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systemd-nspawn is like the chroot command, but it is a chroot on steroids.

systemd-nspawn may be used to run a command or OS in a light-weight namespace container. It is more powerful than chroot since it fully virtualizes the file system hierarchy, as well as the process tree, the various IPC subsystems and the host and domain name.

systemd-nspawn limits access to various kernel interfaces in the container to read-only, such as /sys, /proc/sys or /sys/fs/selinux. Network interfaces and the system clock may not be changed from within the container. Device nodes may not be created. The host system cannot be rebooted and kernel modules may not be loaded from within the container.

This mechanism differs from Lxc-systemd or Libvirt-lxc, as it is a much simpler tool to configure.


systemd-nspawn is part of and packaged with systemd.


Create and boot a minimal Arch Linux distribution in a container

First install arch-install-scripts.

Next, create a directory to hold the container. In this example we will use ~/MyContainer.

Next, we use pacstrap to install a basic arch-system into the container. At minimum we need to install the base group.

# pacstrap -i -c -d ~/MyContainer base [additional pkgs/groups]
Tip: The -i option will avoid auto-confirmation of package selection. As you do not need to install the Linux kernel in the container, you can remove it from the package list selection to save space. See Pacman#Usage.
Note: The package linux-firmware required by linux, which is included in the base group and isn't necessary to run the container, causes some issues to systemd-tmpfiles-setup.service during the booting process with systemd-nspawn. It's possible to install the base group but excluding the linux package and its dependencies when building the container with # pacstrap -i -c -d ~/MyContainer base --ignore linux [additional pkgs/groups]. The --ignore flag will be simply passed to pacman. See FS#46591 for more information.

Once your installation is finished, boot into the container:

# systemd-nspawn -b -D ~/MyContainer -n

The -b option will boot the container (i.e. run systemd as PID=1), instead of just running a shell. -D specifies the directory that becomes the container's root directory and -n will set up a private network between host and container.

After the container starts, log in as "root" with no password.

The container can be powered off by running poweroff from within the container. From the host, containers can be controlled by the machinectl tool.

Note: To terminate the session from within the container, hold Ctrl and rapidly press ] three times. Non US keyboard will use % instead of ]

Bootstrapping Arch Linux i686 inside x86_64 host

It is possible to install a minimal i686 Arch Linux inside a subdirectory and use it as systemd-nspawn container instead of chroot or virtualization. This is useful for testing PKGBUILD compilation for i686 and other tasks. Make sure you use a pacman.conf without multilib repository.

 # pacman_conf=/tmp/pacman.conf # this is pacman.conf without multilib
 # mkdir /mnt/i686-archlinux
 # linux32 pacstrap -C "$pacman_conf" -di /mnt/i686-archlinux base base-devel

You may deselect linux from base group, since the resulting bootstrap directory is not meant to be booted on real or virtualized hardware.

To start the resulting i686 Arch Linux systemd-nspawn instance, just issue the following command.

 # linux32 systemd-nspawn -D /mnt/i686-archlinux

Create a Debian or Ubuntu environment

Install debootstrap, gnupg1AUR, and one or both of debian-archive-keyringAUR and ubuntu-keyringAUR (obviously install the keyrings for the distros you want).

Note: systemd-nspawn requires that the os in the container has systemd running as PID 1, this means Ubuntu before 15.04 will not work out of the box and requires additional configuration to switch from upstart to systemd.

From there it's rather easy to setup Debian or Ubuntu environments:

# cd /var/lib/machines
# debootstrap <codename> myContainer <repository>

For Debian valid code names are either the rolling names like "stable" and "testing" or release names like "stretch" and "sid", for Ubuntu the code name like "wily" or "hardy" should be used. A complete list is in /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts

Unlike Arch, Debian and Ubuntu will not let you login without a password on first login. To set the root password login without the '-b' option and set a password:

# systemd-nspawn -D myContainer
# passwd
# logout

Enable Container on boot

When using a container frequently, you may want to start it on boot.

First enable the target, then systemd-nspawn@myContainer.service, where myContainer is an nspawn container in /var/lib/machines.

  • Symbolic links to containers in /var/lib/machines do not work as of systemd v229, see [1].
  • To customize the startup of a container, edit the systemd-nspawn@myContainer unit instance. See systemd-nspawn(1) for all options.

Building and testing packages

See Creating packages for other distributions for example uses.



Note: The machinectl tool requires systemd and dbus to be installed in the container. See [2] for detailed discussion.

