Micro-Optimizing KVM VM-Exits

15 Nov 2019 — by Kashyap Chamarthy

Background on VM-Exits

KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) is the Linux kernel module that allows a host to run virtualized guests (Linux, Windows, etc). The KVM “guest execution loop”, with QEMU (the open source emulator and virtualizer) as its user space, is roughly as follows: QEMU issues the ioctl(), KVM_RUN, to tell KVM to prepare to enter the CPU’s “Guest Mode” – a special processor mode which allows guest code to safely run directly on the physical CPU. The guest code, which is inside a “jail” and thus cannot interfere with the rest of the system, keeps running on the hardware until it encounters a request it cannot handle. Then the processor gives the control back (referred to as “VM-Exit”) either to kernel space, or to the user space to handle the request. Once the request is handled, native execution of guest code on the processor resumes again. And the loop goes on.

There are dozens of reasons for VM-Exits (Intel’s Software Developer Manual outlines 64 “Basic Exit Reasons”). For example, when a guest needs to emulate the CPUID instruction, it causes a “light-weight exit” to kernel space, because CPUID (among a few others) is emulated in the kernel itself, for performance reasons. But when the kernel cannot handle a request, e.g. to emulate certain hardware, it results in a “heavy-weight exit” to QEMU, to perform the emulation. These VM-Exits and subsequent re-entries (“VM-Enters”), even the light-weight ones, can be expensive. What can be done about it?

Guest workloads that are hard to virtualize

At the 2019 edition of the KVM Forum in Lyon, kernel developer Andrea Arcangeli addressed the kernel part of minimizing VM-Exits.

His talk touched on the cost of VM-Exits into the kernel, especially for guest workloads (e.g. enterprise databases) that are sensitive to their performance penalty. However, these workloads cannot avoid triggering VM-Exits with a high frequency. Andrea then outlined some of the optimizations he’s been working on to improve the VM-Exit performance in the KVM code path – especially in light of applying mitigations for speculative execution flaws (Spectre v2, MDS, L1TF).

Andrea gave a brief recap of the different kinds of speculative execution attacks (retpolines, IBPB, PTI, SSBD, etc). Followed by that he outlined the performance impact of Spectre-v2 mitigations in context of KVM.

The microbechmark: CPUID in a one million loop

Andrea constructed a synthetic microbenchmark program (without any GCC optimizations or caching) which runs the CPUID instructions one million times in a loop. This microbenchmark is meant to focus on measuring the performance of a specific area of the code – in this case, to test the latency of VM-Exits.

While stressing that the results of these microbenchmarks do not represent real-world workloads, he had two goals in mind with it: (a) explain how the software mitigation works; and (b) to justify to the broader community the value of the software optimizations he’s working on in KVM.

Andrea then reasoned through several interesting graphs that show how CPU computation time gets impacted when you disable or enable the various kernel-space mitigations for Spectre v2, L1TF, MDS, et al.

The proposal: “KVM Monolithic”

Based on his investigation, Andrea proposed a patch series, “KVM monolithc”, to get rid of the KVM common module, ‘kvm.ko’. Instead the KVM common code gets linked twice into each of the vendor-specific KVM modules, ‘kvm-intel.ko’ and ‘kvm-amd.ko’.

The reason for doing this is that the ‘kvm.ko’ module indirectly calls (via the “retpoline” technique) the vendor-specific KVM modules at every VM-Exit, several times. These indirect calls—via function pointers in the C source code—were not optimal before, but the “retpoline” mitigation (which isolates indirect branches, that allow a CPU to execute code from arbitrary locations, from speculative execution) for Spectre v2 compounds the problem, as it degrades performance.

This approach will result in a few MiB of increased disk space for ‘kvm-intel.ko’ and ‘kvm-amd.ko’, but the upside in saved indirect calls, and the elimination of “retpoline” overhead at run-time more than compensate for it.

With the “KVM Monolithic” patch series applied, Andrea’s microbenchmarks show a double-digit improvement in performance with default mitigations (for Spectre v2, et al) enabled on both Intel ‘VMX’ and AMD ‘SVM’. And with ‘spectre_v2=off’ or for CPUs with IBRS_ALL in ARCH_CAPABILITIES “KVM monolithic” still improve[s] performance, albiet it’s on the order of 1%.


Removal of the common KVM module has a non-negligible positive performance impact. And the “KVM Monolitic” patch series is still actively being reviewed, modulo some pending clean-ups. Based on the upstream review discussion, KVM Maintainer, Paolo Bonzini, and other reviewers seemed amenable to merge the series.

Although, we still have to deal with mitigations for ‘indirect branch prediction’ for a long time, reducing the VM-Exit latency is important in general; and more specifically, for guest workloads that happen to trigger frequent VM-Exits, without having to disable Spectre v2 mitigations on the host, as Andrea stated in the cover letter of his patch series.