Running containerized apps on AWS Lambda | DoingCloudStuff

Running containerized apps on AWS Lambda

author: Vincent Chan

Since late 2020, AWS Lambda has started support the using of containerized images for AWS Lambda (see the December 2020 announcement by AWS: AWS Lambda now supports container images as a packaging format). This blog post is to

  1. explain what that means for those unfamiliar with containers,
  2. provide the pros and cons the use of containers versus the standard ZIP archive package deployment, and
  3. show how to deploy these container images to Lambda.

What are containers?

Container images, as according to Docker, is an executable software package that "includes everything needed to run an application: code, runtime, system tools, system libraries and settings." That's it.

The main benefit to using containers is therefore that you don't need to worry about missing or conflicting dependencies when you deploy your app.

What are the pros and cons to using containers for AWS Lambda?


  1. Because you already made sure your container app works on your local environment, you know that it'll work on AWS. You don't have the same assurance when using the ZIP archives.
  2. AWS Lambda allows container images to be up to 10 GB, as opposed to the mere (comparatively speaking) 250 unzipped size limit for code contained in ZIP archives.


  1. The default way to deploy these container apps using AWS SAM (Serververless Application Model) or AWS CDK (Cloud Development Kit) is to create a new ECR repository, build your image locally, and then let SAM / CDK upload the potentially multiple gigabytes-large image to your ECR repository for you. Depending the size of your images and your internet connnection speed, it can take a very long time.

How to deploy container images to Lambda using SAM

1. Create an Amazon Elastic Container Registry (ECR) repository

Note: I assume you have your AWS credentials stored in your local environment. Further, I'm assuming you're using a Unix-clone (either Linux or Mac).

To create a new repository in Amazon ECR, you can do so using either the AWS console or AWS CLI. I personally prefer the CLI since I can record the commands I used for future purposes. And, so, that's what I use here.

Don't worry, it's pretty simple.

For the following, suppose

  • the AWS account you want to use is 1234567890,
  • the credentials for said AWS account is saved under the profile cloud, and
  • the region you want to use is us-west-2.

First, you need to login to ECR:

aws ecr get-login-password --region us-west-2 --profile cloud | docker login --username AWS --password-stdin

Then, to create a new repository with the name example-repo, simply type into your terminal

aws ecr create-repository --repository-name example-repo --profile cloud --region us-west-2

This will create a new repository for and (important!) return the URI of the newly create repository (among other pieces of information). You'll need that URI later.

2. Build your Docker container

[TODO: Basic instructions on buidling Docker containers]

Suppose our file structure looks like this:

Our File Structure
|- src/
| |-
| |- my_module/
| | |-
| | |-
| |- requirements.txt
|- Dockerfile
|- template.yml

Assuming you know how to build a Docker container, then the only question left is how to structure your Dockerfile. For reference, here is a Dockerfile template for python:


COPY src/ ./

RUN python3.8 -m pip install -r requirements.txt -t .

CMD ["handler.lambda_handler"]

To briefly explain each line: In line 1, although I made use of AWS's python 3.8 image as my base image, you don't have. You're free to use other images as your Dockerfile's base image.

Line 2 simply copies over the source code in my src/ directory over to the Docker container. Note: I've assumed your python code to be contained inside a directory named src. If not, you'll need to substitue src/ with whatever directory houses your code.

Line 3 tells Docker to install the python modules listed in your requirements.txt file into the current directory in your container. All it really means is that all your python modules are going to be in the same directory level as your source code. Hence, your source code can make use of them freely.

If your python modules is actually a wrapper for some binary, then you'll also need to either copy over those binaries into their expected location or, if the base image allows, install those binaries.

Line 4 is truly important. It states what the default argument to your Docker image is. In our case, it is "handler.lambda_handler," which, for AWS Lambda, means to use the function lambda_handler in the python file

Note: that there is no RUN statement in our Dockerfile.

3. Deploy your app using SAM

To tell your SAM template to deploy a container image instead of a zip archive, you'll need to set the function's PackageType to Image and provide some metadata.

Here's an example snippet assuming the file structure provided above:

  Type: AWS::Serverless::Function
    PackageType: Image
    Dockerfile: Dockerfile
    DockerContext: ./src
    DockerTag: python3.8

To deploy our SAM template, we need two steps:

  1. build and
  2. deploy.

To build, go to your root directory and type

sam build

This will create an .aws-sam directory that'll house the code and resulting Cloudformation template to be deployed.

Next, to deploy, type

sam deploy --profile cloud --guided

and provide the ECR repo's URI from step 1 when requested. SAM will upload your image to the indicated ECR repo and will tell the lambda in your SAM template to use that image.


Hopefully, you now have enough information to deploy your own container to AWS Lambda using SAM. The deployment is not hard, but it is cumbersome and time-consuming.

Often, companies will make use of CI pipelining tools such as CodePipeline or those of Gitlab and Bitbucket to automate this process. Part of the reason is just because that's often the devops practice: unit tests and acceptance tests can be automated and, thereby, prevent developers from modifying test cases to fit their code. And, well, once the code has been determined to be acceptable, then you might as well deploy the new, updated code.

As a bonus, by having Gitlab or Bitbucket do that for you, the upload won't take up your internet bandwidth, although it may incur costs with Gitlab or Bitbucket.