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May 29, 2024

Understand the Difference Between Docker Engine and Docker Desktop with TheSecMaster

Docker Engine vs Docker Desktop Explained

Well, we covered what is a container and Docker in our previous posts. We don't want to say it again and again. Please read our Docker posts where we covered Linux Containers, Dockers, their architecture, Docker CE vs EE, procedure to install Docker on Linux. We recommend reading those posts if you are a new bee. If you read those posts and notice that there are two different entities, Docker Engine, and Docker Desktop. You might think that these are the same things, but the answer is not. Docker Engine and Docker Desktop are two different things and are built for different purposes. I you want to learn the difference between those two, you are at the right place. We published this post to let you know the difference between Docker Engine and Docker Desktop.

Let's start this post by understanding the Docker Engine and Docker Desktop, then see some of the differences, get to the pros and cons of each of them, when we should use Docker Engine and Docker Desktop, and finally, can be run simultaneously? Let's get started.

What is Docker Engine & Docker Desktop?

Docker Engine and Docker Desktop are both software tools developed by Docker Inc., a company that provides open-source tooling for working with containers.

Docker Engine:

Fig 1: Docker Engine Architecture (Source:

Docker Engine is the core of Docker. It is a client-server application with these major components:

  • A server which is a type of long-running program called a daemon.

  • A REST API which specifies interfaces that programs can use to talk to the daemon and instruct it what to do.

  • A command line interface (CLI) client.

Docker Engine takes in commands from the Docker client, and manages Docker objects like images, containers, networks, and volumes. It's also responsible for building and running Docker containers.

Docker Desktop:

Fig 2: Docker Desktop

Docker Desktop is an application for MacOS and Windows machines for the building and sharing of containerized applications. It includes Docker Engine, Docker CLI client, Docker Compose, and Kubernetes. It provides a graphical user interface (GUI) to work with Docker, which makes it more user-friendly than using the Docker Engine alone. With Docker Desktop, you can easily start, stop, and manage Docker containers, and it comes preconfigured to work with your local system.

To be precise, Docker Engine is a subset of Docker Desktop. Docker Desktop is a virtual machine with GUI interface. Docker Desktop runs Docker Engine, Docker CE,  Docker Compose, Containers, and whatever it has inside the virtual machine except the Docker Client (Docker CLI). Docker Client runs on the host machine. 

What is difference between Docker Engine and Docker Desktop (Docker Engine vs Docker Desktop)?

Docker Engine and Docker Desktop are two separate but related offerings from Docker, with distinct differences in terms of installation, operational requirements, resource allocation and performance, security features, and cost.

This table provides a broad overview of the differences between Docker Engine and Docker Desktop at the time of publishing the post. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, please refer to the official Docker documentation or directly contact Docker support.

Comparable Factors
Docker Engine
Docker Desktop
Docker Engine is an open-source containerization technology for building and containerizing applications. It acts as a client-server application.
Docker Desktop is a virtual machine integrated with a graphical user interface. It has some additional features, such as the capability to run a single-node Kubernetes cluster easily.
Docker Engine is composed of a server with a long-running daemon process (dockerd), APIs which specify interfaces that programs can use to talk to and instruct the Docker daemon, and a command-line interface (CLI) client (docker).
Docker Desktop includes Docker Engine. In Docker Desktop, the daemon is inside the virtual machine, but the client is on the host machine.
Docker Engine does not specify any restrictions regarding the network.
When using Docker Desktop, the Docker network exists only inside the virtual machine, not on your host. This is also true for local volumes. Even if you use the host network mode (docker run --net host), it will be the host network of the virtual machine, not your actual physical host.
Container Execution
Docker Engine runs containers directly on the host system.
Docker Desktop runs Docker containers inside the virtual machine. Docker Desktop tries to abstract this fact from you so you don’t need to manually set up a virtual machine and the client-server connection.
Platform Requirements
Docker Engine can run directly on Linux, while on Windows and MacOS, a virtual machine is typically used to run Linux containers.
Docker Desktop is typically used on Windows and MacOS to run Linux containers inside a virtual machine. Even on Linux, Docker Desktop still runs inside a virtual machine to provide a consistent experience across platforms.

Table 1: Docker Engine vs Docker Desktop

Differences in Installation and Requirements

Docker Engine, sometimes referred to as Docker Community Edition (CE), is the underlying client-server technology that builds and runs containers using Docker's components. It can be installed on various Linux distributions and requires knowledge of command-line interfaces.

