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Containerization encapsulating or packaging up software code and all its dependencies to run uniformly and consistently on any infrastructure. On ZIH systems Singularity is used as a standard container solution. Singularity enables users to have full control of their environment. This means that you don’t have to ask the HPC support to install anything for you - you can put it in a Singularity container and run! As opposed to Docker (the most famous container solution), Singularity is much more suited to being used in an HPC environment and more efficient in many cases. Docker containers can easily be used in Singularity. Information about the use of Singularity on ZIH systems can be found on this page.

In some cases using Singularity requires a Linux machine with root privileges (e.g. using the partition ml), the same architecture and a compatible kernel. For many reasons, users on ZIH systems cannot be granted root permissions. A solution is a Virtual Machine (VM) on the partition ml which allows users to gain root permissions in an isolated environment. There are two main options on how to work with Virtual Machines on ZIH systems:

  1. VM tools: Automated algorithms for using virtual machines;
  2. Manual method: It requires more operations but gives you more flexibility and reliability.

Usage of Singularity

If you wish to containerize your workflow and/or applications, you can use Singularity containers on ZIH systems. As opposed to Docker, this solution is much more suited to being used in an HPC environment.


It is not possible for users to generate new custom containers on ZIH systems directly, because creating a new container requires root privileges.

However, new containers can be created on your local workstation and moved to ZIH systems for execution. Follow the instructions for locally installing Singularity and container creation. Moreover, existing Docker container can easily be converted, see Import a docker container.

If you are already familiar with Singularity, you might be more interested in our singularity recipes and hints.

Local Installation

The local installation of Singularity comprises two steps: Make go available and then follow the instructions from the official documentation to install Singularity.

  1. Check if go is installed by executing go version. If it is not:

    marie@local$ wget '' && chmod +x
    installer_linux && ./installer_linux && source $HOME/.bash_profile
  2. Instructions to install Singularity from the official documentation:

    Clone the repository

    marie@local$ mkdir -p ${GOPATH}/src/
    marie@local$ cd ${GOPATH}/src/
    marie@local$ git clone
    marie@local$ cd singularity

    Checkout the version you want (see the GitHub releases page for available releases), e.g.

    marie@local$ git checkout v3.2.1

    Build and install

    marie@local$ cd ${GOPATH}/src/
    marie@local$ ./mconfig && cd ./builddir && make
    marie@local$ sudo make install

Container Creation


It is not possible for users to generate new custom containers on ZIH systems directly, because creating a new container requires root privileges.

There are two possibilities:

  1. Create a new container on your local workstation (where you have the necessary privileges), and then copy the container file to ZIH systems for execution. Therefore you also have to install Singularity on your local workstation.
  2. You can, however, import an existing container from, e.g., Docker.

Both methods are outlined in the following.

New Custom Container

You can create a new custom container on your workstation, if you have root rights.

Respect the micro-architectures

You cannot create containers for the partition ml, as it bases on Power9 micro-architecture which is different to the x86 architecture in common computers/laptops. For that you can use the VM Tools.

Creating a container is done by writing a definition file, such as myDefinition.def, and passing it to singularity via

marie@local$ singularity build myContainer.sif myDefinition.def

A definition file contains a bootstrap header where you choose the base and sections where you install your software.

The most common approach is to start from an existing docker image from DockerHub. For example, to start from an Ubuntu image copy the following into a new file called ubuntu.def (or any other filename of your choice)

Bootstrap: docker
From: ubuntu:trusty

    echo "This is what happens when you run the container..."

    apt-get install g++

Then you can call

marie@local$ singularity build ubuntu.sif ubuntu.def

And it will install Ubuntu with g++ inside your container, according to your definition file. More bootstrap options are available. The following example, for instance, bootstraps a basic CentOS 7 image.

BootStrap: yum
OSVersion: 7
Include: yum

    echo "This is what happens when you run the container..."

    echo "Hello from inside the container"
    yum -y install vim-minimal

More examples of definition files can be found at

Import a Docker Container


As opposed to bootstrapping a container, importing from Docker does not require root privileges and therefore works on ZIH systems directly.

You can import an image directly from the Docker repository (Docker Hub):

marie@login$ singularity build my-container.sif docker://ubuntu:latest

Creating a singularity container directly from a local docker image is possible but not recommended. The steps are:

# Start a docker registry
marie@local$ docker run -d -p 5000:5000 --restart=always --name registry registry:2

# Push local docker container to it
marie@local$ docker tag alpine localhost:5000/alpine
marie@local$ docker push localhost:5000/alpine

# Create def file for singularity like this...
marie@local$ cat example.def
Bootstrap: docker
Registry: <a href="http://localhost:5000" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">http://localhost:5000</a>
From: alpine

# Build singularity container
marie@local$ singularity build --nohttps alpine.sif example.def

Start from a Dockerfile

As Singularity definition files and Dockerfiles are very similar you can start creating a definition file from an existing Dockerfile by "translating" each section.

