Running Nextflow Pipelines in Kubernetes

The following text describes how to run Nextflow pipelines in CERIT-SC Kubernetes cluster.

You need to install Nextflow on your local computer or any computer that you will start the Nextflow, the pipeline will not run on that computer it will run in Kubernetes cluster and the computer serves only for starting it. The computer does not need to be online while the pipeline is still running.

Nextflow Installation

To install Nextflow enter this command in your terminal:

curl -s | bash

You can install specific Nextflow version exporting NXF_VER environment variable before running the install command, e.g.:

export NXF_VER=20.10.0
curl -s | bash

Currently, 22.04.5 is highest available version using this method. However, you should use version 22.06.1-edge or later from github: installable as follows:

git clone
cd nextflow
git checkout v22.06.1-edge
make compile install

Architecture of Nextflow

The Nextflow pipeline gets started by running the nextflow command, e.g.:

nextflow run hello

which starts hello pipeline. The pipeline run consists of two parts: workflow controller and workers. The workflow controller manages pipeline run while workers run particular tasks.

Nextflow engine expects that the workflow controller and the workers have access to some shared storage. On a local computer, this is usually just a particular directory, in case of distributed computing, this has to be a network storage such as NFS mount. User needs to specify what storage can be used when running the Nextflow.

Runing Nextflow in Kubernetes

In case of K8s, workflow controller is run as a Pod in Kubernetes cluster. Its task is to run worker pods according to pipeline definition. The workflow controller pod has some generated name like naughty-williams. The workers have hashed names like nf-81dae79db8e5e2c7a7c3ad5f6c7d59c6.

Firstly, you must have:

  • installed kubectl with kubeconfig file in an expected location $HOME/.kube/config.
  • Kubernetes Namespace to run in (see here how to know your namespace).
  • created PVC (see here how to do it).

Configuration 🧩

Running a Nextflow pipeline in Kubernetes requires local configuration with some necessary content:

k8s {
   namespace = '[your_namespace]'
   runAsUser = 1000
   computeResourceType = 'Job'
   storageClaimName = '[name_of_created_pvc]'
   storageMountPath = '[mountpath]'
   launchDir = '[mountpath_from_storageMountPath]/[some_launchDir_path]'
   workDir = '[mountpath_from_storageMountPath]/[some_workDir_path]'

executor {
  queueSize = 30

process {
   executor = 'k8s'
   pod = [[securityContext:[fsGroupChangePolicy:'OnRootMismatch', runAsUser:1000, runAsGroup:1, fsGroup:1]], [automountServiceAccountToken:false]]

You must set the namespace to correct value (namespace you can access). Set the name of PVC you created as storageClaimName, it will serve as shared working space for nextflow. Set storageMountPath to any path, where you would like to connect this PVC (we advise /mnt). Set launchDir and workDir to point somewhere on the PVC. Take care, if running Nextflow in parallel, always use different launchDir and workDir for the parallel runs.

There are plenty of other customization options for workers or individual processes. It is possible to:

  • mount another PVC or secret
  • set resource requirements (cpu, memory)
  • add labels or annotations
  • etc.

For customizing individual processes (e.g., memory, cpu), see nextflow documentation section on processes. For customizing the pod itself (e.g., mount pvc) see details in nextflow pod documentation.

When mixing generic process configuration

process {...}

and selectors the following priority rules are applied (from lower to higher):

  • Process generic configuration (nextflow.config).
  • Process specific directive defined in the workflow script.
  • withLabel selector definition.
  • withName selector definition.

Run ⏱

To start a pipeline, you must use the kuberun subcommand of nextflow. If you use nextflow version 22.06.1 or later, you must add options

-head-image '' -head-memory 4096Mi -head-cpus 1

These options are required just for workflow controller pod in our cluster. head-memory/head-cpus specify amount of memory/cpu dedicated to the controller pod - use higher number if your pipeline is expected to generate thousands of tasks.

