libvirt: an “embedded” QEMU driver mode for isolated usage

Posted: February 5th, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | No Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Historical driver architecture

Historically the local stateful drivers in libvirt have supported one or two modes of access

  • “system mode” – privileged libvirtd running as root, global per host
  • “session mode” – unprivileged libvirtd, isolated to individual non-root users

Within context of each daemon, VM name uniqueness is enforced. Operating via the daemon means that all applications connected to that same libvirtd get the same world view. This single world view is exactly what you want when dealing with server / cloud / desktop virtualization, because it means tools like ‘virt-top‘, ‘virt-viewer’, ‘virsh‘ can see the same VMs as virt-manager / oVirt / OpenStack / GNOME Boxes / etc.

There are other use cases for virtualization, however, where this single world view across applications may be much less desirable. Instead of spawning VMs for the purpose of running a full guest operating system, the VM is used as a building block for an application specific use case. I describe these use cases as “embedded virtualization”, with the libguestfs project being a well known long standing example. This uses a VM as a way to confine execution of its appliance, allowing safe manipulation of disk images. The libvirt-sandbox project is another example which provides a way to take binaries installed on the host OS and directly execute them inside a virtual machine, using 9p filesystem passthrough. More recently the Kata project aims to provide a docker compatible container runtime built using KVM.

In many, but not neccessarily all, of these applications, it is unhelpful for the KVM instances that are launched to become visible to other applications like virt-manager / OpenStack. For example if Nova sees a libguestfs VM running in libvirt it won’t be able to correlate this VM with its own world view. There have been cases where a mgmt app would try to destroy these externally launched VM in order to reconcile its world view.

There are other practicalities to consider when using a shared daemon like libvirtd. Each application has to ensure it creates a sensible unique name for each virtual machine, that won’t clash with names picked by other applications. Then there is the question of cleaning up resources such as log files left over from short lived VMs.

When spawning KVM via a separate daemon, the QEMU process is daemonized, such that it disassociated from both libvirtd and the application which spawned it. It will only be cleaned up by an explicit API call to destroy it, or by the guest application shutting it down. For embedded use cases, it would be helpful if the VM would automatically die when the application which launched it dies. Libvirt introduces a notion of “auto destroy” to associated the lifetime of a VM with the client socket connection. It would be simpler if the VM process were simply in the same process group as the application, allowing normal OS level process tree pruning. The disassociated process context means that the QEMU process also looses the cgroup & namespace placement of the application using it

An initial embedded libvirt driver

A possible answer to all these problems is to introduce the notion of an “embedded mode” for libvirt drivers. When using a libvirt driver in this mode, there is no libvirtd daemon involved, instead the libvirt driver code is loaded into the application process itself. In embedded mode the libvirt driver is operating against a custom directory prefix for reading and writing config / state files. The directory is private to each application which has an instance of the embedded driver open. Since the libvirt driver is directly loaded into the application, there is no RPC service exposed and thus there is no way to use virsh and other tools to access the driver. This is important to remember because it means there is no way to debug problems with embedded VMs using normal libvirt tools. For some applications this is acceptable as the VMs are short-lived & throw away, but for others this restriction might be unacceptable.

At the time of writing this post, support for embedded QEMU driver connections has merged to GIT master, and will be released in 6.1.0. In order to enable use of encrypted disks, there is also support for an embedded secret driver. The embedded driver feature is considered experimental initially, and so contrary to normal libvirt practice we’re not providing a strong upgrade compatibility guarantee. The API and XML formats won’t change, but the behavior of the embedded driver may still change.

Along with the embedded driver mode, is a new command line tool called virt-qemu-run. This is a simple tool using the embedded QEMU driver to run a single QEMU virtual machine, automatically exiting when QEMU exits, or tearing down QEMU if the tool exits abnormally. This can be used directly by users for self contained virtual machines, but it also serves as an example of how to use the embedded driver and has been important for measuring startup performance. This tool is also considered experimental and so its CLI syntax is subject to change in future.

In general the embedded mode drivers should offer the same range of functionality as the main system or session modes in libvirtd. To learn more about their usage and configuration, consult the three pages linked in the above paragraphs.

