Symbolic Execution Extensions for KVM

This document presents extensions to the Linux KVM virtualization interface that enable building multi-path analysis tools, such as symbolic execution engines. In a nutshell, we built, a shared library that implements the S2E symbolic execution engine. This library can be preloaded into a target hypervisor process. The library intercepts and emulates calls to /dev/kvm to provide symbolic execution capabilities to vanilla hypervisors like QEMU.

We will (1) provide an overview of how KVM works, (2) show how to build a library that emulates vanilla KVM using a dynamic binary translator as a CPU emulation engine, (3) how to add symbolic execution capabilities on top of that, and (4) provide a reference of the new KVM extensions so that you can integrate S2E into your own hypervisors.

Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM)

The Linux kernel exposes the KVM interface through the /dev/kvm file. A program (that we call a KVM client) that wants to create a VM opens that file and sends commands to it using the ioctl interface. The most important commands are creating and setting the state of the virtual CPU (KVM_CREATE_VM, KVM_CREATE_VCPU, KVM_SET_REGS and its friends), registering guest physical memory (KVM_SET_USER_MEMORY_REGION), starting the VM (KVM_RUN), and injecting interrupts in the guest (KVM_INTERRUPT). A detailed list of commands is available in the Linux kernel documentation. The figure below shows the architecture of a standard KVM setup.


It is up to the KVM client (running in user space) to emulate virtual hardware, as the KVM kernel driver only provides a virtual CPU. The clients are responsible for handling I/O, memory-mapped I/O, injecting interrupts in the guest, and performing DMA. During initialization, the client first allocates a chunk of virtual memory using the plain mmap() system call, then registers this memory as guest physical memory using KVM_SET_USER_MEMORY_REGION. KVM treats any memory access that falls outside registered regions as memory-mapped I/O.

When the guest executes an instruction that accesses unmapped physical memory, KVM_RUN returns to the client, which determines the type of I/O access and emulates it accordingly. For example, when a guest instruction writes to physical address OxB8000 the following occurs:

  • The virtual CPU (VCPU) attempts to access that memory and realizes that it is unmapped
  • The VCPU triggers a VM exit, giving control back to the KVM driver
  • KVM determines the cause of the VM exit and returns to user space from the KVM_RUN call
  • The client reads the faulting guest physical address and determines the associated virtual device
  • The client calls the I/O handler of the VGA virtual device, which eventually displays a character in the upper left corner of the screen.
  • Once the I/O emulation is done, the client resumes the guest VM by calling KVM_RUN again.

The KVM client injects interrupts in the guest using the KVM_INTERRUPT ioctl. Let us take the example of a virtual clock device. This kind of device would typically trigger a periodic interrupt, e.g., every 10 ms. In order to emulate it, the client process registers a periodic timer signal handler with the host OS. At the lowest level, the host OS configures the host machine’s clock to generate periodic host interrupts. When a host interrupt occurs, the host CPU automatically interrupts the running guest VM, context switches to the host OS, which then delivers the timer signal to the client process. The client then calls the virtual clock device emulation code, which then uses KVM_INTERRUPT to inject the virtual interrupt into the guest. At the next invocation of KVM_RUN, the host CPU reloads the guest context and triggers the guest’s interrupt handler.

The KVM client also handles DMA. Remember that during initialization, the client mapped host virtual memory in its address space, which it then instructed to be used as guest physical memory by KVM. A virtual device handler would just read and write to that mapped host virtual memory in order to exchange data with the guest VM. It can do so from another thread while the guest VM is running, or from the same thread when the guest VM is interrupted by a signal and control is returned to the client.

The above is the minimum required to run a guest such as Windows: a virtual CPU and a collection of virtual devices. KVM implements many more features that can be optionally used. It has hypercalls, nested virtualization, various MSRs, etc. KVM provides an interface to verify which features are available (called capabilities). For more details, refer to the various KVM documentation files in the Linux source tree. You can also browse QEMU’s source code to understand which KVM features it uses. Finally, there is a great article here that explains in detail how to write your own KVM client from scratch.

