Definition Files

A SingularityCE Definition File (or “def file” for short) is like a set of blueprints explaining how to build a custom container. It includes specifics about the base OS to build or the base container to start from, as well as software to install, environment variables to set at runtime, files to add from the host system, and container metadata.

Overview

A SingularityCE Definition file is divided into two parts:

  1. Header: The Header describes the core operating system to build within the container. Here you will configure the base operating system features needed within the container. You can specify the Linux distribution, the specific version, and the packages that must be part of the core install (borrowed from the host system).

  2. Sections: The rest of the definition is comprised of sections, (sometimes called scriptlets or blobs of data). Each section is defined by a % character followed by the name of the particular section. All sections are optional, and a def file may contain more than one instance of a given section. Sections that are executed at build time are executed with the /bin/sh interpreter and can accept /bin/sh options. Similarly, sections that produce scripts to be executed at runtime can accept options intended for /bin/sh.

For more in-depth and practical examples of def files, see the Sylabs examples repository.

For a direct comparison between Dockerfiles and SingularityCE definition files, you can jump directly to the relevant section in the documentation.

Sections

The main content of the bootstrap file is broken into sections. Different sections add different content, or execute commands at different times during the build process. Note that if any command fails, the build process will halt.

Here is an example definition file that uses every available section. We will discuss each section in turn, below. It is not necessary to include every section (or any sections at all) within a def file. Furthermore, multiple sections of the same name can be included and will be appended to one another during the build process.

Bootstrap: library
From: ubuntu:22.04
Stage: build

%setup
    touch /file1
    touch ${SINGULARITY_ROOTFS}/file2

%files
    /file1
    /file1 /opt

%environment
    export LISTEN_PORT=54321
    export LC_ALL=C

%post
    apt-get update && apt-get install -y netcat
    NOW=`date`
    echo "export NOW=\"${NOW}\"" >> $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT

%runscript
    echo "Container was created $NOW"
    echo "Arguments received: $*"
    exec echo "$@"

%startscript
    nc -lp $LISTEN_PORT

%test
    grep -q NAME=\"Ubuntu\" /etc/os-release
    if [ $? -eq 0 ]; then
        echo "Container base is Ubuntu as expected."
    else
        echo "Container base is not Ubuntu."
        exit 1
    fi

%labels
    Author myuser@example.com
    Version v0.0.1

%help
    This is a demo container used to illustrate a def file that uses all
    supported sections.

Although the order of the sections in the def file is unimportant, they have been documented below in the order of their execution during the build process for ease of understanding.

%setup

During the build process, commands in the %setup section are first executed on the host system outside of the container, after the base OS has been installed. You can reference the container file system with the $SINGULARITY_ROOTFS environment variable in the %setup section.

Note

Be careful with the %setup section! This scriptlet is executed outside of the container on the host system itself, and is executed with elevated privileges when you run the build as root or with sudo. Commands in %setup can alter and potentially damage the host.

Moreover, whether the code in %setup runs successfully and correctly will depend on the configuration of the host system. That is exactly the kind of environment-dependency that containerization is meant to circumvent, in the first place.

You should avoid %setup wherever possible, and work inside the container in the %post block instead.

Consider the example from the definition file above:

%setup
    touch /file1
    touch ${SINGULARITY_ROOTFS}/file2

Here, file1 is created at the root of the file system on the host. We’ll use file1 to demonstrate the usage of the %files section below. file2, on the other hand, is created at the root of the file system within the container.

More recent versions of SingularityCE provide the %files section, which is a safer alternative to copying files from the host system into the container during the build process.

%files

The %files section allows you to copy files into the container with greater safety than using the %setup section. Its general form is:

%files [from <stage>]
    <source> [<destination>]
    ...

