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Containers are a way to package an environment along with an executable so that no additional installation or setup is required to run it on a different machine. Singularity ( is a container solution that is designed specifically for use on HPC clusters. If you have a software that depends on a different software environment than what is installed on our HPRC clusters, Singularity could be a solution to you.

The basic element of a container solution is an image. An image is a file that includes a self-contained environment with both installed executables and the system libraries they depend on. The container runtime mediates between the libraries in the image and the libraries on the host system. In the case of HPRC, the container runtime software is Singularity. It can read many common container image file formats, including Docker.

This page describe how to run Singularity container on Terra.

Why use Containers

  • Shareability: you can share your container image file with others by uploading it to a public repository, and download files shared by others.
  • Portability: you can use image files made for any computer with the same architecture (x84-64).
  • Reproducibility: cluster environments can change whenever the locally installed software gets updated. Container users are largely unaffected by this.

Why use Singularity

  • Security: Singularity grants the user no additional privileges or permissions, so you can't harm the cluster by using singularity, nor can other users harm you.
  • Independence: Singularity does not require root permission to run, so you don't need to ask your administrators for help installing anything.
  • Speed: Singularity was designed to run "close to the hardware". It can take advantage of high-performance cluster technologies like Infiniband and GPUs.

Getting a container image

Container images are found in both public and private repositories available on the internet, such as dockerhub and singularityhub. Singularity pull can automatically download and convert those images to the singularity file format. Read more about singularity pull on singularity user guide. See our detailed examples page for other popular repositories.

Caution: dockerhub and singularityhub are public repositories; do not trust unverified sources!

Warning: downloading a large image file is resource-intensive and takes a long time.

Read this before using Singularity pull commands on HPRC clusters

On HPRC, singularity commands must be executed on compute nodes because they are too resource-intensive for login nodes. To use a compute node interactively for command line use, on Terra or Grace: use the Slurm command srun with option --pty. Details about the options are in the Slurm Manual and LSF Manual respectively.

  • Terra or Grace interactive example srun --nodes=1 --ntasks-per-node=1 --mem=512m --time=01:00:00 --pty bash -i

Singularity stores data in a cache directory named .singularity to make future commands faster. By default, this cache will be in your /home directory, which will quickly use up your file quota. Recommended to tell singularity to use a directory in your /scratch space instead.


Some Singularity commands require internet access. In order to access the internet from compute nodes, follow the Web Proxy instructions.

module load WebProxy

Singularity pull examples

Example on Terra, interactive job

Example container image located on dockerhub at . The file will be named hello-world.sif and it will be in $SCRATCH.

[username@login]$ srun --nodes=1 --ntasks-per-node=4 --mem=2560M --time=01:00:00 --pty bash -i
(wait for job to start)
[username@compute]$ cd $SCRATCH
[username@compute]$ export SINGULARITY_CACHEDIR=$SCRATCH/.singularity
[username@compute]$ module load WebProxy
[username@compute]$ singularity pull hello-world.sif docker://hello-world
(wait for download and convert)
[username@compute]$ exit

Example on Terra, batch job

Example container image located on dockerhub at . The file will be named hello-world.sif and it will be in $SCRATCH.

#SBATCH --export=NONE                #Do not propagate environment

#SBATCH --job-name=sing_pull            #Set the job name to "sing_pull"
#SBATCH --time=01:00:00              #Set the wall clock limit to 1hr 
#SBATCH --ntasks=4                   #Request 4 task
#SBATCH --mem=2560M                  #Request 2560MB (2.5GB) per node
#SBATCH --output=sing_pull.%j           #Send stdout/err to "sing_pull.[jobID]"

##SBATCH --account=123456             #Set billing account to 123456
##SBATCH --mail-type=ALL              #Send email on all job events
##SBATCH --mail-user=email_address    #Send all emails to email_address

# set up environment for download 
module load WebProxy

# execute download
singularity pull hello-world.sif docker://hello-world

Interact with container

When a container image file is in place at HPRC, it can be used to control your environment for doing computation tasks.


The shell command allows you to spawn a new shell within your container and interact with it as though it were a small virtual machine.

singularity shell hello-world.sif

Don't forget to exit when you're done.

Executing commands

The exec command allows you to execute a custom command within a container by specifying the image file.

singularity exec hello-world.sif ls -l /
singularity exec hello-world.sif /scratch/user/userid/myprogram

Running a container

Execute the default runscript defined in the container

singularity run hello-world.sif

Running Singularity container on HPRC clusters

Files in and outside a container

The filesystem inside the container is isolated from the filesystem outside the container. In order to access your files on a real, physical filesystem, you have to ensure that filesystem's directory is mounted. By default, Singularity will mount the $HOME directory as well as the current working directory $PWD if it can. To specify additional directories, use the SINGULARITY_BINDPATH environment variable or the --bind command line option.

