Using Singularity on Quest

Quest and Kellogg Linux Cluster Downtime, June 8th-14th, 2024.

Quest, including the Quest Analytics Nodes, the Genomics Compute Cluster (GCC), the Kellogg Linux Cluster (KLC), and Quest OnDemand, will be unavailable for scheduled maintenance starting at 7 A.M. on Saturday, June 8, and ending approximately at 5 P.M. on Friday, June 14. During the maintenance window, you will not be able to login to Quest, Quest Analytics Nodes, the GCC, KLC, or Quest OnDemand submit new jobs, run jobs, or access files stored on Quest in any way including Globus. For details on this maintenance, please see the Status of University IT Services page.


Container technology offers a way to package software along with its dependencies in a format that can be run by any computer. The advantages of containers include portability, reproducibility, and freedom for users to run their software of choice on any system, without having to rely on system administrators to install, configure, and maintain software. Singularity is a software container technology designed for scientific workloads on traditional HPC environments such as Quest. In addition to the benefits offered by other container technologies, Singularity has security features that limit the privileges of a container to be the same as the user running the container. This prevents containers from affecting shared resources such as hardware or networking that could impact other users. Singularity also uses a simple image format that makes moving images as easy as copying a single file.

Load the Singularity Module

Singularity is installed as a module on Quest. To use it, either interactively or in a submission script, you must first load the module:

module load singularity

Getting Singularity Images On Quest

In many cases, the application that you are interested in using on Quest may already have been containerized and made available and downloadable from public repositories. We discuss some of these public respositories below and how to download these containers using singularity pull.

Where Can I Find Container Images?

Pulling Images

When pulling containers Singularity needs to know two pieces of information, where the container is hosted and the name of the container. In general the syntax looks like <host>://<name>. For example,

singularity pull docker://ubuntu

will pull the ubuntu docker image into a Singularity Image File (SIF) called ubuntu_latest.sif.

By default, Singularity will pull the image with the tag latest but it is possible to pull a specific tag:

singularity pull docker://ubuntu:groovy

This will create ubuntu_groovy.sif.

Building Custom Singularity Images

If the application you are interested in using is not publically available as a container or the configuration of the container that is avaible does not suite your needs, then it is also possible to build your own container image on a Linux computer where you have root access or by using the Singularity remote builder. You can then copy or pull that container image to Quest to run it. To build a container using singularity, you must first define a recipe file which is a set of instructions that tells singularity all the commands that need to be run in order to install your application and in what environment those commands need to be run. Afterwards, you can use the singularity build command to use the recipe file to build a container.

In general, singularity build requires sudo privileges and thus cannot be run on Quest. You will need to run it on a Linux computer with sudo privileges. A virtual machine created with the free Virtualbox software or a cloud computing instance will work. You can also use Singularity's remote builder via singularity build --remote.

Below, we describe how you go about making a Singularity Recipe file and what you should be thinking about as you construct it. Below we provide a small example of a Singularity Recipe called myrecipe.def but encourage you to look at the Singularity documentation for detailed description of the Recipe file format.


Bootstrap: docker   ### Where does the container live that you would like to build on top of.
From: ubuntu:groovy    ### What is the name of the container that you would like to build on top of.

###%post: Imagine you had sudo privileges and a terminal window open, what commands would you run to install your program. Remember that you have access to all the functions and applications that exist in the container that you are building on top of. In our case, we are running on an Ubuntu OS container so we have access/the ability to install programs via apt-get.

