Running tasks with Docker and Azure Functions 20 Nov 2017
azure docker

Months ago Microsoft announced Azure Container Instances (ACI), which allow for rapidly provisioning containers “in the cloud.” When they were first announced, I played around with them for a bit, before realizing that the pricing for running a container “full-time” was almost 3x what it would cost to deploy that container on an equitable Standard A0 virtual machine. Since then however, Azure has added support for a “Never” restart policy, which opens the door for using Azure Container Instances for arbitrary task execution.

The ability to quickly run arbitrary containerized tasks is a really exciting feature. Any Ruby, Python, JavaScript, script that I can package into a Docker container I can kick out to Azure Container Instances in seconds, and pay by the second of runtime. Very exciting, but it’s not practical for me to always have the Azure CLI at the ready to execute something akin to:

az container create \
    --resource-group myResourceGroup \
    --name mycontainer \
    --image rtyler/my-silly-container:latest \
    --restart-policy Never

Fortunately, Microsoft publishes a number of client libraries for Azure, including a Node.js one. This is where introducing Azure Functions can help make Azure Container Instances really shine. Similar to AWS Lambda, or Google Cloud Functions, Azure Functions provide a light-weight computing environment for running teeny-tiny little bits of code, typically JavaScript, “in the cloud.”

This past weekend I had an arguably good argument for combining the two in a novel fashion: launching a (containerized) script every ten minutes.

The expensive and old fashioned way to handle this would be to just deploy a small VM, add a crontab entry, and spend the money to keep that machine online for what equates to approximately 6 hours of work throughout the month.

  • Standard A0 virtual machine monthly cost: $14.64
  • Azure Container Instance, for 6 hours a month, cost: $0.56

In this blog post I won’t go too deeply into the creation of an Azure Function, but I will focus on the code which actually provisions an Azure Container Instance from Node.js.


In order to provision resources in Azure, we must first create the Azure credentials objects necessary. For better or worse, Azure builds on top of Azure Active Directory which offers an absurd amount of role-based access controls and options. The downside of that flexibility is that it’s supremely awkward to get simple API tokens set up for what seem like otherwise mundane tasks.

To provision resources, we will need an “Application”, “Service Principal”, and “Secret”. The instructions below will use the Azure CLI:

  • openssl rand -base64 24 will generate a good “client secret” to use.
  • az ad app create --display-name MyAppName --homepage --identifier-uris --password $CLIENT_SECRET creates the Azure Active Directory Application, mind the “App ID” (aka client ID).
  • az ad sp create --id $CLIENT_ID will create a Service Principal.
  • And finally, I’ll assign a role to that Service Principal: az role assignment create --assignee --role Contributor --scope /subscriptions/$SUBSCRIPTION)_ID/resourceGroups/my-apps-resource-group.

In these steps, I’ve isolated the Service Principal to a specific Resource Group (my-apps-resource-group) to keep it away from other resources, but also to make it easier to monitor costs.

A number of these variables will be set in the Azure Function “Application Settings” to enable my JavaScript function to authenticate against the Azure APIs.

Accessing Azure from Azure

Writing the JavaScript to actually launch a container instance was a little tricky, as I couldn’t find a single example in the azure-arm-containerinstance package.

In the “Codes” section below is the entire Azure Function, but the only major caveat is that in my example I’ve “hacked” the apiVersion which is used when accessing the Azure REST APIs, as the current package hits an API which doesn’t support the “Never” restart policy for the container.

With the Azure SDK for Node, authenticating properly, it’s feasible to do all kinds of interesting operations in Azure, creating, updating, or deleting resources based on specific triggers from Azure Functions.

Future Possibilities

The code below is among the most simplistic use-cases imaginable for combining Azure Functions and Azure Container Instances. Thinking more broadly, one could conceivably trigger short-lived containers ‘on-demand” in response to messages coming from Event Hub, or even inbound HTTP requests from another user or system. Imagine, for example, if you wanted to provide a quick demo of some application to new users on your website. One Azure Function provisioning containers for specific users, and another periodically reaping any containers which have been running past their timeout, would be both cheap and easily deployed.

I still wouldn’t use Azure Container Instances for any “full-time” workload, their pricing model is fundamentally flawed for those kinds of tasks. If you have workloads which are run for only seconds, minutes, or hours at a time, they make a lot more sense, and with Azure Functions, are cheaply and easily orchestrated.


2017-12-05 update: corrected the following code to delete any previously existing container group, to more effectively emulate a “cron.”


module.exports = function (context) {
    const ACI   = require('azure-arm-containerinstance');
    const AZ    = require('ms-rest-azure');

    context.log('Starting a container');

        (err, credentials) => {
            if (err) {
                throw err;
            let client = new ACI(credentials, process.env.AZURE_SUBSCRIPTION_ID);

            /* First delete the previous existing container group if it exists */
            client.containerGroups.deleteMethod(group, containerGroup).then((r) => {
                context.log('Delete completed', r);
                let container = new client.models.Container();
                context.log('Launching a container for client', client);

       = 'twitter-processing';
                container.environmentVariables = [
                        name: 'SOME_ENV_VAR',
                        value: process.env.SOME_ENV_VAR
                container.image = 'my-fancy-image-name:latest';
                container.ports = [{port: 80}];
                container.resources = {
                    requests: {
                        cpu: 1,
                        memoryInGB: 1

                context.log('Provisioning a container', container);
                client.containerGroups.createOrUpdate(group, containerGroup,
                        containers: [container],
                        osType: osType,
                        location: region,
                        restartPolicy: 'never'
                ).then((r) => {
                    context.log('Launched:', r);
                }).catch((r) => {
                    context.log('Finished up with error', r);


  "name": "foobar-processing",
  "version": "0.0.1",
  "description": "Timer-triggered function for running an Azure Container Instance",
  "main": "index.js",
  "author": "R Tyler Croy",
  "dependencies": {
    "azure-arm-containerinstance": "^1.0.0-preview"


  "disabled": false,
  "bindings": [
        "direction": "in",
        "schedule": "0 */10 * * * *",
        "name": "tenMinuteTimer",
        "type": "timerTrigger"