Running Cron in Docker

Running cron in a Docker container is incredibly difficult to do correctly. This is partially because cron was designed to run in an environment that looks very different than a docker container, and partially because what we traditionally think of as cron is actually a different tool in each flavor of Linux.

As always, here’s a Github repo with working code if you want to skip ahead:

What is cron

The software utility cron also known as cron job is a time-based job scheduler in Unix-like computer operating systems. Users who set up and maintain software environments use cron to schedule jobs (commands or shell scripts) to run periodically at fixed times, dates, or intervals. It typically automates system maintenance or administration—though its general-purpose nature makes it useful for things like downloading files from the Internet and downloading email at regular intervals.

Basically it’s a language/platform/distro agnostic tool for scheduling tasks/scripts to run automatically at some interval.

Differences between various versions

Though cron’s API is standardized, there are multiple implementations, which vary as the default for various distros (dcron, cronie, fcron and vixie-cron)

To add to the complexity, some of cron’s functionality is actually defined/provided by anachron. anacron was previously a stand-alone binary which was used to run commands periodically with a frequency defined in days. It works a little different from cron; assumes that a machine will not be powered on all the time.

So to summarize, there are multiple cron implementations, with differing flags & features, some with anacron functionality built-in, and some without. In the following sections I’ll call out different solutions for different distros/cron implementations (keep an eye out for NOTE: blocks)

NOTE: Installation instructions differ per distro

  • Debian/Ubuntu: apt-get update && apt-get install -y cron && cron
  • Alpine: which crond # comes pre-installed
  • Centos: yum install -y cronie && crond -V

Config File

Let’s start with a simple issue. cron is designed to run in a multi-user environment, which is great when you’re running cron on a desktop, but less useful when running cron in a docker container.

Rather than creating a user specific crontab file, in our Docker container we’ll modify the system-level crontab.

Let’s create/update a file called /etc/crontab

# Example of job definition:
# .---------------- minute (0 - 59)
# |  .------------- hour (0 - 23)
# |  |  .---------- day of month (1 - 31)
# |  |  |  .------- month (1 - 12) OR jan,feb,mar,apr ...
# |  |  |  |  .---- day of week (0 - 6) (Sunday=0 or 7) OR sun,mon,tue,wed,thu,fri,sat
# |  |  |  |  |
# *  *  *  *  * user-name command to be executed

* * * * * root date

This file will configure cron to run the date command every minute. We’ll talk about the output for this command in a later section.


  • Debian/Ubuntu: replace the existing /etc/crontab which contains anacron entries
  • Alpine: the crontab file should be written to /var/spool/cron/crontabs/root, also the format is slightly different (the user field should be removed).
  • Centos: replace the existing /etc/crontab which contains anacron entries


Now that we have created a cron config file, we need to start cron. On a normal system, we would start cron as a daemon, a background process usually managed by service manager. In the Docker world, the convention is 1 process per container, running in the foreground.

Thankfully most cron implementations support this, even though the flags may be different.

NOTE: Running cron in the foreground differs per distro

  • Debian/Ubuntu: cron -f -l 2
  • Alpine: crond -f -l 2
  • Centos: crond -n


As mentioned earlier, cron is designed to work in a multi-user environment, which also means the cron daemon cannot make assumptions about the runtime environment (process environmental variables, etc). The way cron enforces this is by starting each job with a custom environment, using an implementation specific environmental variables file (usually /etc/environment)

Since using environmental variables is a common configuration mechanism for Docker containers, we need a way to ensure the current Docker container environment is passed into the cron sub-processes. The best way to do this is by creating a custom entrypoint script which dumps the environment to the cron environment file, before starting cron in the foreground.

