This tutorial provides a guide for setting up your QEMU VM. We first cover basic installation issues. We then explain how to use the basic features of QEMU. Finally, we show how to configure ssh and shared directory.
If you did not read this tutorial yet, skip this section. I added this section as a summary for someone that already read this tutorial and just want to remember a specific command.
qemu-img create -f qcow2 [NAME] 10G qemu-system-x86_64 -cdrom ~/PATH/DISTRO_ISO.iso -boot order=d -drive \ file=[NAME],format=qcow2 -m 2G qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -net nic -net user,hostfwd=tcp::2222-:22,smb=$PWD/ \ -daemonize -m 4G -smp cores=4,cpus=4 [NAME]
If you are curious about Linux Kernel development but feel afraid of accidentally breaking your system due to experiments, the solution for such problems can be summarized in one technology: Virtual Machine (VM). In this tutorial, we’ll examine how to use QEMU, which is an extremely powerful hardware virtualization tool that can be used in many different contexts. I particularly appreciate QEMU because it’s a very popular tool (thus easy to find information about it on the Internet), it’s continuously updated, it features rich machine emulation, it’s free software, and it was initially designed for development.
QEMU is a generic machine emulator based on dynamic translation  that can operate in two different modes :
- Full system emulation: A mode that completely emulates a computer. It can be used to launch different Operating Systems (OS);
- User mode emulation: Enables launching a process for one sort of CPU on another CPU.
If you have an
x86 machine, you can use QEMU with KVM and achieve high
Keep in mind that we should avoid working inside the VM because it is a waste of computational resource. We want to work as much as possible inside the host and use the VM only for testing; because of this and for making our work environment comfortable, we need:
- SSH access;
- Share a directory between host and guest.
Finally, take a careful look at Figure 1 in order to get an overview of the adopted workflow for this tutorial.
Info: If you find any problem with this tutorial, please let me know. I will be glad to fix it.
In this tutorial we will work inside and outside of a VM, for simplicity sake, we will add the following comment on top of each command:
@VM: Execute the command inside the VM.
@HOST: Execute the command in your machine.
Prerequisites: Installing QEMU, KVM and Openssh
To follow this tutorial you need to install QEMU and Samba Client (samba is required for sharing directories between your host and guest).
→ On Arch Linux :
# @HOST sudo pacman -S qemu samba qemu-arch-extra openssh
→ On Debian :
# @HOST sudo apt install qemu samba samba-client openssh
Creating an Image
We want QEMU running a Linux distribution for our future experiments with Linux. With this goal in mind, we have to create an image disk with the following command:
# @HOST qemu-img create -f qcow2 kernel_experiments 15G
Attention: Don’t blindly copy and paste the command above or any other found in this tutorial, try to understand it, by reading the brief description below the command and examining the documentation.
qemu-img: It’s the disk image utility provided by QEMU;
create: Indicates that we want to create new disk image, you can add options to enable or disable features;
-f qcow2: Specifies the image format; usually, you want ‘raw’ or ‘qcow2’. Raw images are fast, but it uses all the determined size at once; on the other hand, qcow2 is a little bit slower, but it increases the image size based on VM usage with the limit being the size given at creation;
kernel_experiments: This command will end up with an image file, and here is the name that we assign; feel free to change it;
15G: The image size.
In this tutorial, I recommend using qcow2 with 10 or 15G.
Finally, check if everything is fine by with the command:
# @HOST file kernel_experiments
The output of the command above, should be something similar to
kernel_experiments: QEMU QCOW Image (v3), 16106127360 bytes
Installing a Distro
Next, download any Linux distribution image you want to use (I recommend Debian or ArchLinux  , but it can be any). With your QEMU image file created above and your distro’s ISO, follow the command below:
# @HOST qemu-system-x86_64 -cdrom ~/PATH/TO/YOUR_DISTRO_ISO.iso -boot order=d -drive file=kernel_experiments,format=qcow2 -m 2G
The command above will start up a VM and mount the ISO file you’ve downloaded on it. After installation has finished, it’ll reboot the VM automatically.
Proceed with the installation, and come back here after you finish. For the sake of simplicity, create a user in the VM that match with your host machine user.
Booting up a QEMU VM
Finally, it is time to start the machine. Take a look at the command below and adapt it for your needs:
# @HOST qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -net nic -net user,hostfwd=tcp::2222-:22,smb=$PWD/ -daemonize -m 2G -smp cores=4,cpus=4 kernel_experiments
qemu-system-x86_64: Command that start the QEMU VM.
-enable-kvm: Enable full virtualization by using KVM ;
-net: Network options;
-daemonize: Daemonize the QEMU process after initialization;
-m: RAM size;
-smp: Simulate a SMP system with n CPUs.
This command will pop up a window with the recently installed distribution from the step before. For detailed information about the options used in this command, take a look at the man page.
In some distros, the above command fails or show a warning due to the
-enable-kvm parameter. Probably, your host user isn’t part of the KVM
group. You can fix it by adding yourself to the KVM group. For example:
sudo usermod -a -G kvm $USER. Finally, reboot your machine.
At this point, probably you can log in and out of the VM by typing the VM’s user’s password; this can be cumbersome during the work.
