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Container Interface

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Also consult Writing Virtual Machine or Container Managers.

systemd has a number of interfaces for interaction with container managers when systemd is used within an OS container. If you write a container solution, please consider supporting the following interfaces.

Execution Environment

  1. If the container manager wants to influence the hostname for a machine it should just set it before invoking systemd in the container, and systemd will leave it unmodified (that is unless there's an explicit hostname configured in /etc/hostname which overrides whatever is pre-initialized by the container manager)
  2. Make sure to pre-mount /sys, and /proc, /sys/fs/selinux before invoking systemd, and mount /proc/sys and the entirety of /sys and /sys/fs/selinux read-only in order to avoid that the container can alter the host kernel's configuration settings. systemd and various tools (such as the selinux ones) have been modified to detect whether these file systems are read-only, and will behave accordingly.
  3. Pre-mount /dev as (container private) tmpfs for the container and bind mount some suitable TTY to /dev/console. Also, make sure to create device nodes for /dev/null, /dev/zero, /dev/full, /dev/random, /dev/urandom, /dev/tty, /dev/ptmx in /dev. It is not necessary to create /dev/fd or /dev/stdout, as systemd will do that on its own. Make sure to set up the "devices" cgroup controller so that no other devices but these may be created in the container. Note that many systemd services these days use PrivateDevices=, which means that systemd will set up a private /dev for them for which it needs to be able to create these device nodes. Dropping CAP_MKNOD for containers is hence generally not OK.
  4. udev is not available in containers (and refuses to start), and hence device dependencies are unavailable. The udev unit files will check for /sys being read-only, as an indication whether device management can work. Hence make sure to mount /sys read-only in the container (see above).
  5. If systemd detects it is run in a container it will spawn a single shell on /dev/console, and not care about VTs or multiple gettys on VTs. (But see $container_ttys below.)
  6. Either pre-mount all cgroup hierarchies in full into the container, or leave that to systemd which will do so if they are missing. Note that it is explicitly not OK to just mount a sub-hierarchy into the container as that is incompatible with /proc/$PID/cgroup (which lists full paths). Also the root-level cgroup directories tend to be quite different from inner directories, and that distinction matters. It is OK however, to mount the "upper" parts read-only of the hierarchies, and only allow write-access to the cgroup subtree the container runs in. It's also a good idea to mount all controller hierarchies with exception of "name=systemd" fully read-only, to protect the controllers from alteration from inside the containers. Or to turn this around: only the cgroup subtree of the container itself in the name=systemd hierarchy must be writable to the container.
  7. Create the control group root of your container by either running your container as a service (in case you have one container manager instance per container instance) or creating one scope unit for each container instance via systemd's transient unit API (in case you have one container manager that manages all instances. Either way, make sure to set Delegate=yes in it. This ensures that that the unit you created will be part of all cgroup controllers (or at least the ones systemd understands). The latter may also be done via machined's CreateMachine API. Make sure to use the cgroup path systemd put your process in for all operations of the container. Do not add new cgroup directories to the top of the tree. This will not only confuse systemd and the admin, but also ensure your implementation is not "stackable".

Environment Variables

  1. To allow systemd (and other code) to identify that it is executed within a container, please set the $container= environment variable for PID 1 in the container to a short lowercase string identifying your implementation. With this in place the ConditionVirtualization= setting in unit files will work properly. Example: "container=lxc-libvirt"
  2. systemd has special support for allowing container managers to initialize the UUID for /etc/machine-id to some manager supplied value. This is only enabled if /etc/machine-id is empty (i.e. not yet set) at boot time of the container. The container manager should set $container_uuid= as environment variable for the container's PID 1 to the container UUID it wants to set. (This is similar to the effect of qemu's -uuid switch). Note that you should pass only a UUID here that is actually unique (i.e. only one running container should have a specific UUID), and gets changed when a container gets duplicated. Also note that systemd will try to persistently store the UUID in /etc/machine-id (if writable) when this option is used, hence you should always pass the same UUID here. Keeping the externally used UUID for a container and the internal one in sync is hopefully useful to minimize surprise for the administrator.
  3. systemd can automatically spawn login gettys on additional ptys. A container manager can set the $container_ttys= environment variable for the container's PID 1 to tell it on which ptys to spawn gettys. The variable should take a space seperated list of pty names, without the leading "/dev" prefix, but with the "pts/" prefix included. Note that despite the variable's name you may only specify ptys, and not other types of ttys. Also you need to specify the pty itself, a symlink will not suffice. This is implemented in systemd-getty-generator(8). Note that this variable should not include the pty that /dev/console maps to if it maps to one (see below). Example: if the container receives "container_ttys=pts/7 pts/8 pts/14" it will spawn three additionally login gettys on ptys 7, 8 and 14.

Advanced Integration

  1. Consider syncing /etc/localtime from the host file system into the container. Make it a relative symlink to the containers's zoneinfo dir, as usual. Tools rely on being able to determine the timezone setting from the symlink value, and by making it relative it looks nice even if people list the containers' /etc from the host.
  2. Make the container journal available in the host, by automatically symlinking the container journal directory into the host journal directory. More precisely, link /var/log/journal/ of the container into the same dir of the host. Administrators can then automatically browse all container journals (correctly interleaved) by issuing "journalctl -m". The container machine ID you can determine from /etc/machine-id in the container.
  3. If the container manager wants to cleanly shutdown the container, it might be a good idea to send SIGRTMIN+3 to its init process. systemd will then do a clean shutdown. Note however, that only systemd understands SIGRTMIN+3 like this, this might confuse other init systems.
  4. To support Socket Activated Containers the container manager should be capable of being run as a systemd service. It will then receive the sockets starting with FD 3, the number of passed FDs in $LISTEN_FDS and its PID as $LISTEN_PID. It should take these and pass them on to the container's init process, also setting $LISTEN_FDS and $LISTEN_PID (basically, it can just leave the FDs and $LISTEN_FDS untouched, but it needs to set $LISTEN_PID to for the container init process). That's all that's necessary to make socket activation work. The protocol to hand sockets from systemd to services is hence the same as from a container manager to a container systemd. For further details see the explanations of sd_listen_fds(1) and the blog story for service developers.
  5. Container managers should stay away from the "name=systemd" cgroup hierarchy outside of the unit they created for their container. That's private property of systemd, and no other code should interfere with it.