Further development work

During development of the embedded driver one of the problems that quickly became apparently was the time required to launch a virtual machine. When libvirtd starts up one of the things it does is to probe all installed QEMU binaries to determine what features they support. This can take 300-500 milliseconds per binary which doesn’t sound like much, but if you have all 30 QEMU binaries installed this is 10-15 seconds. The results of this probing are cached, avoiding repeated performance hits until something changes which would invalidate the information. The caching doesn’t help the embedded driver case though, because it is using a private directory tree for state and thus doesn’t see the cache from the system / session mode drivers. To deal with this problem the QEMU driver startup process was significantly refactored such that probing of QEMU binaries is delayed until the data is actually needed. This massively helps both the new embedded mode and existing system/session modes.

Unfortunately it is fairly common for applications to query the libvirt host capabilities and the returned data is required to report on all QEMU binaries, thus triggering the slow probing operation. There is a new API which allows probing of a single QEMU binary which applications are increasingly using, but there are still valid use cases for the general host capabilities information. To address the inherent design limitations of the current API, one or more replacements are required to allow more targetted information reporting to avoid the mass QEMU probe.

Attention will then need to switch to optimizing the startup procedure for spawning QEMU. There is one key point where libvirt uses QMP to ask the just launched QEMU what CPU features it has exposed to the guest OS. This results in a huge number of QMP calls, one for each CPU feature. This needs to be optimized, ideally down to 1 single QMP call, which might require QEMU enhancements to enable libvirt to get the required information more efficiently.

One of the goals of the embedded driver is to have the QEMU process inherit the application’s process context (cgroups, namespaces, CPU affinity, etc) by default and keep QEMU as a child of the application process. This does not currently happen as the embedded driver is re-using the existing startup code which moves QEMU into dedicated cgroups and explicitly resets CPU affinity, as well as daemonizing QEMU. The need to address these problems is one of the reasons the embedded mode is marked experimental with behaviour subject to change.

libvirt: split of the monolithic libvirtd daemon

Posted: February 4th, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | No Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Monolithic daemon

Anyone who has used libvirt should be familiar with the libvirtd daemon which runs most of the virtualization and secondary drivers that libvirt distributes. Only a few libvirt drivers are stateless and run purely in the library. Internally libvirt has always tried to maintain a fairly modular architecture, with each hypervisor driver being a separated from other drivers. There are also secondary drivers providing storage, network, firewall functionality which are notionally separate from all the virtualization drivers. Over time the separation has broken down with hypervisor drivers directly invoking internal methods from the secondary drivers, but last year there was a major effort to reverse this and re-gain full separation between every driver.

There are various problems with having a monolithic daemon like libvirtd. From a security POV, it is hard to provide any meaningful protections to libvirtd. The range of functionality it exposes, provides an access level that is more or less equivalent to having a root shell. So although libvirtd runs with a “virtd_t” SELinux context, this should be considered little better than running “unconfined_t“. As well as providing direct local access to the APIs, the libvirtd daemon also has the job of exposing remote access over TCP, most commonly needed when doing live migration. Exposing the drivers directly over TCP is somewhat undesirable given the size of the attack surface they have.

The biggest problems users have seen are around reliability of the daemon. A bug in any single driver in libvirt can impact on the functionality of all other drivers. As an example, if something goes wrong in the libvirt storage mgmt APIs, this can harm management of any QEMU VMs. Problems can be things like crashes of the daemon due to memory corruption, or more subtle things like main event loop starvation due to long running file handle event callbacks, or accidental resource cleanup such as closing a file descriptor belonging to another thread.

Libvirt drivers are shipped as loadable modules, and an installation of libvirt does not have to include all drivers. Thus a minimal installation of libvirt is a lot smaller than users typically imagine it is. The existance of the monolithic libvirtd daemon, however, and the fact the many apps pull in broader RPM dependencies than they truly need, results in a perception that libvirt is bloated / heavyweight.

Modular daemons

With all this in mind, libvirt has started a move over to a new modular daemon model. In this new world, each driver in libvirt (both hypervisor drivers & secondary drivers) will be serviced by its own dedicated daemon. So there will be a “virtqemud“, “virtxend“, “virtstoraged“, “virtnwfilterd“, etc. Each of these daemons will only support access via a dedicated local UNIX domain socket, /run/libvirt/$DAEMONNAME, eg /run/libvirt/virtqemud. The libvirt client library will be able to connect to either the old monolithic daemon socket path /run/libvirt/libvirt-sock, or the new per-daemon socket. The hypervisor daemons will be able to open connections to the secondary daemons when required by requested functionality, eg to config a firewall for a QEMU guest NIC.