Example run command:

nextflow kuberun hello -head-image '' -head-memory 4096Mi -head-cpus 1 -v PVC:/mnt 

If you are using nextflow version below 22.06.1 or you get an error message informing about head-image not known, you must add option

 -pod-image '' 

Example run command:

nextflow kuberun hello -pod-image ''

A configuration file might look as following:

k8s {
   namespace = 'nf-ns'
   runAsUser = 1000
   computeResourceType = 'Job'
   storageClaimName = 'pvc-nf'
   storageMountPath = '/mnt'
   launchDir = '/mnt/data1'
   workDir = '/mnt/data1/tmp'

executor {
  queueSize = 30

process {
   executor = 'k8s'
   pod = [[label: 'hpctransfer', value: 'must'], [securityContext:[fsGroupChangePolicy:'OnRootMismatch', runAsUser:1000, runAsGroup:1, fsGroup:1]], [automountServiceAccountToken:false], [secret: 'keythings', mountPath: '/etc/secrets']] // THIS WILL BE APPLIED TO ALL WORKERS
       memory = {check_resource(14.GB * task.attempt)}

  cpus 20

Debug 🐞

We recommend watching your namespace in Rancher GUI or on command line when you submit a pipeline. Not all problems are propagated to terminal, especially error related to Kubernetes such as quota exceeded. You can open Jobs tab in Rancher GUI and watch out for jobs that are In progress for too long or in Error state. Useful commands might include

kubectl get jobs -n [namespace] // GET ALL JOBS IN NAMESPACE
kubectl describe job [job_name] -n [namespace] // FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JOB AND WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH IT

kubectl get pods -n [namespace] // GET ALL PODS IN NAMESPACE
kubectl describe pod [pod_name] -n [namespace] // FIND OUT MORE ABOUT POD AND WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH IT
kubectl logs [pod_name] -n [namespace] // GET POD LOGS (IF AVAILABLE)

If job is waiting for start for too long, try describing a job. It might reveal quota exceeded in your namespace:

  Warning  FailedCreate  18m    job-controller  Error creating: pods "nf-5dd9dc33d33c729b5cd57c818bafba86-lk4tl" is forbidden: exceeded quota: default-kbz9v, requested: requests.cpu=8, used: requests.cpu=16, limited: requests.cpu=20

If this happens to you, consider lowering problematic resource requests of workflow controller or processes that might demand a little too much. If you don’t know what to do, contact us and we will come with solution together.

Running Nextflow Hello pipeline

Download nextflow.config which is prepared to be used as is, just hange namespace to correct value (namespace you can access) and specify launchDir and workDir to point somewhere on the PVC. Take care, if running Nextflow in parallel, always use different launchDir and workDir for the parallel runs.

You need to keep the file in the current directory where the nextflow command is run and it has to be named nextflow.config.

To instruct the Nextflow to run the hello pipeline in Kubernetes, run the following command:

nextflow kuberun hello -pod-image '' -v PVC:/mnt 

where PVC is name of the PVC as discussed above. It will be mounted as /mnt. You should use this mount point as some pipelines expect this location.

If using nextflow version 22.06.1 or later as mentioned above, use instead:

nextflow kuberun hello -pod-image '' -head-memory 4096Mi -head-cpus 1 -v PVC:/mnt 

If everything was correct then you should see output like this:

Pod started: naughty-williams
N E X T F L O W  ~  version 22.06.1-SNAPSHOT
Launching `nextflow-io/hello` [naughty-williams] - revision: e6d9427e5b [master]
[f0/ce818c] Submitted process > sayHello (2)
[8a/8b278f] Submitted process > sayHello (1)
[5f/a4395f] Submitted process > sayHello (3)
[97/71a2e0] Submitted process > sayHello (4)
Ciao world!
Hola world!
Bonjour world!
Hello world!


  • If pipeline runs for a long time (not the case of the hello pipeline), the nextflow command ends with connection terminated. This is normal and it does not mean that pipeline is not running anymore. It stops logging to your terminal only. You can still find logs of the workflow controller in Rancher GUI.

  • Running pipeline can be terminated from Rancher GUI, hitting ctrl-c does not terminate the pipeline.

