An Ubuntu Desktop on macOS Catalina
The Focal Fossa nestles in on Santa Catalina Island

Recently, I discovered that QEMU is available on macOS, with support for Apple’s native Hypervisor framework. This is particularly exciting because I have to spin-up Linux VMs on macs at my day job, and I’ve wanted to get some more hands-on experience with QEMU. QEMU runs VMs quite efficiently and provides a robust set of tools for creating, managing, and running virtual machines. Additionally, it’s open-source and not controlled by Oracle. I also recommend checking out xhyve, a port of FreeBSDs hypervisor bhyve to macOS, and multipass, a cross-platform application for running Linux VMs.

Tutorial

This is a quick run-through on how to create and run a virtual Ubuntu 20.04 desktop machine on macOS Catalina using either QEMU 5.1 via Homebrew or QEMU 5.0 via MacPorts. This guide assumes you have familiarity with the command-line, virtual machines, ssh, port-forwarding, and graphical Linux installers.

  1. Install either Homebrew or MacPorts according to their installation instructions.

  2. Pull down the qemu package.

    Homebrew
    $ brew install qemu
    MacPorts
    $ sudo port install qemu
  3. Create a 60 Gigabyte image to use as the VMs hard disk.

    $ qemu-img create -f qcow2 ubuntu2004.qcow2 60G
    Formatting 'ubuntu2004.qcow2', fmt=qcow2 size=64424509440 cluster_size=65536 lazy_refcounts=off refcount_bits=16
  4. Download the Ubuntu 20.04 desktop installer.

    $ curl -L -o ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso https://releases.ubuntu.com/20.04/ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso
      % Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                     Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed
    100 2656M  100 2656M    0     0  8070k      0  0:05:37  0:05:37 --:--:-- 7717k
  5. Verify the ISO by following Canonical’s detailed tutorial.

  6. Boot the ISO installer

    $ qemu-system-x86_64 \
      -accel hvf \
      -cpu host,-rtdscp \
      -smp 2 \
      -m 4G \
      -usb \
      -device usb-tablet \
      -vga virtio \
      -display default,show-cursor=on \
      -device virtio-net,netdev=vmnic -netdev user,id=vmnic \
      -audiodev coreaudio,id=coreaudio \
      -device ich9-intel-hda -device hda-output,audiodev=coreaudio \
      -cdrom ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso \
      -drive file=ubuntu2004.qcow2,if=virtio

    That’s a long command-line, so I’ve broken it down option-by-option below. For more details, refer to the QEMU System Emulation User’s Guide.

    -accel hvf

    Accelerate the machine by taking advantage of the macOS hypervisor, hvf. kvm is available for Linux and whpx for Windows.

    -cpu host,-rtdscp

    Due to this bug in Apple’s Hypervisor framework, the RTDSCP virtualization feature on my mac’s CPU needs to be disabled. The host keyword enables CPU passthrough, while the -rtdscp option disables the troublesome RTDSCP feature. If you experience issues due to host passthrough, you can use the default cpu option, qemu64, which emulates the CPU instead of passing through.

    -smp 2

    Allocate two threads for the VM.

    -m 4G

    Allocate 4 GB of RAM for the VM.

    -usb

    Enable a USB bus.

    -device usb-tablet

    Avoid having to grab the mouse, making it easier to switch between interacting with the VM and the host.

    -vga virtio

    Use the virtio display card.

    -display default,show-cursor=on

    Don’t hide the cursor.

    -device virtio-net,netdev=vmnic -netdev user,id=vmnic

    Pass-through networking with virtio.[1]

    -audiodev coreaudio,id=coreaudio

    Add a backend audio driver for Apple’s Core Audio.

    -device ich9-intel-hda -device hda-output,audiodev=coreaudio

    Add an audio bus and an output device utilizing the coreaudio driver created previously. This enables audio output from the guest.

    -cdrom ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso

    Attach the Boot ISO in the VM as a CD.

    -drive file=ubuntu2004.qcow2,if=virtio

    Attach the hard-disk created earlier, using virtio drivers.

    The virtio options effectively pass-through directly to the hardware instead of emulating physical devices. Skipping this layer of emulation can significantly improve VM performance.

  7. Complete the installation in the virtual machine window which should appear after starting the VM.

  8. After the installation, run the virtual machine from the hard disk.

    $ qemu-system-x86_64 \
      -accel hvf \
      -cpu host,-rtdscp \
      -smp 2 \
      -m 4G \
      -device usb-tablet \
      -vga virtio \
      -display default,show-cursor=on \
      -usb \
      -device virtio-net,netdev=vmnic -netdev user,id=vmnic \
      -audiodev coreaudio,id=coreaudio \
      -device ich9-intel-hda -device hda-output,audiodev=coreaudio \
      -drive file=ubuntu2004.qcow2,if=virtio

SSH

It’s a small step away to run the virtual machine headless and access it through ssh.

  1. Run the virtual machine headless, forwarding ssh over port 9001 on the host.

    $ qemu-system-x86_64 \
      -accel hvf \
      -cpu host,-rtdscp \
      -smp 2 \
      -m 4G \
      -device usb-tablet \
      -usb \
      -nographic \
      -device virtio-net,netdev=vmnic \
      -netdev user,id=vmnic,hostfwd=tcp:127.0.0.1:9001-:22 \
      -drive file=ubuntu2004.qcow2,if=virtio
  2. Enable SSH in the guest OS.

  3. ssh into the machine from the host.

    $ ssh -p 9001 localhost

Conclusion

You should now be able to easily build and run Linux desktop virtual machines with QEMU on macOS.