8
    Infrastructure as code
  • 6
    Open source
  • 2
    Easy setup
  • 1
  • 1
    Testa­bil­i­ty and re­pro­ducibil­i­ty

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Cons of Docker Compose
Cons of Helm
  • 9
    Tied to single machine
  • 5
    Still very volatile, changing syntax often
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    What is Docker Compose?

    With Compose, you define a multi-container application in a single file, then spin your application up in a single command which does everything that needs to be done to get it running.

    What is Helm?

    Helm is the best way to find, share, and use software built for Kubernetes.

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    What companies use Docker Compose?
    What companies use Helm?
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    What tools integrate with Docker Compose?
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    Blog Posts

    What are some alternatives to Docker Compose and Helm?
    Kubernetes is an open source orchestration system for Docker containers. It handles scheduling onto nodes in a compute cluster and actively manages workloads to ensure that their state matches the users declared intentions.
    The Docker Platform is the industry-leading container platform for continuous, high-velocity innovation, enabling organizations to seamlessly build and share any application — from legacy to what comes next — and securely run them anywhere
    Docker Swarm
    Swarm serves the standard Docker API, so any tool which already communicates with a Docker daemon can use Swarm to transparently scale to multiple hosts: Dokku, Compose, Krane, Deis, DockerUI, Shipyard, Drone, Jenkins... and, of course, the Docker client itself.
    Ansible is an IT automation tool. It can configure systems, deploy software, and orchestrate more advanced IT tasks such as continuous deployments or zero downtime rolling updates. Ansible’s goals are foremost those of simplicity and maximum ease of use.
    It is a universal container management tool. It works with Kubernetes, Docker, Docker Swarm and Azure ACI. It allows you to manage containers without needing to know platform-specific code.
    See all alternatives