  # we do not want any interactive prompts (we cannot relate to the building of the container interactively)
  export DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive

  # Upgrade system libraries for ubuntu 21.04 and install libraries we need for our program
  apt-get -y update && apt-get -y install python3 python3-pandas

  # Anything you could do on the command line, you can do here
  # lets make a directory
  mkdir -p /opt/bin

  # Make Python code
  echo "import pandas" > /opt/bin/
  echo "print(\"I imported pandas...\")" >> /opt/bin/

#### %runscript Imagine you had just finished installing your program using the instructions in %post, what command(s) would you use to run it?

  python3 /opt/bin/

In order to build this container using the Singularity cloud builder, you would run the following commands

# Authenticate against the remote builder. Will request that you create a token and copy the token in order to authenticate.
$ singularity remote login
# Build the container in the remote builder
$ singularity build --remote myname.sif myrecipe.def

Running Singularity Containers

There are multiple ways to run a Singularity container.

Interactive shell

To run an interactive shell in a container (in order to explore the applications installed inside of it), use the singularity shell command. When you use the singularity shell command, it is best to imagine that you have logged into a completely new computer. In many instances, you will find that programs are installed inside of the container in the same location as they are on Quest and even have the same name. Despite this, these applications are completely unique and different than those installed on Quest. For example,

# The following is run on the Quest login node. The application "grep" exists on the Quest login nodes and is version 2.20
[quser24 part1]$ which grep
[quser24 part1]$ grep --version
grep (GNU grep) 2.20

# We start an interactive shell inside of the container. Even though "grep" is installed in the container in the same location as on the Quest login node, it is a completely different version of the application.
[quser24 part1]$ singularity shell ubuntu_hirsute.sif
Singularity> which grep
Singularity> grep --version
grep (GNU grep) 3.6

By default all environment variables (such as $HOME) from the host shell session where you execute singularity shell will be passed into the container shell environment unless they have been defined in the container already (e.g. by a Singularity recipe file or Dockerfile). The -e flag to singularity shell will run a shell in the container with a "clean" environment, that is without passing in environment variables from the host. For more details, see the Singularity documentation.

Run The Default Command With run

Singularity recipes have a %runscript section which defines exactly which command will run when the container is run with the singularity run command or directly as an executable file. When an image is imported from Docker, the Dockerfile's ENTRYPOINT instruction is used as the runscript. For example, the nuitrcs/hello-world container's runscript is a shell script that prints "Hello world!":

singularity run shub://nuitrcs/hello-world
Hello world!

Specify The Command To Run With exec

Some containers do not have a runscript or may have multiple executables that you need to choose from. The singularity exec command is used to specify the exact command to run inside the container and is the preferred way to run singularity containers:

[tempuser03@quser21 part1]$ grep --version
grep (GNU grep) 2.20
[tempuser03@quser21 part1]$ singularity exec ubuntu_hirsute.sif grep --version
grep (GNU grep) 3.6

Binding Directories

Singularity allows you to map directories on the host system to directories within your container using bind mounts. This allows you to read and write data on the host system with ease. On Quest, $HOME, /tmp, and /proc are mapped by default from the host into the container.

The --bind or -B option to the Singularity shell, run, and exec commands also allows the user to specify additional directories to map into the container. This option's argument is a comma-delimited string of bind path specifications in the format src[:dest[:opts]], where src and dest are outside (that is, on the host) and inside (in the container) paths. If dest is not given, it is set equal to src. Mount options (opts) may be specified as ro (read-only) or rw (read/write, which is the default). The --bind/-B option can be specified multiple times, or a comma-delimited string of bind path specifications can be used:

# A folder which exists on Quest but is not one of /home, /tmp or /proc
[tempuser03@quser21 part1]$ ls /projects/intro

# Without specifying --bind/-B, no folders in /projects are mapped onto the container by default and therefore cannot be found.
[tempuser03@quser21 part1]$ singularity shell ubuntu_hirsute.sif
Singularity> ls /projects/intro
ls: cannot access '/projects/intro': No such file or directory

# If you map the Quest directory /projects into the container then you can list the contents of the folder just like you can on the Quest login node.
[tempuser03@quser21 part1]$ singularity shell -B /projects:/projects ubuntu_hirsute.sif
Singularity> ls /projects/intro

In this example, any files and folders you can normally access in /projects will also be accessible inside of the container.