Recommended: bind your $SCRATCH directory for data files and $TMPDIR for temporary files. $TMPDIR may vary from machine to machine, so it's best to leave it as a variable.



singularity --bind "/scratch,$TMPDIR" [commands]

Read more at:

GPU in a container

If your container has been compiled with CUDA version >= 9, it should work with the local GPUs. Just add the --nv flag to your singularity command.


singularity exec --nv tensorflow-gpu.sif python3

Sample job script for Terra

This job script requests 4 cores and 2.5 GB memory per node. It launches a container with Centos 6 system libraries.

#SBATCH --export=NONE                #Do not propagate environment

#SBATCH --job-name=test              #Set the job name to "JobExample1"
#SBATCH --time=00:10:00              #Set the wall clock limit to 1hr and 30min
#SBATCH --ntasks=4                   #Request 4 task
#SBATCH --mem=2560M                  #Request 2560MB (2.5GB) per node
#SBATCH --output=test.%j             #Send stdout/err to "Example1Out.[jobID]"

##SBATCH --account=123456             #Set billing account to 123456
##SBATCH --mail-type=ALL              #Send email on all job events
##SBATCH --mail-user=email_address    #Send all emails to email_address


# execute the default runscript defined in the container 
singularity run centos6_bootstrapped.img

# execute a command within container
#  the command should include absolute path if the command is not in the default search path
singularity exec centos6_bootstrapped.img /scratch/user/netid/

Interactive apps via Portal

Some of the Graphical Interactive Apps in HPRC Portal support the use of Singularity environments. Currently:

  • Jupyter Notebook. You must provide a singularity image that has a working Jupyter app installed in it.

You can request other apps to be supported in this way. We intend to increase this list going forward.

Saving Data in the Container Filesystem

Why Overlay

Have any of these problems?

  • Need to install additional software in a container (i.e. pip install )
  • Wish to save your work persistently
  • Millions of files and running out of quota

In Docker-like container environments, the user has root privileges during runtime. Thus, the user is free to modify the container filesystem at-will. However, in Singularity this is not the case. Generally, a singularity user will not have root privileges during runtime, and singularity images are treated as read-only. The container filesystem is ephemeral and disappears when the runtime shuts down. A solution to this problem is called an overlay file, which extends the filesystem inside the container. When you use an overlay, any files you create in the container filesystem will be saved persistently in the overlay file. As far as the real, physical file system is concerned, the whole overlay is a single file: it counts as 1 towards your quota.

Create an Overlay file

Creation of an overlay file requires the use of a tool named mkfs.ext3, which is not installed on Terra or Grace. However, it is installed in a standard Ubuntu container. Example:

  • Image file: ubuntu-18.04.sif
  • From docker://ubuntu:18.04
  • Located at /scratch/data/Singularity/images

Creation of an overlay file must be done on the /tmp file system on Grace because the Lustre filsystem (/scratch, etc) lacks some necessary features. $TMPDIR points to a job-specific location in /tmp.

Creation of an overlay filesystem begins with setting up a pair of empty directories named upper and work. Creating these directories manually is the only way to ensure they have the correct ownership and permissions.

Creation of an overlay file also means pre-filling the virtual disk with initial data, which is easiest if it's all zeros. The tool dd does this task.

Choose a size for your overlay file and a block size (recommended: 1M). Divide the two to get the number of blocks. Example:

  • Overlay size: 200 MB
  • Block size: 1 MB
  • Block count: 200

Assuming you start from a login node, execute the following commands. Substitute your size choices and the /path/to/final/location (recommended: $SCRATCH).

$ srun --mem=512m --time=01:00:00 --pty bash -i
$ singularity shell ubuntu-18.04.sif
> cd $TMPDIR
> mkdir -p overlay_tmp/upper overlay_tmp/work
> dd if=/dev/zero of=my_overlay count=200 bs=1M
> mkfs.ext3 -d overlay_tmp my_overlay 
> cp my_overlay /path/to/final/location/

Use an Overlay file

Whenever you execute a singularity command, you can add --overlay option along the with the path to an overlay file. For example:

$ singularity shell --overlay my_overlay ubuntu-18.04.sif 
> mkdir /new_dir
> touch /new_dir/new_file
> exit 
$ singularity shell --overlay my_overlay ubuntu-18.04.sif 
> ls /new_dir

Only one running process can access an overlay file at a given time, so if you have multiple batch jobs, you will need to do some extra steps.

Build and Modify your own containers

User should install Singularity on their desktop/laptop to create/modify the container. Building and modifying containers usually requires sudo with root privileges, which is not available to users on HPRC for security reasons. Users should prepare Singularity container on their desktop or laptop, where they have sudo right to modify the Singularity container. Then upload the prepared image to their scratch directory on the cluster.


Passing in filesystems

Optional: To access cluster filesystem in the container, it is convenient to pre-create these folders in your container


Optional: Also, replace /home with a symbolic link

mv /home /home.orig
ln -s /general/home /home


We have some detailed examples available.

Additional Documents

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