Custom containers

This guide walks you through how to define the environment your Modal functions and applications run in.

These environments are called containers. Containers are like light-weight virtual machines — container engines use operating system tricks to isolate programs from each other (“containing” them), making them work as though they were running on their own hardware with their own filesystem. This makes execution environments more reproducible, for example by preventing accidental cross-contamination of environments on the same machine. For added security, Modal runs containers using the sandboxed gVisor container runtime.

Containers are started up from a stored “snapshot” of their filesystem state called an image. Producing the image for a container is called building the image.

By default, Modal functions are executed in a Debian Linux container with a basic Python installation of the same minor version v3.x as your local Python interpreter.

Customizing this environment is critical. To make your apps and functions useful, you will probably need some third party system packages or Python libraries. To make them start up faster, you can bake data like model weights into the container image, taking advantage of Modal’s optimized filesystem for serving containers.

Modal provides a number of options to customize your container images at different levels of abstraction and granularity, from high-level convenience methods like pip_install through wrappers of core container image build features like RUN and ENV to full on “bring-your-own-Dockerfile”. We’ll cover each of these in this guide, along with tips and tricks for building images effectively when using each tool.

The typical flow for defining an image in Modal is method chaining starting from a base image, like this:

from modal import Image

image = (
    Image.debian_slim(python_version="3.10")
    .apt_install("git")
    .pip_install("torch==2.2.1")
    .env({"HALT_AND_CATCH_FIRE": 0})
    .run_commands("git clone https://github.com/modal-labs/agi && echo 'ready to go!'")
)

In addition to being Pythonic and clean, this also matches the onion-like layerwise build process of container images.

Add Python packages with pip_install

The simplest and most common container modification is to add some third party Python package, like pandas.

You can add Python packages to the environment by passing all the packages you need to the pip_install method of an image.

You can include typical Python dependency version specifiers, like "torch <= 2.0", in the arguments. But we recommend pinning dependencies tightly, like "torch == 1.9.1", to improve the reproducibility and robustness of your builds.

Of course, that means you need to start from some image. Below, we use the recommended debian_slim image as our base.

from modal import Image

datascience_image = (
    Image.debian_slim(python_version="3.10")
    .pip_install("pandas==2.2.0", "numpy")
)


@stub.function(image=datascience_image)
def my_function():
    import pandas as pd
    import numpy as np

    df = pd.DataFrame()
    ...

Note that because you can define a different environment for each and every Modal function if you so choose, you don’t need to worry about virtual environment management. Containers make for much better separation of concerns!

If you want to run a specific version of Python remotely rather than just matching the one you’re running locally, provide the python_version as a string when constructing the base image, like we did above.

What if I have different Python packages locally and remotely?

You might want to use packages inside your Modal code that you don’t have on your local computer. In the example above, we build a container that uses pandas. But if we don’t have pandas locally, on the computer launching the Modal job, we can’t put import pandas at the top of the script, since it would cause an ImportError.

The easiest solution to this is to put import pandas in the function body instead, as you can see above. This means that pandas is only imported when running inside the remote Modal container, which has pandas installed.

Be careful about what you return from Modal functions that have different packages installed than the ones you have locally! Modal functions return Python objects, like pandas.DataFrames, and if your local machine doesn’t have pandas installed, it won’t be able to handle a pandas object (the error message you see will mention serialization/deserialization).

If you have a lot of functions and a lot of Python packages, you might want to keep the imports in the global scope so that every function can use the same imports. In that case, you can use the imports() context manager:

from modal import Image

pandas_image = Image.debian_slim().pip_install("pandas", "numpy")


with pandas_image.imports():
    import pandas as pd
    import numpy as np


@stub.function(image=pandas_image)
def my_function():
    df = pd.DataFrame()

Note that this feature is still in beta.

Run shell commands with .run_commands

You can also supply shell commands that should be executed when building the container image.

You might use this to preload custom assets, like model parameters, so that they don’t need to be retrieved when functions start up:

from modal import Image

image_with_model = (
    Image.debian_slim().apt_install("curl").run_commands(
        "curl -O https://raw.githubusercontent.com/opencv/opencv/master/data/haarcascades/haarcascade_frontalcatface.xml",
    )
)


@stub.function(image=image_with_model)
def find_cats():
    content = open("/haarcascade_frontalcatface.xml").read()
    ...

Or to make use of a hip new blazingly fast package manager:

from modal import Image

image = (
    Image.debian_slim()
    .pip_install("uv")
    .run_commands("uv pip install --system --compile torch")
)

Run a Modal function during your build with .run_function (beta)

Instead of using shell commands, you can also run a Python function as an image build step using the Image.run_function method. For example, you can use this to download model parameters from Hugging Face into your image, massively speeding up function starts:

from modal import Image, Secret

def download_models():
    import diffusers

    pipe = diffusers.StableDiffusionPipeline.from_pretrained(
        model_id, use_auth_token=os.environ["HF_TOKEN"]
    )
    pipe.save_pretrained("/model")


image = (
    Image.debian_slim()
        .pip_install("diffusers[torch]", "transformers", "ftfy", "accelerate")
        .run_function(download_models, secrets=[Secret.from_name("huggingface-secret")])
)

Any kwargs accepted by @stub.function (such as Mounts, NetworkFileSystems, and specifications of resources like GPUs) can be supplied here.

