Using QEMU Without Pulling Your Hair Out

Tips for keeping your sanity with a very powerful tool

I make it a rule to choose my tools carefully and to invest the time to learn them deeply. QEMU has been one of those tools that I’ve wanted to learn how to use for a long time, but was always a bit intimidated. I actually had been able to use it indirectly via libvirt, but it felt like I was cheating my rule by using one tool to manage another. Despite my vague sense of guilt, things continued this way until I read a recent(ish) introductory post on QEMU by Drew DeVault. The article is well written (as per usual for DeVault), and you’d do well to read it before continuing here. The point is that it was the kick in the pants I needed to finally roll up my sleeves and learn some QEMU.

The process of gaining some level of mastery over QEMU ended up being a fair bit more painful than I had anticipated, and so I wanted to capture some of my lessons learned over and above the introductory-level topics. The hard lessons were, by and large, not related directly to QEMU per-se, but more how to manage QEMU VM’s. I use my virtual machines to isolate environments for various reasons, and so I need ways to automate their management. In particular, I had two needs that took some time to work out satisfactorily.

  1. Starting VM’s automatically on system startup (and cleanly shutting them down with the host system).

  2. Securely and remotely accessing VM consoles.

Let’s take each of those two issues in turn.

Automatic VM Management

For our purposes, what I mean by automatic management of VM’s is just what I said above. If I need to restart the host server, I want the VM’s to cleanly shut down with the host system, and come back up automatically after the host restarts. Since this is the kind of thing init systems are designed to do, it’s only natural that we start there as a place to design our VM management infrastructure.

So we just tell our init system to signal QEMU to shut down any running VM’s and we’re good right? In theory yes, but in reality QEMU’s management interface is a bit tricky to script interactions with. There is a -monitor switch that allows you to configure a very powerful management interface, and you’ll need to use that because the default is to attach that interface to a virtual console in the VM itself (or stdio, if you’re not running a graphical interface locally). There are several options for configuring the monitor and the device it’s connected to, but the best compromise I found between convenience and security was to make it available via a UNIX socket.

If you’ve read DeVault’s entry already, then you know that QEMU allows you to configure anything you could want via the command line. After deciding how to expose the monitor to the init system (systemd in my case), the rest came together pretty quickly. Here’s what my service file looks like:

    Description=QEMU virtual machine

    ExecStart=/bin/sh -c "/usr/bin/qemu-${TYPE} -enable-kvm -smp ${SMP} -spice unix,disable-ticketing,addr=/run/qemu/%I.sock -m ${MEMORY} -nic bridge,br=${BRIDGE},mac=${MAC_ADDR},model=virtio -kernel /var/lib/qemu/%I/vmlinuz-linux -initrd /var/lib/qemu/%I/initramfs-linux-fallback.img -drive file=/var/lib/qemu/%I/%I.qcow2,media=disk,if=virtio -append 'root=/dev/vda rw' -monitor unix:/run/qemu/%I-mon.sock,server,nowait -name %I"
    ExecStop=/bin/sh -c "echo system_powerdown | nc -U /run/qemu/%I-mon.sock"


The %I should clue you in that this is a service template, which is a nice convenience if you plan to run more than one VM as a service. This allows multiple VM’s to use the same service file via a symlink. For example, a symlink from qemu@webhost.service to qemu@.service would cause systemd to replace %I with webhost. In-depth description of service templates is beyond the scope of this post, but the link above should be sufficient to answer additional questions. The last point I’ll make here is that the netcat (nc) implementation used in ExecStop must be OpenBSD netcat, otherwise the service will not shut down cleanly. Other implementations will disconnect immediately after sending the system_powerdown message, while OpenBSD netcat waits for the socket to close.

It’s also worth taking a moment to stress how important the UMask directive in the above service template is. QEMU uses this to set permissions for the files it creates (including sockets), so we use this to secure our monitor and console sockets. A umask of 0007 directs QEMU to create any files with full permissions for the qemu user and group, while giving no global permissions.

All that’s missing then is the environment file, and that looks like the following:


The point of the environment file is to be tailored to your needs, so don’t just blindly copy this. In particular, the BRIDGE device will need to exist, otherwise the service will fail. It bears mentioning that we use a bridge device so that the VM can appear like it’s own machine to the outside world (and thus we can route traffic to it).

So much for automating VM startup/shutdown, let’s talk about how to access the console.

Accessing Your VM Console

Again, QEMU has a plethora of options for accessing the VM console, both local and remote. Since I run my VM’s on a server, I wanted something that would allow remote access, but I also wanted something reasonably secure. UNIX sockets end up being a good, middle-of-the-road solution again. They’re treated like files, with all of the standard UNIX permissions, but it’s also easy to route traffic from a remove machine to a UNIX socket via SSH.

The applicable switch to achieve this configuration is -spice. In the above service template, you see the full switch reads::

    -spice unix,disable-ticketing,addr=/run/qemu/%I.sock

unix configures QEMU to use a UNIX socket (as opposed to, say, a TCP port), disable-ticketing configures the console without an additional password (this is okay since we’re relying on UNIX file permissions), and addr gives the socket path.

Now if you want to access the console remotely, it’s as simple as setting up a forwarding socket via SSH and connecting your local SPICE client to it. Here’s a shell script I whipped up to wrap that behavior:

    uid=`id -u`

    if [ ! -d $path ]
            mkdir -p $path
            chmod 700 $path

    ssh -NL $path/$1.sock:/run/qemu/$1.sock &

    while [ ! -S $path/$1.sock ]
            sleep 1

    spicy --uri="spice+unix://$path/$1.sock"
    kill $!
    rm $path/$1.sock

And that’s how I learned to use QEMU without pulling my hair out. It’s a great tool, and I’m glad I took the time to learn how to use it. I suggest you do the same!