To make your work experience better, follow the steps below for creating a passwordless ssh connection, using an RSA key pair.
Info: There’re many ways for setting up an SSH connection; here’s a 1000 foot view of the process.
First, create an RSA key pair on the host machine (if there isn’t any already) with the command:
# @HOST ssh-keygen -t rsa # Note: For full passwordless, do not add a password in this step
Explaining the above command is beyond this tutorial. There’s plenty of
information about it on the Internet . After
the key is set up, you need to prepare the recently created VM to accept ssh
connections. Just install the package
openssh on it (Arch: openssh, Debian:
Since you are working in a fresh installation, you will need to temporally enable password authentication in the VM in order to log in from the host machine. Follow the steps below:
- In the VM:
sudo sed -i 's/#.*PasswordAuthentication.*/PasswordAuthentication yes/' /etc/ssh/sshd_config;
- Restart the service:
sudo systemctl restart sshd.
Now, from the host machine test logging in into the VM with:
# @HOST ssh -p 2222 127.0.0.1
Note that the above command will try to log into the VM using the default host’s username, which is $USER.
If everything works as expected, at this point, you can access the VM’s shell. Moving on, log out of the VM, and from the host machine type the following:
# @HOST ssh-copy-id -p 2222 $USER@127.0.0.1
Try to reaccess the VM, open the file
/etc/ssh/sshd_config, comment the line
PasswordAuthentication, restart the
sshd service, and leave the VM.
Finally, try to ssh into the VM, and you will be able to access the machine
using your ssh key.
Sharing a Directory With your Local Machine
We are close of having a great development environment for playing with Linux Kernel; we just have to set up a final detail: share a directory between our VM and our host system. We want to share a directory because we only need to use our VM for testing and not for developing; i.e., we compile the kernel in our powerful host machine and install the final binaries in the VM. To accomplish this task, we use a share mechanism provided by samba.
First, we need to install the samba and cisfs package in the system. Try:
# @HOST sudo pacman -S samba cifs-utils
# @HOST sudo apt install samba cifs-utils
Second, start the VM and install the same packages.
# @HOST qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -net nic -net user,hostfwd=tcp::2222-:22,smb=$PWD/ -daemonize -m 2G -smp cores=4,cpus=4 kernel_experiments $ ssh -p 2222 127.0.0.1 # @VM sudo pacman -S samba cifs-utils
Now, we want to make an automatic setup in our VM that make the directory
shareable on-demand, i.e., the VM and host start to share a directory if the
user tries to access the folder. For doing it, we have to create a new
Before we start this step, it is important to highlight that you need to
customize some of the steps described hereafter; basically, you have to replace
USER by your username.
1) Let’s start by create the file
/etc/systemd/system/ under the VM.
Add the following content (again, replace
USER in the file):
[Unit] Description=Mount Share at boot Requires=systemd-networkd.service After=network-online.target Wants=network-online.target [Mount] What=//10.0.2.4/qemu Where=/home/USER/shared Options=vers=3.0,x-systemd.automount,_netdev,x-systemd.device-timeout=10,uid=1000,noperm,credentials=/root/.cifs Type=cifs TimeoutSec=30 [Install] WantedBy=multi-user.target
You have to use the correct
uid here; you can use the command
2) Additionally, create another file named
/root/ with the
3) We have to update the
/etc/fstab. In the end of
fstab file add the
//10.0.2.4/qemu /home/USER/shared/ cifs uid=1000,credentials=/root/.cifs,x-systemd.automount,noperm 0 0
4) Now we to create a shared directory:
# @VM mkdir shared
5) Finally, we have to put the finishing touches to
# @VM sudo systemctl daemon-reload sudo systemctl enable home-USER-shared.mount sudo systemctl start home-USER-shared.mount
6) Try to access the shared directory created on step 4.
Reboot your VM, start it using the command mentioned early, then access it via
ssh, and try to access the
shared directory. If everything works well, you
should see the directory and files that you shared with your host machine.
Keep in mind that we just scratched QEMU’s surface, this tool provides many features and have other tools for easily manage VMs. Finally, follow my feed for new tutorials about QEMU and Linux development.
I would like to thanks Charles Oliveira, Shayenne da Luz Moura, Rodrigo Ribeiro, Matheus Tavares, Melissa Wen, and Marcelo Schmitt for their reviews and contributions for this tutorial.
- V1: Release
- V2: Improve highlights
- V3: Add Melissa suggestions in some of the steps
 “QEMU Arch Wiki”. URL: https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/QEMU. ⤴
 “QEMU Debian Wiki”. URL: https://wiki.debian.org/QEMU#Installation. ⤴
 “QEMU Official Website”. URL: https://www.qemu.org/. ⤴
 Etel Sverdlov. “How To Set Up SSH Keys”. URL: https://www.digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/how-to-set-up-ssh-keys–2. ⤴
 “Kernel-based Virtual Machine”. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kernel-based_Virtual_Machine. ⤴
 “Installation guide”. URL: https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/installation_guide. ⤴
 “How to Install Arch Linux [Step by Step Guide]”. URL: https://itsfoss.com/install-arch-linux/. ⤴
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