Create the following / script in your Docker image.


env >> /etc/environment

# start cron in the foreground (replacing the current process)
exec "cron -f"


  • Centos: unfortunately cronie doesn’t read variables from /etc/environment.
    • You’ll need to manually source it before your script: * * * * * root . /etc/environment; date
    • If you have multiple entries in your crontab, you can change the default SHELL for your crontab file, and make use of BASH_ENV

         * * * * * root echo "${CUSTOM_ENV_VAR}"


If you’ve been following along so far, you might be wondering why you’re not seeing any output from date in your terminal. That’s because even though cron is running in the foreground, the output from its child processes is designed to go to a log file (traditionally at /var/log/cron). Again, this might be fine on a standard linux host, but it’s sub-optimal for a Docker container.

Let’s use some shell redirect magic to redirect the STDOUT and STDERR from our cron jobs, to the cron process (running as the primary process in the Docker container, with PID 1).

# >/proc/1/fd/1 redirects STDOUT from the `date` command to PID1's STDOUT
# 2>/proc/1/fd/2 redirects STDERR from the `date` command to PID1's STDERR

* * * * * root date >/proc/1/fd/1 2>/proc/1/fd/2

While >/proc/1/fd/1 2>/proc/1/fd/2 may look intimidating, it’s the most consistent way to pass cronjob logs to the container’s STDOUT, without leveraging clunky solutions like crond && tail -f /var/log/cron

NOTE: this is unnecessary in Alpine, as long as you start cron with the following command:

  • Alpine: crond -f -l 2

Cron package installation

Now that we have a working container with cron, we should take the time to clean up some of the unused cruft that our cron package installs, specifically configs for anacron.


  • Debian/Ubuntu: rm -rf /etc/cron.*/*
  • Alpine: rm -rf /etc/periodic
  • Centos: rm -rf /etc/cron.*/*


Finally, as you’ve been playing around, you may have noticed that it’s difficult to kill the container running cron. You may have had to use docker kill or docker-compose kill to terminate the container, rather than using ctrl + C or docker stop.

Unfortunately, it seems like SIGINT is not always correctly handled by cron implementations when running in the foreground.

After researching a couple of alternatives, the only solution that seemed to work was using a process supervisor (like tini or s6-overlay). Since tini was merged into Docker 1.13, technically, you can use it transparently by passing --init to your docker run command. In practice you often can’t because your cluster manager doesn’t support it.

NOTE: this is unnecessary in Centos, SIGTERM works correctly with cronie in the foreground.

Putting it all together

Let’s see what all of this would look like for an ubuntu base image.

Create a Dockerfile

FROM ubuntu

RUN apt-get update && apt-get install -y cron && which cron && \
    rm -rf /etc/cron.*/*


CMD ["cron","-f", "-l", "2"]

Create an


env >> /etc/environment

# execute CMD
echo "$@"
exec "$@"

Create a crontab

# Example of job definition:
# .---------------- minute (0 - 59)
# |  .------------- hour (0 - 23)
# |  |  .---------- day of month (1 - 31)
# |  |  |  .------- month (1 - 12) OR jan,feb,mar,apr ...
# |  |  |  |  .---- day of week (0 - 6) (Sunday=0 or 7) OR sun,mon,tue,wed,thu,fri,sat
# |  |  |  |  |
# *  *  *  *  * user-name command to be executed

* * * * * root date >/proc/1/fd/1 2>/proc/1/fd/2
* * * * * root echo "${CUSTOM_ENV_VAR}" >/proc/1/fd/1 2>/proc/1/fd/2

# An empty line is required at the end of this file for a valid cron file.

Build the Dockerfile and run it with --init (package tini or s6-overlay for containers in production)

docker build -t analogj/cron .
docker run --rm --name cron -e CUSTOM_ENV_VAR=foobar -v `pwd`/crontab:/etc/crontab analogj/cron

You should see output like the following:

Tue Apr 27 14:31:00 UTC 2021


I’ve put together a working example of dockerized cron for multiple distros:



Jason Kulatunga

Devops & Infrastructure guy @Gusto (ex-Adobe). I write about, and play with, all sorts of new tech. All opinions are my own.

San Francisco, CA

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