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An inspection tool to find the OSS compliance metadata of the packages installed in a container image.

Project description


CircleCI CII Best Practices License

Welcome to the Tern Project

Tern is a software package inspection tool for containers. It's written in Python3 with a smattering of shell scripts.

Table of Contents

What is Tern?

Tern is an inspection tool to find the metadata of the packages installed in a container image. The overall operation looks like this:

  1. It uses overlayfs to mount the first filesystem layer (also known as the BaseOS) used to build the container image
  2. It then executes scripts from the "command library" in a chroot environment to collect information about packages installed in that layer
  3. With that information as a starting point, it continues to iterate over steps 1 and 2 for the rest of the layers in the container image
  4. Once done, it generates a report, various format options are available. The report, in its default format, provides a verbose, layer by layer, explanation of the various software components imported. If a Dockerfile is provided, the report indicates the Dockerfile lines corresponding to each of the file system layers.

Tern gives you a deeper understanding of your container's bill of materials so you can make better decisions about your container based infrastructure, integration and deployment strategies. It's also a good tool if you are curious about the contents of the container images you have built.

Tern quick demo

Getting Started

Getting Started on Linux

If you have a Linux OS you will need a distro with a kernel version >= 4.0 (Ubuntu 16.04 or newer or Fedora 25 or newer are good selections) and will need to install the following requirements:

Some distro versions have all of these except attr preinstalled but attr is a common utility and is available via the package manager.

For Docker containers

Make sure the docker daemon is running.

Create a python3 virtual environment:

$ python3 -m venv ternenv
$ cd ternenv

NOTE: Your OS might distribute each Python version separately. For example, on Ubuntu LTS, Python 2.7 is linked to python2 and Python 3.6 is linked to python3. I develop with Python 3.7 which is installed separately with no symlinks. In this case, I use the binary. The binaries are usually installed in /usr/bin/python.

Activate the virtual environment:

$ source bin/activate

NOTE: This specific activate script only works for Bash shells. If you need to activate a Fish Shell or C Shell you should use source bin/ or source bin/activate.csh, respectively.

Install tern:

$ pip install tern

Run Tern:

$ tern report -o output.txt -i debian:buster

Getting Started with Docker

Note Mac users: running Tern natively as a docker container is currently unsupported. Another option is to use Vagrant in your Mac environment and then follow the steps below. For Vagrant setup, see Getting Started with Vagrant.

Docker is the most widely used tool to build and run containers. If you already have Docker installed, you can run Tern by building a container with the Dockerfile provided and the script:

Clone this repository:

$ git clone

Build the Docker image (called ternd here). You may need to use sudo:

$ docker build -t ternd .

Run the script You may need to use sudo. In the below command debian is the docker hub container image name and buster is the tag that identifies the version we are interested in analyzing.

$ ./ workdir ternd "report -i debian:buster" > output.txt

To produce a json report run

$ ./ workdir ternd "report -f json -i debian:buster"

What the script does is create the directory workdir if not present in your current working directory and run the built container as privileged with workdir bind mounted to it.

WARNING: privileged Docker containers are not secure. DO NOT run this container in production unless you have secured the node (VM or bare metal machine) that the docker daemon is running on.

Tern is not distributed as Docker images yet. This is coming soon. Watch the Project Status for updates.

Getting Started with Vagrant

Vagrant is a tool to setup an isolated virtual software development environment. If you are using Windows or Mac OSes, this is the best way to get started as Tern does not run natively in a Mac OS or Windows environment at this time.


Follow the instructions on the VirtualBox website to download VirtualBox on your OS.

Follow the instructions on the website to install Vagrant for your OS.

Create a Vagrant environment

In your terminal app, run the following commands.

Clone this repository:

$ git clone

Bring up the Vagrant box:

$ cd tern/vagrant
$ vagrant up

SSH into the created VM:

$ vagrant ssh


$ tern report -i debian:buster -o output.txt

Using Tern

WARNING: The CLI has changed since the last release. Visit Tern's PyPI project page to find the correct CLI options or just run tern -h.

Tern creates a report containing the Bill of Materials (BoM) of a container image, including notes about how it collects this information, and files for which it has no information about. Currently, Tern supports only containers built using Docker. This is the most ubiquitous type of container image that exists so the project started with a focus on those. However, it is architected to support other images that closely follow the OCI image spec.

Generating a BoM report for a Docker image

If you have a Docker image pulled locally and want to inspect it

$ tern report -i debian:jessie

Take a look at report.txt to see what packages are installed in the Docker image and how Tern got this information. If you encounter any errors, please file an issue.

