How to use Linux Containers with LXD, and why you might want to

I initially drafted this nearly 3 years ago. I didn’t publish it then (for no good reason), so I’m publishing it now.

I have gone through the article and made sure it still works with the latest LXD at the time of publishing. I also updated it to:

Linux Containers (LXC) effectively spin up mini virtual operating systems inside Linux, except that they’re much more light-weight, and therefore much quicker, than true virtual machines.

LXD is a new system-wide daemon from Canonical’s Stéphane Graber which improves performance & security, and also offers an improve interface for the lxc command.

You may want to skip straight to Installing LXD or How to use LXD.

tl;dr summary

Once you’ve installed LXD, create a new container and open a bash terminal with:

lxc launch ubuntu:bionic caged-beaver   # Download 18.04 Bionic Beaver image and start the container
lxc exec caged-beaver -- bash           # Run and attach to a bash terminal in the container

Why are containers so useful?

As containers are like lighter virtual machines, you can use them for very much the same things, but do them much faster:

Also, as containers are phenomenally faster (they can take less than one second to start) and use much less resources, they also bring with them new possibilities:

Initialising LXD

LXD should be available by default in Ubuntu 16.04 Xenial and newer. You can see what version you have with lxc --version - if it’s v2 or newer, these instructions should work for you.

If you don’t have lxc v2 or newer, refer to the official installation guide.

Now initialise LXD, with a dir backend and an LXD bridge:

$ sudo lxd init
Name of the storage backend to use (dir or zfs): dir
Would you like LXD to be available over the network (yes/no)? no
Do you want to configure the LXD bridge (yes/no)? yes

Now the “Package configuration” will open and ask you to configure LXD. If you’re unsure about any of the questions, just select the default option by pressing <enter>.

Read the official installation guide.

How to use LXD

When I first drafted this post, the latest version of LXD was 2.0.0. At the time of publishing, it’s now 3.9 - however I believe all the commands mentioned below still work.

Quickly start a container

To download and start a container running Ubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver, simply run:

lxc launch ubuntu:bionic caged-beaver  # "caged-beaver" could be any name you choose

It will take a while the first time as it has to download the OS image, but to create subsequent containers from the same image should only take a matter of seconds.

Once it’s finished, check it’s running:

$ lxc list
|     NAME     |  STATE  |         IPV4         |      IPV6      |    TYPE    | SNAPSHOTS |
| caged-beaver | RUNNING | (eth0) | a:a:a:a (eth0) | PERSISTENT |           |

Running commands

To run a command in our new container, use the lxc exec command. The command will run as the root user, in the /root directory inside the container.

You can run any command that you would normally run in a Linux system, but the most immediately useful command to run is bash, which will drop you into a bash shell inside the container:

$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- bash
[email protected]:~# echo "hello from inside the container!"
hello from inside the container!
[email protected]:~#


If you initialised LXD earlier with a network bridge, your container should already have an IP address which you can connect to directly:

$ lxc list caged-beaver --format=json | jq -r '.[0]["state"]["network"]["eth0"]["addresses"][0]["address"]'  # Find the IP address
$ ping  # Check we can see that IP address
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.134 ms

You can use this IP address for accessing any servers that you run in your container. If you need to use different network settings, simply run lxd init again.

Sharing folders

You can share folders with your container as “devices”. The syntax is:

lxc config device add {container-name} {device-name} disk source={full-path-to-folder} path={path-inside-container}

So if we want to create a share directory and share it with the container at /media/share:

mkdir share  # Create a new "share" directory
touch share/hello  # Create a "hello" file inside the directory
lxc config device add caged-beaver shareddir disk source=`pwd`/share path=/media/share  # Share it with the container

Now let’s check the device is set up and that we can see it inside the container:

$ lxc config device list caged-beaver  # List all devices in the container
$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- ls -l /media/share
total 0
-rw-rw-r-- 1 nobody nogroup 0 May 16 16:55 hello

Gaining write access to shared folders

You’ll notice that the file inside /media/share in the container is owned by nobody:nogroup. This is true of the directory as well, and means that root can’t actually edit or create files inside the shared directory:

$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- touch /media/share/hello
touch: cannot touch '/media/share/hello': Permission denied

This is because the permissions inside the container are exactly the same as in the host system - as in the directory is still owned by your user. The container runs as an unprivileged user and so doesn’t have access to your user’s things.

To fix this, we can provide LXD access to our user’s ID (probably 1000). First we need to give our system’s root user permission to act as our user through subuid:

$ echo "root:$(id -u):1" | sudo tee -a /etc/subuid
$ echo "root:$(id -g):1" | sudo tee -a /etc/subgid

We can then map the default ubuntu user for our new container to the user ID for our system user:

$ lxc config set caged-beaver raw.idmap "both $(id -u) $(id -g)"
$ lxc restart caged-beaver

You should now be able to create and edit files in the shared folder from within the container. The container’s ubuntu user can create files as your system user, and the container’s root user can create files under its own UID:

$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- touch /media/share/created-by-root
$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- su ubuntu -c "touch /media/share/created-by-ubuntu"

$ ls -l share/
total 0
-rw-rw-r-- 1 robin robin 0 May 16 16:55 hello
-rw-r--r-- 1 1000000 1000000 0 May  16 17:29 created-by-root
-rw-r--r-- 1 robin robin 0 May  16 17:29 created-by-ubuntu

$ lxc exec caged-beaver -- ls -l /media/share
total 0
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ubuntu ubuntu 0 May 16 16:55 hello
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 May  16 17:29 created-by-root
-rw-r--r-- 1 ubuntu ubuntu 0 May  16 17:29 created-by-ubuntu

Privileged containers

We can also make containers “privileged”, which sets the root user inside the container to be the same as the root user on the host system.

This would have been a way to solve the shared folders problem above, but it is unsafe (and in that case unnecessary), as it means that programs inside the container can escape into root on the host system in some circumstances.

First, note that the rootfs directory in your container is currently owned by an unprivileged user:

$ ls -ld /var/lib/lxd/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs  # For the Deb version
drwxr-xr-x 22 165536 165536 4096 May 17 17:18 /var/lib/lxd/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs
# OR
$ sudo ls -ld /var/snap/lxd/common/mntns/var/snap/lxd/common/lxd/storage-pools/default/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs  # For the snap version
drwxr-xr-x 22 1000000 1000000 22 Jan 31 15:51 /var/snap/lxd/common/mntns/var/snap/lxd/common/lxd/storage-pools/default/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs

To make the container privileged, and then restart it:

lxc config set caged-beaver security.privileged true
lxc restart caged-beaver

And note that the rootfs owner is now root in the host:

$ ls -ld /var/lib/lxd/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs  # For the Deb version
drwxr-xr-x 22 root root 4096 May 17 17:18 /var/lib/lxd/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs
# OR
$ sudo ls -ld /var/snap/lxd/common/mntns/var/snap/lxd/common/lxd/storage-pools/default/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs  # For the snap version
drwxr-xr-x 22 root root 22 Feb  5 15:12 /var/snap/lxd/common/mntns/var/snap/lxd/common/lxd/storage-pools/default/containers/caged-beaver/rootfs

This means that the root user inside the container can now manipulate files on the host system as the root user.

Read more about unprivileged vs privileged containers.

Launching other images

In the command we ran earlier:

lxc launch ubuntu:bionic caged-beaver

“ubuntu” is the name of a remote image list and “bionic” is the alias of an image from that list.

To find other images, there are several list commands:

lxc remote list               # See what other remotes are available
lxc image list ubuntu:        # List all images in the "ubuntu" remote
lxc image alias list ubuntu:  # List every alias in the "ubuntu" remote
lxc image alias list images:  # List every alias in the "images" remote

From the last command, we can see that there’s an image available in the “images” remote with the alias “alpine/edge/amd64”, so we could choose to launch an alpine container in the same way:

lxc launch images:alpine/edge/amd64 caged-mountain  # Again "caged-mountain", could be any name you choose
By @nottrobin