I’ve been working on a little tool to let unprivileged users run commands in the context of a container image’s filesystem on Linux. I’m really bad at names, so let’s call it containy-thing. That also evokes about the right level of completeness: it’s quite far from done.

Anyway, this is a little field report from working on it. Its moral is: read your man pages.

containy-thing uses a few Linux tricks to do its job, the main ones being user and mount namespaces. It takes a directory to use as the container root filesystem, and a command to run, and runs the command. If you’ve used docker,

$ containy-thing /path/to/rootfs /bin/ls -l

would be similar to

# docker run my-image /bin/ls -l

(Note the $ vs # prompts! The main point of this project is that you can run it as an unprivileged user; docker needs superuser privileges.)

I was trying to test it out and had an extracted root filesystem for an Ubuntu-derived image. I attempted to run /bin/ls -l, but it kept failing. Investigating a bit, I found that the execve(2) system call to start /bin/ls was failing with EACCES.

read your man pages

I’ve done bits and pieces of systems programming, and the man pages are pretty great most of the time. The man page for execve(2) definitely falls under ‘most of the time’, and is pretty exhaustive. It lists the circumstances that could result in EACCES:

       EACCES Search permission is denied on a component of the path prefix of
              filename or the name of a script interpreter.  (See also

       EACCES The file or a script interpreter is not a regular file.

       EACCES Execute permission is denied for the file or a script or ELF

       EACCES The filesystem is mounted noexec.

I went through these one by one:

  • checked that all path components (namely, /bin) had the search permission (a+x) set (/bin/ls is not a script, and so there was no script interpreter to check)
  • checked that /bin/ls was there, and was a file
  • checked that /bin/ls/ had the execute permission (a+x)
  • double checked the mount to be sure it wasn’t noexec, which disallows execution of all files on the filesystem

Nothing came up. I did this a bunch of times, and still nothing came up.

no really, read your man pages

Eventually, I finally realized what the problem was. The third reason for EACCES was

       EACCES Execute permission is denied for the file or a script or ELF

but I was reading

       EACCES Execute permission is denied for the file or a script       

I didn’t even stop to think that something could be wrong with the ELF interpreter. I only even vaguely understand what an ELF interpreter does! But after wasting probably a day and a bit trying to figure this out, I finally took a look. The interpreter for x86-64 programs on Linux is at /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2, at least on Debian and Ubuntu…. and its permissions were wrong.