Fuzzing QEMU Device Emulation

07 Nov 2019 — by Stefan Hajnoczi and Alexander Oleinik

QEMU (https://www.qemu.org/) emulates a large number of network cards, disk controllers, and other devices needed to simulate a virtual computer system, called the “guest”.

The guest is untrusted and QEMU may even be used to run malicious software, so it is important that bugs in emulated devices do not allow the guest to compromise QEMU and escape the confines of the guest. For this reason a Google Summer of Code project was undertaken to develop fuzz tests for emulated devices.

QEMU device emulation attack surface

Fuzzing is a testing technique that feeds random inputs to a program in order to trigger bugs. Random inputs can be generated quickly without relying on human guidance and this makes fuzzing an automated testing approach.

Device Fuzzing

Emulated devices are exposed to the guest through a set of registers and also through data structures located in guest RAM that are accessed by the device in a process known as Direct Memory Access (DMA). Fuzzing emulated devices involves mapping random inputs to the device registers and DMA memory structures in order to explore code paths in QEMU’s device emulation code.

Device fuzzing overview

Fuzz testing discovered an assertion failure in the virtio-net network card emulation code in QEMU that can be triggered by a guest. Fixing such bugs is usually easy once fuzz testing has generated a reproducer.

Modern fuzz testing intelligently selects random inputs such that new code paths are explored and previously-tested code paths are not tested repeatedly. This is called coverage-guided fuzzing and involves an instrumented program executable so the fuzzer can detect the code paths that are taken for a given input. This was surprisingly effective at automatically exploring the input space of emulated devices in QEMU without requiring the fuzz test author to provide detailed knowledge of device internals.

How Fuzzing was Integrated into QEMU

Device fuzzing in QEMU is driven by the open source libfuzzer library (https://llvm.org/docs/LibFuzzer.html). A special build of QEMU includes device emulation fuzz tests and launches without running a normal guest. Instead the fuzz test directly programs device registers and stores random data into DMA memory structures.

The next step for the QEMU project will be to integrate fuzzing into Google’s OSS-Fuzz (https://google.github.io/oss-fuzz/) continuous fuzzing service. This will ensure that fuzz tests are automatically run after new code is merged into QEMU and bugs are reported to the community.


Fuzzing emulated devices has already revealed bugs in QEMU that would have been time-consuming to find through manual testing approaches. So far only a limited number of devices have been fuzz-tested and we hope to increase this number now that the foundations have been laid. The goal is to integrate these fuzz tests into OSS-Fuzz so that fuzz testing happens continuously.

This project would not have been possible without Google’s generous funding of Google Summer of Code. Alexander Oleinik developed the fuzzing code and was mentored by Bandan Das, Paolo Bonzini, and Stefan Hajnoczi.