Emulating the KVM interface

KVM is great for running code at native speeds, but what if we actually want to do some advanced analysis on the guest code? What if we want to instrument it? One common method for doing that is to use dynamic binary translation. The dynamic binary translator (DBT) takes a chunk of guest code, disassembles it, injects instrumentation code, reassembles it, then runs the result on the host CPU. QEMU comes with a powerful DBT that can be used instead of KVM to run the guest OS. One could take QEMU and modify its DBT in order to analyze guest code. An alternative to this is to write a CPU emulator, wrap it under the KVM interface, and let QEMU use it transparently.

Emulating the KVM interface allows decoupling the CPU emulation and code instrumentation infrastructure from virtual hardware emulation. This is very powerful, as one is not stuck anymore with a given KVM client implementation. The client can live on its own and upgrading it becomes straightforward. For example, the first prototype of S2E released back in 2011 was tightly coupled to QEMU and was de facto stuck with the QEMU version of that time (v1.0). The current version of S2E however emulates the KVM interface and is not tied to any particular client. In fact, upgrading from QEMU 1.0 to QEMU 3.0 was fairly straightforward, despite over six years separating these two versions.

Using system call hooks for emulation

There are different ways in which one can implement a KVM-compatible CPU emulator. We chose to take the DBT implemented by QEMU and refactor it into a standalone user-space library. The advantage of this compared to building our own emulation is that we get the maturity and performance of QEMU’s DBT, with only a small overhead incurred by the indirection of the KVM interface. Overall, it took about six person-month to refactor the code, most of it was the tedious task of moving code around. We will explain the process in details later below.

Our KVM CPU emulator comes as a user-space shared library that can be loaded into the KVM client using LD_PRELOAD. The library intercepts the open and ioctl system calls to /dev/kvm, as well as mmap and a few others. The open hook checks that the file name is /dev/kvm, and if so, returns a fake handle that will be later checked and intercepted by the ioctl and other system call hooks. We could also have replaced the KVM driver itself and provided a kernel-mode version of this library, but this would have caused needless complexity and unnecessary switches to kernel mode.

We refer to the real KVM driver that ships with the Linux kernel as native KVM and to our DBT-based emulation of KVM as emulated KVM, implemented by the KVM emulation engine.

Differences between actual KVM and KVM emulation

Implementing a KVM-compatible interface poses several challenges. In theory, there should be no difference between the native KVM implementation and a DBT-based one, except for speed (and of course different CPU features). A proper implementation of the emulated KVM should give the same outputs for identical inputs (CPU state, interrupts, etc.). In practice however, due to how the DBT works, there are some differences. The most important one is the significant delay with which the DBT handles injected guest interrupts. This may cause problems for some guest OSes. A lesser problem is the inconsistent state of the emulated CPU when handling I/O operations. This only matters if the KVM client reads the CPU state while handling I/O (e.g., VAPIC emulation in QEMU).

The first difference between actual KVM and KVM emulation is the interrupt injection delay. The virtualization hardware on the host CPU triggers a VM exit as soon as there is an external interrupt sent to the host (timer, network, etc). It also triggers a VM exit as soon as the guest unmasks interrupts (e.g., by writing to APIC registers or executing the sti instruction) and there are pending interrupts (injected by the client with KVM_INTERRUPT). All this happens without delays at instruction granularity. In contrast, emulated KVM is much slower to react to these events. In the worst case, the delays may starve lower priority interrupts, causing hangs. Some guests may even crash if interrupts come too late (e.g., there is a timer DPC in the Windows XP kernel that is wrongly allocated on the stack, which causes a crash if the interrupt happens too late, i.e., after the stack is cleaned).

For performance reasons, the DBT cannot check interrupts at every instruction. Instead, it checks them at control flow change boundaries, i.e., when there is an instruction that modifies the program counter. When the DBT enables translation block chaining (a technique that speeds up emulation by running translated code continuously without calling the DBT), pending interrupts are not checked at all and it is up to the KVM client to break the translation block chain when there is a pending interrupt. Unfortunately, native KVM does not provide a standard API for that and the most reliable way we found to handle this is to add an additional KVM_FORCE_EXIT call which the client would invoke when there are pending interrupts.

The second difference is the imprecise state on device I/O. When native KVM returns from KVM_RUN because the guest executed an I/O instruction, the guest CPU’s program counter points to the next instruction. In emulated KVM, however, the program counter can point to some previous instruction close by. This is because the DBT does not update the program counter after each instruction, for performance reasons. Instead, the DBT updates it at the next control flow change (i.e., when the guest explicitly sets the program counter), or when there is an exception.

This is not a problem unless the KVM client reads the CPU state when handling I/O. On QEMU, this seems to only matter for VAPIC emulation. OSes like Windows heavily read and write the APIC’s Task Priority Register (TPR). This may trigger an excessive amount of CPU exits and kernel-user mode switches, slowing down the guest considerably. To solve this, QEMU patches the guest to replace the I/O instruction that accesses the TPR with a call to BIOS code that emulates the APIC’s TPR without causing a VM exit. To do this patching, QEMU checks the instruction pattern at the program counter that accessed the VAPIC. If this program counter is wrong (like in emulated KVM), patching will fail. We extended the KVM interface with the KVM_CAP_DBT flag to disable the VAPIC when emulated KVM is present. Disabling it does not cause noticeable slowdowns because there are no kernel-user mode switches involved anyway.


To summarize, we implemented a shared library that hooks KVM calls in order to emulate the KVM interface. The library uses DBT-based CPU emulation. In order to accommodate for shortcomings of the DBT-based method, we added two extensions to KVM: KVM_CAP_DBT and KVM_FORCE_EXIT. The first is a capability that signals to the KVM client the presence of a DBT-based implementation so that it can adjust its behavior accordingly. The second allows faster interrupt injection. We do not believe that these two extensions are fundamental, they could probably be eliminated with a better engineering of the CPU emulator.

Adding symbolic execution capabilities to KVM

In the previous section, we have seen how to build a KVM emulation engine out of a DBT that only supports one execution path and no symbolic data. In this section, we will show how to extend that engine as well as the KVM interface in order to support symbolic execution. We will primarily focus on the KVM interface, treating the symbolic execution engine itself as a black box. The design and implementation of the symbolic execution engine will be covered in another write up.

Before we begin, let us recap how symbolic execution works. Programs take inputs, perform some computations on them, and generate some output. If there is a conditional branch, such as if (x + 2) ... else ..., the predicate is evaluated and one or the other branch is executed. During normal execution (e.g., when running on a normal CPU), all inputs have a concrete value (e.g., x=1 or x=12) and exercise only one path at a time on each run. Symbolic execution replaces the concrete inputs with symbols (e.g., x=λ) and builds symbolic expressions (e.g., λ + 2) as the program executes. When a symbolic expression reaches a conditional branch, the engine calls a constraint solver to determine which branch to follow. In case both outcomes are feasible, the engine splits the current execution path in two by taking a snapshot of the system state (CPU, RAM, devices) and then executes each path independently. Each path also gets a constraint (e.g., λ + 2 != 0 and λ + 2 == 0) so that the constraint solver can remember where execution came from and compute concrete outputs when execution terminates.

A symbolic execution engine can be decomposed in two main components: one that enables multi-path execution and another one that handles symbolic data storage and propagation. Hypervisors such as QEMU of VMware already let users take as many snapshots as they want. These snapshots include CPU, memory, as well as device state. Multi-path execution requires the ability to quickly create lightweight whole-system snapshots and be able to switch between them at any time. On top of that, a symbolic execution engine adds the ability to store symbolic data in the snapshots and perform computations on that symbolic data.

Multi-path execution

The hypervisor needs to be aware of multi-path execution. A vanilla hypervisor normally runs a single path at a time and all guest memory accesses go to a fixed area of host virtual memory, all disk accesses go to the same file, etc. In multi-path mode, however, it is necessary to redirect these addresses to per-path storage. In other words, each execution path would have its own area of virtual memory, disk storage, and even device state. Furthermore, this must be done efficiently using copy-on-write, as each path can have several gigabytes of state.

One approach to solve this is to add several extensions to the KVM interface. The extensions include a call to read/write memory, a call to read/write the virtual disk, and a callback to save and restore device state. The purpose of these calls is to redirect disk or DMA accesses done by the hypervisor’s virtual devices to per-state storage. This level of indirection allows keeping the KVM emulation engine decoupled from the hypervisor, which does not need to be aware of the mechanics of how snapshots are stored, how copy-on-write is implemented, etc. This is all done by the symbolic execution engine. We will present next each call individually.

The first extension lets the hypervisor specify memory regions that must be saved in the system snapshot. During initialization, immediately after the hypervisor maps guest physical memory, it must now invoke the KVM_CAP_MEM_FIXED_REGION API, specifying the host virtual address and the size of the allocated region. The KVM emulation engine uses this information to initialize per-state storage for that memory region, copy any data from the original mapped region, then forbid access to that region. The hypervisor cannot dereference the original memory anymore and must instead call KVM_CAP_MEM_RW, which we will introduce next.

The second extension implements memory accesses. When the hypervisor needs to access guest physical memory (e.g., when performing DMA), instead of directly dereferencing a pointer to that memory, it must now invoke the KVM_CAP_MEM_RW API. This call takes as parameters a source and destination pointer, the direction of the transfer (read/write), and the length. The symbolic execution engine uses this information to lookup the actual per-state data associated with the given host virtual address and returns (or writes) the requested data.

Finally, a few extensions are needed to manage the disk and device state. Instead of accessing the virtual disk file using read or write system calls, the hypervisor must now call KVM_DISK_RW. Handling device state is a bit different: instead of intercepting reads/and writes to every byte of the device state (which would be completely impractical), the symbolic execution engine leverages the hypervisor’s ability to save and restore device state to/from a file. However, instead of using a file, the hypervisor calls the KVM_DEV_SNAPSHOT API. This call is only required when forking or switching to a new execution path. You can find more details about these APIs in the reference below.


You may be wondering if these multi-path extensions are necessary. The short answer is no. If we can find a system-level approach to managing the state (vs. manually inserting indirections in the code), then we do not need them anymore. For example, it is possible to use the fork() system call of the host in order to create a new execution path (but this is prohibitively expensive, as there would be one hypervisor process per path), or implement lightweight system snapshots by tweaking the page tables of the host (see Dune [OSDI‘12] and Hummingbird [HOTOS‘13]). We plan to port S2E to the latter approach, which would bring many more benefits besides simplified APIs (e.g., much faster state snapshotting and state switching).

Handling symbolic data

To keep things simple, we decided that symbolic data cannot leak into the KVM client and therefore the KVM API does not need support for symbolic data exchange. We observed that symbolic data does not usually propagate through this interface: QEMU does not normally read CPU registers or memory locations that contain symbolic data. Likewise, data exchanged between the guest and the virtual devices is concrete. In cases where symbolic data does leak, the KVM emulation engine concretizes it. Here is what happens when a program tries to print a string containing symbolic characters:

  • The program running in the guest calls printf("%s", buf); where buf has one or more symbolic characters.
  • printf formats the string into a temporary buffer (which now has symbolic characters too), then issues a write system call with the address of that temporary buffer and the file descriptor of the console as a parameter.
  • The kernel forwards the write request to the console driver.
  • The console driver writes each character to the video memory.
  • The KVM emulation engine determines that the write requires a VM exit to the hypervisor because the address points to a memory-mapped I/O region. The engine also checks whether the instruction has symbolic data in its data operand and if yes, concretizes the symbolic data before calling the hypervisor, which sees the concrete value. Concretization adds a path constraint to ensure correct symbolic execution when control is passed back to the program.

Restricting the KVM interface to concrete data brings massive simplifications to the system. There is no need to rewrite a potentially large and complex hypervisor to support symbolic data. And in practice, simply redirecting the program’s output to /dev/null or a symbolic file in a RAM disk is enough to work around most concretizations issues (e.g., when symbolic data is written to the console or the virtual disk). Of course, one may want to symbolically execute virtual devices (e.g., when testing device drivers). The solution for this is to write a symbolic device model, which we leave out for another tutorial.


This section explains in detail the new KVM extensions that a KVM client should support in order to be compatible with the KVM emulation engine. Each command is described as follows:

  • Command: indicates the name of the command.
  • Capability: indicates the KVM capability that signals the presence of that command.
  • Requirement: indicates when that capability/command must be supported. Some commands are only required for multi-path execution, some are required in all cases.
  • Any associated data structures. These are passed along the command identifier to the ioctl system call.
  • The command description.


Here is a pointer to S2E’s source code where you can find the implementation of all these extensions. libs2e.c is the main entry point of the shared library. This module intercepts IOCTLs to /dev/kvm and forwards them to the appropriate handlers. If you are lost in the 90 KLOC that comprise, just start from this file and work your way up to the other components. This should help you get started hacking!

Dynamic binary translation

Command N/A
Capability KVM_CAP_DBT
Requirement Mandatory for any KVM emulation engine that uses DBT

This capability indicates to the client that the underlying KVM implementation uses dynamic binary translation instead of actual hardware virtualization. Until the KVM emulation engine perfectly mimics the native KVM interface, this capability allows the client to adjust its behavior to support the KVM emulation engine.

Registering memory regions

  • Mandatory for a KVM emulation engine that supports multi-path execution
  • Optional for single-path implementations
struct kvm_fixed_region {
    const char *name;
    __u64 host_address;
    __u64 size;

    __u32 flags;

The KVM client must call this API after it allocates guest physical memory (either RAM or ROM) in order to register them with the KVM emulation engine. The client must register all memory regions before calling KVM_RUN. The client must not later pass to KVM_SET_USER_MEMORY_REGION any region (or part thereof) that has not been previously registered with KVM_MEM_REGISTER_FIXED_REGION.

This API lets the KVM emulation engine register internal data structures that will track later accesses done with KVM_MEM_RW. After this API return, the memory chunk specified by host_address and size becomes read and write-protected. The client must not access it directly anymore and must always use KVM_MEM_RW instead. Protecting the region is helpful to catch any stray accesses and help with debugging.

The KVM_MEM_SHARED_CONCRETE flag specifies whether the given memory chunk may be shared among all execution paths. This is useful for video memory, which is typically write-only and whose state does not matter for correct guest execution (i.e., different execution paths clobbering each other’s frame buffers has usually no bad effect on execution correctness as long as guest code does not read that data back).

Accessing guest memory

Command KVM_MEM_RW
Capability KVM_CAP_MEM_RW
Requirement Mandatory for all KVM emulation engine implementations
struct kvm_mem_rw {
    /* source and dest are always host pointers */
    __u64 source;
    __u64 dest;
    __u64 is_write;
    __u64 length;

This capability signals to the KVM client that the KVM emulation engine requires the KVM client to perform all accesses to physical memory through the KVM_CAP_MEM_RW API. For single-path emulators, this is required to properly flush CPU’s code cache in case DMA touches memory that contains code. For multi-path emulators, this also ensures that data is read/written from/to the correct execution state.

Interrupting execution

Requirement Mandatory for KVM emulation engine implementations that cannot respond quickly to interrupt injection

This capability signals to the KVM client that the KVM emulation engine cannot return from KVM_RUN quickly enough (e.g., when there are signals present). A KVM client must call KVM_FORCE_EXIT when it would otherwise want KVM_RUN to exit and when KVM_CAP_FORCE_EXIT is present.

Virtual disk I/O

Capability KVM_CAP_DISK_RW
  • Mandatory for a KVM emulation engine that supports multi-path execution
  • Optional for single-path implementations or when the client does not support virtual disks
struct kvm_disk_rw {
    /* Address of the buffer in host memory */
    __u64 host_address;
    /* 512-byte sectors */
    __u64 sector;
    /* input: sectors to read/write, output: sectors read/written */
    __u32 count;
    __u8 is_write;

The KVM client must invoke this command when it otherwise would write disk data to a file. The KVM emulation engine takes the disk data specified in the kvm_disk_rw structure and store it in a location that is associated with the current execution path. If the client fails to invoke this command while in multi-path execution, the disk state would be shared by all execution paths, leading to virtual disk corruption, as the different paths would clobber each other’s disk data.

