Introduction to Qemu


Through my whole career and also during my studies I have always resorted to VirtualBox for my personal virtualization needs and VMWare for my customers'.

Qemu has been under my peripheral vision for a few years now but since I was always happy with VirtualBox I hadn’t really had a need to look somewhere else.

So, I’m still happy with VirtualBox but I now want to give Qemu a try, so here are my findings.

Getting Started

It seems like the fastest way to get started with qemu is from the command line, even though there are plenty of options out there to get a GUI running; however, I stopped being afraid of the terminal years ago so let’s just give this a go.


We first are going to need a disk image, somewhere to store our data once the VM is up & running unless, of course, we only want to run a “live” distro.

The command for creating a new disk image with qemu is the following:

$ qemu-img create [--object objectdef] [-q] [-f fmt] [-b backing_file] [-F backing_fmt] [-u] [-o options] filename [size]

Adapting it to our needs, we end up with this:

$ qemu-img create -f raw the-image.img 20G

Let’s take a look at the arguments:

  • The -f raw specifies the format that we want to give to this image. I have chosen raw because it gives hte most performance and it suits my needs. Here in the documentation you can take a look at the rest of the image formats available for qemu
  • the-image.img is simply the filename of our image
  • 20G is the size of the image


I have downloaded an ISO with ArchLinux in it but please feel free to use your favorite distro for this example.

$ qemu-system-x86_64 -m 1G -drive file=the-image.img,format=raw -boot d -cdrom archlinux.iso

Looking into the argumets passed to qemu, we see that

  • We are assigning 1GB of RAM to the VM via the parameter -m 1G

  • We are specifying the base disk via the -drive parameter. The documentation shows in their example to simply pass the -hda parameter followed by the image name but in my case resulted in a warning saying the following:

    WARNING: Image format was not specified for 'winxp.img' and probing guessed raw.
             Automatically detecting the format is dangerous for raw images, write operations on block 0 will be restricted.
             Specify the 'raw' format explicitly to remove the restrictions.

    And it’s better to tackle warnings head-on.

  • The -boot d option tells the virual machine to boot from the cdrom (floppy (a), hard disk (c), CD-ROM (d), network (n))

  • Finally, the -cdrom option tricks the virtual machine into thinking that archlinux.iso is the cdrom mounted in the system

That would be the end of it, actually. The networking part we can skip and qemu will by default assing a vNIC to the machine, bridged to the host and give it access to Internet, so you can get cracking right away.

Final thoughts

Being used to the clicky workflow of VirtualBox, using qemu feels just a bit daunting in the beginning but it’s only from all the steps that one could think of when creating a virtual machine: assing CPUs, RAM, Networking, Storage, etc. and having to do all that from the console is, well, a bit of a pain. But all the pain is gone once you script the manual steps away.

Happy hacking!

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