Kernel Development Made Easier

Stephen Brennan • 08 March 2017

A little while ago I wrote a post about creating a Linux system call. In it, I explained how to create a virtual machine, get the Linux source, modify it, build it, and boot your custom kernel. This is a totally valid way to do kernel development, but it can be a bit inconvenient. For one, the code was stored within the VM, so all editing and compiling was done in a VM too. For another, there was a pretty complex process to build an “initrd” in order for Arch Linux to boot properly. And finally, the kernel configuration we used was pretty massive, resulting in longer build times for extra features and device support to be compiled into the kernel.

For simple development and debugging, we can do better! In this post, I’ll describe the setup that I’m using now - which allows me to compile and boot a kernel in a matter of seconds, while being able to edit and compile on the host machine.

Intro to qemu

If you’re like me a few months ago, you may have never heard of qemu. As far as I was concerned, the only “hypervisor” I would ever need was VirtualBox, which was open-source and very easy to use. Qemu is like the curl of hypervisors. It runs on the command-line and takes every option under the sun. If you know it well, you can make great use of it, but the rest of us will just use a web browser.

Since qemu is so configurable, you’re actually able to do some really cool things, like directly booting a Linux kernel image in a VM. Even more exciting, you can do that without ever creating a virtual hard drive—in essence, you can boot a VM with a different kernel, running on your host’s filesystem. This is really, really convenient for development tasks. But it can be a chore to set this all up. Enter vido.

Intro to vido

vido is a Python wrapper script around qemu. It’s named similar to sudo (super user do) because its operation is similar: it runs a command inside a virtual machine with a custom Linux kernel (virtual do). A command like the following would boot your kernel and print out information about it:

$ vido [options] -- uname -a
# uname output appears here...

vido is not the only tool for this purpose. One similar tool is eudyptula-boot, which looks like an excellent choice. However I wanted to use something I could easily modify, and vido is written in Python which makes it infinitely more hackable for me than the bash script that is eudyptula-boot.

On Arch Linux1, you can install qemu through pacman and vido through pip:

$ sudo pacman -S qemu qemu-arch-extra
$ sudo pip install vido

An even better option than pip installing is to clone vido from its source directly. Then, run sudo python develop from within the directory. This will still install vido to your system, but it will install links that point to your git clone. This allows you to make changes to vido, should the need arise.

Configuring the Kernel

In order to make vido work, we can’t just use any old kernel. The kernel needs to have support for some special file systems and configuration options. Thankfully, vido comes with a list of configuration options that need to be applied. They will work with any reasonably recent kernel.

If you want to customize the kernel configuration, the most obvious options are the make config, make menuconfig, and make xconfig tools. These pop open GUIs that allow you to browse and edit configuration safely. They’re definitely worth using, to explore and familiarize yourself. But there’s just nothing worse than opening up these tools and setting configuration values by hand, one by one by one.

The most convenient system, when you already know exactly what you want out of your kernel, is the script scripts/kconfig/, located in your Linux checkout. You can use this bad boy to take several files with configuration values set, merge them together, and apply them on top of a minimal base configuration. This lets you maintain a list of required configuration values and apply them instantly, without any fussing with a menu. In our case, vido comes with a file named kvm.config that contains its required configuration values. In addition, you may want to create a file named debug.config with some of the options below:


You can grep through the source for documentation on what they do, but many of them can be helpful for discovering bugs or narrowing down when they occur. Most incur a performance penalty, but that doesn’t matter a ton for us.

If you have these files, you can run a command like this in your Linux checkout:

$ scripts/kconfig/ -n \
  arch/x86/configs/kvm_guest.config \
  path/to/vido/kvm.config \

And voila! your kernel is configured. Now a simple make -jX (where X = the number of CPUs you have) will compile your kernel, depositing the image in arch/x86_64/boot/bzImage.

Putting it all together

From here, you are ready to boot your kernel and start messing around. Here is the command I use to run vido:

$ vido --kvm --kernel path/to/arch/x86_64/boot/bzImage -- sh

This will run sh in your VM, giving you a chance to run commands interactively. Some good things to do are to check your dmesg output and run uname. This is a great time to revisit the system call tutorial, make the same code changes, and then try testing it out in vido instead!


  1. Warning! Python 3.6.0 has a bug that breaks part of vido. Version 3.6.1 contains a fix for this bug, but it’s not scheduled for release until March 13th. As a result, you need either an old (3.5) version of Python, or a patched version of Python 3.6. Arch users can simply use my PKGBUILD, which contains the proper patch. Clone that gist and run:

     $ makepkg -s --skippgpcheck --nocheck
     # -s will install build dependencies
     # --skippgpcheck will not verify pgp signatures
     # --nocheck skips some of the very lengthy test suites
     $ sudo pacman -U python-3.6.0-3.pkg.tar.xz

    If python -V gives something other than 3.6.0, you should be fine. 


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