Generating a BoM report from a Dockerfile

You can provide a Dockerfile to Tern to figure out the Bill of Materials and other information. Tern will build the image, analyze it with respect to the Dockerfile and discard the image. This is useful to engineers who are developing a Dockerfile for their app or in a container build and release pipeline.

$ tern report -d samples/photon_git/Dockerfile

Take a look at report.txt to see what packages you would be shipping if you were to use the given Dockerfile. Feel free to try this out on the other sample Dockerfiles in the samples directory or on Dockerfiles you may be working with. If it doesn't work for you, please file an issue.

Report Formats

Tern creates BoM reports suitable to read over or to provide to another tool for consumption.

Human Readable Format

The default report Tern produces is a human readable report. The object of this report is to give the container developer a deeper understanding of what is installed in a container image during development. This allows a developer to glean basic information about the container such as what the true base operating system is, what the app dependencies are, if the container is using an official or personal repository for sources or binaries, whether the dependencies are at the correct versions, etc.

$ tern report -i golang:1.12-alpine -o output.txt

JSON Format

You can get the results in a JSON file to pass around in a network.

$ tern report -f json -i golang:1.12-alpine

YAML Format

You can get the results in a YAML file to be consumed by a downstream tool or script.

$ tern report -f yaml -i golang:1.12-alpine -o output.yaml

SPDX tag-value Format

SPDX is a format developed by the Linux Foundation to provide a standard way of reporting license information. Many compliance tools are compatible with SPDX. Tern follows the SPDX specifications specifically the tag-value format which is the most compatible format with the toolkit the organization provides. The tag-value format is the only SPDX format Tern supports. There are conversion tools available here (some still in development). You can read an overview of the SPDX tag-value specification here and about how Tern maps its properties to the keys mandated by the spec here.

$ tern report -f spdxtagvalue -i golang:1.12-alpine -o spdx.txt


Tern does not have its own file level license scanner. In order to fill in the gap, Tern allows you to extend container image analysis with an external file analysis CLI tool or Python3 module. In order to take advantage of the extensions, both the extention tool and Tern need to be installed.

NOTE: Neither the Docker container nor the Vagrant image has any of the extensions installed. You are welcomed to modify Dockerfile and vagrant/ to install the extensions if you wish to use them. Please see the instructions below on how to enable the extension of your choice.


scancode-toolkit is a license analysis tool that "detects licenses, copyrights, package manifests and direct dependencies and more both in source code and binary files". Note that Scancode currently works on Python 3.5 and 3.6 but not 3.7 onwards. Be sure to check what python version you are using below.

  1. Install system dependencies for Scancode (refer to the Scancode GitHub repo for instructions)

  2. Setup a python virtual environment

$ python3 -m venv scanenv
$ cd scanenv
$ source bin/activate
  1. Install tern and scancode
$ pip install tern scancode-toolkit
  1. Run tern with scancode
$ tern report -x scancode -i golang:1.12-alpine

If you are running Scancode for the first time, depending on the size of the container image, it takes anywhere between 10 minutes to a few hours to run due to the number of files needed to be analyzed. Once completed, subsequent runs will be much faster as the data will be cached for future use.


cve-bin-tool is a command line tool which "scans for a number of common, vulnerable components (openssl, libpng, libxml2, expat and a few others) to let you know if your system includes common libraries with known vulnerabilities". Vulnerability scanning tools can also be extended to work on containers using Tern, although support for certain metadata pertaining to CVEs may not be available yet. As a result, you will not see any of the results in the generated reports.

  1. Install system dependencies for cve-bin-tool (refer to the cve-bin-tool GitHub repo for instructions)

  2. Setup a python virtual environment

$ python3 -m venv scanenv
$ cd scanenv
$ source bin/activate
  1. Install tern and cve-bin-tool
$ pip install tern cve-bin-tool
  1. Run tern with cve-bin-tool
$ tern report -x cve_bin_tool -i golang:1.12-alpine

Running tests

WARNING: The test_util_* tests are not up to date. We are working on it :). From the Tern repository root directory run:

$ python tests/<test file>.py

Project Status

Release 1.0.0 was released at the beginning of November. A follow-up release, v1.0.1, was made available at the beginning of December to address a regression found when running Tern in a Docker container.

See the release notes for more information. See the update notes for patches on top of this release.

We try to keep the project roadmap as up to date as possible. We are currently working on Release 1.1.0.



Architecture, function blocks, code descriptions and the project roadmap are located in the docs folder. Contributions to the documentation are welcome! See the contributing guide to find out how to submit changes.

Get Involved

Do you have questions about Tern? Do you think it can do better? Would you like to make it better? You can get involved by giving your feedback and contributing to the code, documentation and conversation!

Please read our code of conduct first.

Next, take a look at the contributing guide to find out how you can start.

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