Persistent Overlays

Persistent overlay directories allow you to overlay a writable file system on an immutable read-only container for the illusion of read-write access.

Overview

A persistent overlay is a directory or file system image that “sits on top” of your compressed, immutable SIF container. When you install new software or create and modify files the overlay stores the changes.

If you want to use a SIF container as though it were writable, you can create a directory or an ext3 file system image to use as a persistent overlay. Then you can specify that you want to use the directory or image as an overlay at runtime with the --overlay option.

You can use persistent overlays with the following commands:

  • run
  • exec
  • shell
  • instance.start

Usage

To use a persistent overlay, you must first have a container.

$ sudo singularity build ubuntu.sif library://ubuntu

Then you must create a directory or ext3 file system image to use as your overlay.

You can create a directory in the normal way:

$ mkdir my_overlay

Or tools like dd and mkfs.ext3 to create and format an empty ext3 file system image:

$ dd if=/dev/zero of=my_overlay bs=1M count=500 && \
    mkfs.ext3 my-overlay

The second example creates an ext3 file system image with 500MBs of empty space.

Now you can use this overlay with your container.

Note

For security reasons, you must be root to use a bare directory as an overlay. ext3 file system images can be used as overlays without root privileges.

$ sudo singularity shell --overlay my_overlay/ ubuntu.sif

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> touch /foo

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> apt-get update && apt-get install -y vim

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> which vim
/usr/bin/vim

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> exit

You will find that your changes persist across sessions as though you were using a writable container.

$ singularity shell --overlay my_overlay/ ubuntu.sif

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> ls /foo
/foo

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> which vim
/usr/bin/vim

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> exit

If you mount your container without the --overlay directory, your changes will be gone.

$ singularity shell ubuntu.sif

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> ls /foo
ls: cannot access 'foo': No such file or directory

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> which vim

Singularity ubuntu.sif:~> exit

A note on resizing ext3 images

Singularity v2 provided built-in support for creating and resizing ext3 file system images, but with the adoption of SIF as the default container format, this support was dropped.

Luckily, you can use standard Linux tools to manipulate ext3 images. For instance, to resize the 500MB file created above to 700MB one could use the e2fsck and resize2fs utilities like so:

$ e2fsck -f my_overlay && \
    resize2fs my_overlay 700M

Hints for creating and manipulating ext3 images on your distribution are readily available online and are not treated further in this manual.