Creating Modules to Wrap Calls to Containers

It can be very tedious to call containers by the full command singularity exec -B /projects:/projects PATH/TO/CONTAINER/FILE/anaconda3_latest.sif. To elevate this burden, you can create your own module which will create a conveience shell/bash function such that calling programs that actually live inside of the container will look and feel like calling programs that exist on Quest itself. Below we demonstrate how to create a module that will create a bash function python3 which actually runs the Python3 installed inside of an anaconda3 container.

$ mkdir -p modules/python3
$ touch modules/grep/3.8.8.lua
$ cat modules/python3/3.8.8.lua
Python 3.8.8 from anaconda

local pkgName = "python3"
local version = "3.8.8"

whatis("Name: " .. pkgName)
whatis("Version: " .. version)


local bashStr = 'singularity exec -B /projects:/projects /projects/w10001/tempuser03/Singularity/part4/anaconda3_latest.sif python3 $@'

Once you have created the .lua module file, you can then add this module to your PATH and can see how loading it will create a shell funtion called python3 which really wraps a singularity exec call.

[tempuser03@quser21 part4]$ module use modules/
[tempuser03@quser21 part4]$ module load python3/3.8.8
ty[tempuser03@quser21 part4]$ type python3
python3 is a function
python3 ()
  singularity exec -B /projects:/projects /projects/w10001/tempuser03/Singularity/part4/anaconda3_latest.sif python3 $@
[tempuser03@quser21 part4]$ python3 --version
Python 3.8.8

Singularity Containers In Batch Jobs

Singularity commands can be run in a batch submission script just like any other command. One approach to Singularity is to pull images at runtime and run them from a temporary directory, so they do not take up space on the system when not being used. Here is one such example job submission script:
#SBATCH -A <allocation ID>
#SBATCH -p <partition name>
#SBATCH -t 02:00:00
#SBATCH -n 1
#SBATCH --mem=4G
#SBATCH --job-name="<job name>"

module load singularity

# Use a temporary directory when pulling container image

# Run the container
singularity exec -B /project/pXXXXX/data:/data docker://biocontainers/blast blastx -query /data/seqs.fasta -out /data/output.blast.txt

This script assumes the seqs.fasta file is in the /project/pXXXXX/data directory, which is mapped into the container as /data using the -B option. The output will be written to /project/pXXXXX/data/output.blast.txt.

GPU Support

Singularity supports GPU hardware via the --nv option, which uses the Nvidia drivers installed on the host system inside the container. If you have access to a GPU allocation on Quest, you can utilize it within a Singularity container. For more information, please see the Singularity Container section of Using GPUs on QUEST for an example of running a GPU enabled container on Quest and Singularity's GPU Support page for more information.

MPI Support

Singularity does integrate with the Message Passing Interface (MPI) and OpenMPI version 4.0.5 is supported out of the box. Quest's mpi/openmpi-4.0.5-gcc-10.2.0 module should be used for best results, and OpenMPI will need to be installed inside the container. Please see the Singularity documentation on Open MPI Hybrid Containerfor more information. Assuming you have installed OpenMPI 4.0.5 inside of your container following the instructions from Singularity, then you should be able to run the following:

mpirun -np 4 singularity exec my_mpi_container.simg /script/to/run

Best Practices

  • Custom container images should contain a single application. Do not try to bundle many different executables in your image.
  • Use singularity exec to specify which command to run in your container rather than relying on singularity run.
  • When creating custom Singularity images, don't put anything in $TMP or $HOME as those directories will be bind mounted at runtime.
  • Read the Singularity user documentation for more detail on all Singularity functionality.
Was this helpful?
0 reviews
Print Article


Article ID: 1748
Thu 5/12/22 12:39 PM
Wed 5/1/24 9:15 AM

Related Services / Offerings (1)

Northwestern IT provides support installing software for use on Quest, Northwestern’s high-performance computing (HPC) cluster.