Remote off-host access to libvirt functionality will be handled via a new virtproxyd daemon which listens for TCP connections and forwards API calls over a local UNIX socket to whichever modular daemon needs to service it. This proxy daemon will also be responsible for handling the monolithic daemon UNIX domain socket path that old libvirt clients will be expecting to use.

Overall from an application developer POV, the change to monolithic daemons will be transparent at the API level. The main impact will be on deployment tools like Puppet / Ansible seeking to automate deployment of libvirt, which will need to be aware of these new daemons and their config files. The resulting architecture should be more reliable in operation and enable development of more restrictive security policies.

Both the existing libvirtd and the new modular daemons have been configured to make use of systemd socket activation and auto-shutdown after a timeout, so the daemons should only be launched when they actually need to do some work. Several daemons will still need to startup at boot to activate various resources (create the libvirt virb0 bridge device, or auto-start VMs), but should stop quickly once this is done.

Migration timeframe

At the time of writing the modular daemons exist in libvirt releases and are built and installed by default. The libvirt client library, however, still defaults to connecting to the monolithic libvirtd UNIX socket. To best of my knowledge, all distros with systemd use presets which favour the monolithic daemon too. IOW, thus far, nothing has changed from most user’s POV. In the near future, however, we intend to flip the switch in the build system such that the libvirt client library favours connections to the modular daemons, and encourage distros to change their systemd presets to match.

The libvirtd daemon will remain around, but deprecated, for some period of time before it is finally deleted entirely. When this deletion will happen is still TBD, but it is not less than 1 year away, and possibly as much as 2 years. The decision will be made based on how easily & quickly applications find adaptation to the new modular daemon world.

Future benefits

The modular daemon model opens up a number of interesting possibilities for addressing long standing problems with libvirt. For example, the QEMU driver in libvirt can operate in “system mode” where it is running as root and can expose all features of QEMU. There is also the “session mode” where it runs as an unprivileged user but with features dramatically reduced. For example, no firewall integration, drastically reduced network connectivity options, no PCI device assignment and so on. With the modular daemon model, a new hybrid approach is possible. A “session mode” QEMU driver can be enhanced to know how to talk to a “system mode” host device driver to do PCI device assignment (with suitable authentication prompts of course), likewise for network connectivity. This will make the unprivileged “session mode” QEMU driver a much more compelling choice for applications such as virt-manager or GNOME Boxes which prefer to run fully unprivileged.

Libvirt: programming language and document format consolidation

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | 3 Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Historical usage

In common with many projects which have been around for a similar time frame, libvirt has accumulated a variety of different programming languages and document formats, for a variety of tasks.

The main library is written in C, but around that there is the autotools build system which adds shell, make, autoconf, automake, libtool, m4, and other utilities like sed, awk, etc. Then there are many helper scripts used for code generation or testing which are variously written in shell, perl or python. For documentation, there are man pages written in POD, web docs written in HTML5 with an XSL templating system, and then some docs written in XML which generate HTML, and some docs generated from source code comments. Finally there are domain specific languages such as XDR for the RPC system.

There are a couple of issues with the situation libvirt finds itself in. The large number of different languages and formats places a broad knowledge burden on new contributors to the project. Some of the current choices are now fairly obscure & declining in popularity, thus not well known by potential project contributors. For example, Markdown and reStructuredText (RST) are more commonly known than Perl’s POD format. Developers are more likely to be competent in Python than in Perl. Some of the languages libvirt uses are simply too hard to deal with, for example it is a struggle to find anyone who can explain m4 or enjoys using it when writing configure scripts for autoconf.

Ultimately the issues all combine to have a couple of negative effects on the project. They drive away potential new contributors due to their relative obscurity. They reduce the efficiency of existing contributors due to their poor suitability for the tasks they are applied to.

Intended future usage

With the above problems in mind, there is a desire to consolidate and update the programming languages and document formats that libvirt uses. The goals are to reduce the knowledge burden on contributors, and simplify the development experience to make it easier to get the important work done. Approximately the intention is to get to a place where libvirt uses C for the core library code, Python for all helper scripts, RST for all documentation, and Meson for the build system. This should eliminate the use of shell, shell utilities like sed/awk, perl, POD, XSL, HTML5, m4, make, autoconf, automake. A decision about which static website builder to use to replace XSL hasn’t been made yet, but Sphinx and Pelican are examples of the kind of tools being considered. Getting to this desired end point will take a prolonged effort, but setting a clear direction now will assist contributors in understanding where to best spend time.

