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Running containers with singularity

Learning outcomes

After having completed this chapter you will be able to:

  • Login to a remote machine with ssh
  • Use singularity pull to convert an image from dockerhub to the ‘singularity image format’ (.sif)
  • Execute a singularity container
  • Explain the difference in default mounting behaviour between docker and singularity
  • Use singularity shell to generate an interactive shell inside a .sif image
  • Search and use images with both docker and singularity from


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Login to remote

If you are enrolled in the course, you have received an e-mail with an IP, username, private key and password. To do the Singularity exercises we will login to a remote server. Below you can find instructions on how to login.

Open a terminal, and cd to the directory where you have stored your private key. After that, change the file permissions of the key:

chmod 400 key_<username>.pem

Then, login like this:

ssh -i key_<username>.pem <username>@<IP>

Below you can find video tutorials and information to log in with MobaXterm.

MobaXterm is an SSH client for Windows. You can use it to connect to the remote host and edit remote scripts. With MobaXterm, you will automatically login to the remote server once you’ve started the SSH session. Set it up on your own computer using your own credentials and the video below.

Pulling an image

Singularity can take several image formats (e.g. a docker image), and convert them into it’s own .sif format. Unlike docker this image doesn’t live in a local image cache, but it’s stored as an actual file.

Exercise: On the remote server, pull the docker image that has the adjusted default CMD that we have pushed to dockerhub in this exercise (ubuntu-figlet-df:v2) with singularity pull. The syntax is:

singularity pull docker://[USER NAME]/[IMAGE NAME]:[TAG]

singularity pull docker://[USER NAME]/ubuntu-figlet:v3
This will result in a file called ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif


If you weren’t able to push the image in the previous exercises to your docker hub, you can use geertvangeest as username to pull the image.

Executing an image

These .sif files can be run as standalone executables:


And you can overwrite the default command like this:


Exercise: Run the .sif file without a command, and with a command that runs figlet. Do you get expected output?


Running it without a command (./ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif) should give:

__  __         _                                                 _        _
|  \/  |_   _  (_)_ __ ___   __ _  __ _  ___  __      _____  _ __| | _____| |
| |\/| | | | | | | '_ ` _ \ / _` |/ _` |/ _ \ \ \ /\ / / _ \| '__| |/ / __| |
| |  | | |_| | | | | | | | | (_| | (_| |  __/  \ V  V / (_) | |  |   <\__ \_|
|_|  |_|\__, | |_|_| |_| |_|\__,_|\__, |\___|   \_/\_/ \___/|_|  |_|\_\___(_)
       |___/                     |___/
Which is the default command that we changed in the Dockerfile.

Running with a another figlet command:

./ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif figlet 'Something else'

Should give:

____                       _   _     _                    _
/ ___|  ___  _ __ ___   ___| |_| |__ (_)_ __   __ _    ___| |___  ___
\___ \ / _ \| '_ ` _ \ / _ \ __| '_ \| | '_ \ / _` |  / _ \ / __|/ _ \
___) | (_) | | | | | |  __/ |_| | | | | | | | (_| | |  __/ \__ \  __/
|____/ \___/|_| |_| |_|\___|\__|_| |_|_|_| |_|\__, |  \___|_|___/\___|

Mounting with Singularity

Singularity is also different from Docker in the way it handles mounting. By default, Singularity binds your home directory and a number of paths in the root directory to the container. This results in behaviour that is almost like if you are working on the directory structure of the host.

Running the command pwd (full name of current working directory) will therefore result in a path on the host machine:

./ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif pwd

Exercise: Run the above command. What is the output? How would the output look like if you would run a similar command with Docker?


A similar Docker command would look like (run this on your local computer):

docker run --rm ubuntu-figlet:v3 pwd

The output of ./ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif pwd is the current directory on the host: i.e. /home/username if you have it in your home directory. The output of docker run --rm ubuntu-figlet:v3 pwd (on the local host) would be /, which is the default workdir (root directory) of the container. As we did not mount any host directory, this directory exists only within the container (i.e. separated from the host).

Interactive shell

If you want to debug or inspect an image, it can be helpful to have a shell inside the container. You can do that with singularity shell:

singularity shell ubuntu-figlet_v3.sif


To exit the shell type exit.

Exercise: Can you run figlet inside this shell?



Singularity> figlet test
 _            _
| |_ ___  ___| |_
| __/ _ \/ __| __|
| ||  __/\__ \ |_

During the lecture you have learned that singularity takes over the user privileges of the user on the host. You can get user information with command like whoami, id, groups etc.

Exercise: Run the figlet container interactively. Do you have the same user privileges as if you were on the host? How is that with docker?


A command like whoami will result in your username printed at stdout:

Singularity> whoami
Singularity> id
uid=1030(myusername) gid=1031(myusername) groups=1031(myusername),1001(condausers)
Singularity> groups
myusername condausers

With singularity, you have the same privileges inside the singularity container as on the host. If you do this in the docker container (based on the same image), you’ll get output like this:

root@a3d6e59dc19d:/# whoami
root@a3d6e59dc19d:/# groups
root@a3d6e59dc19d:/# id
uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groups=0(root)

A bioinformatics example (extra)

Check out This registry contains a large collection of containerized bioinformatic tools. These are very powerful for pipeline development. You can pull one of their images from dockerhub using singularity like this:

singularity pull docker://biocontainers/fastqc:v0.11.9_cv7

BioContainers and singularity

You can directly pull a singularity image like so (as shown on the fastqc page):

singularity pull fastqc_0.11.9.sif

Let’s test the image. Download some sample reads first:

mkdir reads
cd reads
tar -xzvf ecoli_reads.tar.gz
rm ecoli_reads.tar.gz

Now you can simply run the image as an executable preceding the commands you would like to run within the container. E.g. running fastqc would look like:

./fastqc_v0.11.9_cv7.sif fastqc ./reads/ecoli_*.fastq.gz

This will result in html files in the directory ./reads. These are quality reports for the sequence reads. If you’d like to view them, you can download them with scp or e.g. FileZilla, and view them with your local browser.