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Linux Kernel VM in NixOS


NixOS is quite flexible when it comes to creating VM. I haven't seen such an easy tool to create images. Basically, you define your system with nix configuration and then build it with a command. Nix already provides thousands of packages, all of which you can use in your VM.

There are a few disadvantages though. For example, as Nix is always tries to build a clean system you will recompiling packages on any change. This is super inconvenient even for a minimal configuration. But there's definitely a way around it.

The simplest VM

Create a directory and a simple vm.nix with following content:

{ pkgs, ... }:
  imports = [

  # Root with empty password
  users.extraUsers.root.password = "";
  users.mutableUsers = false;

  system.stateVersion = "22.11";

In the file above we imported a pair of Nix configuration files. The qemu-guest.nix is quite simple - it just adds most of the virtio kernel modules, so the system can work under QEMU. The qemu-guest.nix defines a Nix module. This module defines how NixOS configuration from vm.nix is build into virtual machine. The module defines many parameters to tweak the final VM, most of them is defined under virtualization. (see examples below). You can find both of these files in the nixpkgs repo (qemu-guest.nix and qemu-vm.nix).

Next, we set root password to be empty. The mutableUsers parameter tells Nix to have only those users which are defined in Nix configuration. In other words, your system will have only those users which are defined in vm.nix.

The last parameter is used for internal Nix states. Just leave it like this.

I also suggest to git init . to not lose any progress. This is actually enough to get a working VM. Compile it with following command:

           path to package    build     argument for build
           vvvvvvvvvvvvvvv     vv       vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

nix-build '<nixpkgs/nixos>' -A vm --arg configuration ./vm.nix

The command above will take quite some time, especially compiling the kernel. Eventually nix-build will create a ./result directory. The directory contains shell script to run VM:

qemu goes brrrrr....

To exit from the VM type poweroff command or CTRL + A followed by X to kill Qemu. I recommend to use poweroff as disk image can get corrupted and your guest system won't boot. Fix it by removing the nixos.qcow2 image in the current directory and running VM again.

Adding package to VM

This is as easy as:

environment.systemPackages = with pkgs; [

Much much easier than using Buildroot or any other tool. The system will have all necessary packages and will not be bloated as full-blown linux distribution.

Customizing packages

Adding overlay on top of the packages, to build with your local changes and the process becomes amazingly easy to get a VM with custom environment. In the following example I have a local copy of xfstests sources which I modified. With overlay I tell Nix to use my local source instead one defined in the nixpkgs repository.

  # Let's use local source for this package
  xfstests-overlay = (final: prev: {
    xfstests = prev.xfstests.overrideAttrs (prev: {
      version = "git";
      src = /home/alberand/Projects/xfstests-dev;
in {


nixpkgs.overlays = [

In Nix derivation is a package and overlay can be used to change build inputs of that package. With overlay you can change sources, version, metadata, build flags, append commands to build scripts etc.

In the following example the sources of the xfstests derivation points to local repository. The xfstests derivation is already defined in NixOS packages store. We don't need to define how to build sources or install them. Check out all the parameters set by this derivation.

# Custom local xfstests
xfstests-overlay = (final: prev: {
  xfstests = prev.xfstests.overrideAttrs (prev: {
    version = "git";
    src = fetchGit /home/alberand/xfstests-dev;

The prev keyword is like input for our overlay. In this case prev points to pkgs. The final keyword is like output for our overlay - the state of the pkgs after modifications. In this example output is not used directly.

This overlay takes xfstests derivation from the inputs and replaces version and src parameters of the derivation. When derivation is build new parameters will be used. The version can be exact major.minor or just git for not tagged git tree. The nix-build will tell you exact version if you don't know what to specify. There's many available fetchers to get sources.

If you use local sources somewhere in the flake you would probably need to specify --impure keyword. This will tell nix to not to be that strict with version of the sources.

Custom Kernel and .config

Linux Kernel is provided as derivation and has many helpful derivations already in store. To build kernel from your local source tree with local .config define following package in the let section:

kernel-custom = pkgs.linuxKernel.customPackage {
  # Note that nix uses this version to install relevant tools (e.g. flex).
  # You can specify 'git' not to change it every time you change the verions
  # but I haven't got it working properly. Nix will tell you which version
  # you should specify if you don't know.
  version = "6.2.0-rc2";
  configfile = /home/alberand/kernel/.config;
  src = fetchGit /home/alberand/kernel;

and then set this package as default kernel in the config section:

boot.kernelPackages = kernel-custom;

However, one problem with this setup is that any change to the .config or kernel tree triggers Nix to rebuild the kernel. The rebuild happens because Nix tries to make a clean build.

