How to convert systemd unit files to an s6 installation

Converting a set of services managed by systemd to a set of services managed by s6 is a recurring question on our support channels, and having an automated conversion tool parsing a set of systemd unit files and outputting a set of s6 service directories or s6-rc service definition directories would be useful to people who want to migrate to s6 but have an existing base of services running under systemd.

Unfortunately, automating such a conversion is extremely difficult. The main reason for this is that systemd and s6 are architectured in very different ways: how they view a set of services, how they modelize a machine, what kind of solution they bring to a given problem, and the extent of what they're supposed to manage — there are few similarities between how systemd and s6 operate. As a consequence, the way systemd maps a set of services into unit files is not isomorphic to the way s6 does, so translating a setup between systemd and s6 requires intelligence. It is not possible to write an automated tool that converts a set of services accurately and idiomatically without doing a full, deep system analysis - and writing such a tool would be a huge undertaking.

Fortunately, in practice, most unit files only use a small subset of all the theoretically supported directives: most services that run under systemd can be converted to run under s6 without too much trouble. So, depending on the exact nature of the set of services, it may be possible to write a reasonable converter, that is limited in what it supports but does not require a full understanding of systemd (or even s6).

This document targets people who think about writing a tool to automatically convert a set of unit files to a set of s6 services and are trying to assess its feasability and difficulty. We analyze all the directives that may appear in a unit file for their services, and rate the difficulty of translating the directive, i.e. the amount of complexity that would need to go into the converter tool if that directive were to be supported.

We rate difficulty on a scale from 0 to 10. A 0 means that the directive is irrelevant to s6 and can be ignored. A 1 means that there is a straightforward, one-for-one way of translating the systemd directive into s6 parlance. A 10 means that the directive is so systemd-specific that it is impossible to express it on an s6 system and the unit file cannot be converted as is. A 9 means that it is theoretically possible to convert, given infinite time and manpower to write a tool that analyzes the systemd-managed system holistically and outputs an equivalent system managed by s6, but in practice nobody's ever going to write such a tool.

We only address directives that can appear in service units, which are the ones that can reasonably be expected to translate to s6 or s6-rc services. We do not address directives that can only appear in other kinds of unit files such as slices, timers, sockets, etc.

Difficulty by directive

Use this section to answer the question: "I have this directive in my unit file, how hard would it be to write a converter tool that processes this file?"

Directives documented in systemd.unit(5)

[Unit] section

[Install] section

Any directive under [Install] can be ignored, since it has no meaning on the run-time behaviour of the service. So the difficulty is 0. However, an automatic converter would need to analyze the whole installed service configuration, e.g. the links in /etc/systemd/system/multi-user.target.wants/, in order to understand the dependencies between services. systemd targets can typically be converted into s6-rc bundles.

Directives documented in systemd.service(5)

[Service] section

Directives documented in systemd.exec(5)


User/group identity



Mandatory access control

Process properties



systemd gracefully turns off the sandboxing options on systems that do not support the necessary functionality, so all these options can be ignored (difficulty 0) and the services will still work. However, in order to actually implementing the sandboxing, it is necessary to pair s6 with command-line tools that perform the required process state changes by interfacing with namespaces, cgroups, seccomp, or any other relevant feature of the Linux kernel, so for all these directives the difficulty is somewhere between 2, if the tool already exists, and 8, if it requires writing a full container implementation from scratch. The following numbers are only a rough guess.

System call filtering


Logging and standard input/output


systemd implements its own credentials store mechanism, for no obvious benefit. The whole credentials system needs to be reimplemented outside of systemd in order for credentials-related directives to be supported by s6. Consequently, all these directives are rated 6.

System V compatibility

The utmp directives can be made significantly easier to implement if the target system is using utmps, because the directives then become a single call to utmps-write with the relevant options. If utmps cannot be used, then the utmp calls need to be reimplemented.

Directives documented in systemd.kill(5)

Directives documented in systemd.resource-control(5)

All these directives relate to cgroups, so implementing them means having access to at least some cgroups commands (difficulty at least 3. Others are even more involved, requiring tight service integration with the system. Generally, seeing these directives in your unit files is a bad sign; despite some of them only having 3 or 4 listed, we do not recommend implementing systemd.resource-control(5) without having a full holistic view of the system.

Directives rated by difficulty

Use this section to answer the question: "If I were to write a converter tool from systemd to s6, what subset of the unit file syntax should I focus on first?"

Take this classification with a grain of salt: for instance, it does not make sense to implement an easy directive if it's only used in the context of a larger subsystem that's much harder to implement - typically, most cgroups-related resource control directives.

Difficulty: 0 — directives that can be ignored

Difficulty: 1 — direct functionality mapping

Difficulty: 2 — straightforward implementation

Difficulty: 3 — requires easy additional programming

Difficulty: 4 — requires medium additional programming

Difficulty: 5 — requires complex additional programming

Difficulty: 6 — requires a full independent implementation of a Linux subsystem and/or a part of the systemd architecture

Difficulty: 7 — requires a full independent implementation of a complex Linux subsystem and/or a significant part of the systemd architecture

Difficulty: 8 — requires a complete implementation of complex Linux-specific tooling

Difficulty: 9 — requires a full system analysis and remodelization

Difficulty: 10 — implementing this basically means reimplementing systemd