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How I use systemd-nspawn

First things first

About one year ago, after years with Fedora 18, I refreshed my laptop and installed a brand new Fedora 22. My first thought went to all the mess there was before the refresh because I tried tons of applications and changed my mind thousands of times in those three years.

This time, I wanted to take my time to improve the process and after a few minutes thinking I had a light-bulb moment and I just started creating a Dockerfile for every application I needed !

Well, after some time I had 27 images including:

As you can imagine, I started each one with the right options (I hope!) allowing it to use the X server and other resources.

In the next days I did some fine tuning and ended up having most of the containers I listed starting as startup system services.

What happened ?

My computer took minutes to undefined time to boot depending on the state of the Docker daemon, and that wasn’t acceptable for me so, sad but full of hope I started thinking at a possible solution by identifying why Docker wasn’t performing well as I expected in such situation.

The main problem, wasn’t that the Docker daemon itself is slow (in fact it isn’t) but a mix of factors due to the intrinsic docker’s caracteristic that it wants to manage everything for you, like setting up namespaces for existing containers, setting up volumes, managing and connecting to plugins, mounting the layered filesystems, setting up missing network devices and so on..

All this obviously slows down startup times in certain situations and given the fact that I use docker a lot for software development and for docker development itself there are a lot of ways that the state of my machine Docker daemon is pretty messy and things are likely to be broken and slow.

Example container: Spotify

Let’s say that I need to listen to some music and I’m on Fedora (looks like me now :D)

I Google for the Spotify Linux client aaaaand that’s IT! Spotify does have a Linux client, great!

Oh, damn, they only have a Debian package :(

…Looking for possible solutions…

So the first thing I did was in fact to create a Dockerfile for spotify.

Q: Wait Lorenzo, but you’ve just said you are not using Docker for your listening needs.

A: In fact I don’t, I’m just using Docker to create a Docker image, which I will export to a tar and use as a base filesystem for my container

Here’s the Dockerfile:

FROM debian:jessie

RUN apt-get update -y
RUN gpg --keyserver hkp://keyserver.ubuntu.com:80 --recv-keys BBEBDCB318AD50EC6865090613B00F1FD2C19886
RUN gpg --export --armor BBEBDCB318AD50EC6865090613B00F1FD2C19886 | apt-key add -
RUN echo deb http://repository.spotify.com stable non-free | tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/spotify.list
RUN apt-get update -y
RUN apt-get install spotify-client -y
RUN apt-get install pulseaudio -y
RUN apt-get install -f -y
RUN echo enable-shm=no >> /etc/pulse/client.conf

ENV PULSE_SERVER /run/pulse/native
ENV HOME /home/spotify

RUN useradd --create-home --home-dir $HOME spotify \
  && gpasswd -a spotify audio \
  && chown -R spotify:spotify $HOME

  USER spotify
  ENTRYPOINT  [ "spotify" ]

Run the thing

docker run -d \
  -v /etc/localtime:/etc/localtime:ro \
  -v /tmp/.X11-unix:/tmp/.X11-unix \
  -v /run/user/1000/pulse:/run/pulse:ro \
  -v /var/lib/dbus:/var/lib/dbus \
  -v $HOME/.spotify/config:/home/spotify/.config/spotify \
  -v $HOME/.spotify/cache:/home/spotify/spotify \
  --name spotify \

Now that I have my image and I can use it with Docker seeing that it works I can try it with systemd-nspawn

The first thing to do is to export the docker image to a folder we’ll call rootfs

mkdir -p /var/lib/machines
cd /var/lib/machines

mkdir spotify
docker export $(docker create fntlnz/spotify) | tar -C spotify -xvf -

Then we have to give the right permissions to /home/spotify

systemd-nspawn -D spotify/ bash -c "chown -R spotify:spotify /home/spotify"

Now each time we want to start that container we can do it with:

systemd-nspawn \
  --setenv=DISPLAY=unix$DISPLAY \
  --bind=/tmp/.X11-unix:/tmp/.X11-unix \
  --bind /run/user/1000/pulse:/run/pulse \
  --bind /var/lib/dbus:/var/lib/dbus \
  -u spotify -D spotify/ \

Additional notes


There’s another tool, invokable via machinectl which allows you to manage your “machines” aka containers and vms managed by the systemd machine manager

Container services

Using machinectl you can even create startup services, for example I use this for the NetworkManagr (image not included)

machinectl enable network-manager


Created symlink from /etc/systemd/system/machines.target.wants/[email protected] to /usr/lib/systemd/system/[email protected]


machinectl allows you to list, terminate and show the status of machines.

List all the machines

machinectl list


spotify container nspawn 

1 machines listed.

Terminate the machine

machinectl terminate spotify

Get the status

machinectl status spotify


           Since: Mon 2016-11-14 02:13:54 CET; 7s ago
          Leader: 11308 (spotify)
         Service: nspawn; class container
            Root: /var/lib/machines/spotify
              OS: Debian GNU/Linux 8 (jessie)
            Unit: machine-spotify.scope
                  ├─11308 /usr/share/spotify/spotif
                  ├─11321 /usr/share/spotify/spotify --type=zygote --no-sandbox --lang=en-US --log-file=/usr/share/spotify/debug.log --log-severity=disable --product-version=Spotify/
                  ├─11344 /proc/self/exe --type=gpu-process --channel=1.0.1413324922 --mojo-application-channel-token=7BA7725BB9581D934FDAECBCAC0E2C8B --no-sandbox --window-depth=24 --x11-visual-id=32 --lang=en-
                  └─11372 /usr/share/spotify/spotify --type=renderer --disable-pinch --no-sandbox --primordial-pipe-token=431AFC3F7268B33A8765213F7926A54A --lang=en-US --lang=en-US --log-file=/usr/share/spotify/

Nov 14 02:13:54 fntlnz systemd[1]: Started Container spotify.
Nov 14 02:13:54 fntlnz systemd[1]: Starting Container spotify.

Pull images

machinectl can pull images using pull-raw, pull-tar and pull-dkr from remote urls.

machinectl pull-raw --verify=no http://ftp.halifax.rwth-aachen.de/fedora/linux/releases/21/Cloud/Images/x86_64/Fedora-Cloud-Base-20141203-21.x86_64.raw.xz
systemd-nspawn -M Fedora-Cloud-Base-20141203-21

for more, see machinectl

What’s next

In this post I showed you something like the top 1% of the things that can be done with systemd-nspawn, there’s moar!!, like:

see man machinectl and man systemd-nspawn for more

What I achieved ?

Now let’s listen some music!

systemd nspawn spotify