QEMU VM templating

This document explains how to use VM templating in QEMU.

For now, the focus is on VM memory aspects, and not about how to save and restore other VM state (i.e., migrate-to-file with x-ignore-shared).


With VM templating, a single template VM serves as the starting point for new VMs. This allows for fast and efficient replication of VMs, resulting in fast startup times and reduced memory consumption.

Conceptually, the VM state is frozen, to then be used as a basis for new VMs. The Copy-On-Write mechanism in the operating systems makes sure that new VMs are able to read template VM memory; however, any modifications stay private and don’t modify the original template VM or any other created VM.

!!! Security Alert !!!

When effectively cloning VMs by VM templating, hardware identifiers (such as UUIDs and NIC MAC addresses), and similar data in the guest OS (such as machine IDs, SSH keys, certificates) that are supposed to be unique are no longer unique, which can be a security concern.

Please be aware of these implications and how to mitigate them for your use case, which might involve vmgenid, hot(un)plug of NIC, etc..

Memory configuration

In order to create the template VM, we have to make sure that VM memory ends up in a file, from where it can be reused for the new VMs:

Supply VM RAM via memory-backend-file, with share=on (modifications go to the file) and readonly=off (open the file writable). Note that readonly=off is implicit.

In the following command-line example, a 2GB VM is created, whereby VM RAM is to be stored in the template file.

qemu-system-x86_64 [...] -m 2g \
    -object memory-backend-file,id=pc.ram,mem-path=template,size=2g,share=on,... \
    -machine q35,memory-backend=pc.ram

If multiple memory backends are used (vNUMA, DIMMs), configure all memory backends accordingly.

Once the VM is in the desired state, stop the VM and save other VM state, leaving the current state of VM RAM reside in the file.

In order to have a new VM be based on a template VM, we have to configure VM RAM to be based on a template VM RAM file; however, the VM should not be able to modify file content.

Supply VM RAM via memory-backend-file, with share=off (modifications stay private), readonly=on (open the file readonly) and rom=off (don’t make the memory readonly for the VM). Note that share=off is implicit and that other VM state has to be restored separately.

In the following command-line example, a 2GB VM is created based on the existing 2GB file template.

qemu-system-x86_64 [...] -m 2g \
    -object memory-backend-file,id=pc.ram,mem-path=template,size=2g,readonly=on,rom=off,... \
    -machine q35,memory-backend=pc.ram

If multiple memory backends are used (vNUMA, DIMMs), configure all memory backends accordingly.

Note that -mem-path cannot be used for VM templating when creating the template VM or when starting new VMs based on a template VM.

Incompatible features

Some features are incompatible with VM templating, as the underlying file cannot be modified to discard VM RAM, or to actually share memory with another process.

vhost-user and multi-process QEMU

vhost-user and multi-process QEMU are incompatible with VM templating. These technologies rely on shared memory, however, the template VMs don’t actually share memory (share=off), even though they are file-based.


virtio-balloon inflation and “free page reporting” cannot discard VM RAM and will repeatedly report errors. While virtio-balloon can be used for template VMs (e.g., report VM RAM stats), “free page reporting” should be disabled and the balloon should not be inflated.


virtio-mem cannot discard VM RAM that is managed by the virtio-mem device. virtio-mem will fail early when realizing the device. To use VM templating with virtio-mem, either hotplug virtio-mem devices to the new VM, or don’t supply any memory to the template VM using virtio-mem (requested-size=0), not using a template VM file as memory backend for the virtio-mem device.

VM migration

For VM migration, “x-release-ram” similarly relies on discarding of VM RAM on the migration source to free up migrated RAM, and will repeatedly report errors.

Postcopy live migration fails discarding VM RAM on the migration destination early and refuses to activate postcopy live migration. Note that postcopy live migration usually only works on selected filesystems (shmem/tmpfs, hugetlbfs) either way.