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Linux containers (LXC) provide a means to create a binary file that contains an execution environment (all software required to execute some code). Rather than installing those so called dependencies and then installing the software itself, the entire software system is contained in a single file. A container can be generated from a single file. Find a discussion of container flavors here.

Working with containers (with Apptainer)

Apptainer is the container system installed on the Slurm cluster. In contrast to Docker, it does not grant the user elevated privileges and is well-suited to multi-user environments. Nonetheless, it can run containers from Docker images as long as they do not depend on intrinsic root privileges such as binding to host ports below 1024.

This document is not a comprehensive guide on Apptainer. To learn more, see the official manual.

Basic commands

Apptainer provides the following commands for launching containers:

  • apptainer run: executes the default startup command.
  • apptainer exec: executes a custom command.
  • apptainer shell: executes an interactive shell.
  • apptainer instance start: executes a background service.

The above commands support mostly the same set of options.

Executing a Docker image

When using the prefix docker://, Apptainer pulls the image from Docker Hub.

apptainer run docker://alpine

The default execution model of Apptainer is different from Docker's. The container filesystem in Apptainer is read-only, although a number of paths such as /tmp, the user's home and the current directory are mounted read-write from the host into the container. Additionally, the default container user is the host user rather than root. The following examples demonstrate the effects of this behavior.

# When creating a file in the container, it is owned by the current user both in the container and on the host.
alice@c1:~$ apptainer exec \
    docker://alpine \
    sh -c 'touch hello && ls -l hello'
-rw-rw-r--    1 alice   alice           0 Apr 13 10:07 hello
alice@c1:~$ ls -l hello
-rw-rw-r-- 1 alice alice 0 Apr 13 10:07 hello
# Non-mounted paths are read-only.
alice@c1:~$ apptainer exec \
    docker://alpine \
    apk add busybox-extras
ERROR: Unable to lock database: Read-only file system
ERROR: Failed to open apk database: Read-only file system

The immutability of non-mounted paths, in combination with executing as the host user, makes it convenient to run multiple containers in parallel on the cluster with easy access to NFS storage. If this is not desired, other modes of operation are listed below.


If a Docker image expects to be able to write in specific locations, they can simply be mounted in the container while preserving the read-only mode for the rest of the filesystem. For example:

mkdir ~/pgrun ~/pgdata
apptainer run \
    --bind ~/pgdata:/var/lib/postgresql/data \
    --bind ~/pgrun:/var/run/postgresql \
    --env POSTGRES_PASSWORD=secret \

Writable tmpfs

The option --writable-tmpfs creates a writable area that allows making changes to the container filesystem. The default size is 16 MiB, therefore it is only suitable for small writes such as PID or state-tracking files. Any changes are lost when the container exits.

mkdir ~/pgdata
apptainer run \
    --bind ~/pgdata:/var/lib/postgresql/data \
    --writable-tmpfs \
    --env POSTGRES_PASSWORD=secret \


Apptainer can switch to a full read-write model by combining sandbox directories with fakeroot mode. A sandbox is a filesystem tree in a directory on the host. When executing a container from a sandbox, the filesystem can be made writable. Fakeroot mode makes the user appear as root in the container, thereby allowing complete access to the container filesystem.

# Create a sandbox on local storage.
alice@c1:~$ apptainer build --sandbox /local/work/mysandbox docker://alpine
alice@c1:~$ ls /local/work/mysandbox
bin  dev  environment  etc  home  lib  media  mnt  opt  proc  root  run  sbin  singularity  srv  sys  tmp  usr  var

# Install a package in the sandbox.
alice@c1:~$ apptainer exec \
    --writable \
    --fakeroot \
    /local/work/mysandbox \
    apk add busybox-extras

Fakeroot mode cannot work properly if the sandbox directory is on NFS. For best results, sandboxes should be placed on local storage as shown in the example above.

Depending on the changes made to a sandbox, it might not be possible to delete it from the host as a regular user, although it can always be deleted from a fakeroot container:

# Remove the contents of the sandbox.
apptainer exec --fakeroot --bind /local/work/mysandbox docker://alpine rm -R /local/work/mysandbox

# Remove the leftover empty directory.
rmdir /local/work/mysandbox

Using GPUs

The --nv option instructs Apptainer to add GPU support to the container.

apptainer exec --nv docker:// /usr/bin/nvidia-smi

Apptainer doesn't have an equivalent of the --gpus option from the NVIDIA Docker runtime. The environment variable CUDA_VISIBLE_DEVICES should be used to control GPU visibility inside the container. See Targeting GPU nodes with Slurm.