  • Pipeline debug log can be found on the PVC in launchDir/.nextflow.log. Consecutive runs rotate the logs, so that they are not overwritten.

  • If pipeline fails, you can try to resume the pipeline with -resume command line option, it creates a new run but it tries to skip already finished tasks. See details.

  • All runs (success or failed) will keep workflow controller pod visible in Rancher GUI, failed workers are also kept in Rancher GUI. You can delete them from GUI as needed.

  • For some workers, log are not available in Rancher GUI, but the logs can be watched using the command:

    kubectl logs POD -n NAMESPACE 

    where POD is the name of the worker (e.g., nf-81dae79db8e5e2c7a7c3ad5f6c7d59c6) and NAMESPACE is used namespace.

nf-core/sarek pipeline

nf-core/sarek is analysis pipeline to detect germline or somatic variants (pre-processing, variant calling and annotation) from WGS / targeted sequencing.

Kubernetes Run

The Sarek requires specific nextflow.config, it sets more memory for a VEP process which is a part of the pipeline. With basic settings, VEP process will be killed most probably due to memory. It also requires specific custom.config as the git version of the Sarek contains bug so that output stats will be written to wrong files.

The Sarek pipeline uses functions in the pipeline configuration. However, functions in the pipeline configuration are not currently supported by kuberun executor.

To deal with this bug, you need Nextflow version 22.06.1-edge or later.

Download and nextflow.config.add and put both on the PVC (into its root). Do not rename the files and make executable (chmod a+x

Now, if you have prepared your data on the PVC, you can start the Sarek pipeline with the following command:

nextflow kuberun nf-core/sarek -head-memory 4096Mi -head-cpus 1 -head-prescript /mnt/ -pod-image '' -v PVC:/mnt --input /mnt/test.tsv --genome GRCh38 --tools HaplotypeCaller,VEP,Manta

where PVC is the mentioned PVC and test.tsv contains input data located on the PVC.


  • It is recommended to download igenome from S3 Amazon location to local PVC. It rapidly speeds up -resume option in the case the pipeline run fails and you run it again to continue. It also mitigates Amazon overloading or network issues leading to pipeline fail. Once you download the igenome, just add something like --igenomes_base /mnt/igenome to the command line options of nextflow.

  • If you receive error about unknown check_resource, then you failed with the and nextflow.config.add setup.

  • The pipeline run ends with stacktrace and No signature of method: java.lang.String.toBytes() error. This is normal and it is result of not specifying email address to send final email. Nothing to be worried about.

  • The pipeline run does not clean workDir, it is up to user to clean/remove it.

  • Manual resuming of Sarek is possible using different --input spec. See here.

vib-singlecell-nf/vsn-pipelines pipeline

vsn-pipelines contain multiple workflows for analyzing single cell transcriptomics data, and depends on a number of tools.

Kubernetes Run

You need to download pipeline specific nextflow.config and put it into the current directory where you start Nextflow from. This pipeline uses -entry parameter to specify entry point of workflow. Unless this issue #2397 is resolved, patched version of Nextflow is needed. To deal with this bug, you need Nextflow version 22.06.1-edge or later.

On the PVC you need to prepare data into directories specified in the nextflow.config see all occurrences of /mnt/data1 in the config and change them accordingly.

Consult documentation for further config options.

You can run the pipeline with the following command:

nextflow -C nextflow.config kuberun vib-singlecell-nf/vsn-pipelines -pod-image '' -head-cpus 1 -head-memory 4096Mi -v PVC:/mnt -entry scenic

where PVC is the mentioned PVC, scenic is pipeline entry point, and nextflow.config is the downloaded nextflow.config.


  • For parallel run, you need to set maxForks in the nextflow.config together with parameter. Consult documentation.

  • NUMBA_CACHE_DIR variable pointing to /tmp or other writable directory is requirement otherwise execution fails on permission denied. It tries to update readonly parts of running container.

Using GPUs

Using GPUs in containers is straightforward, just add:

  accelerator = 1

into process section of nextflow.config, e.g.:

process {
   executor = 'k8s'

   withLabel:VEP {
      accelerator = 1