Image format

Images contain a root file system and a metadata file that describes the image. They can also contain templates for creating files inside an instance that uses the image.

Images can be packaged as either a unified image (single file) or a split image (two files).


Images for containers have the following directory structure:


Images for VMs have the following directory structure:


For both instance types, the templates/ directory is optional.


The metadata.yaml file contains information that is relevant to running the image in Incus. It includes the following information:

architecture: x86_64
creation_date: 1424284563
  description: Ubuntu 22.04 LTS Intel 64bit
  os: Ubuntu
  release: jammy 22.04

The architecture and creation_date fields are mandatory. The properties field contains a set of default properties for the image. The os, release, name and description fields are commonly used, but are not mandatory.

The templates field is optional. See Templates (optional) for information on how to configure templates.

Root file system

For containers, the rootfs/ directory contains a full file system tree of the root directory (/) in the container.

Virtual machines use a rootfs.img qcow2 file instead of a rootfs/ directory. This file becomes the main disk device.

Templates (optional)

You can use templates to dynamically create files inside an instance. To do so, configure template rules in the metadata.yaml file and place the template files in a templates/ directory.

As a general rule, you should never template a file that is owned by a package or is otherwise expected to be overwritten by normal operation of an instance.

Template rules

For each file that should be generated, create a rule in the metadata.yaml file. For example:

      - create
      - rename
    template: hosts.tpl
      foo: bar
      - start
    template: hostname.tpl
      - create
    template: interfaces.tpl
    create_only: true
      - create
    create_only: true
    uid: 1000
    gid: 1000
    mode: 755

The when key can be one or more of:

  • create - run at the time a new instance is created from the image

  • copy - run when an instance is created from an existing one

  • start - run every time the instance is started

The template key points to the template file in the templates/ directory.

You can pass user-defined template properties to the template file through the properties key.

Set the create_only key if you want Incus to create the file if it doesn’t exist, but not overwrite an existing file.

The uid, gid and mode keys can be used to control the file ownership and permissions.

Template files

Template files use the Pongo2 format.

They always receive the following context:






Name of the event that triggered the template



Path of the file that uses the template



Key/value map of instance properties (name, architecture, privileged and ephemeral)



Key/value map of the instance’s configuration



Key/value map of the devices assigned to the instance



Key/value map of the template properties specified in metadata.yaml

For convenience, the following functions are exported to the Pongo2 templates:

  • config_get("", "bar") - Returns the value of, or "bar" if not set.

Image tarballs

Incus supports two Incus-specific image formats: a unified tarball and split tarballs.

These tarballs can be compressed. Incus supports a wide variety of compression algorithms for tarballs. However, for compatibility purposes, you should use gzip or xz.

Unified tarball

A unified tarball is a single tarball (usually *.tar.xz) that contains the full content of the image, including the metadata, the root file system and optionally the template files.

This is the format that Incus itself uses internally when publishing images. It is usually easier to work with; therefore, you should use the unified format when creating Incus-specific images.

The image identifier for such images is the SHA-256 of the tarball.

Split tarballs

A split image consists of two files. The first is a tarball containing the metadata and optionally the template files (usually *.tar.xz). The second can be a tarball, squashfs or qcow2 image containing the actual instance data.

For containers, the second file is most commonly a SquashFS-formatted file system tree, though it can also be a tarball of the same tree. For virtual machines, the second file is always a qcow2 formatted disk image.

Tarballs can be externally compressed (.tar.xz, .tar.gz, …) whereas squashfs and qcow2 can be internally compressed through their respective native compression options.

This format is designed to allow for easy image building from existing non-Incus rootfs tarballs that are already available. You should also use this format if you want to create images that can be consumed by both Incus and other tools.

The image identifier for such images is the SHA-256 of the concatenation of the metadata and data files (in that order).