Docker X11 Passthrough

Briefcase can use Docker to build apps for Linux distributions other than the distribution you’re currently using. Docker can also be used to run the app on the foreign distribution, exporting the graphical aspects of the app to your local display. This document describes how to configure your system to do this.

X Window System Background

Linux distributions use either the X Window System (sometimes called X or X11) or Wayland to manage their graphical displays. X11 is the older of the two; Wayland maintains compatibility with the X11 protocol for backwards compatibility.

The X11 protocol operates in a client/server framework; any application that wishes to display a window or receive user input will send and receive commands with an X server.

X Configuration

The location of the X server is declared by the DISPLAY environment variable, normally in the form HOSTNAME:DISPLAYNUMBER.SCREENNUMBER. If HOSTNAME is absent, it is assumed to be the machine the client is running on. The SCREENNUMBER is largely historical since all monitors are normally collapsed together in to a single screen now. Therefore, an expected setting for DISPLAY is :0 for many installations.

While security is relatively weak for X11, there are basic facilities to mitigate unauthenticated access. The XAUTHORITY environment variable can specify a file path to an xauth database; if XAUTHORITY is not set, there will normally be a system default file path configured for each user. The xauth database itself is protected by file system access controls and will contain “cookies” for individual displays that are assigned by the X server for clients to use to facilitate authentication.

An xauth database authorizing a host named jupiter might look like:

$ xauth list
jupiter/unix:  MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1  9e9a67185b1fdc0c46e00dc400559873
#ffff#6a757069746572#:  MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1  9e9a67185b1fdc0c46e00dc400559873

Along with cookie-based authentication, it is also possible to add entities to an allowlist for a display. For instance, some distributions are configured to allow any process owned by the logged in user access to the display. This is configured by xhost.

An xhost configuration authorizing a user named brutus might look like:

$ xhost
access control enabled, only authorized clients can connect

X Operation

While authentication is normally enabled for X access, security is mostly bolstered by the allowed methods for clients to connect. Most systems will only open a UNIX socket to which clients should connect to send and receive messages. By virtue of file system design, only users on the host machine will have access to this socket. With the introduction of abstract sockets in Linux, such a socket is also typically made available in tandem with the UNIX socket. The advantages of an abstract socket is beyond this discussion, though.

Such a UNIX socket connection will be configured for each display for the machine. As with many things in Linux, UNIX sockets are exposed in the machine via a file in the /tmp/.X11-unix/ directory. The socket files are named for the number of the DISPLAY they are connected to; so, the file for Display 0 is X0. Therefore, any display can be found at /tmp/.X11-unix/X#.

Along with a UNIX socket connection, X servers can also listen on a TCP socket on the machine’s network interfaces. However, since a network connection can easily be reached by other machines, listening on a TCP socket is normally disabled on most Linux distributions. That said, the X11 standard reserves port numbers starting at port 6000 for X displays. Therefore, Display 0 is available at port 6000 while Display 99 would be available at port 6099 and so on.


From the design of X11, it is clear that a Docker container needs access to the socket for the display and the xauth database for the user.

An example of a well-published method to accomplish this:

$ docker run --rm -it --net host --env DISPLAY ubuntu xeyes

This method assumes:

  • the user in the container is root or its ID matches the host user

  • xhost is configured to allow any connections from the user

  • the X server is running an abstract socket for the display

By virtue of how access control is managed for abstract sockets, the --net host configuration allows access to the abstract socket for the display inside the container and passing the DISPLAY environment variable through lets the xeyes application know which display to connect to.

While this strategy works in many environments, the generalized solution is more complicated to accommodate variations in Docker implementations as well as whether the current display is actually being proxied.

Docker Desktop

The original implementation of Docker is referred to as Docker Engine and leverages many advanced features of Linux to run processes in highly containerized environments. Docker Desktop, however, effectively runs Docker Engine inside a lightweight Linux virtual machine (VM) running on the host machine. Therefore, when Docker Desktop runs a container, it is running it inside of a VM and not directly on the host system as Docker Engine does (albeit in isolation via containerization).

As an outcome of the design of Docker Desktop, the behavior of interactions between the host machine and Docker containers can be significantly different. For instance, it is not possible to expose the host machine’s network to a container via --net host like you can with Docker Engine. While this does change the exact network configuration that’s exposed to the container in the Docker Desktop VM, it is much different than Docker Engine and abstract sockets on the host are not available to the container.

Along with not being possible to expose abstract sockets on the host to a container running via Docker Desktop, it is also not possible to expose arbitrary UNIX sockets either. Therefore, attempting to bind mount /tmp/.X11-unix/X0, for instance, in to a Docker Desktop container will not allow processes inside the container to successfully communicate with the socket. (The Docker team has added support to pass specific sockets such as the socket Docker itself uses, as well as the SSH agent socket; but exposing arbitrary sockets has been deemed out of scope for now.)

