How to run an ARM VM on a x86 host

A few weeks ago, I wasted a lot of time (and hair) trying to run Raspbian in a VM, so that I could run it as part of my CI system and build software for it. I eventually managed to get something running that counts as good enough, both for 32 and 64 bit.

Let me begin by disappointing you: I eventually gave up running Raspbian as such. I found that ARM is a helluvalot different from your average x86, and there are things such as Device Tree Blob of which I have no idea what it is they’re actually doing. So I eventually decided that a standard Debian distro would be good enough, and in order to not have to go through the installation process (because that too turns out to be way more difficult than I had anticipated), I started looking for Cloud images because they come preinstalled. Now, not only do you need the OS image (because that would be way too simple), you also need to pass the kernel and init-ramdisk to the VM when starting it because there’s no bootloader in ARM. Thankfully the Ubuntu maintainers are nice enough to not only provide Cloud images (bionic-server-cloudimg-armhf.img or bionic-server-cloudimg-arm64.img), but in a sidecar directory called unpacked, they also provide the respective kernel and initrd files. (Those are also included in the images themselves, so you could in theory grab them by mounting the images and copying them from /boot, but why go through that hassle if you can just download them.)


So, suppose you want to set up an ARM-based DroneCI worker. You’ll want to download an armada of files such as:


Then copy those into your /var/lib/libvirt/images folder, and create an additional data volume for both:



I also recommend to resize the boot images to something like 5GB since they can feel pretty claustrophobic once you start using the VM. Also be sure to set a root password so you can log in to your VMs once they’re up: virt-customize -a drone-worker-arm64.img --root-password password:supersecretrootpw

VM setup

I’ll just assume you use libvirt and virt-manager to set up your VMs, because that’s what I do. First thing you’ll want to do is go to the preferences and enable XML editing. Then go ahead and create a new VM. Say you’ll import an existing disk image, expand the architecture options and select arm (32 bit) or aarch64 (64 bit). Once you do that, another dropdown box pops out that asks you for the machine type. I’m using virt-2.8, but I suspect that plain virt would work as well. Just don’t select any one of the more specific boards, because then you’re probably gonna need a DTB and all that weird stuff. Keep it as generic (and hardware-independent) as possible.

On the next screen select the boot image. aarch64 will not ask you for kernel and initrd here, but arm will, so you’ll need to specify those here as well. Leave the DTB path empty. For kernel args specify rw root=/dev/vda1 cloud-init=disabled to disable cloud-init (we’re using Cloud images, remember?). As OS type choose Generic default.

Give the thing 1024 MB of memory (I’ve had problems when I chose more) and as many cores as you like. On the next screen give it a name, and be sure to tick the box that lets you Customize configuration before install.

Now virt-manager throws you into a preview of the VM editor. There’s still a few adjustments we’ll need to make.

You’re going to start on the Overview tab. Open the XML subtab and add this piece of information (told you you’d have to enable XML editing):

<domain type="qemu">
  <!-- lots of other stuff -->
    <gic version="2"/>
  <!-- lots of other stuff -->

I don’t really understand what it does, but without it, you’ll probably get MSI is not supported by interrupt controller errors.

Back in the Details subtab, be sure to set “Firmware” to None (for aarch64 you can apparently use UEFI, but the method by passing in the Kernel image works too). Under CPUs, choose Hypervisor default for arm and cortex-a57 for aarch64 (I think those are probably pre-populated). Under Boot options you can verify the kernel path, initrd path and kernel args.

Be sure to only use virtio devices. I don’t think the kernels have many other drivers built in, but I may very well be mistaken about this. I haven’t tested extensively, I’m honestly just glad it works. :P

The stangest thing is how to get console access. It appears that standard graphics do not work here, so you’ll have to use serial consoles. Now I’m not sure how those actually work in libvirt, but I always add a Serial gizmo as well as a Console gizmo to those VMs, and that seems to make it work because one of them will show up as a /dev/ttyAMA0 in the VM, and that’s what the image seems to be looking for.

Now finish the VM installation, and with any luck, a VM should boot up.

OS access, resizing the root partition

Once the VM is up, you should be able to log in using the password you baked into the image earlier. Then you’ll probably want to run dpkg-reconfigure openssh-server so that SSH host keys are generated, and configure some basic networking so that you can access the whole thing. Next you should resize the root partition to match the image size.

For that, run parted /dev/vda. It’ll probably ask you if it should resize the partition table to enclose the whole disk, to which you should say yes. Now here’s an interesting thing: The partition numbering does not match the layout that the disks have on disk. You’ll see a partition /dev/vda1 and a /dev/vda15, and contrary to what that numbering indicates, /dev/vda1 is not the first partition, but actually the second one. So you can just resizepart 1 5G, then exit parted and resize2fs /dev/vda1, and it’ll just work and give you a bigger root FS.

Running the VM with a lower priority

I’ve found that ARM VMs end up taking a lot of CPU power, probably because their emulation is just far from trivial. Thus you might want to renice those VMs, so that they don’t drown out other processes running on the same host. I do that using scripts such as these:


exec /usr/bin/nice -n 15 -- /usr/bin/qemu-system-arm "$@"


exec /usr/bin/nice -n 15 -- /usr/bin/qemu-system-aarch64 "$@"

Then I put them into the <emulator> tag in the VM’s XML definition.