Debian armhf VM on arm64 server

Posted on 20/06/2017 by Sjoerd Simons

At Collabora one of the many things we do is build Debian derivatives/overlays for customers on a variety of architectures including 32 bit and 64 bit ARM systems. And just as Debian does, our OBS system builds on native systems rather than emulators.

Luckily with the advent of ARM server systems some years ago building natively for those systems has been a lot less painful than it used to be. For 32 bit ARM we've been relying on Calxeda blade servers, however Calxeda unfortunately tanked ages ago and the hardware is starting to show its age (though luckily Debian Stretch does support it properly, so at least the software is still fresh).

On the 64 bit ARM side, we're running on Gigabyte MP30-AR1 based servers which can run 32 bit arm code (As opposed to e.g. ThunderX based servers which can only run 64 bit code). As such running armhf VMs on them to act as build slaves seems a good choice, but setting that up is a bit more involved than it might appear.

The first pitfall is that there is no standard bootloader or boot firmware available in Debian to boot on the "virt" machine emulated by qemu (I didn't want to use an emulation of a real machine). That also means there is nothing to pick the kernel inside the guest at boot nor something which can e.g. have the guest network boot, which means direct kernel booting needs to be used.

The second pitfall was that the current Debian Stretch armhf kernel isn't built with support for the generic PCI host controller which the qemu virtual machine exposes, which means no storage and no network shows up in the guest. Hopefully that will get solved soonish (Debian bug 864726) and can be in a Stretch update, until then a custom kernel package is required using the patch attach to the bug report is required but I won't go into that any further in this post.

So on the happy assumption that we have a kernel that works, the challenge left is to nicely manage direct kernel loading. Or more specifically, how to ensure the hosts boots the kernel the guest has installed via the standard apt tools without having to copy kernels around between guest/host, which essentially comes down to exposing /boot from the guest to the host. The solution we picked is to use qemu's 9pfs support to share a folder from the host and use that as /boot of the guest. For the 9p folder the "mapped" security mode seems needed as the "none" mode seems to get confused by dpkg (Debian bug 864718).

As we're using libvirt as our virtual machine manager the remainder of how to glue it all together will be mostly specific to that.

First step is to install the system, mostly as normal. One can directly boot into the vmlinuz and initrd.gz provided by normal Stretch armhf netboot installer (downloaded into e.g /tmp). The setup overall is straight-forward with a few small tweaks:

  • /srv/armhf-vm-boot is setup to be the 9p shared folder (this should exist and owned by the libvirt-qemu user) that will be used for sharing /boot later
  • the kernel args are setup to setup root= with root partition intended to be used in the VM, adjust for your usage.
  • The image file to use the virtio bus, which doesn't seem the default.

Apart from those tweaks the resulting example command is similar to the one that can be found in the virt-install man-page:

virt-install --name armhf-vm --arch armv7l --memory 512 \
  --disk /srv/armhf-vm.img,bus=virtio
  --filesystem /srv/armhf-vm-boot,virtio-boot,mode=mapped \

Run through the install as you'd normally would. Towards the end the installer will likely complain it can't figure out how to install a bootloader, which is fine. Just before ending the install/reboot, switch to the shell and copy the /boot/vmlinuz and /boot/initrd.img from the target system to the host in some fashion (e.g. chroot into /target and use scp from the installed system). This is required as the installer doesn't support 9p, but to boot the system an initramfs will be needed with the modules needed to mount the root fs, which is provided by the installed initramfs :). Once that's all moved around, the installer can be finished.

Next, booting the installed system. For that adjust the libvirt config (e.g. using virsh edit and tuning the xml) to use the kernel and initramfs copied from the installer rather then the installer ones. Spool up the VM again and it should happily boot into a freshly installed Debian system.

To finalize on the guest side /boot should be moved onto the shared 9pfs, the fstab entry for the new /boot should look something like:

virtio-boot /boot  9p trans=virtio,version=9p2000.L,x-systemd.automount 0 0

With that setup, it's just a matter of shuffling the files in /boot around to the new filesystem and the guest is done (make sure vmlinuz/initrd.img stay symlinks). Kernel upgrades will work as normal and visible to the host.

Now on the host side there is one extra hoop to jump through, as the guest uses the 9p mapped security model symlinks in the guest will be normal files on the host containing the symlink target. To resolve that one, we've used libvirt's qemu hook support to setup a proper symlink before the guest is started. Below is the script we ended up using as an example (/etc/libvirt/hooks/qemu):


if [ ${action} != "prepare" ] ; then
  exit 0

if [ ! -d ${bootdir} ] ; then
  exit 0

ln -sf $(basename $(cat ${bootdir}/vmlinuz))  ${bootdir}/virtio-vmlinuz
ln -sf $(basename $(cat ${bootdir}/initrd.img))  ${bootdir}/virtio-initrd.img

With that in place, we can simply point the libvirt definition to use /srv/${vm}-boot/virtio-{vmlinuz,initrd.img} as the kernel/initramfs for the machine and it'll automatically get the latest kernel/initramfs as installed by the guest when the VM is started.

Just one final rough edge remains, when doing reboot from the VM libvirt leaves qemu to handle that rather than restarting qemu. This unfortunately means a reboot won't pick up a new kernel if any, for now we've solved this by configuring libvirt to stop the VM on reboot instead. As we typically only reboot VMs on kernel (security) upgrades, while a bit tedious, this avoid rebooting with an older kernel/initramfs than intended


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