VM script which is created by nix-build command can use other pre-compiled kernel, not built by nix-build. To achieve this do the following:

  1. Remove package which was defined above and boot.kernelPackage setting. Fix the version of the kernel on the version of your tree. For example, if you are building somewhere v6.2 kernel you should do:

    kernelPackages = pkgs.linuxKernel.packagesFor pkgs.linuxKernel.kernels.linux_6_2;

    The version should correspond to your kernel as nix will build all modules for the version defined in nix configuration.

  2. Compile Linux kernel as you usually do to get bzImage. Don't forget to enable all necessary features for QEMU build. See features which Nix expects to be enable.

  3. Define hostname for VM and build it with nix-build

    networking.hostName = "vm";

  4. Export environment variable with path to your kernel and run the VM:

     $ export NIXPKGS_QEMU_KERNEL_vm=/path/to/arch/x86/boot/bzImage
     $ ./result/bin/run-vm-vm

    The name is NIXPKGS_QEMU_KERNEL_<networking.hostName>

I've tried to use CCache with Nix to make its kernel build faster, but that doesn't seem to work yet. Note that it highly depend on your needs, the modules can be loaded afterwords when VM already booted. I was looking for a way to quickly modify the kernel and fire up the VM with testsuite.

Network and SSH

Create interface on the host side, assuming you are on NixOS (this is not for vm.nix):

# This goes into your host configuration.nix
networking.interfaces.tap0 = {
  name = "tap0";
  virtual = true;
  virtualType = "tap";
  virtualOwner = "alberand";

networking.interfaces.tap0 = {
  ipv4 = {
    addresses = [{
      address = "";
      prefixLength = 16;

Then set IP static address for VM and enable SSH server (in vm.nix):

# This goes into your vm.nix
networking.interfaces.eth1 = {
  ipv4.addresses = [{
    address = "";
    prefixLength = 24;
services.openssh.enable = true;

If you are not on NixOS, try following my guide on setting up host network with QEMU.

USB and Disks in VM

Disks and partitions

To share partition with VM add an option to Qemu:

virtualisation.qemu.options = [
  "-hdc /dev/sda4"
  "-hdd /dev/sda5"

Or if you need just a dummy space you can add pre-allocated disk image or ask Nix to create an empty partitions:

# Nix will create 2 virtual disks
virtualisation.emptyDiskImages = [ 8192 4096 ]; # Create 2 virtual disk with 8G and 4G

# Append images as partitions to VM
virtualisation.qemu.options.drives = [
  { name = "vdc"; file = "${toString ./test.img}"; }
  { name = "vdb"; file = "${toString ./scratch.img}"; }

USB devices

To pass a USB device to VM there's three things need to be done:

  • Find out device Bus, Port, Vendor ID, and Product ID
  • Configure permission to the USB device
  • Add configuration to QEMU

Device BUS and PORT. we need to find out metadata of the device to identify it. This can be done with lsusb utility. Before connecting your device run lsusb, then connect the device and run it again. Compare to list to find out what's new. The name of the device could also give a hint (like manufacturer name or that it is keyboard). Save device Bus, Port, Vendor ID, and Product ID:

       bus        port    vend prod
       vvv        vvv     vvvv vvvv

   Bus 004 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0003 Linux Foundation 3.0 root hub
   Bus 003 Device 124: ID 0424:2514 Microchip Technology, Inc. (formerly SMSC) USB 2.0 Hub
   Bus 003 Device 123: ID 413c:2113 Dell Computer Corp. KB216 Wired Keyboard
   Bus 003 Device 122: ID 03f0:0941 HP, Inc X500 Optical Mouse
   Bus 003 Device 121: ID 1a40:0101 Terminus Technology Inc. Hub
   Bus 003 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0002 Linux Foundation 2.0 root hub
>> Bus 002 Device 003: ID 8564:1000 Transcend Information, Inc. JetFlash
   Bus 002 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0003 Linux Foundation 3.0 root hub
   Bus 001 Device 006: ID 1b3f:2002 Generalplus Technology Inc. 808 Camera
   Bus 001 Device 002: ID 8087:0032 Intel Corp. AX210 Bluetooth
   Bus 001 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0002 Linux Foundation 2.0 root hub

Note that Bus and Device number could change depending on which USB port you use!

Permissions. To configure permissions since only root has access to USB devices by default. To achieve this we can use udev. This utility is responsible for preparing device for use when hardware is connected - for example loading kernel driver. We need to create a rule to tell udev make our device accessible for our user. I recommend using vendorid and productid attributes to always uniquely identify the device:

# 32G flash drive
# From lsusb:
# Bus 002 Device 003: ID 8564:1000 Transcend Information, Inc. JetFlash
#                                   vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv change vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
#                                   vvvv                     vvvv                       vvvvvvvv
SUBSYSTEMS=="usb", ATTR{idVendor}=="8564", ATTR{idProduct}=="1000", MODE="0660", OWNER="alberand"

Add this rule to /etc/udev/rules.d/99-vm.rules or on NixOS to services.udev.extraRules. Lastly, let's reload the rules so new rule is applied:

$ sudo udevadm control --reload-rules && sudo udevadm trigger
$ # Check that owner changed (path could differ!):
$ ls -la /dev/bus/usb/002
total 0
drwxr-xr-x 2 root     root       80 Apr  2 14:36 .
drwxr-xr-x 6 root     root      120 Mar 24 11:55 ..
crw-rw-r-- 1 root     root 189, 128 Apr  2 14:38 001
crw-rw---- 1 alberand root 189, 130 Apr  2 14:39 003

For more details on udev see arch wiki.

QEMU Configuration. Add one of the following line with changed parameters to virtualisation.qemu.options:

"-usb -device usb-host,hostbus=2,hostport=4"
# or
"-usb -device usb-host,vendorid=0x8564,productid=0x1000"

Boot your VM and check that device is there with lsusb, it should have same vendor and product IDs.

Create a bootable ISO

Time to deploy VM to cloud or other machine. This is as easy as:

$ nix-shell -p nixos-generators --run "nixos-generate --format iso \
    --configuration ./vm.nix -o result"

Test it with:

$ nix-shell -p qemu
$ qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -m 256 -cdrom result/iso/nixos-*.iso

Flash it to disk:

                              your disk
$ dd if=result/iso/*.iso of=/dev/sdX status=progress
$ sync

The nixos-generators packages have many output formats. You can create AWS images, docker containers, iso, google compute cloud images etc. Note, however, that not every configuration would work for every output format. For example, if you define that the image is VM guest (with imports and virtualisation. params) it won't probably boot on bare metal without manual fixes.

Tips & tricks to configure the VM

Run script after boot

Example of systemd service started on boot. You can run some tests with it and then call shutdown in postStop.

systemd.services. = {
  enable = true;
  serviceConfig = {
    Type = "oneshot";
    StandardOutput = "tty";
    StandardError = "tty";
    User = "root";
    Group = "root";
    WorkingDirectory = "/root";
  after = [ "network.target" "network-online.target" "local-fs.target" ];
  wants = [ "network.target" "network-online.target" "local-fs.target" ];
  wantedBy = [ "multi-user.target" ];
  postStop = ''
    echo "Bye bye"
  script = ''
    echo "Hello I do work"

    # Beep beep... Human... back to work
    echo -ne '\007'

Environment variables

To define environment variable use following expression:

environment.variables.NAME = "thisisname";

My setup

I was trying to create a VM which I start with one command, the VM takes kernel from the current working directory and runs xfstests against it.

Then, I decided to write a script to add more features. Now in my working directory I have vmtest command. This commands takes configuration from .vmtest in the current dir.

The configuration contains path to kernel I want to run, list of modules to load, suite of xfstests to run, and QEMU options such as disk partitions. This will probably grow further as I will need to also will need to change versions of xfstests and other packages. You can find my project here.

Full configuration

To compile:

nix-build '<nixpkgs/nixos>' -A vm --arg configuration ./vm.nix

To run:



{ config, modulesPath, pkgs, lib, ... }: let

# Custom local xfstests
xfstests-overlay = (final: prev: {
  xfstests = prev.xfstests.overrideAttrs (prev: {
    version = "git";
    src = fetchGit /home/alberand/xfstests-dev;