Each line is a <source> and <destination> pair. The <source> is either:

  1. A valid path to a file or directory on your host system

  2. A valid file.Match pattern matching one or more files or directories on your host system

  3. A valid path in a previous stage of the build

The <destination> is a path inside the current container. If the <destination> path is omitted it will be assumed to be the same as <source>. To show how copying from the host system works, let’s consider the example from the definition file above:

%files
    /file1
    /file1 /opt

This %files scriptlet will copy file1 from the root of the host filesystem to the root of the container filesystem, and then make a second copy of file1 inside /opt within the container filesystem (i.e., at /opt/file1) .

Copying Multiple Files with Patterns

To copy multiple files or directories at a time, you can specify a pattern as the <source> for a %files line. SingularityCE matches patterns to filenames using the Go file.Match syntax:

'*'         matches any sequence of non-Separator characters
'?'         matches any single non-Separator character
'[' [ '^' ] { character-range } ']'
            character class (must be non-empty)
c           matches character c (c != '*', '?', '\\', '[')
'\\' c      matches character c

character-range:
c           matches character c (c != '\\', '-', ']')
'\\' c      matches character c
lo '-' hi   matches character c for lo <= c <= hi

(See: https://pkg.go.dev/path/filepath#Match)

Some simple examples:

  • myfile* will match all files that have a name beginning with myfile. E.g. myfile-blue and myfileRed.

  • experiment??? will match all files that have a name beginning with experiment and followed by any three characters. It will match experiment001,``experiment002``, and experimentABC, but not experimentA.

  • document[0-9] will match document1, but not documentA or document01.

Copying Files Between stages

Files can also be copied from other stages in a multi stage build, by providing the source location in the previous stage and the destination in the current container.

%files from stage_name
  /root/hello /bin/hello

The only difference in behavior between copying files from your host system and copying them from previous build stages is that in the former case, symbolic links are followed, while in the latter case, symbolic links are preserved as symbolic links.

Files in the %files section are always copied before the %post section is executed, so that they are available during the build and configuration process.

%app*

In some circumstances, it may be redundant to build different containers for each app with nearly equivalent dependencies. SingularityCE supports installing apps within internal modules based on the concept of the Scientific Filesystem (SCIF). More information on defining and using SCIF Apps can be found here.

%post

This section is where you can download files from the internet with tools like git and wget, install new software and libraries, write configuration files, create new directories, etc.

The commands in the %post section run in a clean environment. Environment variables from the host are not passed into the build. To pass values into a build you should use the templating / build-args support introduced in SingularityCE 4.0.

Consider the %post section from the example definition file above:

%post
    apt-get update && apt-get install -y netcat

    NOW=`date`
    echo "export NOW=\"${NOW}\"" >> $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT

This %post scriptlet uses the Ubuntu package manager apt to update the container and install the program netcat (that will be used in the %startscript section below).

The scriptlet also sets an environment variable called NOW to the current date and time. It then writes an export statement for NOW into the file that is pointed to by $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT. This demonstrates how to set container environment variables (available when the container is run), that are not known when the definition file is written. Because the value of $NOW is only known when the date command in the %post scriptlet is run, it cannot be added to the %environment section.

Directing output into $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT will cause it to be written to a shell script file called /.singularity.d/env/91-environment.sh that will be sourced by the container at runtime. The export NAME=VALUE syntax is needed to make the environment variable available to all processes that are started in the container.

Note

Variables set in the %post section through $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT take precedence over those added via %environment.

The %post scriptlet will run under sh or bash by default. You can change the shell or interpreter that the scriptlet runs under by using a -c <shell> argument on the %post line, e.g:

%post -c /bin/zsh
   ...

In the %post section above, the scriptlet will be run by the zsh shell installed at /bin/zsh in the container. The requested shell must be present in the base image that was bootstrapped.

Note

Unlike the %test and %runscript sections, the %post section does not support hashbang lines (#!) for specifying a custom shell. The -c <shell> argument must be used instead.

%test

The %test section runs at the very end of the build process, and can be used to validate the container using methods of your choosing. You can also execute this scriptlet through the container itself, using the test command.

