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Working with container image manifest lists

By Chris Evich GitHub

In this article, I will be using Podman, Buildah, and Skopeo container tools to produce an image that supports multiple architectures under a single “name”.

Simply put, a manifest list is just a collection of images with some additional metadata. While in principle any set of images can be in a manifest list, the intended use is housing multi-platform and/or multi-arch images. Otherwise, manifest lists mostly look and feel like regular container images. You can pull, tag, and run them as you’d expect, with only a few exceptions.

Two things will likely catch you off-guard:

Due to the way image-name references are internally processed, you should not use the usual podman push and podman rmi subcommands. THEY WILL NOT DO WHAT YOU EXPECT! Instead, you’ll want to use podman manifest push --all <src> <dest> and podman manifest rm <name> (similarly for buildah). These will push/remove the manifest list itself instead of the contents.

Great, so manifest lists sound awesome; I can pull, tag, and run them. I can delete them with podman manifest rm, push with podman manifest push --all <src> <dest>, but how can I create them?

Easy Mode

The simplest way to create a multi-arch manifest list is by enabling emulation to support any non-native RUN instructions. This is done by installing the qemu-user-static package (or equivalent) for your distribution. Also ensure the related systemd-binfmt.service is enabled/started. Not all distributions support these, so skip to the next sections for details on other methods if required.

Assuming emulation is in place, let’s look at this example Containerfile:

FROM registry.access.redhat.com/ubi8:latest
RUN uname -a

Building a multi-arch manifest for this can be done with one build command. This is thanks to features of recent versions of Buildah (v1.23 and later) and Podman (v3.4 and later):

$ platarch=linux/amd64,linux/ppc64le,linux/arm64,linux/s390x
$ buildah build --jobs=4 --platform=$platarch --manifest shazam .

The key options used here are:

Note: Even this simple Containerfile and build command will produce quite a lot of output. Assuming it’s successful, you may use the following command to examine the architectures:

$ skopeo inspect --raw containers-storage:localhost/shazam | \
      jq '.manifests[].platform.architecture'

Similarly, skopeo inspect can be used to examine manifest lists on registry servers - just swap containers-storage: with docker://. This is very useful for determining if a base image is a manifest list, and if it is, which architecture the images were built for. Querying metadata in this way doesn’t require pulling down all the data, so it’s quite fast.

Lastly and as mentioned at the beginning, pushing and removing manifest lists is special. You must use manifest push or manifest rm sub-commands. Otherwise, Podman will act on the contents rather than the manifest list itself. Then for push, you must specify both the source and destination. A somewhat contrived example might be:

$ podman tag localhost/shazam quay.io/example/shazam
$ podman manifest rm localhost/shazam
$ podman manifest push --all quay.io/example/shazam docker://quay.io/example/shazam

If you don’t specify both the source and push destination, you’ll get an error message. In case you’re wondering, the --all argument is required. This tells Podman to push the manifest list AND the contents, which is nearly always what you want to do. If you don’t use the --all option, only the native architecture will be sent without any warning or other indications.

Cheat Mode

In the case of public automation services, where convenience and ease of maintenance are essential, there are a set of container images that will enable and configure qermu-user-static for you. These images must be run in --privileged mode but will make setting things up in the automation system very easy (docs). Once set up, the image-build method is precisely the same as the above section.

That said, this is not an endorsement, and you will need to perform your own due diligence. I only mention it in this article because if I don’t, somebody is bound to bring it up. It’s likely a fine setup for small, non-critical cases. But this will probably be a “no-go”, where provenance and security are critical. So, if that applies to you, continue on to the next section.

Safe Mode

In highly secure, locked-down, production environments using commercially supported distributions, additional safety is often paramount over the convenience of emulation. Additionally if the build is simply too complex, emulation-slow, or involves multiple incompatible platforms (i.e., Windows and Darwin) then it simply may not be practical.

In these cases, essentially you need to perform the builds separately, collect the images on one system, then combine them all into a manifest list as a separate step.

For example, let’s assume that you’ve built the shazam image on several linux hosts, tagged each of them with their architecture name, and pushed them up to the quay.io/example/shazam repository. Combining them into a manifest list might look like this:

$ REPO=quay.io/example/shazam
$ podman manifest create $REPO:latest
$ for IMGTAG in amd64 s390x ppc64le arm64; do \
          podman manifest add $REPO:latest docker://$REPO:IMGTAG; \
      done
$ podman manifest push --all $REPO:latest docker://$REPO:latest

Note: For the manifest add sub-command, the target manifest list name comes first, then the image to add. In the above example, the command inside the loop will pull down the platform-tagged image (metadata) and add it into the new manifest list. There is no need for a separate pull operation, and Podman will automatically figure out the constituent architecture and platform information. If not, there are options to specify them manually during the manifest add operation. Lastly, in case of an accident, you’ll find a manifest remove sub-command (same argument-order as manifest add).

Conclusion

While countless additional details are available in the man pages, this basic knowledge should cover 90% of your needs. With these essential tricks in hand, producing your own multi-arch and/or multi-platform manifest lists is just a matter of practice (or some new bash scripts).

Please also remember to pay attention to the tooling versions, as several bugs and deficiencies are present in earlier editions. On that same note, if you do encounter any strange or unexpected behavior, please reach out to the upstream community for assistance.