# Custom remote xfstests
xfstests-overlay-remote = (final: prev: {
  xfstests = prev.xfstests.overrideAttrs (prev: {
    version = "git";
    src = pkgs.fetchFromGitHub {
      owner = "alberand";
      repo = "xfstests";
      rev = "6e6fb1c6cc619afb790678f9530ff5c06bb8f24c";
      sha256 = "OjkO7wTqToY1/U8GX92szSe7mAIL+61NoZoBiU/pjPE=";

kernel-custom = pkgs.linuxKernel.customPackage {
  # Note that nix uses this version to install relevant tools (e.g. flex).
  # You can specify 'git' not to change it every time you change the verions
  # but I haven't got it working properly. Nix will tell you which version
  # you should specify if you don't know.
  version = "6.2.0-rc2";
  configfile = /home/alberand/kernel/.config;
  src = fetchGit /home/alberand/kernel;

  imports = [
    (modulesPath + "/profiles/qemu-guest.nix")
    (modulesPath + "/virtualisation/qemu-vm.nix")

  boot = {
    kernelParams = ["console=ttyS0,115200n8" "console=ttyS0"];
    consoleLogLevel = lib.mkDefault 7;
    # This is happens before systemd
    postBootCommands = "echo 'Not much to do before systemd :)' > /dev/kmsg";
    crashDump.enable = true;

    # Set my custom kernel
    # kernelPackages = kernel-custom;
    # or pin the version
    kernelPackages = pkgs.linuxKernel.packagesFor pkgs.linuxKernel.kernels.linux_6_0;

  # Auto-login with empty password
  users.extraUsers.root.initialHashedPassword = "";
  services.getty.autologinUser = lib.mkDefault "root";

  networking.firewall.enable = false;
  networking.hostName = "vm";
  networking.useDHCP = false;
  services.getty.helpLine = ''
    Log in as "root" with an empty password.
    If you are connect via serial console:
    Type CTRL-A X to exit QEMU

  # Not needed in VM
  documentation.doc.enable = false;
  documentation.man.enable = false;
  documentation.nixos.enable = false;
  documentation.info.enable = false;
  programs.bash.enableCompletion = false;
  programs.command-not-found.enable = false;

  # Do something after systemd started
  systemd.services.foo = {
    serviceConfig.Type = "oneshot";
    wantedBy = [ "multi-user.target" ];
    script = ''
      echo 'This service runs right near login' > /dev/kmsg

  # Setup envirionment
  environment.variables.TERM = "xterm";

  virtualisation = {
    diskSize = 20000; # MB
    memorySize = 4096; # MB
    cores = 4;
    writableStoreUseTmpfs = false;
    useDefaultFilesystems = true;
    # Run qemu in the terminal not in Qemu GUI (to exit CTRL + A -> X)
    graphics = false;
    # Create 2 virtual disk with 8G and 4G (run 'lsblk' in VM)
    emptyDiskImages = [ 8192 4096 ];

    qemu = {
      options = [
        # I want to try a kernel which I compiled somewhere
        #"-kernel /home/user/my-linux/arch/x86/boot/bzImage"
        #"-kernel /home/alberand/my-linux/arch/x86/boot/bzImage"
        # OR
        # You can set env. variable not to change configuration everytime:
        #   export NIXPKGS_QEMU_KERNEL_vm=/path/to/arch/x86/boot/bzImage
        # The name is NIXPKGS_QEMU_KERNEL_<networking.hostName>

        # Append real partitions to VM
        # "-hdc /dev/sda4"
        # "-hdd /dev/sda5"

        # better handling of console interface
        "-serial mon:stdio"

      # Append images as partition to VM
      # Don't forget to create images. For example, with:
      #   xfs_io -f -c "falloc 0 10g" test.img
      # OR much slower version:
      #   dd if=/dev/null of=test.img bs=4k count=2450
      drives = [
        #{ name = "vdc"; file = "${toString ./test.img}"; }
        #{ name = "vdb"; file = "${toString ./scratch.img}"; }

    sharedDirectories = {
      # fstests = {
      #  source = "/home/alberand/Projects/xfstests-dev";
      #  target = "/root/xfstests";
      # };

  # Add packages to VM
  environment.systemPackages = with pkgs; [

  # Apply overlay on the package (use different src as we replaced 'src = ')
  nixpkgs.overlays = [

  # xfstests related
  users.users.paul = {
    isNormalUser  = true;
    description  = "Test user";

  # This value determines the NixOS release from which the default
  # settings for stateful data, like file locations and database versions
  # on your system were taken. It‘s perfectly fine and recommended to leave
  # this value at the release version of the first install of this system.
  # Before changing this value read the documentation for this option
  # (e.g. man configuration.nix or on https://nixos.org/nixos/options.html).
  system.stateVersion = "22.11"; # Did you read the comment?


Hey👋 I'm Andrey. In this blog I post my personal short tutorials or interesting technical notes. Over the day I work as a Software Engineer developing and testing Linux filesystems. I love open source and use free software mainly. Btw I use Arch (NixOS soon). Subscribe for updates on: