Infinite busybox with systemd
Lightweight virtual containers with PID 1

by Charles Fisher


In this article, I will demonstrate a method to build one Linux system within another, using the latest utilities within the systemd suite of management tools. The guest-OS container design will focus upon busybox and dropbear for the userspace system utilities, but we will work through methods for running more general application software so the containers are actually useful.

This tutorial was developed on Oracle Linux 7, and it will likely run unchanged on its common brethren (RedHat, CentOS, Scientific Linux), and from here forward I will refer to this platform simply as V7. Slight changes may be necessary on other systemd platforms (SUSE, Debian, Ubuntu). Oracle's V7 only runs on the x86_64 platform, so that's this article's primary focus.

Required Utilities

RedHat saw fit to remove the long-included busybox binary from their V7 distribution, but this is easily remedied by downloading the latest binary directly from the project's website. Since the /home filesystem gets a large amount of space by default when installing V7, we will put it there for now. Run the commands below as root until indicated otherwise.

cd /home

We can also get a binary copy of the dropbear ssh server and client from this location:


For this article, the following versions were used:

These are static binaries that do not link against shared objects - nothing else is required to run them, and they are ideal for building a new UNIXish environment quickly.

Build a chroot

The chroot system call, and the associated shell utility, allow an arbitrary subdirectory somewhere on the system to be declared as the root for all child processes. The commands below will populate the "chroot jail," then lock us in. Note that our call to chroot needs our change to the SHELL environment variable below, as we don't have bash inside the jail (and it's likely the default value of $SHELL).

export SHELL=/bin/sh
mkdir /home/nifty
mkdir /home/nifty/bin
cd /home/nifty/bin
cp /home/busybox-x86_64 /home/dropbearmulti-x86_64 .
chmod 755 busybox-x86_64 dropbearmulti-x86_64
./busybox-x86_64 --list | awk '{print "ln -s busybox-x86_64 " $0}' | sh
chroot /home/nifty
export PATH=/bin
ls -l
###(try some commands)

Take some time to explore your shell environment after you launch your chroot above before you exit. Notice that you have a /bin directory, which is populated by soft links that resolve to the busybox binary. Busybox changes its behavior, depending upon how it is called - it bundles a whole system of utility programs into one convenient package.

Try a few additional UNIX commands that you may know. Some that work are vi, uname, uptime, and (of course) the shell that you are working inside. Commands that don't work include ps, top, and netstat - they fail because they require the /proc directory (which is dynamically provided by the Linux kernel) - it has not been mounted within the jail.

Note that few native utilities will run in the chroot without moving many dependent libraries (objects). You might try copying bash or gawk into the jail, but you won't be able to run them (yet). In this regard, busybox is ideal, as it depends upon nothing.

Build a minimal UNIX system, and launch it

The systemd suite includes the eponymous program that runs as PID 1 on Linux. Among many other utilities, it also includes the nspawn program that is used to launch containers. Containers that are created by nspawn fix most of the problems with chroot jails - they provide /proc, /dev, /run, and otherwise equip the child environment with a more capable runtime.

Below, we are going to configure a getty to run on the console of the container that we can use to login. Being sure that you have exited your chroot from the previous step, run the following commands as root:

mkdir /home/nifty/etc
mkdir /home/nifty/root
echo 'NAME="nifty busybox container"' > /home/nifty/etc/os-release
cd /home/nifty
ln -s bin sbin
ln -s bin usr/bin
echo 'root::0:0:root:/root:/bin/sh' > /home/nifty/etc/passwd
echo 'console::respawn:/bin/getty 38400 /dev/console' > /home/nifty/etc/inittab
tar cf - /usr/share/zoneinfo | (cd /home/nifty; tar xvpf -)
systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty

After you have executed the nspawn above, you will be presented with a "nifty login" prompt. Login as root (there is no password [yet]). Try a few more commands. You will immediately notice that ps and top work, and there is now a /proc.

You will also notice that the processes that appear in the child container will also appear on the host system, but different PIDs will be assigned between the parent and child.

Note that you'll also receive the message: "The kernel auditing subsystem is known to be incompatible with containers. Please make sure to turn off auditing with 'audit=0' on the kernel command line before using systemd-nspawn. Sleeping for 5s..." - the audit settings don't seem to impact the busybox container login, but you can adjust your kernel command line in your grub configuration (at least to silence the warning and stop the delay).