Consider the %test section from the example definition file above:

%test
    grep -q NAME=\"Ubuntu\" /etc/os-release
    if [ $? -eq 0 ]; then
        echo "Container base is Ubuntu as expected."
    else
        echo "Container base is not Ubuntu."
        exit 1
    fi

This (somewhat trivial) script tests whether the base OS is Ubuntu. You can use the %test section to test whether binaries were appropriately downloaded and built, or whether software works as expected on custom hardware. If you want to build a container without running the %test section (for example, if your build system does not have the same hardware that will be used in your production environment), you can do so by passing the --notest flag to the build command:

$ sudo singularity build --notest my_container.sif my_container.def

Running the test command on a container built with this def file yields the following:

$ singularity test my_container.sif
Container base is Ubuntu as expected.

One common use of the %test section is to run a quick check that the programs you installed in the container are indeed present.

Suppose you’ve installed the program samtools, by adding it to the list of packages passed to apt-get install in the %post section:

%post
    apt-get update && apt-get install -y netcat samtools
    NOW=`date` echo "export NOW=\"${NOW}\"" >>
    $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT

samtools prints a usage message when run without any options, so you might decide to test that it can be run by writing the following in the %test section:

%test
    echo 'Looking for samtools...'
    samtools

If samtools is not successfully installed in the container, then singularity build (if run without the --notest flag) will produce an error (such as samtools: not found) during the test phase of the build, and running singularity test will produce the same error.

The problem with this approach is that, like many other programs, samtools returns a non-zero error code when run without its mandatory options. So, while the %test section we just wrote will print the usage message of samtools if samtools has been installed, it will also report the error code (reflecting the absence of mandatory options to samtools), which is probably not what we want in this case.

A better approach would therefore be to run samtools with the version option, and check that the output is what we expected. Here, we do this by running grep on the output and checking that the version number begins with “1”:

%test
    echo 'Looking for samtools...'
    ( samtools --version | grep -q 'samtools 1' ) && echo 'Success!'

Because the %test section is a shell scriptlet, complex tests are possible. Remember that your scriptlet should be written so it exits with a non-zero error code if the test encounters a problem.

The %test scriptlet will run under sh or bash by default. You can change the shell or interpreter that the test runs under by using a custom hashbang (#!) as the first line in your %test section:

%test
   #!/bin/zsh

   echo "$(readlink /proc/$$/exe) is our shell"

In the %test section above, the #!/bin/zsh means that the test code will be run by the zsh shell installed at /bin/zsh. The echo statement given above will display the shell that is running the script, confirming that this works.

A custom hashbang runs the specified shell from the container filesystem, not the host. Therefore, zsh must be installed in the container, and since zsh is not built into the base Ubuntu image, it would have to be installed as part of the %post section for this %test code to work properly.

%environment

The %environment section allows you to define environment variables that will be set at runtime. Note that these variables are made available in the container at runtime, but not at build time. This means that if you need the same variables during the build process, you should also define them in your %post section. Specifically:

  • during build: The %environment section is written to a dedicated file in the container metadata directory. This file is not sourced.

  • during runtime: The file in the container metadata directory is sourced.

You should use the same conventions that you would use in a .bashrc or .profile file. Consider the %environment section from the example definition file above:

%environment
    export LISTEN_PORT=54321
    export LC_ALL=C

The $LISTEN_PORT variable will be used in the %startscript section of the same example, discussed below. The $LC_ALL variable is useful for many programs (especially those written in Perl) that expect a locale to be set.

After building this container, you can use a command like the following one to verify that the environment variables have been set appropriately at runtime:

$ singularity exec my_container.sif env | grep -E 'LISTEN_PORT|LC_ALL'
LISTEN_PORT=54321
LC_ALL=C

To set a default value for a variable in the %environment section, but adopt the value of a host environment variable if it is set, use the following syntax:

%environment
   FOO=${FOO:-'default'}

The value of FOO in the container will take the value of FOO on the host, or default if FOO is not set on the host or if --cleanenv / --containall have been specified.

