How to host a bot with Docker and GitHub Actions on Ubuntu VPS


  1. You will learn
  2. Introduction
  3. Installing Docker
  4. Creating Dockerfile
  5. Building Image and Running Container
  6. Creating Volumes
  7. Using GitHub Actions for full automation

You will learn how to

  • write Dockerfile
  • build Docker image and run the container
  • use Docker Compose
  • make docker keep the files throughout the container's runs
  • parse environment variables into container
  • use GitHub Actions for automation
  • set up self-hosted runner
  • use runner secrets


Let's say you have got a nice discord bot written in Python and you have a VPS to host it on. Now the only question is how to run it 24/7. You might have been suggested to use screen multiplexer, but it has some disadvantages:

  1. Every time you update the bot you have to SSH to your server, attach to screen, shutdown the bot, run git pull and run the bot again. You might have good extensions management that allows you to update the bot without restarting it, but there are some other cons as well
  2. If you update some dependencies, you have to update them manually
  3. The bot doesn't run in an isolated environment, which is not good for security.

But there's a nice and easy solution to these problems - Docker! Docker is a containerization utility that automates some stuff like dependencies update and running the application in the background. So let's get started.

Installing Docker

The best way to install Docker is to use the convenience script provided by Docker developers themselves. You just need 2 lines:

$ curl -fsSL -o
$ sudo sh

Creating Dockerfile

To tell Docker what it has to do to run the application, we need to create a file named Dockerfile in our project's root.

  1. First we need to specify the base image, which is the OS that the docker container will be running. Doing that will make Docker install some apps we need to run our bot, for example the Python interpreter
FROM python:3.10-bullseye
  1. Next, we need to copy our Python project's external dependencies to some directory inside the container. Let's call it /app
COPY requirements.txt /app/
  1. Now we need to set the directory as working and install the requirements
RUN pip install -r requirements.txt
  1. The only thing that is left to do is to copy the rest of project's files and run the main executable
COPY . .
CMD ["python3", ""]

The final version of Dockerfile looks like this:

FROM python:3.10-bullseye
COPY requirements.txt /app/
RUN pip install -r requirements.txt
COPY . .
CMD ["python3", ""]

Building Image and Running Container

Now update the project on your VPS, so we can run the bot with Docker.

  1. Build the image (dot at the end is very important)
$ docker build -t mybot .
  • the -t flag specifies a tag that will be assigned to the image. With it, we can easily run the image that the tag was assigned to.
  • the dot at the end is basically the path to search for Dockerfile. The dot means current directory (./)

  • Run the container

$ docker run -d --name mybot mybot:latest
  • -d flag tells Docker to run the container in detached mode, meaning it will run the container in the background of your terminal and not give us any output from it. If we don't provide it, the run will be giving us the output until the application exits. Discord bots aren't supposed to exit after certain time, so we do need this flag
  • --name assigns a name to the container. By default, container is identified by id that is not human-readable. To conveniently refer to container when needed, we can assign it a name
  • mybot:latest means "latest version of mybot image"

  • Read bot logs (keep in mind that this utility only allows to read STDERR)

$ docker logs -f mybot
  • -f flag tells the docker to keep reading logs as they appear in container and is called "follow mode". To exit press CTRL + C.

If everything went successfully, your bot will go online and will keep running!

Using Docker Compose

Just 2 commands to run a container is cool, but we can shorten it down to just 1 simple command. For that, create a docker-compose.yml file in project's root and fill it with the following contents:

version: "3.8"
    build: .
    container_name: mybot
  • version tells Docker what version of Compose to use. You may check all the versions here
  • services contains services to build and run. Read more about services here
  • main is a service. We can call it whatever we would like to, not necessarily main
  • build: . is a path to search for Dockerfile, just like docker build command's dot
  • container_name: mybot is a container name to use for a bot, just like docker run --name mybot

Update the project on VPS, remove the previous container with docker rm -f mybot and run this command

docker compose up -d --build

Now the docker will automatically build the image for you and run the container.