There are tools to automate this. One of them is spython which can be installed with pip (add --user if you don't want to install it system-wide):

marie@local$ pip3 install -U spython

With this you can simply issue the following command to convert a Dockerfile in the current folder into a singularity definition file:

marie@local$ spython recipe Dockerfile myDefinition.def

Please verify your generated definition and adjust where required!

There are some notable changes between Singularity definitions and Dockerfiles:

  1. Command chains in Dockerfiles (apt-get update && apt-get install foo) must be split into separate commands (apt-get update; apt-get install foo). Otherwise a failing command before the ampersand is considered "checked" and does not fail the build.
  2. The environment variables section in Singularity is only set on execution of the final image, not during the build as with Docker. So *ENV* sections from Docker must be translated to an entry in the %environment section and additionally set in the %runscript section if the variable is used there.
  3. *VOLUME* sections from Docker cannot be represented in Singularity containers. Use the runtime option `-B` to bind folders manually.
  4. CMD and ENTRYPOINT from Docker do not have a direct representation in Singularity. The closest is to check if any arguments are given in the %runscript section and call the command from ENTRYPOINT with those, if none are given call ENTRYPOINT with the arguments of CMD:
if [ $# -gt 0 ]; then

Use the Containers

Enter a Shell in Your Container

A read-only shell can be entered as follows:

marie@login$ singularity shell my-container.sif


In contrast to, for instance, Docker, this will mount various folders from the host system including $HOME. This may lead to problems with, e.g., Python that stores local packages in the home folder, which may not work inside the container. It also makes reproducibility harder. It is therefore recommended to use --contain/-c to not bind $HOME (and others like /tmp) automatically and instead set up your binds manually via -B parameter. Example:

marie@login$ singularity shell --contain -B /scratch,/my/folder-on-host:/folder-in-container my-container.sif

You can write into those folders by default. If this is not desired, add an :ro for read-only to the bind specification (e.g. -B /scratch:/scratch:ro\). Note that we already defined bind paths for /scratch, /projects and /sw in our global singularity.conf, so you needn't use the -B parameter for those.

If you wish to install additional packages, you have to use the -w parameter to enter your container with it being writable. This, again, must be done on a system where you have the necessary privileges, otherwise you can only edit files that your user has the permissions for. E.g:

marie@local$ singularity shell -w my-container.sif> yum install htop

The -w parameter should only be used to make permanent changes to your container, not for your productive runs (it can only be used writable by one user at the same time). You should write your output to the usual ZIH filesystems like /scratch. Launching applications in your container

Run a Command Inside the Container

While the shell command can be useful for tests and setup, you can also launch your applications inside the container directly using "exec":

marie@login$ singularity exec my-container.sif /opt/myapplication/bin/run_myapp

This can be useful if you wish to create a wrapper script that transparently calls a containerized application for you. E.g.:


X=`which singularity 2>/dev/null`
if [ "z$X" = "z" ] ; then
  echo "Singularity not found. Is the module loaded?"
  exit 1

singularity exec /projects/p_number_crunch/my-container.sif /opt/myapplication/run_myapp "$@"

The better approach is to use singularity run, which executes whatever was set in the %runscript section of the definition file with the arguments you pass to it. Example: Build the following definition file into an image:

Bootstrap: docker
From: ubuntu:trusty

  apt-get install -y g++
  echo '#include <iostream>' > main.cpp
  echo 'int main(int argc, char** argv){ std::cout << argc << " args for " << argv[0] << std::endl; }' >> main.cpp
  g++ main.cpp -o myCoolApp
  mv myCoolApp /usr/local/bin/myCoolApp

  myCoolApp "$@
singularity build my-container.sif example.def

Then you can run your application via

marie@login$ singularity run my-container.sif first_arg 2nd_arg

Alternatively you can execute the container directly which is equivalent:

marie@login$ ./my-container.sif first_arg 2nd_arg

With this you can even masquerade an application with a singularity container as if it was an actual program by naming the container just like the binary:

marie@login$ mv my-container.sif myCoolAp


One common use-case for containers is that you need an operating system with a newer glibc version than what is available on ZIH systems. E.g., the bullx Linux on ZIH systems used to be based on RHEL 6 having a rather dated glibc version 2.12, some binary-distributed applications didn't work on that anymore. You can use one of our pre-made CentOS 7 container images (/scratch/singularity/centos7.img) to circumvent this problem. Example:

marie@login$ singularity exec /scratch/singularity/centos7.img ldd --version
ldd (GNU libc) 2.17