Note

Variables added to the $SINGULARITY_ENVIRONMENT file in the %post section will take precedence over variables set in the %environment section.

See Environment and Metadata for more information about the SingularityCE container environment.

%startscript

Similar to the %runscript section, the contents of the %startscript section are written to a dedicated file within the container at build time. This file is executed when the instance start command is issued.

Consider the %startscript section from the example definition file above:

%startscript
    nc -lp $LISTEN_PORT

Here, the netcat (nc) program is used to listen for TCP traffic on the port indicated by the $LISTEN_PORT variable (set in the %environment section, above). The script can be invoked as follows:

$ singularity instance start my_container.sif instance1
INFO:    instance started successfully

$ netstat -ln | grep 54321
tcp        0      0 0.0.0.0:54321           0.0.0.0:*               LISTEN

$ singularity instance stop instance1
Stopping instance1 instance of /home/vagrant/my_container.sif (PID=19035)

%runscript

The contents of the %runscript section are written to a dedicated file within the container that is executed when the container image is run (either via the singularity run command or by executing the container directly as a command). When the container is invoked, arguments following the container name are passed to the runscript. This means that you can (and should) process arguments within your runscript.

Consider the %runscript section from the example definition file above:

%runscript
    echo "Container was created $NOW"
    echo "Arguments received: $*"
    exec echo "$@"

In this runscript, the time that the container was created is echoed via the $NOW variable (set in the %post section, above). The options passed to the container at runtime are printed as a single string ($*) and then they are passed to echo via a quoted array ($@) which ensures that all of the arguments are properly parsed by the executed command. The exec preceding the final echo command replaces the current entry in the process table (which originally was the call to SingularityCE). Thus, the runscript shell process ceases to exist, and only the process running within the container remains.

Running the container built using this def file will yield the following:

$ ./my_container.sif
Container was created Thu Dec  6 20:01:56 UTC 2018
Arguments received:

$ ./my_container.sif this that and the other
Container was created Thu Dec  6 20:01:56 UTC 2018
Arguments received: this that and the other
this that and the other

The %runscript scriptlet will run under sh or bash by default. You can change the shell or interpreter that the test runs under by using a custom hashbang (#!) as the first line in your %runscript section:

%runscript
   #!/bin/zsh

   echo "$(readlink /proc/$$/exe) is our shell"

Just like in the %test section, the #!/bin/zsh means that the runscript code will be run by the zsh shell installed at /bin/zsh. The echo statement given above will display the shell that is running the script, confirming that this works.

And just like in the %test section, a custom hashbang runs the specified shell from the container filesystem, not the host. Therefore, zsh must be installed in the container, and since zsh is not built into the base Ubuntu image, it would have to be installed as part of the %post section for this %runscript code to work properly.

%labels

The %labels section is used to add metadata to the file /.singularity.d/labels.json within your container. The general format is a name-value pair.

Consider the %labels section from the example definition file above:

%labels
    Author myuser@example.com
    Version v0.0.1
    MyLabel Hello World

Note that labels are key-value pairs. To define a new label, add a new line of text to the %labels section. The portion of text up to the first space will be taken as the label’s name, and the portion following it will be taken as the label’s value.

In the previous example, the first label name is Author with a value of myuser@example.com. The second label name is Version with a value of v0.0.1. Finally, the third label name is MyLabel with a value of Hello World.

You can inspect the available labels on your image by running the following command:

$ singularity inspect my_container.sif

{
  "Author": "myuser@example.com",
  "Version": "v0.0.1",
  "MyLabel": "Hello World",
  "org.label-schema.build-date": "Thursday_6_December_2018_20:1:56_UTC",
  "org.label-schema.schema-version": "1.0",
  "org.label-schema.usage": "/.singularity.d/runscript.help",
  "org.label-schema.usage.singularity.deffile.bootstrap": "library",
  "org.label-schema.usage.singularity.deffile.from": "ubuntu:18.04",
  "org.label-schema.usage.singularity.runscript.help": "/.singularity.d/runscript.help",
  "org.label-schema.usage.singularity.version": "3.0.1"
}

As you can see from this output, some labels are generated automatically from the build process. You can read more about labels and metadata here.

