QEMU's new -nic command line option

31 May 2018 — by Thomas Huth

If you used QEMU in the past, you are probably familiar with the -net command line option, which can be used to configure a network connection for the guest, or with with the -netdev option, which configures a network back-end. Yet, QEMU v2.12 introduces a third way to configure NICs, the -nic option.

The ChangeLog of QEMU v2.12 says that -nic can “quickly create a network front-end (emulated NIC) and a host back-end”. But why did QEMU need yet another way to configure the network, and how does it compare with -net and -netdev? To answer these questions, we need to look at the model behind network virtualization in QEMU.

As hinted by the ChangeLog entry, a network interface consists of two separate entities:

  1. The emulated hardware that the guest sees, i.e. the so-called NIC (network interface controller). On systems that support PCI cards, these typically could be an e1000 network card, a rtl8139 network card or a virtio-net device. This entity is also called the “front-end”.

  2. The network back-end on the host side, i.e. the interface that QEMU uses to exchange network packets with the outside (like other QEMU instances or other real hosts in your intranet or the internet). The common host back-ends are the “user” (a.k.a. SLIRP) back-end which provides access to the host’s network via NAT, the “tap” back-end which allows the guest to directly access the host’s network, or the “socket” back-end which can be used to connect multiple QEMU instances to simulate a shared network for their guests.

Based on this, it is already possible to define the most obvious difference between -net, -netdev and -nic: the -net option can create either a front-end or a back-end (and also does other things); -netdev can only create a back-end; while a single occurrence of -nic will create both a front-end and a back-end. But for the non-obvious differences, we also need to have a detailed look at the -net and -netdev options first …

The legacy -net option

QEMU’s initial way of configuring the network for the guest was the -net option. The emulated NIC hardware can be chosen with the -net nic,model=xyz,... parameter, and the host back-end with the -net <backend>,... parameter (e.g. -net user for the SLIRP back-end). However, the emulated NIC and the host back-end are not directly connected. They are rather both connected to an emulated hub (called “vlan” in older versions of QEMU). Therefore, if you start QEMU with -net nic,model=e1000 -net user -net nic,model=virtio -net tap for example, you get a setup where all the front-ends and back-ends are connected together via a hub:

Networking with -net

That means the e1000 NIC also gets the network traffic from the virtio-net NIC and both host back-ends… this is probably not what the users expected; it’s more likely that they wanted two separate networks in the guest, one for each NIC. Because -net always connects its NIC to a hub, you would have to tell QEMU to use two separate hubs, using the “vlan” parameter. For example -net nic,model=e1000,vlan=0 -net user,vlan=0 -net nic,model=virtio,vlan=1 -net tap,vlan=1 moves the virtio-net NIC and the “tap” back-end to a second hub (with ID #1).

Please note that the “vlan” parameter will be dropped in QEMU v3.0 since the term was rather confusing (it’s not related to IEEE 802.1Q for example) and caused a lot of misconfigurations in the past. Additional hubs can still be instantiated with -netdev (or -nic) and the special “hubport” back-end. The -net option itself will still stay around since it is still useful if you only want to use one front-end and one back-end together, or if you want to tunnel the traffic of multiple NICs through one back-end only (something like -net nic,model=e1000 -net nic,model=virtio -net l2tpv3,... for example).

The modern -netdev option

Beside the confusing “vlan” parameter of the -net option, there is one more major drawback with -net: the emulated hub between the NIC and the back-end gets in the way when the NIC front-end has to work closely together with the host back-end. For example, vhost acceleration cannot be enabled if you create a virtio-net device with -net nic,model=virtio.

To configure a network connection where the emulated NIC is directly connected to a host network back-end, without a hub in between, the well-established solution is to use the -netdev option for the back-end, together with -device for the front-end. Assuming that you want to configure the same devices as in the -net example above, you could use -netdev user,id=n1 -device e1000,netdev=n1 -netdev tap,id=n2 -device virtio-net,netdev=n2. This will give you straight 1:1 connections between the NICs and the host back-ends:

Networking with -netdev

Note that you can also still connect the devices to a hub with the special -netdev hubport back-end, but in most of the normal use cases, the use of a hub is not required anymore.

Now while -netdev together with -device provide a very flexible and extensive way to configure a network connection, there are still two drawbacks with this option pair which prevented us from deprecating the legacy -net option completely:

  1. The -device option can only be used for pluggable NICs. Boards (e.g. embedded boards) which feature an on-board NIC cannot be configured with -device yet, so -net nic,netdev=<id> must be used here instead.

  2. In some cases, the -net option is easier to use (less to type). For example, assuming you want to set up a “tap” network connection and your default scripts /etc/qemu-ifup and -down are already in place, it’s enough to type -net nic -net tap to start your guest. To do the same with -netdev, you always have to specify an ID here, too, for example like this: -netdev tap,id=n1 -device e1000,netdev=n1.

The new -nic option

Looking at the disadvantages listed above, users could benefit from a convenience option that:

  • is easier to use (and shorter to type) than -netdev <backend>,id=<id> -device <dev>,netdev=<id>
  • can be used to configure on-board / non-pluggable NICs, too
  • does not place a hub between the NIC and the host back-end.

This is where the new -nic option kicks in: this option can be used to configure both the guest’s NIC hardware and the host back-end in one go. For example, instead of -netdev tap,id=n1 -device e1000,netdev=n1 you can simply type -nic tap,model=e1000. If you don’t care about the exact NIC model type, you can even omit the model=... parameter and type -nic tap. This is even shorter and more convenient than the previous shortest way of typing -net nic -net tap. To get a list of NIC models that you can use with this option, you can simply run QEMU with -nic model=help.

Beside being easier to use, the -nic option can be used to configure on-board NICs, too (just like the -net option). For machines that have on-board NICs, the first -nic option configures the first on-board NIC, the second -nic option configures the second on-board NIC, and so forth.


  • The new -nic option gives you an easy and quick way to configure the networking of your guest.
  • For more detailed configuration, e.g. when you need to tweak the details of the emulated NIC hardware, you can use -device together with -netdev.
  • The -net option should be avoided these days unless you really want to configure a set-up with a hub between the front-ends and back-ends.