HOWTO: Use Docker and Apptainer/Singularity Containers at OSC

It is now possible to run Docker and Apptainer/Singularity containers on the Owens and Pitzer clusters at OSC. Single-node jobs are currently supported, including GPU jobs; MPI jobs are planned for the future.

From the Docker website:  "A container image is a lightweight, stand-alone, executable package of a piece of software that includes everything needed to run it: code, runtime, system tools, system libraries, settings."

As of June 21st, 2022, Singularity is replaced with Apptainer, which is just a renamed open-source project. For more information visit the Apptainer/Singularity page

This document will describe how to run Docker and Apptainer/Singularity containers on the Owens and Pitzer. You can use containers from Docker Hub, Sylabs Cloud, or any other source. As examples we will use hello-world from Singularity Hub and ubuntu from Docker Hub.

If you encounter any error, check out Known Issues on using Apptainer/Singularity at OSC. If the issue can not be resolved, please contact OSC help


  1. Getting help
  2. Setting up your environment
  3. Access a container
  4. Run a container
  5. File system access
  6. GPU usage within a container
  7. Build a container
  8. References

Getting help

The most up-to-date help on Apptainer/Singularity comes from the command itself.

apptainer help

User guides and examples can be found in Apptainer documents.

Setting up your environment for Apptainer/Singularity usage

No setup is required. You can use Apptainer/Singularity directly on all clusters.

Accessing a container

An Apptainer/Singularity container is a single file with a .sif  extension.

You can simply download ("pull") a container from a hub. Popular hubs are Docker Hub and Singularity Hub. You can go there and search if they have a container that meets your needs. Docker Hub has more containers and may be more up to date but supports a much wider community than just HPC. Singularity Hub is for HPC, but the number of available containers are fewer. Additionally there are domain and vendor repositories such as biocontainers and NVIDIA HPC containers that may have relevant containers.

Pull a container from hubs

Docker Hub

Pull from the 7.2.0 branch of the gcc repository on Docker Hub. The 7.2.0 is called a tag.

apptainer pull docker://gcc:7.2.0

Filename:  gcc_7.2.0.sif

Pull an Ubuntu container from Docker Hub.

apptainer pull docker://ubuntu:18.04

Filename:  ubuntu_18.04.sif

Singularity Hub

Pull the singularityhub/hello-world container from the Singularity hub. Since no tag is specified it pulls from the master branch of the repository.

apptainer pull shub://singularityhub/hello-world

Filename:  hello-world_latest.sif

Downloading containers from the hubs is not the only way to get one. You can, for example get a copy from your colleague's computer or directory. If you would like to create your own container you can start from the user guide below. If you have any questions, please contact OSC Help.

Running a container

There are four ways to run a container under Apptainer/Singularity.

You can do this either in a batch job or on a login node.

Don’t run on a login node if the container will be performing heavy computation, of course.
If unsure about the amount of memory that a singularity process will require, then be sure to request an entire node for the job. It is common for singularity jobs to be killed by the OOM killer because of using too much RAM.

We note that the operating system on Owens is Red Hat:

[owens-login01]$ cat /etc/os-release
NAME="Red Hat Enterprise Linux Server"
VERSION="7.5 (Maipo)"

In the examples below we will often check the operating system to show that we are really inside a container.

Run container like a native command

If you simply run the container image it will execute the container’s runscript.

Example:  Run singularityhub/hello-world

Note that this container returns you to your native OS after you run it.

[owens-login01]$ ./hello-world_latest.sif

Use the “run” sub-command

The Apptainer “run” sub-command does the same thing as running a container directly as described above. That is, it executes the container’s runscript.

Example:  Run a container from a local file

[owens-login01]$ apptainer run hello-world_latest.sif

Example:  Run a container from a hub without explicitly downloading it

[owens-login01]$ apptainer run shub://singularityhub/hello-world
INFO: Downloading shub image
Progress |===================================| 100.0%

Use the “exec” sub-command

The Apptainer “exec” sub-command lets you execute an arbitrary command within your container instead of just the runscript.

Example:  Find out what operating system the singularityhub/hello-world container uses

[owens-login01]$ apptainer exec hello-world_latest.sif cat /etc/os-release
VERSION="14.04.5 LTS, Trusty Tahr"

Use the “shell” sub-command

The Apptainer “shell” sub-command invokes an interactive shell within a container.

Example:  Run an Ubuntu shell. Note the “Apptainer” prompt within the shell.

[owens-login01 ~]$ apptainer shell ubuntu_18.04.sif
Singularity ubuntu_18.04.sif:~> cat /etc/os-release
VERSION="18.04 LTS (Bionic Beaver)"
[.. more ..] 
Singularity ubuntu_18.04.sif:~> exit

File system access

When you use a container you run within the container’s environment.  The directories available to you by default from the host environment are

  • your home directory
  • working directory (directory you were in when you ran the container)
  • /fs/ess
  • /tmp

You can review our Available File Systems page for more details about our file system access policy.

If you run the container within a job you will have the usual access to the $PFSDIR environment variable with adding node attribute "pfsdir" in the job request (--gres=pfsdir). You can access most of our file systems from a container without any special treatment.

GPU usage within a container

If you have a GPU-enabled container you can easily run it on Owens or Pitzer just by adding the --nv flag to the apptainer exec or run command.  The example below comes from the "exec" command section of Apptainer User Guide.  It runs a TensorFlow example using a GPU on Owens.  (Output has been omitted from the example for brevity.)

[owens-login01]$ sinteractive -n 28 -g 1
[o0756]$ git clone
[o0756]$ apptainer exec --nv docker://tensorflow/tensorflow:latest-gpu \
python ./models/tutorials/image/mnist/

In some cases it may be necessary to bind the CUDA_HOME path and add $CUDA_HOME/lib64 to the shared library search path:

[owens-login01]$ sinteractive -n 28 -g 1
[o0756]$ module load cuda
[o0756]$ apptainer exec --nv my_container mycmd

Build a container

It is possible to build or create a custom container, but it will require additional setup. Please contact OSC support for more details.