Improving QEMU security part 1: crypto code consolidation

Posted: March 31st, 2016 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, OpenStack, Security, Virt Tools | Tags: , , | No Comments »

This blog is part 1 of a series I am writing about work I’ve completed over the past few releases to improve QEMU security related features.

Many years ago I wrote patches for QEMU to enable use of TLS with the VNC server via the VeNCrypt protocol extension. In those patches I modified the VNC server code to directly call out to gnutls in various places to perform the TLS handshake, validate certificates and encrypt/decrypt data. Fast-forward 8 years and I’m once again looking at QEMU with a view to adding TLS encryption support to many other QEMU network services, in particular character device backends, migration and NBD. The TLS certificate handling code is complex enough that I really didn’t fancy repeating it in multiple different areas of the QEMU codebase, so I started thinking about extracting the TLS code from the VNC server for purpose of easier reuse. Aside from VNC with TLS, QEMU uses cryptographic routines in a number of other areas, AES for qcow2 native encryption (which is horribly broke btw), single DES (yes, really single DES) in the VNC server for the awful VNC password authentication, SHA256 hashing in the quorum block driver and SHA1 hashing in the VNC websockets handshake, and AES in many of its CPU emulation backends for the various architecture specific AES acceleration instructions. QEMU actually has its own built-in impl of AES and DES that is uses, rather than calling out to a 3rd party crypto library, since the emulated CPU instructions need to run distinct internal steps of the AES algorithm, not merely consume the final output.

Looking to the future, as well as the expanded use of TLS, it was clear that use of cryptography will only ever increase in QEMU. For example, support of a LUKS encryption driver in the block layer will need access to countless encryption ciphers and hashes. It would be possible to get access to ciphers and hashes via the gnutls APIs, but sadly it doesn’t expose all the possible algorithms supported by the underlying libraries it uses. For added fun gnutls can be using either libgcrypt or nettle depending on what version of gnutls you have. So if QEMU wanted to get access to algorithms not exposed by gnutls, it would ideally have to support use of two different libraries. It was clear that QEMU would benefit from a consolidated internal API for dealing with anything related to encryption, to isolate the main bulk of the code from needing to directly deal with whatever 3rd party crypto libraries QEMU linked to. Thus I created a new top level directory in the QEMU codebase crypto/ and associated headers include/crypto/ which will contain all the code for interfacing with gnutls, libgcrypt, nettle, and whatever other cryptographic libraries we might need in the future. First of all the existing AES and DES implementations were moved into this directory. Then I created APIs for dealing with hash and cipher algorithms.

The cipher APIs are written to preferentially use either nettle or libcrypt depending on which one gnutls linked to, though this can be overridden via arguments to configure to force a particular choice. For those who really want to build without these 3rd party libraries the APIs can be built to use the internal AES or DES impls as a falback. A short example of encrypting data using AES-128 and CBC mode would look like this

  QCryptoCipher *cipher;
  uint8_t key = ....;
  size_t keylen = 16;
  uint8_t iv = ....;
  if (!qcrypto_cipher_supports(QCRYPTO_CIPHER_ALG_AES_128)) {
     error_report(errp, "Feature <blah> requires AES cipher support");
     return -1;
  cipher = qcrypto_cipher_new(QCRYPTO_CIPHER_ALG_AES_128,
                              key, keylen,
  if (!cipher) {
     return -1;
  if (qcrypto_cipher_set_iv(cipher, iv, keylen, errp) < 0) {
     return -1;
  if (qcrypto_cipher_encrypt(cipher, rawdata, encdata, datalen, errp) < 0) {
     return -1;

The hash algorithms still use the gnutls APIs, though that will change in the 2.7 series to directly use libgcrypt or nettle. The hash APIs are slightly simpler since QEMU doesn’t (currently at least) need the ability to incrementally hash data, so the currently APIs just supporting one-shot hashing of buffers.

  char *digest = NULL;
  if (!qcrypto_hash_supports(QCRYPTO_HASH_ALG_SHA256)) {
     error_report(errp, "Feature <blah> requires sha256 hash support");
     return -1;
  if (qcrypto_hash_digest(QCRYPTO_HASH_ALG_SHA256,
                          buf, len, &digest
                          errp) < 0) {
     return -1;

The qcrypto_hash_digest() method outputs as printable hex characters. There is also qcrypto_hash_bytes() which returns the raw bytes, or qcrypto_hash_base64() which base64 encodes the result. As well as passing a single buffer, it is possible to provide a list of buffers in an ‘struct iovec’

The calls to qcrypto_cipher_supports() and qcrypto_hash_supports() are entirely optional – errors will be raised by other methods if needed, but they offer the opportunity to emit friendly error messages in the code. For example the VNC server can explicitly say which feature it can’t support due to missing DES support. Just converting the existing code in QEMU code to use these new cipher/hash APIs already had significant benefit, because it allowed for many #ifdef CONFIG_GNUTLS statements to be removed from across the codebase, particularly the VNC server. The other benefit is that the internal AES and DES implementations are no longer used by any QEMU code, except for the CPU instruction emulation, which is not even used if running with KVM. So modern KVM accelerated guests will be using well supported, audited & certified cipher & hash implementations which is often important to enterprise distribution vendors. This first stage of consolidation was completed and merged for the QEMU 2.4 release series but it has been invisible to users, mostly just benefiting the QEMU & distro maintainers.

In this blog series: