How to use the qemu-bridge-helper on Debian 10

If you use the libvirt virtualisation libraries, then you will be familiar with the “user session”. This feature lets you provision virtual machines to run under a regular, unprivileged user account.

The user session is used by GNOME Boxes, and can also be managed from Virtual Machine Manager.

The main downside to this setup is that a regular user can only access a very limited range of networking options. The last time that I mentioned this in a blog post, a reader pointed out that you can actually use qemu-bridge-helper to provide bridged networking to unprivileged virtual machines.

Today I finally tried this out, and it worked really well. With a bit of configuration, you can extend proper networking to this type of VM.

The host

I’m running a graphical Debian 10 desktop, with a few basic virtualisation packages.

  • gnome-boxes for creating VM’s as a local user. This depends on libvirt-daemon, which is enough to host VM’s on the system.
  • virt-manager for a more advanced graphical interface.

The tool that I’m writing about today is qemu-bridge-helper, which is in the qemu-system-common package.

After installation, you will also need to ensure that libvirtd is running.

$ systemctl enable libvirtd.service
$ systemctl start libvirtd.service

Set up a bridge

Libvirt ships with a basic network bridge configuration, you just need to enable it.

Command-line method

Start the default network bridge, and configure it to run on startup.

$ sudo virsh net-autostart --network default
$ sudo virsh net-start --network default

Once this is set up, you should see the bridge virbr0, reporting the IP range 192.168.122.1/24.

$ ip addr show virbr0
3: virbr0: <NO-CARRIER,BROADCAST,MULTICAST,UP> mtu 1500 qdisc noqueue state DOWN group default qlen 1000
    link/ether xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx brd ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff
    inet 192.168.122.1/24 brd 192.168.122.255 scope global virbr0
       valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever

Graphical method

First, open up Virtual Machine Manager, and authenticate. Right click on QEMU/KVM, and select Details.

Under Virtual NetworksdefaultAutostart, check On Boot, then click Apply.

Setting up qemu-bridge-helper

Create the file /etc/qemu/bridge.conf with the content:

allow virbr0

Restrict the permissions of this file to make sure it can’t be edited by regular users.

# chown root:root /etc/qemu/bridge.conf
# chmod 0640 /etc/qemu/bridge.conf

Add setuid to the qemu-bridge-helper binary.

# chmod u+s /usr/lib/qemu/qemu-bridge-helper

If you do not correctly set this last step, then you will receive the following error when you attempt to connect a VM to the bridge:

Error starting domain: internal error: /usr/lib/qemu/qemu-bridge-helper --use-vnet --br=virbr0 --fd=28: failed to communicate with bridge helper: Transport endpoint is not connected
stderr=failed to create tun device: Operation not permitted

Setting up the VM

Create a virtual machine, either though GNOME Boxes or Virtual Machine Manager. I am using a CentOS VM as an example here, but the guest platform is not particularly important.

Using Virtual Machine Manage, change the network card to the “shared network” virbr0.

The graphical configuration above is equivalent to the following libvirt domain XML, as below.

<interface type='bridge'>
  <mac address='52:54:00:08:5a:7c'/>
  <source bridge='virbr0'/>
  <model type='virtio'/>
  <address type='pci' domain='0x0000' bus='0x00' slot='0x03' function='0x0'/>
</interface>

Result

After restarting the network interface in the guest, I was able to ping the the guest from the host and vice-versa.

This is a significant improvement from “user-mode” networking, which does not facilitate host-to-guest and guest-to-guest communication.

The default virbr0 bridge uses an internal subnet, so the guest here is still inaccessible from the wider LAN. If this doesn’t match your setup, then you can use the same technique to connect unprivileged virtual machines to another bridge of your choice.

Further reading

I had to adapt some paths, user accounts and package names to get this working on Debian. The sources I used are:

libvirt: Migrate a VM from qemu:///session to qemu:///system

In recent versions of the libvirt virtualisation libraries, you to create and manage virtual machines as a regular user, using the qemu:///session connection.

This is great, but the networking is quite limited. I found that machines defined in Gnome Boxes could not speak to each-other, and that libvirt commands for networking were unavailable.

For this reason, I’ve written this quick guide for booting up an existing same VM image under the qemu:///system instance, which is faster than re-installing the machine. Unlike most sorts of migrations, this leaves the disk image at the same location on the same host machine.

There’s many different ways to do VM’s in Linux. This setup will be useful only if you use libvirt/kvm using qcow2 images on Debian. As always, consider doing a backup before trying new things.

Configurations

First, find your virtual machine in virsh, and dump its configuration to a text file in your home directory, as a regular user.

$ virsh list --all
 Id    Name                           State
----------------------------------------------------
 -     foo-machine                    shut off
$ virsh dumpxml > foo-machine.xml

Now remove the VM definition from your user:

$ virsh undefine foo-machine
Domain foo-machine has been undefined

Import the definitions into virsh as the root user:

$ sudo virsh define foo-machine.xml 
Domain foo-machin defined from foo-machine.xml

Attempt to start the new VM definition. Depending on where the disk image is, expect an error.

$ sudo virsh start foo-machine

Disk images

The disk image needs to be accessible to the libvirt-qemu user. There’s two basic ways to achieve this: Re-permission the directories above it, or move it.

I chose to just re-permission it, since it’s not an issue to have world-readable directories on this particular box:

$ cat foo-machine.xml | grep source
      <source file='/home/example/.local/share/gnome-boxes/images/foo-machine'/>

This one-liner outputs the commands to run to make a directory work-navigable:

$ dir=`pwd`; while [ "$dir" != "/" ]; do echo "chmod o+x,g+x \"$dir\""; dir=`dirname $dir`; done
chmod o+x,g+x "/home/example/.local/share/gnome-boxes/images"
chmod o+x,g+x "/home/example/.local/share/gnome-boxes"
chmod o+x,g+x "/home/example/.local/share"
chmod o+x,g+x "/home/example/.local"
chmod o+x,g+x "/home/example"
chmod o+x,g+x "/home"

And the user account needs to be able to write as well:

$ sudo chown libvirt-qemu /home/example/.local/share/gnome-boxes/images/foo-machine

Once you have the permissions right, the VM should start, using the same command as before:

$ sudo virsh start foo-machine

More importantly, you can now hook up virt-manager and view your machine on qemu:///system, allowing you to configure the VM with any network settings you need.