Posted on Nov 09, 2015 By copyninja under devops

I've been trying to run containers using systemd-nspawn for quite some time. I was always bumping to one or other dead end. This is not systemd-nspawn's fault, rather my impatience stopping me from reading manual pages properly lack of good tutorial like article available online. Compared to this LXC has a quite a lot of good tutorials and howto's available online.

This article is my effort to create a notes putting all required information in one place.

Creating a Debian Base Install

First step is to have a minimal Debian system some where on your hard disk. This can be easily done using debootsrap. I wrote a custom script to avoid reading manual every time I want to run debootstrap. Parts of this script (mostly packages and the root password generation) is stolen from lxc-debian template provided by lxc package.


set -e
set -x

usage () {
    echo "${0##/*} [options] <suite> <target> [<mirror>]"
    echo "Bootstrap rootfs for Debian"
    cat <<EOF
    --arch         set the architecture to install
    --root-passwd  set the root password for bootstrapped rootfs

# copied from the lxc-debian template

if [ $(id -u) -ne 0 ]; then
    echo "You must be root to execute this command"
    exit 2

if [ $# -lt 2 ]; then
   usage $0

while true; do
    case "$1" in
            if [ "$1" = "--root-passwd" -a -n "$2" ]; then
                shift 2
            elif [ "$1" != "${1#--root-passwd=}" ]; then
                shift 1
                # copied from lxc-debian template
                ROOT_PASSWD="$(dd if=/dev/urandom bs=6 count=1 2>/dev/null|base64)"
            if [ "$1" = "--arch" -a -n "$2" ]; then
                shift 2
            elif [ "$1" != "${1#--arch=}" ]; then
                shift 1
                ARCHITECTURE="$(dpkg-architecture -q DEB_HOST_ARCH)"


if [ -z "$1" ] || [ -z "$2" ]; then
    echo "You must specify suite and target"
    exit 1

if [ -n "$3" ]; then


echo "Downloading Debian $release ..."
debootstrap --verbose --variant=minbase --arch=$ARCHITECTURE \
             --include=$packages \
             "$release" "$target" "$MIRROR"

if [ -n "$ROOT_PASSWD" ]; then
    echo "root:$ROOT_PASSWD" | chroot "$target" chpasswd
    echo "Root password is '$ROOT_PASSWRD', please change!"

It just gets my needs done, if you don't like it feel free to modify or use debootstrap directly.

!NB Please install dbus package in the minimal base install, otherwise you will not be able to control the container using machinectl

Manually Running Container and then persisting it

Next we need to run the container manually. This is done by using following command.

systemd-nspawn -bD   /path/to/container --network-veth \
     --network-bridge=natbr0 --machine=Machinename

--machine option is not mandatory, if not specified systemd-nspawn will take the directory name as machine name, and if you have characters like - in the directory name it translates to hexcode x2d and controlling container with name becomes difficult.

--network-veth specifies the systemd-nspawn to enable virtual ethernet based networking and --network-bridge tells the bridge interface on host system to be used by systemd-nspawn. These options together constitutes private networking for container. If not specified container can use host systems interface there by removing network isolation of container.

Once you run this command container comes up. You can now run machinectl to control the container. Container can be persisted using following command

machinectl enable container-name

This will create a symbolic link of /lib/systemd/system/systemd-nspawn@service to /etc/systemd/system/ This allows you to start or stop container using machinectl or systemctl command. Only catch here is your base install should be in /var/lib/machines/. What I do in my case is create a symbolic link from my base container to /var/lib/machines/container-name.

!NB Note that symbolic link name under /var/lib/machines should be same as the container name you gave using --machine switch or the directory name if you didn't specify --machine

Persisting Container Networking

We did persist the container in above step, but this doesn't persist the networking options we provided in command line. systemd-nspawn@.service provides following command to invoke container.

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

To persist the bridge networking configuration we did in command line, we need the help of systemd-networkd. So first we need to enable the systemd-networkd.service on both container and the host system.

systemctl enable systemd-networkd.service

Now inside the container, interfaces will be named as hostN. Depending on how many interfaces we have N increments. In our example case we had single interface, hence it will named as host0. By default network interfaces will be down inside container, hence systemd-networkd is needed to put it up.

We put the following in /etc/systemd/network/ file inside the container.


Description=Container wired interface host0

And in the host system we just configure the bridge interface using systemd-nspawn. I put following in natbr0.netdev in /etc/systemd/network/

Description=Bridge natbr0

In my case I already had configured the bridge using /etc/network/interfaces file for lxc. I think its not really needed to use systemd-networkd in this case. Since systemd-networkd doesn't do anything if network / virtual device is already present I safely put above configuration and enabled systemd-networkd.

Just for the notes here is my natbr0 configuration in interfaces file.

auto natbr0
iface natbr0 inet static
   pre-up brctl addbr natbr0
   post-down brctl delbr natbr0
   post-down sysctl net.ipv4.ip_forward=0
   post-down sysctl net.ipv6.conf.all.forwarding=0
   post-up sysctl net.ipv4.ip_forward=1
   post-up sysctl net.ipv6.conf.all.forwarding=1
   post-up iptables -A POSTROUTING -t mangle -p udp --dport bootpc -s -j CHECKSUM --checksum-fill
   pre-down iptables -D POSTROUTING -t mangle -p udp --dport bootpc -s -j CHECKSUM --checksum-fill

Once this is done just reload the systemd-networkd and make sure you have dnsmasq or any other DHCP server running in your system.

Now the last part is to tell systemd-nspawn to use the bridge networking interface we have defined. This is done using container-name.nspawn file. Put this file under /etc/systemd/nspawn folder.




Here you can specify networking, and files mounting section of the container. For full list please refer the systemd.nspawn manual page.

Now all this is done you can happily do

machinectl start container-name
systemctl start systemd-nspawn@container-name

Resource Control

Now all things said and done, one last part remains. Yes what is the point if we can't control how much resource does the container use. Atleast it is more important for me, because I use old and bit low powered laptop.

Systemd provides way to control the resource using Control interface. To see all the the interfaces exposed by systemd please refer systemd.resource-control manual page.

The way to control the resource is using systemctl. Once container starts running we can run following command.

systemctl set-property container-name CPUShares=200 CPUQuota=30% MemoryLimit=500M

The manual page does say that these things can be put under [Slice] section of unit files. Now I don't have clear idea if this can be put under .nspawn files or not. For the sake of persisting the container I manually wrote the service file for container by copying systemd-nspawn@.service and adding [Slice] section. But if I don't know how to find out if this had any effect or not.

If some one knows about this please share your suggestions to me and I will update this section with your provided information.


All in all I like systemd-nspawn a lot. I use it to run container for development of apt-offline. I previously used lxc where all can be controlled using a single config file. But I feel systemd-nspawn is more tightly integrated with system than lxc.

There is definitely more in systemd-nspawn than I've currently figured out. Only thing is its not as popular as other alternatives and definitely lacks good howto documentation.For now only way out is dig the manual pages, scratch your head, pull your hair out and figure out new possibilities in systemd-nspawn. ;-)