Docker Desktop, on the other hand, is designed for Mac and Windows users. It's a user-friendly application that includes Docker Engine, Docker CLI client, Docker Compose, Docker Machine, and Kubernetes. It offers a GUI in addition to the command-line interface, making it more accessible to users who aren't as familiar with command-line tools.

Operational Differences between the two

Docker Engine operates primarily through the command-line interface and is often used in production environments. It's highly configurable and can be adjusted to suit a variety of use-cases.

Docker Desktop is more user-friendly and aimed at developers and those learning Docker. It provides an easy-to-use interface, includes additional tools like the Docker Dashboard for easier container management, and automatically updates to the latest version.

Resource Allocation and Performance Considerations

Docker Engine's resource allocation and performance is highly dependent on the host system, and can be configured based on the specific requirements of the application it's running.

Docker Desktop, since it runs in a virtual machine (VM) on Mac and Windows, has a fixed set of resources allocated to it. This can affect performance, especially on resource-constrained systems. However, Docker Desktop allows for adjusting these allocations within the app's settings.

Security Features of Each Platform

Docker Engine, being a lower-level tool, gives users more control over security settings. It supports features such as secure computing mode (seccomp), discretionary access control (DAC), and mandatory access control (MAC).

Docker Desktop, while also providing a secure environment, manages many of these settings automatically. It does allow for some customization, but not to the extent of Docker Engine.

The cost of each software solution

Docker Engine (Community Edition) is free to use. Docker also offers a paid Enterprise Edition with additional features and support for business use.

Docker Desktop is also free for personal use, but there are commercial licenses available for enterprises that include additional features and support.

When to use each software? – scenarios for different use-cases

Docker Engine and Docker Desktop are two different components of the Docker ecosystem, each with their own specific use cases and benefits.

Docker Engine: This is the core runtime that builds and runs containers. Docker Engine is designed to be used in environments where you need a standalone, minimal installation of Docker. It is suitable for server environments and other situations where you don't need the additional features provided by Docker Desktop.

Scenarios for using Docker Engine include:

- Production environments: Docker Engine is typically used in production environments where you want to deploy your applications. It's a lightweight and secure runtime that allows you to scale your applications easily.

- CI/CD pipelines: Docker Engine is often used in Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. It allows you to build and test your Docker images in a reproducible environment.

- On Linux servers: Docker Engine is typically used on Linux servers, since Docker Desktop is not available for Linux.

Docker Desktop: This is an application for MacOS and Windows that includes everything you need to build and run Dockerized applications. Docker Desktop includes Docker Engine, Docker CLI client, Docker Compose, and Docker Kubernetes. It also comes with additional features like a GUI, automatic updates, and the ability to switch between different Docker contexts.

Scenarios for using Docker Desktop include:

- Local development environments: Docker Desktop is primarily intended for local development and testing. The GUI and additional tools it provides are very helpful for developers who are creating, debugging, and testing Dockerized applications on their local machine.

- Learning and experimenting: Docker Desktop is great for those who are just starting with Docker. Its user-friendly interface and included tutorials make it an excellent learning tool.

- Windows and MacOS users: Docker Desktop is the easiest way to get started with Docker on Windows and MacOS. It includes a fully integrated Docker experience that works seamlessly with the host operating system.

Remember, you would typically use both in conjunction with each other: Docker Desktop for local development and testing, and Docker Engine for deploying your application in a production environment.

Why Docker Desktop is Required in Mac and Windows, and Not is Linux?

Docker Desktop is a streamlined platform for building, debugging, and testing applications in a Dockerized environment. It's designed to simplify the process of managing Docker containers and includes a GUI that provides easy access to Docker's features. Docker Desktop is required on Mac and Windows due to the fundamental differences between these operating systems and Linux.

1. Docker Natively Runs on Linux: Docker containers use Linux-specific features like namespaces and cgroups to isolate processes and control their resource use. This means Docker can run natively on Linux, without the need for any extra layers of virtualization or abstraction.

2. Mac and Windows Lack Native Docker Support: However, both macOS and Windows do not have the Linux kernel, and thus cannot natively run Docker. To overcome this, Docker Desktop for Mac and Windows includes a Linux virtual machine that can run Docker. This Linux VM is managed by Docker Desktop and is mostly hidden from the user, but it's essential for Docker to function on these platforms.

3. User Interface and Additional Features: Docker Desktop also provides a user-friendly interface and additional features not available in the command-line version of Docker, like the Docker Dashboard and Kubernetes integration. While Linux users can install Docker Desktop, it's not necessary for running Docker containers - they can do this directly using the Docker command-line interface.