Running Dropbear SSH in your container

It will be best if we configure a non-root user of our system, and forbid network root logins - the reasoning will become clear when we address container security.

Run all of these commands as root within the container:

cd /bin
ln -s dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbear
ln -s dropbearmulti-x86_64 ssh
ln -s dropbearmulti-x86_64 scp
ln -s dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbearkey
ln -s dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbearconvert

Above, we have established the names that we need to call dropbear, both the main client and server, and the sundry key generation and management utilities.

mkdir /etc/dropbear
dropbearkey -t rsa -f /etc/dropbear/dropbear_rsa_host_key
dropbearkey -t dss -f /etc/dropbear/dropbear_dss_host_key
dropbearkey -t ecdsa -f /etc/dropbear/dropbear_ecdsa_host_key

We then generate the host keys that will be used by this container, placing them in a new directory /home/nifty/etc/dropbear (as viewed by the host).

mkdir -p /var/log/lastlog
mkdir /home
mkdir /var/run
mkdir /tmp
mkdir /var/tmp
chmod 01777 /tmp /var/tmp

Various directories are then created that we will shortly need.

echo ::sysinit:/bin/syslogd >> /etc/inittab
echo '::sysinit:/bin/dropbear -w -p 2200' >> /etc/inittab

We then create the inittab, which will launch syslogd and dropbear once at startup (in addition to the existing getty that is respawned whenever it dies).

echo root:::::::: > /etc/shadow
chmod 600 /etc/shadow
echo root:x:0: > /etc/group
passwd -a x root

Here we have added a shadow file, and created a password for root. Note that the busybox passwd call that we used here generated an MD5 hash - there is a $1$ prefix in the second field of /etc/shadow for root. Additional hashing algorithms are available from this version of the passwd utility (the options "-a s" will generate a $5$ SHA256 hash, and "-a sha512" will generate a $6$ hash) - however, dropbear only seems to be able to work with $1$ hashes for now.

adduser -h /home/luser -D luser
passwd -a x luser


Finally, we have added a new user to the system, then halted the container. You should see container shutdown messages that are similar to a system halt.

When you next start your container, it will listen on socket 2200 for connections. If you want remote hosts to be able to connect to your container from anywhere on the network, run this command as root on the host to open firewall port:

iptables -I INPUT -p tcp --dport 2200 --syn -j ACCEPT

The port will only be open until you reboot. If you'd like the open port to persist across reboots, use the firewall-config command from within X-Windows (set the port on the second tab in the gui).

In any case, run the container with the previous nspawn syntax, then try to connect from another shell within the parent host OS with the following:

ssh -l luser -p 2200 localhost

You should be able to login to the luser account under a busybox shell.

Executing programs with run-time dependencies

If you copy various system programs from /bin or /usr/bin into your container, you will immediately notice that they don't work - they are missing shared objects that they need to run.

If we had previously copied the gawk binary in from the host:

cp /bin/gawk /home/nifty/bin/

We would find that attempts to execute it fail with "gawk: not found" errors (on the host, there would usually be explicit complaints about missing shared objects, which are not seen in the container).

You can easily make most of the 64-bit libraries available with an argument to nspawn that establishes a bind mount:

systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty --bind-ro=/usr/lib64

Then from within the container, run:

cd /
ln -s usr/lib64 lib64

You will then find that many 64-bit binaries that you copy in from the host will run (running "/bin/gawk -V" returns "GNU Awk 4.0.2" - an entire Oracle 12c instance is confirmed to run this way). The read-only library bind mount also has the benefit of receiving security patches immediately when they appear on the host.

There is a significant security problem with this, however. The root user in the cointainer has the power to "mount -o remount,rw /usr/lib64" and thus gain write access to your host library directories. In general, you cannot give root to a container user that you don't know and trust - among other problems, these mounts can be abused.

You might also be tempted to mount the /usr/lib directory in the same manner. The difficulty you will find is that the systemd binary will be found under that directory tree, and nspawn will try to execute it in preference to busybox init. Enabling 32-bit runtime support will likely involve more directory and mounting gymnastics than was requried for /usr/lib64.

And now, we are going off on a tangent.

systemd Service Files

We will need to call on the host PID 1 (systemd) directly to launch our container in an automated manner, potentially at boot. To do this, we will need to create a service file.

Because there is a dearth of clear discussion on moving inittab and service functions into systemd, we will cover all the basic uses before creating a service file for our container.