Essentially, this is equivalent to running a Modal function and snapshotting the resulting filesystem as an image.

Whenever you change other features of your image, like the base image or the version of a Python package, the image will automatically be rebuilt the next time it is used. This is a bit more complicated when changing the contents of Modal functions. See the reference documentation for details.

Attach GPUs during setup

If a step in the setup of your container image should be run on an instance with a GPU (e.g., so that a package can be linked against CUDA libraries), pass a desired GPU type when defining that step:

from modal import Image

image = (
    Image.debian_slim()
    .pip_install("bitsandbytes", gpu="H100")
)

Use mamba instead of pip with micromamba_install

pip installs Python packages, but many Python workloads require the coordinated installation of system packages as well. The conda and mamba package managers can install both. Modal provides pre-built Miniconda and Micromamba base images.

We recommend the faster, lighter, and equally capable Micromamba images.

from modal import Image, Stub

stub = Stub("bayes-pgm")

numpyro_pymc_image = (
    Image.micromamba()
    .micromamba_install("pymc==5.10.4", "numpyro==0.13.2", channels=["conda-forge"])
)


@stub.function(image=numpyro_pymc_image)
def sample():
    import pymc as pm
    import numpyro as np

    print(f"Running on PyMC v{pm.__version__} with JAX/numpyro v{np.__version__} backend")
    ...

Use an existing container image with .from_registry

You don’t always need to start from scratch! Public registries like Docker Hub have many pre-built container images for common software packages.

You can use any public image in your function using Image.from_registry, so long as:

from modal import Image

sklearn_image = Image.from_registry("huanjason/scikit-learn")


@stub.function(image=sklearn_image)
def fit_knn():
    from sklearn.neighbors import KNeighborsClassifier
    ...

If an existing image does not have either python or pip set up properly, you can still use it. Just provide a version number as the add_python argument to install a reproducible, standalone build of Python:

from modal import Image

image1 = Image.from_registry("ubuntu:22.04", add_python="3.11")
image2 = Image.from_registry("gisops/valhalla:latest", add_python="3.11")

The from_registry method can load images from all public registries, such as Nvidia’s nvcr.io, AWS ECR, and GitHub’s ghcr.io.

We also support access to private AWS ECR and GCP Artifact Registry images.

Bring your own image definition with .from_dockerfile

Sometimes, you might be working in a setting where the environment is already defined as a container image in the form of a Dockerfile.

Modal supports defining a container image directly from a Dockerfile via the Image.from_dockerfile function. It takes a path to an existing Dockerfile.

For instance, we might write a Dockerfile based on the official Python image and adding scikit-learn:

FROM python:3.9
RUN pip install sklearn

and then define an image for Modal based on it:

from modal import Image

dockerfile_image = Image.from_dockerfile("Dockerfile")


@stub.function(image=dockerfile_image)
def fit():
    import sklearn
    ...

Note that you can still do method chaining to extend this image!

Dockerfile command compatibility

Since Modal doesn’t use Docker to build containers, we have our own implementation of the Dockerfile specification. Most Dockerfiles should work out of the box, but there are some differences to be aware of.

First, a few minor Dockerfile commands and flags have not been implemented yet. Please reach out to us if your use case requires any of these.

Next, there are some command-specific things that may be useful when porting a Dockerfile to Modal.

ENTRYPOINT

While the ENTRYPOINT command is supported, there is an additional constraint to the entrypoint script provided: it must also exec the arguments passed to it at some point. This is so that Modal’s own Python entrypoint can run after your own. Most entrypoint scripts in Docker containers are wrappers over other scripts, so this is likely already the case.

If you wish to write your own entrypoint script, you can use the following as a template:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Your custom startup commands here.

exec "$@" # Runs the command passed to the entrypoint script.

If the above file is saved as /usr/bin/my_entrypoint.sh in your container, then you can register it as an entrypoint with ENTRYPOINT ["/usr/bin/my_entrypoint.sh"] in your Dockerfile, or with dockerfile_commands as an Image build step.

from modal import Image

image = (
    Image.debian_slim()
    .pip_install("foo")
    .dockerfile_commands('ENTRYPOINT ["/usr/bin/my_entrypoint.sh"]')
)

ENV

We currently don’t support Default value in Interpolation, such as ${VAR:-default}

Forcing an image to rebuild

Modal uses the definition of an image to determine whether it needs to be rebuilt. In some cases, you may want to force an image to rebuild, even if the definition hasn’t changed. You can do this by adding the force_build=True argument to any of the image build steps.

from modal import Image

image = (
    Image.debian_slim()
    .apt_install("git")
    .pip_install("slack-sdk", force_build=True)
    .run_commands("echo hi")
)

In the above example, both pip_install("slack-sdk") and run_commands("echo hi") will run again, but apt_install("git") will not. Remember to remove force_build=True after you’ve rebuilt the image, otherwise it will rebuild every time you run your code.