systemd-nspawn has been called “chroot on steroids”, but if you think of it as Docker with a slightly different target you wouldn’t be far wrong, either. It can be used to spawn containers on your host, and has a variety of options for configuring the containerized environment through the use of private networking, bind mounts, capability controls, and a variety of other facilities that give you flexible container management.

There are many different ways in which it can be used. I’m going to focus on one that’s a bit of a corner use case that I find particularly interesting. In this article we’re going to explore how we can use systemd-nspawn to spawn lightweight containers for architectures other than that of our host system.

Why systemd-nspawn?

While everything described in this article could be accomplished through the use of chroot and a chunk of additional configuration, using systemd-nspawn makes it much easier. For example, systemd-nspawn takes care of making virtual filesystems like /proc, /sys, and a minimal /dev available inside the container (without which some programs simply won’t work). And of course systemd-nspawn takes care of cleaning up these mounts when the container exits. For a simple container, this:

# systemd-nspawn -D /mnt /some/command

Is roughly equivalent to:

# mount -o bind /proc /mnt/proc
# mount -o bind /sys /mnt/sys
# mount -t tmpfs tmpfs /mnt/run
# mount -t tmpfs tmpfs /mnt/dev
# ...populate /mnt/dev here...
# chroot /mnt /some/command
# umount /mnt/dev
# umount /mnt/run
# umount /mnt/sys
# umount /mnt/proc

systemd-nspawn does all of this for us, and does much of it via private mount namespaces so that the temporary filesystems aren’t visible from the host.

In which we perform magic

Linux allows you to run binaries intended for other architectures via the binfmt-misc subsystem, which allows you to use bits at the beginning of a file to match against an appropriate interpreter. This can be used, for example, to make Java binaries directly executable. We’re going to use this technique to accomplish the following:

  • Teach our system how to run Raspberry Pi ARM binaries, and
  • Allow us to spawn a systemd-nspawn container into a Raspberry Pi filesystem.

When a systemd-based system boots, the systemd-binfmt service (if it’s enabled) will automatically register configurations found in /etc/binfmt.d or /usr/lib/binfmt.d. You can set these up by hand, of course, but we’re going to take the easy route and install the qemu-user-static package, which includes both the necessary binfmt.d configuration files as well as the associated emulators:

# dnf -y install qemu-user-static

The qemu-user-static package on my system has installed, among other files, /usr/lib/binfmt.d/qemu-arm.conf, which looks like this:


This gets registered with /proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc/register and informs the kernel that there is a new binfmt called qemu-arm, and that files that contain the specified byte pattern in the header should be handled with /usr/bin/qemu-arm-static.

With all this set up, we can mount a Raspberry Pi filesystem (I’m starting with minibian)…

# tar xf 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.tar.gz
# losetup -fP --show 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img
# mount /dev/loop1p2 /mnt
# mount /dev/loop1p1 /mnt/boot

…and then start up a process in it:

# systemd-nspawn -D /mnt
Spawning container mnt on /mnt.
Press ^] three times within 1s to kill container.

And there we are! We’re now running a shell inside a container running an ARM userspace. We can modify the image by installing or udpating packages or making any other necessary configuration changes:

root@mnt:/# apt-get install raspberrypi-bootloader
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree       
Reading state information... Done
The following extra packages will be installed:
  libraspberrypi-bin libraspberrypi0
The following packages will be upgraded:
  libraspberrypi-bin libraspberrypi0 raspberrypi-bootloader
3 upgraded, 0 newly installed, 0 to remove and 34 not upgraded.
Need to get 32.5 MB of archives.
After this operation, 827 kB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] 

When we’re done, we exit our container:

root#mnt:/# exit

Unmount the directory:o

# umount /mnt

And finally clean up the loopback device:

# losetup -d /dev/loop1

Now we have an updated image file that we can write to an SD card and use to boot our Raspberry Pi.

NB You’ll note that in this document I’m mounting loop1p2 on / and loop1p1 on /boot. You obviously don’t need /boot in your container in order for things to run, but you will regret not mounting it if you happen to install an updated kernel package, which needs to populate /boot with the new kernel image.

Bonus: growing the image

The stock minibian image doesn’t have much free space on it; this is intentional, and in general you’re expected to grow the root partition and resize the filesystem after booting on your Pi. However, if we’re going to use the above process to pre-configure our image, there’s a good chance we’ll need more space immediately. We start by growing the size of the image file itself; you can that with qemu-img, like this:

# qemu-img resize 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img 2G

Or by using truncate:

# truncate -s 2G 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img

Or by using dd:

# dd of=2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img if=/dev/zero \
  count=0 bs=1G seek=2

Once the file has been extended, we need to grow the corresponding partition. Assuming that you have a recent version of util-linux (where “recent” means “at least v2.26.2) installed, this is easy:

# echo ", +" | sfdisk -N 2 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img

And lastly, we need to grow the filesystem. This requires attaching the image to a loop device:

# losetup -fP --show 2015-11-12-jessie-minibian.img

And then:

# e2fsck -f /dev/loop1p2
# resize2fs /dev/loop1p2

Now when we mount the filesystem:

# mount /dev/loop1p2 /mnt
# mount /dev/loop1p1 /mnt/boot

We see that there is more space available:

# df -h /mnt
Filesystem      Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
/dev/loop1p2    1.9G  432M  1.4G  24% /mnt

Bonus: Static qemu-arm binaries

Earlier we saw that it was necessary to mount /lib64 into my Raspberry Pi container because the qemu-arm binary was dynamically linked. You can acquire statically built versions of the QEMU binaries from the Debian project, e.g., here:

Then unpack the .deb file and extract the qemu-arm-static binary:

$ ar xv qemu-user-static_2.5+dfsg-5_amd64.deb
x - debian-binary
x - control.tar.gz
x - data.tar.xz
$ tar xf data.tar.xz ./usr/bin/qemu-arm-static

And copy it into place:

# cp qemu-arm-static /usr/bin/qemu-arm

And now our earlier command will work without further modification:

# systemd-nspawn -q --bind /usr/bin/qemu-arm -D /mnt /bin/bash