To kickstart this consolidation at the end of last year almost all of the Perl build scripts were converted to Python. This was a manual line-by-line conversion, so the structure of the scripts didn’t really change much, just the minimal language syntax changes in most cases. There are still a handful of Perl scripts remaining, which are some of the most complicated ones. These really need a rewrite, rather than a plain syntax conversion, so will take more time to bring over to Python. The few shell scripts have also been converted to Python, with more to follow. After that all the POD man pages were fed through a automated conversion pipeline to create RST formatted man pages. In doing this, the man pages are now also published online as part of the libvirt website. Some of the existing HTML content has also been converted into RST.

The next really big step is converting the build system from autotools into Meson. This will eliminate some of the most complex, buggy and least understood parts of libvirt. It will be refreshing to have a build system which only requires knowledge of a single high level domain specific language, with Python for extensions, instead of autotools which requires knowledge of at least 6 different languages and the interactions between them.

Libvirt: use of GCC/Clang extension for automatic cleanup functions

Posted: January 31st, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | No Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon in October 2019.

Automatic memory cleanup

Libvirt has always aimed to be portable across a wide set of operating system platforms and this included portability to different compiler toolchains. In the early days of the project GCC was the most common target, but users did use the Solaris and Microsoft native compilers occasionally. Fast forward to today and the legacy UNIX platforms are much less relevant. Officially libvirt only targets Linux, FreeBSD, macOS and Windows as supported platforms and all of these have GCC or CLang or both available. These compilers are available on any platform that we’re likely to add in the future too. Conceivably people might still want to use Microsoft compilers, but their featureset is so poor compared to GCC/Clang that we long ago discounted them as a toolchain to support.

Thus libvirt in the early part of last year, libvirt made the explicit decision to only support GCC and CLang henceforth. This in turn freed the project to take full advantage of extensions to the C language offered by these compilers.

The extension which motivated this decision was the cleanup attribute. This allows a variable declaration to have a function associated with it that will be automatically invoked when the variable goes out of scope. The most obvious use for these cleanup functions is to release heap memory associated with pointers, and this is exactly what libvirt wanted to do. This is not the only use case though, they are also convenient for other tasks such as closing file descriptors, decrementing reference counts, unlocking mutexes, and so on.

The native C syntax for using this feature is fairly ugly

__attribute__((__cleanup__(free))) char *foo = NULL;

but this can be made more attractive via macros. For example, GLib provides several pretty macros to simplify life g_autofree, g_autoptr and g_auto.

Thus the old libvirt coding pattern of

void dosomething(char *param) {
  char * foo;

  ...some code...

  foo = g_strdup_printf("Some string %s", param);
  if (something() < 0)
     goto cleanup;

  ... some more code... 


Can be replaced by something like

void dosomething(char *param) {
  g_autofree(char *) foo = NLL;

  ...some code...

  foo = g_strdup_printf("Some string %s", param);
  if (something() < 0)

  ... some more code... 

There are still some “gotchas” to be aware of. Care must be taken to ensure any variable declared with automatic cleanup is always initialized, otherwise the cleanup function will touch uninitialized stack data. If a pointer stored in an automatic cleanup variable needs to be returned to the caller of the method, the local variable must be NULLd out. Fortunately GLib provides a convenient helper g_steal_pointer for exactly this purpose.

The previous blog described how many goto jumps were eliminated by aborting on OOM, instead of trying to gracefully cleanup & report it. The remaining goto jumps were primarily for free’ing memory, closing file descriptors, and releasing mutexes, most of which can be eliminated with these cleanup functions.

The result is that the libvirt code can be dramatically simplified, which reduces the maint burden on libvirt contributors, allowing more time to be spent on coding features which matter to users. As an added benefit, in converting code over to use automatic cleanup functions we’ve fixed a number of memory leaks not previously detected, which reinforces the value of using this C extension.

Incidentally after this was introduced in libvirt last year, I suggested that QEMU also adopt use of automatic cleanup functions, since it has also mandated either GCC or CLang as the only supported compilers, and this was accepted.

