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Linux Containers are a mechanism by which you can run multiple virtual instances of linux inside a single machine.

  • + more efficient than a virtual solution like Xen, VirtualBox, or KVM.
  • - all instances share a single Linux kernel.
  • - I think if you expect to have actively hostile users then you should not use containers. Just a gut feeling here. They are new-ish.

Following are my notes for using Linux containers with Debian Lenny. Read along on that IBM article I just linked. It is good stuff.

  1. Following a catastrophic disk failure, I begin with a clean install on a new hard drive. (Bah on you Hitachi.)
  2. Install lenny. Minimal install.
  3. Add openssh and emacs for my sanity. Add build-essential for kernel building.
  4. Try the 2.6.30 kernel from backports. Crash on ifconfig in an inner container. Try my own 2.6.30, same problem. Try 2.6.31-rc7. All is good. So checkout 2.6.31-rc7 (or probably a real 2.6.31 when it comes out) and build that kernel. I started with the .config file from the Debian 2.6.30 backports and answered the extra questions from there. My resulting .config file is attached to the end of this posting. I no longer use make-kpkg, it rotted away too far. I just install my kernel with “make install ; make modules_install” in the kernel build directory. You then have to “update-initramfs -k 2.6.31-rc7 -c” to get the init ram disk in place. Finally “update-grub”.
  5. Fail to reboot. Ha ha! The linux kernel now names my hda drives as sda and fstab fails miserably. Use “ls -l /dev/disk/by-uuid” to find my UUIDs and use them in fstab.
  6. The swap partition will still fail, but I can remake it with “mkswap -L SWAP /dev/hdaXXX” and then use LABEL=SWAP in fstab after the next boot.
  7. Seek out the user space tools. Decide to try to 0.6.3-1 package from unstable. wget http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/pool/main/l/lxc/lxc_0.6.3-1_i386.deb
  8. Install manually with dpkg: dpkg -i lxc_0.6.3-1_i386.deb (note: As squeeze diverges, later versions of this may have linkage problems that won’t let them install on lenny)
  9. Read the /usr/share/doc/lxc/README.Debian file. See some neat stuff.
  10. Run lxc-checkconfig to verify the kernel has what it takes. Notice the cgroup memory controller is disabled, but don’t care.
  11. Decision time: The cgroup filesystem has to get mounted somewhere. It doesn’t matter much where. I chose to put mine in /cgroup to avoid any mount order dependencies. Some people will have ontological problems with this. Imkdir /cgroup and add this to my /etc/fstab file: cgroup  /cgroup cgroup  defaults 0 0
  12. I think I have all the pieces now. Pop over to LXC: Linux container tools and slide down to “Configure networking” and lets get going. I am going to have to change my ethernet to a bridge. Here is the before and after of my /etc/network/interfaces file

    # The primary network interface
    allow-hotplug eth1
    iface eth1 inet static

    and the after

    # The primary network interface
    auto br0
    iface br0 inet static
          bridge_ports eth1
          bridge_maxwait 0
          gateway eth1
    iface eth1 inet manual

    Use ifdown -a and ifup -a to make the change, from the console. I failed here because I didn’t have bridge-utils installed. Make sure you do that first. If you are using dhcp just reboot and save yourself the heartache when your old dhcp trashes your address.

  13. Try using lxc-debian to make a container. You can find this in /usr/share/doc/lxc/examples. Pull it out and uncompress it, then run it. You will need to install debootstrap first. It appears to be a trainwreck. I had to patch it a little to make it run. The patch is attached below.

  14. Note: lxc-debian doesn’t allow you to specify your package source, it is hard coded to ftp.debian.org. If you have a local cache, or a faster source you will want to edit a line in there. debootstrap handles its own cache, so it only sucks once.

  15. When you get the “Configuring Locales” dialog, take the time to scroll down to en_US.UTF-8 and turn it on, then select it on the next page to prevent a cloud of error lines. I suppose other ones work, but not generating and selecting makes noise.

  16. The last line will tell you how to start your container, mine says: 

    You can run your container with the 'lxc-start -n test1'
  17. You now have a container with a bunch of bad config files and no editor. Fortunately you can edit the afflicted files from the main linux.

  18. Go look at your ROOT/etc/network/interfaces. Mine had a bad netmask.

  19. Check your ROOT/etc/apt/sources.list, it is probably missing security and volatile.

  20. Go ahead and start your container now and start working form the inside.

  21. I am going to use aptitude, so “apt-get update ; apt-get install aptitude”

  22. Let’s get the “normal” packages installed. “aptitude update” and then aptitude install "?priority(standard)" and aptitude install "?priority(important)"

  23. There are still issues starting up as a daemon and some collisions with the system console, but I’ll address those in a later post.

This should be enough to get started.


container.config 98265 bytes
lxc-debian.diff 303 bytes

You should read the article Setting up a server for PXE network booting 

It is a bit dated, but swapping all the “etch” references for “lenny” works. I don’t get the “boot” menu when I booted my test system, so when the prompt says “boot:” just type in something like “lenny_i386_install”.

I was wondering if I needed to keep as many physical development machines or if I could just use virtual machines on my laptop and main desktop machine. I think I can certainly lose the P4 3GHz. It offers no real advantage over the Atom 330 1.6GHz.

I don’t think I’ll rely on the VirtualBox machine for Linux kernel work, but perhaps for mortal scale projects it will serve.

(pardon my confusing terminology: Compile time vs. Concurrent Jobs would have been a better graph title. i.e. make -j3 )

The blue line is different. That is a different version of gcc so you can’t directly compare the hardware with the others, but for developer experience you can make the comparison. 

I guess the bottom line is that I still lust for a Core i7 machine but will hold off for the lower power versions coming in the fall.


cores.gif 22983 bytes
I have provoked the computer spirits. The P4 I just benchmarked and decided I could live without has suffered a hard disk failure of its primary disk.

The good news is I don't have to fix it because I now know I can live without it.

I used to test web pages for IE compatibility by walking around the office, finding a person with IE and asking them to pull up the page. I can’t do that anymore, and it doesn’t seem likely to work well if I go to the local coffee house and try it on a stranger, so I have found a new solution.

Microsoft makes VPC (virtual PC) system images available for minimal OS + IE installs for IE6, IE7, and IE8, some on both Vista and XP. Download details: IE App Compat VHD (These are timebombed and die after a few months, and look in the ReadMe.txt file for passwords.)

These can be run in VirtualBox on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris hosts. The initial boot is a little ugly as Windows gropes for drivers, but once you get the VirtualBox guest additions installed it is smooth.

On my 12+ month old iMac booting an XP machine with IE takes about 22 seconds (10 seconds in BIOS, 10 booting XP, 2 logging in), restarting one from saved state takes about 6 seconds. Once running they are snappy. They don’t feel any different from native applications.

You can find excellent instructions for running these under VirtualBox at zytzagoo’s den. These are written for linux users. I used linux for the unrar step but used my Mac for the VirtualBox machine.

If you want to test with more than one version of IE you will discover that Microsoft used the same UUID for all of the disk images (challenging the meaning of unique) and that VirtualBox is offended by that. You can read the also good instructions at Shape Shed and look at the Fixing Microsoft’s Duplicate Identifiers section for details on converting the image to a raw image and back to a VDI to get a new UUID.