How to build a custom environment for Jupyter in Docker

image by: Juno probe / NASA

If you have been doing software development in recent years, you’ve probably come across the use of containers not only for deployment, but also during development to ensure that your build is completely reproducible in different systems.

Also very popular in data science, data visualization and related circles is using Python and Jupyter Notebooks and Jupyter Lab to explore and experiment with data. Some people criticize Jupyter for often result in unreproducible work, something that is really important for the scientific method, because the development environment may differ from the one reproducing it and the cells could be executed out of order. For instance, in an experiment made by the Jetbrains Datalore team last year which downloaded almost 10 million notebooks from Github, they found 36% of those notebooks to be inconsistent, that is, run in a non linear order.

On the other hand, if your environment is well defined in a Docker container and you make sure to do the good practice of executing the cells in the proper order, notebooks can be completely reproducible.

It might not be so obvious how to do it, however. So here is a step by step guide on how to use Jupyter Lab and Jupyter Notebook inside Docker with the Python packages of your choice.

This guide is written with a GNU-Linux based system in mind and has been tested on Ubuntu 18.04 and 20.04. It should also work on other GNU-Linux based systems. However, if you are using Windows or MacOS, you will have to make some adaptations for it to work, mainly concerning the command line operations and environment variables, but those are not covered in this guide.


Before we begin, make sure you have installed Docker and Docker Compose.

Choosing a base image

The Jupyter Docker Stacks do provide some ready to run images and some recipes for creating your own Docker image inheriting from those (what they call a child Docker image).

For that, we must first choose a base Docker image to inherit from. For this exercise we are going to use jupyter/scipy-notebook, which includes Pandas, NumPy and a few other things. However, take a look at the image selection section of the Jupyter Docker Stacks documentation to see other options.

Then we create a Dockerfile to build the custom Docker image and add the following line to define the base image:

FROM jupyter/scipy-notebook

If you don’t want to create a new Dockerfile from scratch, you can also clone this example repository from Github, which has a Dockerfile ready to use.

Setting up the locales

If you are ever going to work with data from locales other than the US, you should probably set up one or more other locales. For example, this will make it easy to work with different decimal number separators or with weekday and month names in different languages.

For this exercise, we are going to configure the system locales to use both en_US.UTF-8 (English, US) and pt_BR.UTF-8 (Brazilian Portuguese) locales. The following section of the Dockerfile does just that.

# install the locales you want to use
RUN set -ex \
   && sed -i 's/^# en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8$/en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8/g' /etc/locale.gen \
   && sed -i 's/^# pt_BR.UTF-8 UTF-8$/pt_BR.UTF-8 UTF-8/g' /etc/locale.gen \
   && locale-gen en_US.UTF-8 pt_BR.UTF-8 \
   && update-locale LANG=en_US.UTF-8 LC_ALL=en_US.UTF-8 \

Choosing your Python packages

Next, we are going to choose the Python packages that are going to be available to Jupyter inside the environment. In this example, we choose the data visualization tool Plotly and the map plotting package Folium. This is the section of the Dockerfile where we define that.

# install Python packages you often use
RUN set -ex \
   && conda install --quiet --yes \
   # choose the Python packages you need
   'plotly==4.9.0' \
   'folium==0.11.0' \
   && conda clean --all -f -y \
   # install Jupyter Lab extensions you need
   && jupyter labextension install jupyterlab-plotly@4.9.0 --no-build \
   && jupyter lab build -y \
   && jupyter lab clean -y \
   && rm -rf "/home/${NB_USER}/.cache/yarn" \
   && rm -rf "/home/${NB_USER}/.node-gyp" \
   && fix-permissions "${CONDA_DIR}" \
   && fix-permissions "/home/${NB_USER}"

Replace or add it with the Python packages and Jupyter lab extensions you want.

Building the container

This step is very easy to do, but may take a very long time to finish. Just run the following command:

$ docker build --rm -t docker-jupyter-extensible .

and then go have a meal or do something else and come back after a while.

Fixing file permissions

A common problem when mounting a folder from the host inside the container is that the file owners often do not match, so you end up either not able to access the folder or having it read-only. To fix that, we need to set up the user and group used inside the container to have the same id numbers as the user and group you are using on the host. It may sound complicated, but with those images it is really easy to do.

Just create a file named .env by running the following command:

$ printf "UID=$(id -u)\nGID=$(id -g)\n" > .env

This will allow you to use the notebooks folder both inside and outside the container.

Running the container

We are good to go! Every time you want to start Jupyter, just run the container with the command:

$ docker-compose up

You should see the messages from the container in the terminal. If everything goes right, you should see a link starting with that also contains an access token. Open this link on a browser to use Jupyter Notebook. If you want to use Jupyter Lab instead, just change the beginning of the URL to, but keep everything after it, including the access token.

Terminal screen showing the output of starting the Jupyter container.

The output of the terminal when starting the container shows the URL and token for opening Jupyter Lab and Jupyter Notebook in the browser.

To check that the packages have been properly installed and configured, just open a new notebook and import them. See, for instance, Plotly Express:

A browser window with Jupyter lab running Plotly Express.

A chart example from Plotly Express running inside our new Docker container.

Now have fun with your new Jupyter Lab or Jupyter Notebook!

If later you want to add some new packages, just go back to the “choose your packages” step, make your desired changes and follow from there, building the container again.