Managing your containers is essentially done with the machinectl command. See machinectl(1) for details.


Spawn a new shell inside a running container:

$ machinectl login MyContainer

Show detailed information about a container:

$ machinectl status MyContainer

Reboot a container:

$ machinectl reboot MyContainer

Poweroff a container:

$ machinectl poweroff MyContainer
Tip: Poweroff and reboot operations can be performed from within a container session using the systemctl poweroff or reboot commands.

Download an image:

# machinectl pull-tar URL name

systemd toolchain

Much of the core systemd toolchain has been updated to work with containers. Tools that do usually provide a -M, --machine= option which will take a container name as argument.


See journal logs for a particular machine:

$ journalctl -M MyContainer

Show control group contents:

$ systemd-cgls -M MyContainer

See startup time of container:

$ systemd-analyze -M MyContainer

For an overview of resource usage:

$ systemd-cgtop


X environment

See Xhost and Change root#Run graphical applications from chroot.

You will need to set the DISPLAY environment variable inside your container session to connect to the external X server.

X stores some required files in the /tmp directory. In order for your container to display anything, it needs access to those files. To do so, append the --bind=/tmp/.X11-unix:/tmp/.X11-unix option when starting the container.

Run Firefox inside an nspawn container

See Firefox tweaks.

Access host filesystem

See --bind, --bind-ro in man systemd-nspawn.


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Note the canonical systemd-networkd host and container .network files are from

You need to set up the container .network manually after pacstrapping and # systemctl enable systemd-networkd (your dhcp client) with systemd-nspawn's -n switch to ensure a virtual Ethernet link is setup. Don't forget to set up DNS, e.g. by either 1) edit your container's /etc/resolv.conf by adding your DNS server's IP address, or have 2) systemd-resolved manage /etc/resolv.conf for you.

See systemd-networkd#Usage with containers for more complex examples.


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To make it easier to connect to a container from the host, you can enable local DNS resolution for container names. In /etc/nsswitch.conf, add mymachines to the hosts: section, e.g.

hosts: files mymachines dns myhostname

Then, any DNS lookup for hostname foo on the host will first consult /etc/hosts, then the names of local containers, then upstream DNS etc.

use host networking

To disable private networking used by containers started with machinectl start MyContainer, edit the configuration of systemd-nspawn@.service with systemctl edit systemd-nspawn@.service and set the ExecStart= option without the --network-veth parameter unlike the original service:

ExecStart=/usr/bin/systemd-nspawn --quiet --keep-unit --boot --link-journal=try-guest --machine=%I

The newly started containers will use the hosts networking.

Virtual Ethernet interfaces

If a container is started with systemd-nspawn ... -n, systemd will automatically create one virtual Ethernet interface on the host, and one in the container, connected by a virtual Ethernet cable.

If the name of the container is foo, the name of the virtual Ethernet interface on the host is ve-foo. The name of the virtual Ethernet interface in the container is always host0.

When examining the interfaces with ip link, interface names will be shown with a suffix, such as ve-foo@if2 and host0@if9. The @ifN is not actually part of the name of the interface; instead, ip link appends this information to indicate which "slot" the virtual Ethernet cable connects to on the other end.

For example, a host virtual Ethernet interface shown as ve-foo@if2 will connect to container foo, and inside the container to the second network interface -- the one shown with index 2 when running ip link inside the container. Similarly, in the container, the interface named host0@if9 will connect to the 9th slot on the host.

Running on a non-systemd system

See Init#systemd-nspawn.

Per-container settings

To specify per-container settings and not overrides for all (e.g. bind a directory to only one container)[3], the ".nspawn" file definition can be used [4]

 man systemd.nspawn


root login fails

If you get the following error when you try to login (i.e. using machinectl login <name>):

arch-nspawn login: root
Login incorrect

And journalctl shows:

pam_securetty(login:auth): access denied: tty 'pts/0' is not secure !

Add pts/0 to the list of terminal names in /etc/securetty on the container filesystem, see [5]. You can also opt to delete /etc/securetty on the container to allow root to login to any tty, see [6].

Unable to upgrade some packages on the container

It can sometimes be impossible to upgrade some packages on the container, filesystem being a perfect example. The issue is due to /sys being mounted as Read Only. The workaround is to remount the directory in Read Write when running mount -o remount,rw -t sysfs sysfs /sys, do the upgrade then reboot the container.

See also