Libvirt: adoption of GLib library to replace GNULIB & home grown code

Posted: January 30th, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | No Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Portability and API abstractions

Libvirt traditionally targeted the POSIX standard API but there are a number of difficulties with this. Much of POSIX is optional so can not be assumed to exist on every platform. Plenty of platforms are non-compliant with the spec, or have different behaviour in scenarios where the spec allowed for multiple interpretations. To deal with this libvirt used the GNULIB project which is a  copylib that attempt to fix POSIX non-compliance issues. It is very effective at this, but portability is only one of the problems with using POSIX APIs directly. It is a very low level API, so simple tasks like listening on a TCP socket require many complex API calls. Other APIs have poor designs by modern standards which make it easy for developers to introduce bugs. The malloc APIs are a particular case in point. As a result libvirt has created many higher level abstractions around the POSIX APIs. Looking at other modern programming languages though, such higher level abstractions are already a standard offering. This allows developers to focus on solving their application’s domain specific problems. Libvirt maintainers by contrast have spent a lot of time developing abstractions unrelated to virtualization such as object / class systems, DBus client APIs, hash tables / bitmaps, sockets / RPC systems, and much more. This is not a good use of limited resources in the long term.

Adoption of GLib

These problems are common to many applications / libraries that are written in C and thus there are a number of libraries that attempt to provide a high level “standard library”. The GLib library is one such effort from the GNOME project developers that has long been appealing. Some of libvirt’s internal APIs are inspired by those present in GLib, and it has been used by QEMU for a long time too. What prevented libvirt from using GLib in the past was the desire to catch, report and handle OOM errors. With the switch to aborting on OOM, the only blocker to use of GLib was eliminated.

The decision was thus made for libvirt to adopt the GLib library in the latter part of 2019. From the POV of application developers nothing will change in libvirt. The usage of GLib is purely internal, and so doesn’t leak into public API exposed from, which is remains compatible with what came before. In the case of QEMU/KVM hosts at least, there is also no change in what must be installed on hosts, since GLib was already a dependency of QEMU for many years. This will ultimately be a net win, as using GLib will eliminate other code in libvirt, reducing the installation footprint on aggregate between libvirt and QEMU.

With a large codebase such as libvirt’s, adopting GLib is a not as quick as flicking a switch. Some key pieces of libvirt functionality have been ported to use GLib APIs completely, while in other cases the work is going to be an incremental ongoing effort over a long time. This offers plenty of opportunities for new contributors to jump in and make useful changes which are fairly easily understood & straightforward to implement.

Removal of GNULIB

One of the anticipated benefits of using GLib was that it would be able to obsolete a lot of the portability work that GNULIB does. The GNULIB project is strongly entangled with autotools as a build system, so is a blocker to the adoption of a different build system in libvirt. There has thus been an ongoing effort to eliminate GNULIB modules from libvirt code. In many cases, GLib does indeed provide a direct replacement for the functionality needed. One of the surprises though, is that a very large portion of GNULIB was completely redundant given libvirt’s stated set of OS platform build targets. There is no need to consider portability to a wide variety of old buggy UNIX variants (Solaris, HPUX, AIX, and so on) for libvirt. After a final big push over the last few weeks, a patch series has been posted which completes the removal of GNULIB from libvirt, which will merge in the 6.1.0 release.

The work has been tested across all the platforms covered by libvirt CI, which means RHEL-7, 8, Fedora 30, 31, rawhide, Ubuntu 16.04, 18.04, Debian 9, 10, sid, FreeBSD 11, 12, macOS 10.14 with XCode 10.3 and XCode 11.3, and MinGW64. There are certainly libvirt users on platforms not covered by CI. Those using other modern Linux distros should not see problems if using GLibC, as the combination of RHEL, Debian & Ubuntu testing should expose any latent bugs. The more likely places to see regressions will be if people are using libvirt on other *BSDs, or older Linux distros. Usage of alternative C library implementations on Linux is also an unknown, since there is no CI coverage for this. Support for older Linux distros is explicitly not a goal for libvirt and the project will willingly break old platforms. Support for other modern non-Linux OS, however, is potentially interesting. What is stopping such platforms being considered explicitly by libvirt is lack of any contributors willing to help provide a CI setup and deal with fixing portability problems. IOW, libvirt is willing to entertain the idea of supporting additional modern OS platforms if contributors want to work with the project to make it happen. The same applies to Linux distros using a non-GLibC impl.