%help

Any text in the %help section is transcribed into a dedicated metadata file in the container during the build process. This text can then be displayed using the run-help command.

Consider the %help section from the example definition file above:

%help
    This is a demo container used to illustrate a def file that uses all
    supported sections.

After building the help can be displayed like so:

$ singularity run-help my_container.sif
    This is a demo container used to illustrate a def file that uses all
    supported sections.

Templating: How to Pass Values into Definition Files

Starting with version 4.0, SingularityCE definition files support templating: definition files can include placeholders for values that will be passed at build time, either using command-line options or by specifying a file that contains the relevant values.

Basics

To use templating, include a {{ placeholder }} at the point in your definition file where you’d like the passed-in value to go. For example:

Bootstrap: library
From: ubuntu:22.04
Stage: build

%runscript
    echo {{ some_text }}

When building a container from this definition file, a concrete value for {{ some_text }} can be passed via the --build-arg flag to the build command. This flag accepts a varname=value pair, as shown here:

$ sudo singularity build --build-arg some_text="Hello world" ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
Hello world

Alternatively, the varname=value assignments can be placed in a file, and the path to that file specified using the --build-arg-file flag to the build command, as shown here:

$ cat << EOF > ./my_args_file.txt
some_text="Hello again, world"
EOF

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg-file ./my_args_file.txt ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
Hello again, world

Working with multiple variables

A single definition file can use multiple different templating variables, use a single variable more than once, and use variables in different sections of the definition file, as shown here:

Bootstrap: library
From: ubuntu:22.04
Stage: build

%setup
    echo {{ file_contents }} > /tmp/test_file

%environment
    export CUSTOM_VAR_ONE={{ var_value1 }}
    export CUSTOM_VAR_TWO={{ var_value2 }}

%runscript
    echo "file contents:" `cat /tmp/test_file`
    echo "--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal:" {{ file_contents }}
    echo ""
    echo "env var: ${CUSTOM_VAR_ONE}"
    echo "--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal:" {{ var_value1 }}
    echo ""
    echo "env var: ${CUSTOM_VAR_TWO}"
    echo "--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal:" {{ var_value2 }}
    echo ""
    echo "and finally, here's some text:" {{ some_text}}

To use this definition file, one can pass values for all the different variables using --build-arg flags:

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg file_contents="'I am in a file'" --build-arg var_value1="'I am in an env var'" --build-arg var_value2="'I am also in an env var'" --build-arg some_text="'I am just some text'" ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Running setup scriptlet
+ echo 'I am in a file'
INFO:    Adding environment to container
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
file contents: I am in a file
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in a file

env var: I am in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in an env var

env var: I am also in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am also in an env var

and finally, here's some text: I am just some text

Or one can place the values for the different values in a file, and pass the path to that file using the --build-arg-file flag:

$ cat << EOF > ./my_args_file.txt
file_contents="I am in a file"
var_value1="I am in an env var"
var_value2="I am also in an env var"
some_text="I am just some text"
EOF

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg-file ./my_args_file.txt ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Running setup scriptlet
+ echo 'I am in a file'
INFO:    Adding environment to container
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
file contents: I am in a file
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in a file

env var: I am in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in an env var

env var: I am also in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am also in an env var

and finally, here's some text: I am just some text

Or one can use a combination of both strategies:

$ cat << EOF > ./my_args_file.txt
var_value1="I am in an env var"
some_text="I am just some text"
EOF

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg file_contents="'I am in a file'" --build-arg var_value2="'I am also in an env var'" --build-arg-file ./my_args_file.txt ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Running setup scriptlet
+ echo 'I am in a file'
INFO:    Adding environment to container
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
file contents: I am in a file
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in a file

env var: I am in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in an env var

env var: I am also in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am also in an env var

and finally, here's some text: I am just some text

Precedence among multiple value sources

In the event that an argument is passed via --build-arg more than once, the last occurrence will take precedence:

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg file_contents="'I am in a file (1st time)'" --build-arg var_value2="'I am also in an env var'" --build-arg file_contents="'I am in a file (2nd time)'" --build-arg-file ./my_args_file.txt ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Running setup scriptlet
+ echo 'I am in a file (2nd time)'
INFO:    Adding environment to container
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
file contents: I am in a file (2nd time)
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in a file (2nd time)

env var: I am in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in an env var

env var: I am also in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am also in an env var

and finally, here's some text: I am just some text

In the event that a variable is defined both in the file passed to --build-arg-file and via the command line using --build-arg flag, the value passed via the command line will take precedence:

$ cat << EOF > ./my_args_file.txt
var_value1="I am in an env var"
var_value2="I am also in an env var (from build arg file)"
some_text="I am just some text"
EOF

$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg file_contents="'I am in a file'" --build-arg var_value2="'I am also in an env var (from command line)'" --build-arg-file ./my_args_file.txt ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Running setup scriptlet
+ echo 'I am in a file'
INFO:    Adding environment to container
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
file contents: I am in a file
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in a file

env var: I am in an env var
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am in an env var

env var: I am also in an env var (from command line)
--> this should, if I'm not mistaken, equal: I am also in an env var (from command line)

and finally, here's some text: I am just some text

Default variable values: the %arguments section

If a definition file contains a variable placeholder and no value for that variable is provided (via either --build-arg or --build-arg-file), SingularityCE will generate an error:

Bootstrap: library
From: ubuntu:22.04
Stage: build

%runscript
   echo "Here is some text:" {{ some_text }}
   echo "And here is some more text:" {{ some_more_text }}
$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg some_more_text="more more more" ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
FATAL:   Unable to build from ./my_container.def: build var some_text is not defined through either --build-arg (--build-arg-file) or 'arguments' section

However, definition files can provide default values for some or all variables using the %arguments section, as shown here:

Bootstrap: library
From: ubuntu:22.04
Stage: build

%runscript
   echo "Here is some text:" {{ some_text }}
   echo "And here is some more text:" {{ some_more_text }}

%arguments
   some_text="Some default text"
   some_more_text="Some more default text"
$ sudo singularity build -F --build-arg some_more_text="more more more" ./my_container.sif ./my_container.def
INFO:    Starting build...
INFO:    Using cached image
INFO:    Verifying bootstrap image /root/.singularity/cache/library/sha256.7a63c14842a5c9b9c0567c1530af87afbb82187444ea45fd7473726ca31a598b
INFO:    Adding runscript
INFO:    Creating SIF file...
INFO:    Build complete: ./my_container.sif

$ singularity run ./my_container.sif
Here is some text: Some default text
And here is some more text: more more more

Note that in the event of a variable having both a default value and a value explicitly set via --build-arg or --build-arg-file, the explicitly-set value will take precedence (as the example above shows).

Multi-Stage Builds

Starting with version 3.2, SingularityCE supports multi-stage builds, where one environment can be used for compilation, and the resulting binary can then be copied into a different final environment. One of the important advantages of this approach is that it allows for a slimmer final image that does not require the entire development stack.

Bootstrap: docker
From: golang:1.12.3-alpine3.9
Stage: devel

%post
  # prep environment
  export PATH="/go/bin:/usr/local/go/bin:$PATH"
  export HOME="/root"
  cd /root

  # insert source code, could also be copied from the host with %files
  cat << EOF > hello.go
  package main
  import "fmt"

  func main() {
    fmt.Printf("Hello World!\n")
  }
EOF

  go build -o hello hello.go


# Install binary into the final image
Bootstrap: library
From: alpine:3.9
Stage: final

# install binary from stage one
%files from devel
  /root/hello /bin/hello

%runscript
  /bin/hello

The names of stages (assigned using the Stage keyword) are arbitrary. Each of these sections will be executed in the same order as described for a single stage build, except that the files from the previous stage are copied before the %setup section of the next stage is carried out. Files can only be copied from stages declared before the current stage in the definition. E.g., the devel stage in the above definition cannot copy files from the final stage, but the final stage can copy files from the devel stage.

SCIF Apps

SCIF is a standard for encapsulating multiple apps into a container. A container with SCIF apps has multiple entry points, and it is easy to choose which one you want to run. Each entry point can carry out a different task, with its own environment, metadata, etc., without the need for a collection of different containers.

SingularityCE implements SCIF, and you can read more about how to use it below.

Note

The OCI mode introduced in version 4 of SingularityCE also includes support for SCIF, but in a way that is in line with the behavior of SCIF in other OCI container runtimes (e.g. Docker). See the documentation on SCIF in OCI-mode for more information.

SCIF is not specific to SingularityCE. To learn more, take a look at the project’s site at https://sci-f.github.io/, which includes extended tutorials, a detailed specification of the SCIF standard, and other information.

SCIF %app* sections

SCIF apps within a SingularityCE container are created using %app* sections in a definition file. These %app* sections, which will impact the way the container runs a specific --app, can exist alongside any of the primary sections (i.e. %post,``%runscript``, %environment, etc.). As with other sections, the ordering of the %app* sections isn’t important.

The following runscript demonstrates how to build 2 different apps into the same container using SCIF modules:

Bootstrap: docker
From: ubuntu

%environment
    GLOBAL=variables
    AVAILABLE="to all apps"

##############################
# foo
##############################

%apprun foo
    exec echo "RUNNING FOO"

%applabels foo
    BESTAPP FOO

%appinstall foo
    touch foo.exec

%appenv foo
    SOFTWARE=foo
    export SOFTWARE

%apphelp foo
    This is the help for foo.

##############################
# bar
##############################

%apphelp bar
    This is the help for bar.

%applabels bar
    BESTAPP BAR

%appinstall bar
    touch bar.exec

%apprun bar
    exec echo "RUNNING BAR"

%appenv bar
    SOFTWARE=bar
    export SOFTWARE

An %appenv section is the app-specific equivalent of %environment.

Similarly, %appinstall is like %post but for a particular app. Note that just like the general %post section, %appinstall sections run at build time. Thus, when building a container from a definition file containing %appinstall sections, the content of all of these sections will be executed—even if later on, the user ends up running only some of the apps defined in the file and not others. This is why the SCIF Standard indicates that files & directories that are app-specific, and are potentially mutually-exclusive with the files & directories of other apps, be placed under the app-specific /scif/apps/<app-name> directory to avoid conflicts between different apps.

Installing apps into modules using the %app* sections enables the --app option, allowing commands like the following:

% singularity run --app foo my_container.sif
RUNNING FOO

This runs a specific app, foo, from the multi-app container we built.

The same environment variable, $SOFTWARE is defined for both apps in the def file above. You can execute the following command to search the list of active environment variables and grep to determine if the variable changes depending on the app we specify:

$ singularity exec --app foo my_container.sif env | grep SOFTWARE
SOFTWARE=foo

$ singularity exec --app bar my_container.sif env | grep SOFTWARE
SOFTWARE=bar

Best Practices for Writing Definition Files

When crafting your definition file, it is best to consider the following:

  1. Always install packages, programs, data, and files into operating system locations (e.g. not /home, /tmp , or any other directories that might get commonly bind mounted to host directories).

  2. Document your container. If your runscript doesn’t supply help, write a %help or %apphelp section. A good container tells the user how to interact with it.

  3. If you require any special environment variables to be defined, add them to the %environment and %appenv sections of the definition file.

  4. Files should always be owned by a system account (UID lower than 500).

  5. Ensure that sensitive files like /etc/passwd, /etc/group, and /etc/shadow do not contain secrets.

  6. Build production containers from a definition file instead of a sandbox that has been manually changed. This ensures maximal reproducibility, and mitigates the possibility of your production container being a “black box.”