A minimal KVM example

kvm-hello-world is a very simple example program to demonstrate the use of KVM. It acts as a very simple VM host, and runs a trivial real-mode program in a VM. I tested it on Intel processors with the VMX hardware virtualization extensions. It might work on AMD processors with AMD-V.


KVM is the Linux kernel subsystem that provides access to hardware virtualization features of the processor. On x86, this means Intel's VMX or AMD's AMD-V. VMX is also known as VT-x; VT-x seems to be the marketing term, whereas VMX is used in the Intel x86 manual set.

In practice, KVM is often employed via qemu. In that case, KVM provides virtualization of the CPU and a few other key hardware components intimately associated with the CPU, such as the interrupt controller. qemu emulates all the devices making up the rest of a typical x86 system. qemu predates KVM, and can also operate independently of it, performing CPU virtualization in software instead.

But if you want to learn about the details of LVM, qemu is not a great resource. It's a big project with a lot of features and support for emulating many devices.

There's another project that is much more approachable: kvmtool. Like qemu, kvmtool does full-system emulation. unlike qemu, it is deliberately minimal, emulating just a few devices. But while kvmtool is impressive demonstration of how simple and clean a KVM-based full-system emulator can be, it's still far more than a bare-bones example.

So, as no such example seems to exist, I wrote one by studying api.txt and the kvmtool sources.


The code is straightforward. It:

  • Opens /dev/kvm and checks the version.
  • Makes a KVM_CREATE_VM call to creates a VM.
  • Uses mmap to allocate some memory for the VM.
  • Makes a KVM_CREATE_VCPU call to creates a VCPU within the VM, and mmaps its control area.
  • Sets the FLAGS and CS:IP registers of the VCPU.
  • Copies a few bytes of real mode code into the VM memory.
  • Makes a KVM_RUN call to execute the VCPU.
  • Checks that the VCPU execution had the expected result.

A couple of aspects are worth noting:

The test code runs in real mode because there is far less set-up needed to enter real mode, compared to protected mode (where it is necessary to set up the control registers and data structures to support segmentation, even with paging disabled), or 64-bit mode (where is it necessary to set up all the control register and data structures to support paging).

Note that initial Intel VMX extensions did not implement support for real mode. In fact, they restricted VMX guests to paged protected mode. VM hosts were expected to emulate the unsupported modes in software, only employing VMX when a guest had entered paged protected mode (KVM does not implement such emulation support; I assume it is delegated to qemu). Later VMX implementations (since Westmere aka Nehalem-C in 2010) include Unrestricted Guest Mode: support for virtualization of all x86 modes in hardware.

The code run in the VM code exits with a HLT instruction. There are many ways to cause a VM exit, so why use a HLT instruction? The most obvious way might be the VMCALL (or VMMCALL on AMD) instruction, which it specifically intended to call out to the hypervisor. But it turns out the KVM reserves VMCALL/VMMCALL for its internal hypercall mechanism, without notifying the userspace VM host program of the VM exits caused by these instructions. So we need some other way to trigger a VM exit. HLT is convenient because it is a single-byte instruction.