  1. Inside of a container, if a veth link is named "host0", systemd-networkd running inside of the container will by default do DHCPv4 client, DHCPv6 client and IPv4LL on it. It is thus recommended that container managers that add a veth link to a container name it "host0", to get automatically configured networked, with no manual interference from outside.
  2. Outside of a container, if a veth link is prefixed "ve-" will by default do DHCPv4 server and DHCPv6 serer on it, as well as IPv4LL. It is thus recommended that container managers that add a veth link to a container name the external side "ve-" followed by the container name.
  3. It is recommended to configure stable MAC addresses to container veth devices, for example hashed out of the container names. That way it is more likely that DHCP and Ipv4LL will acquire stable addresses.

What You Shouldn't Do

  1. Do not drop CAP_MKNOD from the container. PrivateDevices= is a commonly used service setting that provides a service with its own, private, minimal version of /dev. To set this up systemd in the container needs this capability. If you take away the capability than all services that set this flag will cease to work, and this are increasingly many, as we encourage people to make use of this functionality. Use the "devices" cgroup logic to restrict what device nodes the container can create instead of taking away the capability instead. (Also see section about fully unprivileged containers below.)
  2. Do not drop CAP_SYS_ADMIN from the container. A number of fs namespacing related settings, such as PrivateDevices=, ProtectHome=, ProtectSystem=, MountFlags=, PrivateTmp=, ReadWriteDirectories=, ReadOnlyDirectories=, InaccessibleDirectories=, MountFlags= need to be able to open new mount namespaces and the mount certain file system into it. You break all services that make use of these flags if you drop the flag. Note that already quite a number of services make use of this as we actively encourage users to make use of this security functionality. Also note that logind mounts XDG_RUNTIME_DIR as tmpfs for all logged in users and won't work either if you take away the capability. (Also see section about fully unprivileged containers below.)
  3. Do not cross-link /dev/kmsg with /dev/console. They are different things, you cannot link them to each other.
  4. Do not pretend that the real VTs would be available in the containers. The VT subsystem consists of all devices /dev/tty*, /dev/vcs*, /dev/vcsa* plus their sysfs counterparts. They speak specific ioctl()s and understand specific escape sequences, that other ptys don't understand. Hence, it is explicitly not OK to mount a pty to /dev/tty1, /dev/tty2, /dev/tty3. This is explicitly not supported.
  5. Don't pretend that passing arbitrary devices to containers could work. For example, do not pass device nodes for block devices, ... into the container. Device access (with the exception of network devices) is not virtualized on Linux. Enumeration and probing of meta information from /sys and elsewhere is not possible to do correctly in a container. Simply adding a specific device node to a container's /dev is not enough to do the job, as udev and suchlike are not available at all, and no devices will appear available or enumerable, inside the container.
  6. Don't mount only a subtree of the cgroupfs into the container. This will not work as /proc/$PID/cgroup lists full paths and cannot be matched up with the actual cgroupfs tree visible, then. (Also see above.)

Fully Unprivileged Container Payload

First things first, to make this clear: Linux containers are not a security technology right now. There are more holes in the model than in a swiss cheese.

For example: If you do not use user namespacing, and share root and other users between container and host, the "struct user" structures will be shared between host and container, and hence RLIMIT_NPROC and so of the container users affect the host and other containers, and vice versa. This is a major security hole, and actually is a real-life problem: since avahi sets RLIMIT_NPROC of its user to 2 (to effectively disallow fork()ing) you cannot run more than one avahi instance on the entire system...

People have been asking to be able to run systemd without CAP_SYS_ADMIN and CAP_SYS_MKNOD in the container. This is now supported to some level in systemd, but we recommend against it (see above). If CAP_SYS_ADMIN and CAP_SYS_MKNOD are missing from the containers systemd will now gracefully turn off PrivateTmp=, PrivateNetwork=, ProtectHome=, ProtectSystem= and others, because those caps are requires to implement these options. The services using these settings (which include many of systemd's own) will hence run in a different, less secure environment when the caps are missing than with them around.

With user namespacing in place things get much better. With user namespaces the "struct user" issue described above goes away, and containers can keep CAP_SYS_ADMIN safely for the user namespace, as capabilities are virtualized and having caps inside a container doesn't mean one also has them outside. However user namespaces are currently not really deployable for other reasons: the OS images need manual UID shifting and there's no known, sane, established scheme to allocate UID ranges from the host.

Or in other words: don't pretend you could lock things down properly right now, with just namespaces, and keep things generic enough. Sorry.

Final Words

If you write software that wants to detect whether it is run in a container, please check /proc/1/environ and look for the container= environment variable. Do not assume the environment variable is inherited down the process tree. It generally is not. Hence check the environment block of PID 1, not your own. Note though that that file is only accessible to root. systemd hence early on also copies the value into /run/systemd/container, which is readable for everybody. However, that's a systemd-specific interface and other init systems are unlikely to do the same.

Note that it is our intention to make systemd systems work flawlessly and out-of-the-box in containers. In fact we are interested to ensure that the same OS image can be booted on a bare system, in a VM and in a container, and behave correctly each time. If you notice that some component in systemd does not work in a container as it should please contact us.