Why docker-compose

The main purpose of Compose is to run several services at once. Mostly we don't need this in discord bots, however. For us, it has the following benefits:

  • we can build and run the container with just one command
  • if we need to parse some environment variables or volumes (more about them further in tutorial) our run command would look like this
$ docker run -d --name mybot -e TOKEN=... -e WEATHER_API_APIKEY=... -e SOME_USEFUL_ENVIRONMENT_VARIABLE=... --net=host -v /home/exenifix/bot-data/data:/app/data -v /home/exenifix/bot-data/images:/app/data/images

This is pretty long and unreadable. Compose allows us to transfer those flags into single config file and still use just one short command to run the container.

Creating Volumes

The files creating during container run are destroyed after its recreation. To prevent some files from getting destroyed, we need to use volumes that basically save the files from directory inside of container somewhere on drive.

  1. Create a new directory somewhere and copy path to it
$ mkdir mybot-data
$ echo $(pwd)/mybot-data

My path is /home/exenifix/mybot-data, yours is most likely different!

  1. In your project, store the files that need to be persistent in a separate directory (eg. data)
  2. Add volumes to docker-compose.yaml so it looks like this:
version: "3.8"
    build: .
    container_name: mybot
      - /home/exenifix/mybot-data:/app/data

The path before the colon : is the directory on server's drive, outside of container, and the second path is the directory inside of container. All the files saved in container in that directory will be saved on drive's directory as well and Docker will be accessing them from drive.

Using GitHub Actions for full automation

Now it's time to fully automate the process and make Docker update the bot automatically on every commit or release. For that, we will use a GitHub Actions workflow, which basically runs some commands when we need to. You may read more about them here.

Create repository secret

We will not have the ability to use .env files with the workflow, so it's better to store the environment variables as actions secrets. Let's add your discord bot's token as a secret

  1. Head to your repository page -> Settings -> Secrets -> Actions
  2. Press New repository secret
  3. Give it a name like TOKEN and paste the token. Now we will be able to access its value in workflow like ${{ secrets.TOKEN }}. However, we also need to parse the variable into container now. Edit docker-compose so it looks like this:
version: "3.8"
    build: .
    container_name: mybot
      - /home/exenifix/mybot-data:/app/data
      - TOKEN

Setup self-hosted runner

To run the workflow on our VPS, we will need to register it as self-hosted runner.

  1. Head to Settings -> Actions -> Runners
  2. Press New self-hosted runner
  3. Select runner image and architecture
  4. Follow the instructions but don't run the runner
  5. Instead, create a service
$ sudo ./ install
$ sudo ./ start

Now we have registered our VPS as a self-hosted runner and we can run the workflow on it now.

Write a workflow

Create a new file .github/workflows/runner.yml and paste the following content into it. Please pay attention to the branches instruction. The GitHub's standard main branch name is main, however it may be named master or something else if you edited its name. Make sure to put the correct branch name, otherwise it won't work. More about GitHub workflows syntax here

name: Docker Runner

    branches: [ main ]

    runs-on: self-hosted
    environment: production

      - uses: actions/checkout@v3

      - name: Run Container
        run: docker compose up -d --build
          TOKEN: ${{ secrets.TOKEN }}

      - name: Cleanup Unused Images
        run: docker image prune -f

Run docker rm -f mybot (it only needs to be done once) and push to GitHub. Now if you open Actions tab on your repository, you should see a workflow running your bot. Congratulations!

Displaying logs in actions terminal

There's a nice utility for reading docker container's logs and stopping upon meeting a certain phrase and it might be useful for you as well.

  1. Install the utility on your VPS with
$ pip install exendlr
  1. Add a step to your workflow that would show the logs until it meets "ready" phrase. I recommend putting it before the cleanup.
- name: Display Logs
  run: python3 -m exendlr mybot "ready"

Now you should see the logs of your bot until the stop phrase is met.


The utility only reads from STDERR and redirects to STDERR, if you are using STDOUT for logs, it will not work and will be waiting for stop phrase forever. The utility automatically exits if bot's container is stopped (e.g. error occurred during starting) or if a log line contains a stop phrase. Make sure that your bot 100% displays a stop phrase when it's ready otherwise your workflow will get stuck.