Virtualizing Raspbian (or any ARM/Linux distro) headless using QEMU

For testing or development it can be very useful to have a distribution that usually runs on an embedded ARM board such as the Raspberry Pi run right on your machine (that isn't ARM) using a virtual machine.

QEMU provides excellent support for emulation of the ARM architecture (both 32 and 64-bit) and can emulate many different real ARM boards.

Why not use QEMU's "raspi2" machine for emulation?

QEMU comes with a raspi2 machine. It emulates the GPU's framebuffer, HWRNG, UART, GPIO and SD controller.

Spot something missing? It doesn't implement USB, which makes it useless for headless and graphical use as you can plug in neither a network connection nor a keyboard or mouse.

(Update 2021-01-08: QEMU has apparently added raspi USB support in versions 5.1.0 onward, so you could skip much of the setup detailed here if doing this from scratch.)

If you still want to use it, this guide will only help you halfway but here are the qemu parameters:

-M raspi2b -kernel kernel7l.img -dtb bcm2709-rpi-2-b.dtb -append "root=/dev/mmcblk0 rw console=ttyAMA0"

The plan

Instead of (poorly) emulating a real piece of hardware, QEMU also has a virt machine [1] that is designed for virtualization. It gives you a modern system with PCI and also works out-of-the-box with Linux without providing a Device Tree (QEMU generates one internally).

The most straightforward way of getting network and disk into such a VM is to use virtio-net and virtio-disk respectively, which is what we'll be doing.

Since virtio requires kernel support, chances are the Raspberry Pi kernel wouldn't work anyway, so we'll be using a different one.

I picked Arch Linux ARM's armv7 kernel from here, though any other should work just as well provided it comes with the appropriate modules. To load the virtio modules during boot we'll require an initramfs, but more on that later.

Extracting Raspbian's root filesystem into a virtual disk image

Start by downloading Raspbian from the Raspberry Pi website, then run the script below or follow the steps manually.

The script will create a copy of the image file, expand the image and its partition to 10 gigabytes, mount the partition using a loop device and make two adjustments:

  • Remove both SD card partitions from /etc/fstab, these don't exist inside the VM and we will be mounting the rootfs ourselves

  • Disable several startup services that do not work inside the VM

After unmounting the partition it will convert the filesystem into a qcow2 format image for use with QEMU.

#!/bin/bash -e
[ -f $input ]

mkdir mnt
cp --reflink=auto $input source.img
truncate -s 10G source.img
echo ", +" | sfdisk -N 2 source.img
dev=$(sudo losetup -fP --show source.img)
[ -n "$dev" ]
sudo resize2fs ${dev}p2
sudo mount ${dev}p2 ./mnt -o rw
sudo sed '/^PARTUUID/d' -i ./mnt/etc/fstab
sudo rm -f \
        ./mnt/etc/systemd/system/{hciuart,dphys-swapfile}.service \
sudo umount ./mnt
sudo chmod a+r ${dev}p2
qemu-img convert -O qcow2 ${dev}p2 rootfs.qcow2
sudo losetup -d $dev
rm source.img; rmdir mnt

The kernel and initramfs


Conveniently the linux-armv7 package is just a tar archive, so you can extract the kernel executable using:

tar -xvf linux-armv7*.pkg.tar.xz --strip-components=1 boot/zImage

Making an initramfs

Since virtio support is not compiled into the kernel and the root filesytem is missing modules for the exact kernel we'll be using (maybe copying them would've been easier?), we need to write an initramfs that can load these modules prior to mounting the rootfs.

Fortunately the Gentoo Wiki has a great article on making a custom one yourself. The basic idea is to extract the required kernel modules into the initramfs, whose init script loads the modules, mounts the root filesystem and actually boots.

The script shown below does the following steps:

  • Extract kernel modules from package

  • Delete some that we won't be needing and take a lot of space (optional)

  • Download and install a statically-linked busybox executable

  • Create the init script

  • Pack contents into a cpio archive as required by the Linux kernel

Using a virtio disk and network adapter requires loading the virtio-pci, virtio-blk, virtio-net modules. If you need any more the init script can easily be changed accordingly.

#!/bin/bash -e
pkg=$(echo linux-armv7-*.pkg.tar.xz)
[ -f "$pkg" ]

mkdir initrd; pushd initrd
mkdir bin dev mnt proc sys
tar -xaf "../$pkg" --strip-components=1 usr/lib/modules
rm -rf lib/modules/*/kernel/{sound,drivers/{net/{wireless,ethernet},media,gpu,iio,staging,scsi}}
wget -O bin/busybox
cat >init <<"SCRIPT"
#!/bin/busybox sh
busybox mount -t proc none /proc
busybox mount -t sysfs none /sys
busybox mount -t devtmpfs none /dev

for mod in virtio-pci virtio-blk virtio-net; do
        busybox modprobe $mod

busybox mount -o rw /dev/vda /mnt || exit 1

busybox umount /proc
busybox umount /sys
busybox umount /dev

exec busybox switch_root /mnt /sbin/init
chmod +x bin/busybox init
bsdtar --format newc --uid 0 --gid 0 -cf - -- * | gzip -9 >../initrd.gz
popd; rm -r initrd

Booting the virtual machine

With the initramfs built, we have all parts needed to actually run the VM: [2]

qemu-system-arm -M virt,highmem=off -m 2048 -smp 4 -kernel zImage -initrd initrd.gz \
        -drive file=rootfs.qcow2,if=virtio -nic user,model=virtio \
        -append "console=ttyAMA0" -nographic
After roughly a minute of booting you should be greeted by
Raspbian GNU/Linux 10 raspberrypi ttyAMA0 and a login prompt.

Further steps

This virtualization approach should work for just about any ARM/Linux distribution. I have tested it with Raspbian, Void Linux and Arch Linux ARM (whose rootfs even works without any modifications).

To ensure the kernel performs as expected beyond basic tasks, it's a good idea to extract the modules from the linux-armv7 package into the guest rootfs.

As with any VM, you can use the full extent of QEMU's features to e.g.:

  • attach an USB controller (-device usb-ehci or nec-usb-xhci)

  • ..SCSI controller (-device virtio-scsi)

  • ..Audio input/output (-device usb-audio)

  • or even enable graphical output (-device VGA)


With a few adjustments in the right places, this guide also works to emulate an AArch64 kernel and userland. I wrote this up in a newer article.