An Overview of QEMU Storage Features

14 Sep 2020

This article introduces QEMU storage concepts including disk images, emulated storage controllers, block jobs, the qemu-img utility, and qemu-storage-daemon. If you are new to QEMU or want an overview of storage functionality in QEMU then this article explains how things fit together.

Storage technologies

Persistently storing data and retrieving it later is the job of storage devices such as hard disks, solid state drives (SSDs), USB flash drives, network attached storage, and many others. Technologies vary in their storage capacity (disk size), access speed, price, and other factors but most of them follow the same block device model.

Block device I/O

Block devices are accessed in storage units called blocks. It is not possible to access individual bytes, instead an entire block must be transferred. Block sizes vary between devices with 512 bytes and 4KB block sizes being the most common.

As an emulator and virtualizer of computer systems, QEMU naturally has to offer block device functionality. QEMU is capable of emulating hard disks, solid state drives (SSDs), USB flash drives, SD cards, and more.

Storage for virtual machines

There is more to storage than just persisting data on behalf of a virtual machine. The lifecycle of a disk image includes several operations that are briefly covered below.

Block device I/O

Virtual machines consist of device configuration (how much RAM, which graphics card, etc) and the contents of their disks. Transferring virtual machines either to migrate them between hosts or to distribute them to users is an important workflow that QEMU and its utilities support.

Much like ISO files are used to distribute operating system installer images, QEMU supports disk image file formats that are more convenient for transferring disk images than the raw contents of a disk. In fact, disk image file formats offer many other features such as the ability to import/export disks from other hypervisors, snapshots, and instantiating new disk images from a backing file.

Finally, managing disk images also involves the ability to take backups and restore them should it be necessary to roll back after the current disk contents have been lost or corrupted.

Emulated storage controllers

The virtual machine accesses block devices through storage controllers. These are the devices that the guest talks to in order to read or write blocks. Some storage controllers facilitate access to multiple block devices, such as a SCSI Host Bus Adapter that provides access to many SCSI disks.

Storage controllers vary in their features, performance, and guest operating system support. They expose a storage interface such as virtio-blk, NVMe, or SCSI. Virtual machines program storage controller registers to transfer data between memory buffers in RAM and block devices. Modern storage controllers support multiple request queues so that I/O can processed in parallel at high rates.

The most common storage controllers in QEMU are virtio-blk, virtio-scsi, AHCI (SATA), IDE for legacy systems, and SD Card controllers on embedded or smaller boards.

Disk image file formats

Disk image file formats handle the layout of blocks within a host file or device. The simplest format is the raw format where each block is located at its Logical Block Address (LBA) in the host file. This simple scheme does not offer much in the way of features.

QEMU’s native disk image format is QCOW2 and it offers a number of features:

  • Compactness - the host file grows as blocks are written so a sparse disk image can be much smaller than the virtual disk size.
  • Backing files - disk images can be based on a parent image so that a master image can be shared by virtual machines.
  • Snapshots - the state of the disk image can be saved and later reverted.
  • Compression - block compression reduces the image size.
  • Encryption - the disk image can be encrypted to protect data at rest.
  • Dirty bitmaps - backup applications can track changed blocks so that efficient incremental backups are possible.

A number of other disk image file formats are available for importing/exporting disk images for use with other software including VMware and Hyper-V.

Block jobs

Block jobs are background operations that manipulate disk images:

  • Commit - merging backing files to shorten a backing file chain.
  • Backup - copying out a point-in-time snapshot of a disk.
  • Mirror - copying an image to a new destination while the virtual machine can still write to it.
  • Stream - populating a disk image from its backing file.
  • Create - creating new disk image files.

These background operations are powerful tools for building storage migration and backup workflows.

Some operations like mirror and stream can take a long time because they copy large amounts of data. Block jobs support throttling to limit the performance impact on virtual machines.

qemu-img and qemu-storage-daemon

The qemu-img utility manipulates disk images. It can create, resize, snapshot, repair, and inspect disk images. It has both human-friendly and JSON output formats, making it suitable for manual use as well as scripting.

qemu-storage-daemon exposes QEMU’s storage functionality in a server process without running a virtual machine. It can export disk images over the Network Block Device (NBD) protocol as well as run block jobs and other storage commands. This makes qemu-storage-daemon useful for applications that want to automate disk image manipulation.


QEMU presents block devices to virtual machines via emulated storage controllers. On the host side the disk image file format, block jobs, and qemu-img/qemu-storage-daemon utilities provide functionality for working with disk images. Future blog posts will dive deeper into some of these areas and describe best practices for configuring storage.