Containerised applications on the HPC (RStan example)

3 minute read

Singularity is a container platform. It allows you to create and run containers that package up pieces of software in a way that is portable and reproducible. Singularity is the preferred container platform for HPC clusters as each container is only a single file and users don’t need root access to run the containers. This post shows you how to use Singularity on the JCU HPC (where it is already installed), however, if you want to use it on a different machine (i.e. your personal computer) simply follow the installaltion instructions for Singularity.

Creating a singularity image from a docker image in docker hub:

To start, ssh to your HOME directory on the HPC. I wrote a guide for using VScode to make this process easy.

Singularity can build containers from dockerhub (a different container platform). The bash command below pulls an RStan docker container from Dockerhub and converts it to a singularity image format (.sif) container. The Dockerfile (i.e. recipe file) that generates this container can be found here.

singularity pull docker://jrnold/rstan

Once the download completes you will have a singularity container file called rstan_latest.sif.

Running a Stan model in the Singularity RStan container

Inside the RStan container is a version of R with RStan already installed. You can access a shell prompt (i.e. bash) inside a specified container (e.g. the rstan_latest.sif container we pulled from Dockerhub) with the bash command below.

singularity shell rstan_latest.sif

This will give you a Singularity> prompt “inside” the container. Try running R i.e. the command to get an interactive R prompt. Notice you don’t need to run load module R as R is already installed inside this container. Inside the container is essentially a different computer - a container is like a lightweight virtual machine that shares components of the host operating system. For further reading, I suggest you look at the Singularity introduction.

Back to the task at hand, running a RStan model. Exit out of the Singularity> prompt by typing exit. Make a rstan.R file and populate it with the following RStan linear regression example code (taken from this blog post).


# set number of cores to use
options(mc.cores = 4)

# save models
rstan_options(auto_write = TRUE)

x <- rnorm(40, 10, 5)
noise <- rnorm(40,0,1)
y <- x*.5 + noise

data <- list( x= x, y = y, N = length(x))

stan_linear_regression <- '
data {
  int<lower=0> N;
  vector[N] x;
  vector[N] y;
parameters {
  real alpha;
  real beta;
  real<lower=0> sigma;
model {
  y ~ normal(alpha + beta * x, sigma);

linear_regression <- stan_model(model_code = stan_linear_regression, model_name = "LinearRegression")

fit1 <- sampling(linear_regression, data = data, iter = 1000)


The singularity exec command is used to run a command within a container from outside the container. The exec command stands for execute e.g. execute the following command within the specified container. The bash command below tells singularity to execute the command Rscript rstan.R inside the rstan_latest.sif container.

singularity exec rstan_latest.sif Rscript rstan.R

After running the command above the model should compile then run and produce the following output. Note the beta (slope) parameter estimate is close to the real value of 0.5.

Inference for Stan model: LinearRegression.
4 chains, each with iter=1000; warmup=500; thin=1; 
post-warmup draws per chain=500, total post-warmup draws=2000.

        mean se_mean   sd   2.5%    25%    50%    75%  97.5% n_eff Rhat
alpha  -0.60    0.01 0.32  -1.23  -0.83  -0.60  -0.39   0.02   861 1.00
beta    0.54    0.00 0.03   0.48   0.52   0.54   0.55   0.59   869 1.00
sigma   0.90    0.00 0.11   0.72   0.83   0.89   0.97   1.16   694 1.01
lp__  -14.97    0.06 1.27 -18.35 -15.55 -14.64 -14.06 -13.49   407 1.01

Submitting to qsub

Finally, to take full advantage of Singularity on the JCU HPC we need to run our code as a job on the compute nodes using qsub.

Create a PBS script called with the following content.

#PBS -N RStan
#PBS -l walltime=00:30:00
#PBS -l select=1:ncpus=4:mem=8gb

# Move to working dir

# The bash command below tells singularity to execute the command
# `Rscript rstan.R` inside the `rstan_latest.sif` container
singularity exec rstan_latest.sif Rscript rstan.R

We can now submit our script to the queue using the bash command qsub Once our job completes the output will appear in the current directory named something like RStan.o1744909.

Wrapping up

Singularity can be used to install isolated application containers on the HPC. You can find other container images on dockerhub.

Singularity commands to remember inculde:

  • singularity pull docker://repository_name # download a container from Dockerhub
  • singularity shell container_image.sif # interactive shell inside conatier
  • singularity exec container_image.sif command # run a command in a container

Check out the Singularity introduction for more information on using containers in your research.