We will start by configuring a telnet server. The telnet protocol is not secure, as it transmits passwords in cleartext - don't practice these examples on a production server or with sensitive information or accounts.

Classical telnetd is launched by the inetd superserver, both of which are implemented by busybox. Let's configure inetd for telnet on port 12323. Run the following as root on the host:

echo '12323 stream tcp nowait root /home/nifty/bin/telnetd telnetd -i -l /home/nifty/bin/login' >> /etc/inetd.conf

After configuring above, if you manually launch the inetd contained in busybox, you will be able to telnet to port 12323. Note the V7 platform does not include a telnet client, by default, so you can either install it with yum, or use the busybox client (which the example below will do). Unless you open up port 12323 on your firewall, you will have to telnet to localhost.

Make sure any inetd that you started is shut down before proceeding to create an inetd service file below.

echo '[Unit]
Description=busybox inetd


ExecStart=/home/nifty/bin/inetd -f



[Install]' > /etc/systemd/system/inetd.service

systemctl start inetd.service

After starting the inet service above, we can check the status of the daemon:

[root@localhost ~]# systemctl status inetd.service
inetd.service - busybox inetd
   Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/inetd.service; disabled)
   Active: active (running) since Sun 2014-11-16 12:21:29 CST; 28s ago
 Main PID: 3375 (inetd)
   CGroup: /system.slice/inetd.service
           └─3375 /home/nifty/bin/inetd -f

Nov 16 12:21:29 localhost.localdomain systemd[1]: Started busybox inetd.

Try opening a telnet session from a different console:

/home/nifty/bin/telnet localhost 12323

You should be presented with a login prompt:

Entering character mode
Escape character is '^]'.

Kernel 3.10.0-123.9.3.el7.x86_64 on an x86_64
localhost.localdomain login: jdoe

Checking the status again, we see information about the connection and the session activity.

[root@localhost ~]# systemctl status inetd.service
inetd.service - busybox inetd
   Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/inetd.service; disabled)
   Active: active (running) since Sun 2014-11-16 12:34:04 CST; 7min ago
 Main PID: 3927 (inetd)
   CGroup: /system.slice/inetd.service
           ├─3927 /home/nifty/bin/inetd -f
           ├─4076 telnetd -i -l /home/nifty/bin/login
           └─4077 -bash

You can learn more about systemd service files with the "man 5 systemd.service" command.

There is an important point to make here - we have started inetd with the "-f Run in foreground" option. This is not how inetd is normally started - this option is commonly used for debugging activity. However, if we were starting inetd with a classical inittab entry, -f would be useful in conjunction with "respawn." Without -f, inetd will immediately fork into the background; attempting to respawn forking daemons will launch them repeatedly. With -f, we can configure init to relaunch inetd should it die.

Another important point is stopping the service. With a foreground daemon, and the KillMode=process setting in the service file, the child telnetd services are not killed when the service is stopped. This is not the normal, default behavior for a systemd service, where all the children will be killed.

To see this mass kill behavior, comment out the "OPTION 1" settings in the service file (/etc/systemd/system/inetd.service), and enable the default settings in "OPTION 2" - then execute:

systemctl stop inetd.service
systemctl daemon-reload
systemctl start inetd.service

Launch another telnet session, then stop the service. When you do, your telnet sessions will all be cut with "Connection closed by foreign host." In short, the default behavior of systemd is to kill all the children of a service when a parent dies.

The KillMode=process setting can be used with the forking version of inetd, but the "-f Run in foreground" in the first option is more specific, and thus safer.

You can learn more about the KillMode option with the "man 5 systemd.kill" command.

Note also that the systemctl status output included the word "disabled" - this indicates that the service will not be started at boot. Pass the "enable" keyword to systemctl for the service to set it to launch at boot (the "disable" keyword will undo this).

Make some note of the commented options above - you may set environment variables for your service (here suggesting a compression quality), specify a non-root user/group, and commands to be executed before the service starts or after it is halted. These capabilites are beyond the direct features offered by the classical inittab.