Can Docker Desktop and Docker Engine Be Installed and Run Parallel?

Docker Desktop and Docker Engine are not separate programs that run in parallel, rather Docker Desktop is an application that includes Docker Engine along with other Docker components and tools.

In other words, Docker Desktop is a packaging of the Docker Engine for MacOS and Windows, which also includes additional features to make it more user-friendly. These additional features include a graphical user interface, Kubernetes integration, and some additional tools like Docker Compose.

So, you don't really install Docker Engine and Docker Desktop in parallel on the same system. If you're on Windows or Mac, you would typically just install Docker Desktop, and that would give you Docker Engine along with the additional tools and features. If you're on a Linux system, you would typically install Docker Engine directly.

Even on top of that, if you decided to try both Docker Engine and Docker Desktop on the same Linux machine, you can go ahead. Docker Desktop for Linux and Docker Engine can coexist on the same machine, providing you with the flexibility to utilize both tools. However, it is essential to understand the potential issues that may arise when running them simultaneously. One common problem is the conflicting usage of network ports for container mapping.

To mitigate this issue, we recommend stopping the Docker Engine while using Docker Desktop. By doing so, you can prevent resource consumption and conflicts. To stop the Docker Engine service, execute the following command:

sudo systemctl stop docker docker.socket containerd

In some cases, the Docker Engine may be configured to start automatically as a system service when your machine boots up. To disable the automatic startup of Docker Engine, preventing it from launching without your explicit command, use the following command:

sudo systemctl disable docker docker.socket containerd

Benefits of Isolated Storage for Docker Desktop

Docker Desktop for Linux stores containers and images in an isolated storage location within a virtual machine (VM). This separation allows Docker Desktop to have its own dedicated resources without interfering with the Docker Engine installation on the same machine.

By having a dedicated storage location, Docker Desktop ensures that it does not conflict with the Docker Engine and maintains independent control over its resources. This isolation prevents any potential disruptions and guarantees a smooth operation for both Docker Desktop and Docker Engine.

Enhancing Compatibility and Preventing Conflicts

Running Docker Desktop and Docker Engine side-by-side offers numerous benefits, but it is crucial to take certain precautions to maintain compatibility and prevent conflicts. Here are some best practices to follow:

1. Manage Network Port Reservations: When mapping network ports (-p / --publish) for containers, ensure that Docker Desktop and Docker Engine do not attempt to reserve the same port on your machine simultaneously. Conflicting port reservations can lead to errors such as "port already in use." To avoid this, plan your port mappings carefully and ensure there are no overlaps.

2. Monitor Resource Usage: Docker Desktop is resource-intensive, and running it alongside Docker Engine can impact overall system performance. Keep a close eye on the resource consumption and allocate sufficient resources to each tool to maintain smooth operations. Adjust resource limits as necessary, taking into account the requirements of your applications.

3. Regular Updates: Stay up to date with the latest versions of Docker Desktop and Docker Engine. New updates often bring bug fixes, performance improvements, and new features. By keeping your installations current, you can benefit from the latest enhancements and ensure compatibility between the two tools.


In summary, Docker Engine and Docker Desktop are two Docker applications with different functionalities and use cases. Docker Engine is the backbone of Docker technology, and it should be treated as such. Its installation and usage require a certain level of command-line know-how, but it is ideal for production environments. Docker Desktop, on the other hand, is perfect for developers who want to work with containers without getting bogged down in command-line usage. It comes with a GUI and several additional tools that make Docker adoption easier. Ultimately, whether you choose Docker Engine or Docker Desktop depends on your use case.  So, if you are an IT professional, developer, or a security engineer, then choose the one that suits your needs.

We hope this post helps you understand the difference between Docker Engine and Docker Desktop, when we should use Docker Engine and Docker Desktop, and finally, can both be run simultaneously, in this blog post.  We are going to end this post for now, we will cover more information about the Docker in the up coming articles. Please keep visiting for more such technical information. Visit our social media page on Facebook, Instagram,  LinkedIn, Twitter, Telegram, Tumblr, & Medium and subscribe to receive information like this. 

Arun KL

Arun KL is a cybersecurity professional with 15+ years of experience in IT infrastructure, cloud security, vulnerability management, Penetration Testing, security operations, and incident response. He is adept at designing and implementing robust security solutions to safeguard systems and data. Arun holds multiple industry certifications including CCNA, CCNA Security, RHCE, CEH, and AWS Security.

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