In practice, KVM clients should implement copy-on-write mechanisms. In case of reads, the client must call first KVM_DISK_RW to get any dirty sectors, and if there are none, read from the underlying image file. In case of writes, the client should directly call KVM_DISK_RW with the modified sector data.

Saving/restoring device snapshots

  • Mandatory for a KVM emulation engine that supports multi-path execution
  • Optional for single-path implementations
struct kvm_dev_snapshot {
    __u64 buffer;
    /* If is_write == 0, indicates expected size in case of error */
    __u32 size;

    /* Only when is_write == 0, indicates the position from which reading the state */
    __u32 pos;
    __u8 is_write;

This command should only be called when KVM_RUN returns the KVM_EXIT_SAVE_DEV_STATE or KVM_EXIT_RESTORE_DEV_STATE exit code.

When saving a device snapshot (is_write = 1), only buffer and size are valid. buffer must point to a host virtual address containing the state of all virtual devices. The KVM client must call KVM_DEV_SNAPSHOT only once. The call returns the number of bytes written, which should be equal to size.

When restoring a device snapshot (is_write = 0), the commands allows reading any range of snapshot data previously saved. pos and size must be set to read the desired chunk of data. The KVM client must call KVM_DEV_SNAPSHOT multiple times. The call returns the number of bytes effectively read, which may be smaller than size in case the specified range exceeds the amount of data in the snapshot.

Setting the clock scale pointer

  • Mandatory when the overhead of the KVM emulation engine is large
  • Optional otherwise

This command communicates to the KVM emulation engine the address of a variable that contains the clock scale. The address must be in the KVM client’s address space. The KVM client must honor this factor as soon as possible, typically the next time a virtual device calls a time-related function (e.g., to schedule a timer interrupt).

The clock scale is an integer that specifies by what factor the client must slow down the guest’s virtual clock. A factor of one indicates no slow down (real-time). A factor of two indicates that the client must run its clock two times slower than real-time. In other words, for every second of elapsed time seen by the guest, the wall time would have advanced by two seconds.

The KVM emulation engine sets the clock scale when it performs slow operations, e.g., interpreting LLVM instructions in the symbolic execution engine. This may be several orders of magnitude slower than real-time (100-1000x clock scale factor). Failing to set the factor accordingly would cause the client to inject timer interrupts too frequently, preventing any progress of the guest.

KVM_RUN exit codes

When the KVM_RUN command exits, it indicates to the KVM client the reason of the exit in the form of an exit code. In addition to the standard codes, the KVM emulation engine adds the following exit codes. They should be implemented by any client that supports multi-path execution.


This exit code indicates to the client that it must flush any buffers associated with virtual disks. The client should call KVM_DISK_RW in order to flush any in-progress transfers before invoking KVM_RUN again.

The KVM emulation engine returns this code when it is ready to fork a new execution path or in any other case where it needs the disk state to be consistent.

Implementing this code is optional if the client does not support virtual disks.


This exit code indicates to the client that it must take a snapshot of all virtual devices and send the snapshot data to the KVM emulation engine using the KVM_DEV_SNAPSHOT command.

The KVM emulation engine returns this code when it is ready to fork a new execution path or wants to switch to another execution path. In either case, it needs the virtual device state to be committed to the per-state storage before continuing.


This exit code indicates to the client that it must restore a snapshot of all virtual devices after reading the snapshot data from the KVM emulation engine by using the KVM_DEV_SNAPSHOT command.

The KVM emulation engine returns this code when it wants to switch to another execution path and needs the client to restore the associated virtual device state.


This exit code indicates to the KVM client that it must re-initialize the state of all its threads.

The KVM emulation engine returns this code after it calls the fork() system call in order to create a new instance of the emulator. In this new instance, there is only one thread (the one that called fork()). The client must ensure that before calling KVM_RUN again, the new process instance is completely independent from the parent one and can run on its own. In particular, the client must close and re-open any file descriptors that fork() would otherwise share with the parent.