Of course, systemd is capable of spawning telnet servers directly, allowing you to dispense with with inetd altogether. Run the following as root on the host to configure systemd for busybox telnetd:

systemctl stop inetd.service

echo '[Unit]


[Install]' > /etc/systemd/system/mytelnet.socket

echo '[Unit]

ExecStart=-/home/nifty/bin/telnetd telnetd -i -l /home/nifty/bin/login
StandardInput=socket' > /etc/systemd/system/mytelnet@.service

systemctl start mytelnet.socket

Some notes about inetd-style services:

At this point, we have returned from my long-winded tangent, and we are now ready to build a service file for our container. Run the following as root on the host:

echo '[Unit]
Description=nifty container

ExecStart=/usr/bin/systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty
KillMode=process' > /etc/systemd/system/nifty.service

Be sure that you have shut down any other instances of the nifty container. You can optionally disable the console getty by commenting/removing the first line of /home/nifty/etc/inittab. Then use PID 1 to directly launch your container:

systemctl start nifty.service

If you check the status of the service, you will see the same level of information that you previously saw on the console:

[root@localhost ~]# systemctl status nifty.service
nifty.service - nifty container
   Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/nifty.service; static)
   Active: active (running) since Sun 2014-11-16 14:06:21 CST; 31s ago
 Main PID: 5881 (systemd-nspawn)
   CGroup: /system.slice/nifty.service
           └─5881 /usr/bin/systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty

Nov 16 14:06:21 localhost.localdomain systemd[1]: Starting nifty container...
Nov 16 14:06:21 localhost.localdomain systemd[1]: Started nifty container.
Nov 16 14:06:26 localhost.localdomain systemd-nspawn[5881]: Spawning namespace container on /home/nifty (console is /dev/pts/4).
Nov 16 14:06:26 localhost.localdomain systemd-nspawn[5881]: Init process in the container running as PID 5883.

Memory and Disk Consumption

Busybox is a big program, and if you are running several containers that each have their own copy, you will waste both memory and disk space.

It is possible to share the "text" segment of the busybox memory usage between all running programs, but only if they are running on the same inode, from the same filesystem. The text segment is the read-only, compiled code of a program, and you can see the size like this:

[root@localhost ~]# size /home/busybox-x86_64 
   text	   data	    bss	    dec	    hex	filename
 942326	  29772	  19440	 991538	  f2132	/home/busybox-x86_64

If you wish to conserve the memory used by busybox, one way would be to create a common /cbin which we attach to all containers as a read-only bind mount (as we did previously with lib64), and reset all the links in /bin to the new location. The root user could do this:

systemctl stop nifty.service

mkdir /home/cbin
mv /home/nifty/bin/busybox-x86_64 /home/cbin
mv /home/nifty/bin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 /home/cbin
cd /
ln -s home/cbin cbin
cd /home/nifty/bin
for x in *; do if [ -h "$x" ]; then rm -f "$x"; fi; done
/cbin/busybox-x86_64 --list | awk '{print "ln -s /cbin/busybox-x86_64 " $0}' | sh
ln -s /cbin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbear
ln -s /cbin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 ssh
ln -s /cbin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 scp
ln -s /cbin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbearkey
ln -s /cbin/dropbearmulti-x86_64 dropbearconvert

We could also arrange to bind-mount the zoneinfo directory, saving a little more disk space in the container (and giving the container patches for timezone data in the bargain):

cd /home/nifty/usr/share
rm -rf zoneinfo

Then the service file is modified to bind /cbin and /usr/share/zoneinfo (note the altered syntax for sharing /cbin below, when the paths differ between host and container):

echo '[Unit]
Description=nifty container

ExecStart=/usr/bin/systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty --bind-ro=/home/cbin:/cbin --bind-ro=/usr/share/zoneinfo
KillMode=process' > /etc/systemd/system/nifty.service

systemctl daemon-reload

systemctl start nifty.service

Now any container using the busybox binary from /cbin will share the same inode. All versions of the busybox utilities running in those containers will share the same text segment in memory.

Infinite Busybox

It might interesting to launch tens, hundreds, or even thousands of containers at once. We could launch the clones by making copies of the /home/nifty directory, then adjusting the systemd service file. To simplify, we will place our new containers in /home/nifty1, /home/nifty2, /home/nifty3... using integer suffixes on the directories to diferentiate them.

Please make sure that you have disabled kernel auditing to remove the five second delay when launching containers. At the very least, press "e" at the grub menu at boot time, and add the audit=0 to your kernel command line for a one-time boot.

We will return the to the subject of systemd "instantiated services" that we touched upon with the telnetd service file that replaced inetd. This technique will allow us to use one service file to launch all of our containers. Such a service has an "@" character in the filename that is used to refer to a particular, diferentiated instance of a service, and it allows allows the use of the "%i" placeholder within the service file for variable expansion. Run the following on the host as root to place our service file for instantiated containers:

echo '[Unit]
Description=nifty container # %i

ExecStart=/usr/bin/systemd-nspawn -bD /home/nifty%i --bind-ro=/home/cbin:/cbin --bind-ro=/usr/share/zoneinfo
KillMode=process' > /etc/systemd/system/nifty@.service

The "%i" above first adjusts the description, then adjusts the launch directory for the nspawn. The content that will replace the %i is specified on the systemctl command line.

To test this, let's make a directory called "/home/niftyslick" - the service file doesn't limit us to numeric suffixes. We will adjust the ssh port after the copy. Run this as root on the host:

cd /home
mkdir niftyslick
(cd nifty; tar cf - .) | (cd niftyslick; tar xpf -)
sed "s/2200/2100/" < nifty/etc/inittab > niftyslick/etc/inittab

systemctl start nifty@slick.service

Bearing this pattern in mind, let's create a script to produce these containers in massive quantities. Let's make a thousand of them.

cd /home
for x in $(seq 1 999)
  mkdir "nifty${x}"
  (cd nifty; tar cf - .) | (cd "nifty${x}"; tar xpf -)
  sed "s/2200/$((x+2200))/" < nifty/etc/inittab > nifty${x}/etc/inittab
  systemctl start nifty@${x}.service

As you can see below, this test launches all containers:

$ ssh -l luser -p 3199 localhost
The authenticity of host '[localhost]:3199 ([::1]:3199)' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is 07:26:15:75:7d:15:56:d2:ab:9e:14:8a:ac:1b:32:8c.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? yes
Warning: Permanently added '[localhost]:3199' (ECDSA) to the list of known hosts.
luser@localhost's password: 
~ $ sh --help
BusyBox v1.21.1 (2013-07-08 11:34:59 CDT) multi-call binary.

Usage: sh [-/+OPTIONS] [-/+o OPT]... [-c 'SCRIPT' [ARG0 [ARGS]] / FILE [ARGS]]

Unix shell interpreter

~ $ cat /proc/self/cgroup

The output of systemctl will list each of our containers:

# systemctl
machine-nifty1.scope        loaded active running   Container nifty1
machine-nifty10.scope       loaded active running   Container nifty10
machine-nifty100.scope      loaded active running   Container nifty100
machine-nifty101.scope      loaded active running   Container nifty101
machine-nifty102.scope      loaded active running   Container nifty102

More detail is available with systemctl status:

machine-nifty10.scope - Container nifty10
   Loaded: loaded (/run/systemd/system/machine-nifty10.scope; static)
  Drop-In: /run/systemd/system/machine-nifty10.scope.d
           └─90-Description.conf, 90-Slice.conf, 90-TimeoutStopUSec.conf
   Active: active (running) since Tue 2014-11-18 23:01:21 CST; 11min ago
   CGroup: /machine.slice/machine-nifty10.scope
           ├─2871 init      
           ├─2880 /bin/syslogd
           └─2882 /bin/dropbear -w -p 2210

Nov 18 23:01:21 localhost.localdomain systemd[1]: Starting Container nifty10.
Nov 18 23:01:21 localhost.localdomain systemd[1]: Started Container nifty10.

The raw number of containers that we can launch with this approach is more directly impacted by kernel limits than general disk and memory resources - launching the containers above used no swap on a small system with 2 gigabytes of ram.

After you have investigated a few of the containers and their listening ports, the easiest and cleanest way to get all of your containers shut down is likely a reboot.

Container Security

A number of concerns are raised with these features:

systemd Controversy

There is a high degree of hostility towards systemd from users of Linux. This hostility is divided into two main complaints:

Towards the first point, nostalgia for legacy systems is not always misguided, but it cannot be allowed to unreasonably hinder progress. A classic System V init is not able to nspawn, and has far less control over processes running on a system. The features delivered by systemd surely justify the inconvenience of change in many situations.

Towards the second point, much thought was placed into the adoption of the architecture of systemd by skilled designers from diverse organizations. Those most critical of the new environment should acknowledge the technical success of systemd as it is adopted by the majority of the Linux community.

In any case, the next decade will see popular Linux server distributions equipped with systemd, and competent administrators will not have the option of ignoring it. It is unfortunate that the introduction of systemd did not include more guidance for the user community, but the new features are compelling and should not be overlooked.