Therefore, since it is not possible to expose a socket for an X display to a container running in Docker Desktop, the X display will need to be exposed over the network shared by the host and container.

Docker Networking

In Docker Engine, networking is relatively straightforward. On the host, a network interface bridge called docker0 is installed. This bridge serves to mediate communication among containers as well as between containers and the host. If the host would like to expose a network-based service to a container, it can bind to a port on docker0 and containers can connect to it.

In Docker Desktop, however, the Linux VM in which containers run complicates matters. Inside the Linux VM, it’s largely a similar configuration with a network bridge but the host machine cannot directly interact with this bridge interface. Instead, the host’s network interface is assigned an address on the bridge similar to how other containers are. In this way, containers can still connect to network-based services on the host but not through a shared network interface called docker0.

To help simplify the configurations for applications running inside Docker Desktop containers, the hostname host.docker.internal will always resolve to an IP address for the host’s network interface and thereby allow access to network-based services on the host.

Unlike Docker Desktop, Docker Engine cannot intercept DNS requests from containers; therefore, host.docker.internal must be configured when the container is started. This is accomplished via the --add-host option which allows mapping a hostname to an arbitrary address for the hostname. This mapping is applied by writing it in the container’s /etc/hosts file. Using --add-host, host.docker.internal is mapped to the keyword host-gateway. This keyword is a special value that the Docker server will replace with an address from which the host will be reachable within a container whether it is Docker Engine or Docker Desktop starting it.

In conclusion, we can add --add-host host.docker.internal:host-gateway to the options to start a container and the host network interface will be reachable at host.docker.internal.

Exposing an X Display to a Container

Given the knowledge of the operation of the Docker implementations, we finally have the pieces to expose an X display to a container. Since it is not possible to expose the display’s socket directly to a container, a TCP proxy is configured to pass X messages on the network from the container to the socket on the host machine for the display.

TCP Proxy

The socat tool is a widely available program to relay bi-directional data transfer between independent data channels. It allows running a process on the host to listen on a network port and send any received data to a socket connected to an X display on the other side.

Creating a TCP proxy for the X display effectively creates a spoofed X display. The proxy is configured to listen on the TCP port for an unallocated display; the port number will be 6000 + the number of the display. Additionally, the proxy is configured to listen on all network interfaces since identifying the exact interface that will be available within the container is non-trivial.

The other side of the proxy is connected to the socket for the X display. The socket, though, for the display may actually be another TCP socket; this will be the case if the environment is currently configured for X11 forwarding over SSH, as discussed below. In most cases, though, the socket will be the UNIX socket for the display in the /tmp/.X11-unix/ directory.

X Authentication for the Proxied X Display

Authentication for X displays is managed in xauth database files. The xauth program allows for reading and writing the database. The database is relatively simple mapping of display information to a cookie. When a client wants to establish a connection for a display, it queries the database for the display and receives the cookie back.

Since the proxy creates a spoofed display, a new xauth database needs to be created for the spoofed display using the authentication afforded to the user for the current display.

To create a new database, you need to:

  • Extract the cookie for the current display

  • Create a new database file

  • Add an entry for the spoofed display using the extracted cookie to the new database

  • Rewrite the hostname of the entry that was just created to be “FamilyWild” (a name reserved by the Xauth specification to match all displays)

This new xauth database file is set in the XAUTHORITY environment variable for the container so any X connections use it.

The hostname must be updated in the new database file because when the new entry is created, the xauth program will associate the host machine’s hostname with the display. In the container, though, the DISPLAY variable will be using host.docker.internal as the hostname for the display. If it is not updated, then the authentication cannot be used. Furthermore, the xauth program will not allow creating authentication entries for displays that do not actually exist. So, we manually update the hostname of the entry to a wildcard value such that queries for the display number will return the authentication regardless of the hostname of the query.

X11 Forwarding over SSH

A common practice is to forward X11 communication from a remote machine to the local machine when using SSH. Therefore, when someone establishes an SSH connection to another machine and runs Briefcase, this X11 passthrough mechanism should passthrough the X11 forwarding for SSH in to the Docker container.

When X11 forwarding is configured for SSH, there are multiple channels established between the local and remote machine. The primary channel facilitates the interactive shell session; additionally, though, SSH sets up another channel for the X communication.

It accomplishes X11 forwarding in much the same way that Briefcase is proxying X communication from the Docker container to the host. On the remote machine, the X11 channel is bound to the TCP port for a spoofed display and creates a new entry in the user’s xauth database for the display. Unlike Briefcase’s proxy, the SSH proxy actively modifies some of the X messages; it will verify connection attempts use the authentication created in the database by SSH and will replace it with the actual authentication used on the local machine.

Since Briefcase will first connect to a TCP socket for a display, it will find the spoofed display created by SSH and create the proxy such that it connects to that TCP socket. In this way, the container sends X messages to the proxy, the proxy send them to the SSH X11 channel, and SSH translates them for the X display on the local machine.