Asahi Linux logoimage/svg+xmlAsahi Linux logo2021-01-03soundflora* / marcanFont: Bangla MN (c) 2009 Muthu Nedumaran Used with permissionCC BY-SA 4.0 / (c) 2021 soundflora*

Recently I described how igb, a new Intel NIC support for QEMU, was added here. The development was done on an x86 machine until I buy a M2 Macbook Air, which carries Arm-based Apple Silicon. This computer is way faster than the x86 machine so I decided to use Asahi Linux, a community port of Linux for Apple Silicon and to move the development to this new machine.

You can find details like currently supported features on its wiki and fantastic write-ups about the development on its blog. Here, I describe what worked well during my QEMU development on the platform, or what didn’t (and how I fixed them).

Asahi Linux (usually) works well

Asahi Linux works so well, which may be surprising if you don’t closely follow the development, finding skilled and motivated developers and tooling like m1n1 hypervisor.

The introduction of GPU driver made it truly pleasant to work with. The GPU driver is one of the challenging features and while it still lacks functionalities of modern OpenGL versions like 4.0+, it implements everything that is needed to provide a decent desktop experience. Things I regularly use like GNOME, Firefox, Thunderbird, and Visual Studio Code all work just fine1.

And the GPU driver was the last missing piece for the simple workload. There are many things not implemented like speakers, cameras, and external display support. However, Asahi Linux is perfect if you just need the keyboard, touchpad (with multi-finger detection), display, audio jack, (minimal) power management, and USB. It’s perfect for QEMU development.

When Asahi Linux does not work well

Legacy programs

If your desktop environment on Asahi Linux does not work well, it’s probably because your configuration includes legacy components, notably Pulse Audio and X.

Well, Pulse Audio is not that old compared to X, but it’s known to be faulty on Asahi Linux so it’s better to use PipeWire.

X is known for various protocol limitations that are nearly impossible to fix. Fortunately, Wayland compositors that substitute X are so mature today that you find fewer quirks on Wayland compositors than X. I see nothing quirky with GNOME’s Wayland implementation these days.

(Superficial) lack of Arm support

The more serious problem in practice is (superficial) lack of Arm support on Linux system. Arm is supported well by Linux kernel and userspace when compared with other non-x86 architectures like RISC-V, but you likely find something missing.

The reason I call it superficial is that in many cases things do not work just because Arm is not listed in the list of supported architectures. For example, many packages on Flathub are not available on Arm just because they are marked only for x86_64. Such things just work fine by adding Arm as a supported architecture.

Some programs actually lack Arm support. Adding Arm support is usually not hard in such a case either as the hard part like porting runtimes with JIT compilers is already done for Arm.

An emulator like FEX help in unfortunate cases of binary distribution.

Lack of big.LITTLE support

It seems big.LITTLE confuses some programs that assume only one processor type is supported and they need to be handled separately.

What did not work for me on Asahi Linux and how I fixed them

As I described earlier, usually Asahi Linux just works. If something does not work, well, it’s a chance for an open-source contribution. This section describes what didn’t work and how I fixed them. The fixes are all applicable for any Arm or big.LITTLE systems, meaning fixes for Asahi Linux actually benefits the entire Arm community.

KVM and big.LITTLE

KVM works fine if you pin the vCPU threads only to big or LITTLE cores; it magically fails if you don’t. Unfortunately, QEMU does not support pinning vCPU threads to distinct cores2 so you can’t use both big and LITTLE cores on a VM at the same time.

It is somewhat unsafe to allow a vCPU thread to migrate between big and LITTLE cores. An operating system often carries workarounds for cores and can be confused by such migration. To limit the confusion, the register that identifies the processor must be overridden. This requires extra caution and QEMU has lengthy documentation to describe safe configurations for x86. KVM on Arm64 does not support overriding the register, MIDR anyway3. Nevertheless, I decided to use this unsafe configuration because it should work for me™.

When QEMU fails with big.LITTLE, the serial console outputs the following before it shows GRUB menu:

Synchronous Exception at 0xXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

This corresponds to a line in EDK2 so something in EDK2 should have gone wrong. To investigate further, I built EDK2 with debug information and ran it to find that it results in an assertion failure in the following function of ArmPlatformPkg/PrePi/MainUniCore.c:

SecondaryMain (

This implies the following possibilities:

  1. EDK2 wrongly used MainUniCore.c for QEMU.
  2. QEMU wrongly started secondary processors.

I decided to investigate possibility 2. KVM should have some interface to start or not to start vCPU so I looked at the kernel documentation and found KVM_ARM_VCPU_POWER_OFF is passed to KVM_ARM_VCPU_INIT ioctl to start vCPU is started powered off, and KVM_SET_MP_STATE ioctl is used to start or stop vCPU during execution. I instrumented both ioctl calls and pinned QEMU to big cores to see how they should work in an ideal state.

Surprisingly, QEMU didn’t start secondary processors but used KVM_SET_MP_STATE ioctl to make vCPU stopped instead of passing the KVM_ARM_VCPU_POWER_OFF flag to KVM_ARM_VCPU_INIT. Anyway, I looked at the QEMU code to find what caused the KVM_SET_MP_STATE ioctl, which led to the following lines:

for (cs = first_cpu; cs; cs = CPU_NEXT(cs)) {
    Object *cpuobj = OBJECT(cs);

    object_property_set_int(cpuobj, "psci-conduit", info->psci_conduit,
     * Secondary CPUs start in PSCI powered-down state. Like the
     * code in do_cpu_reset(), we assume first_cpu is the primary
     * CPU.
    if (cs != first_cpu) {
        object_property_set_bool(cpuobj, "start-powered-off", true,

This proved possibility 2 is true. I then added printf before KVM_SET_MP_STATE ioctl and ran QEMU without pinning vCPUs. Surprisingly the ioctl was not called in this scenario.

Looking back at the execution path before QEMU reaches KVM_SET_MP_STATE ioctl, I found the following lines at the end of the kvm_arch_put_registers function:

    if (!write_list_to_kvmstate(cpu, level)) {
        return -EINVAL;

    * Setting VCPU events should be triggered after syncing the registers
    * to avoid overwriting potential changes made by KVM upon calling
    ret = kvm_put_vcpu_events(cpu);
    if (ret) {
        return ret;


    return ret;

In a big.LITTLE environment, the write_list_to_kvmstate function fails when writing CCSIDR_EL1 register. This failure didn’t result in a user-friendly message because the value kvm_arch_put_registers was never checked. I submitted a fix to add error checks, but this of course doesn’t make it compatible with big.LITTLE.

CCSIDR_EL1 is not a register, but is an array of registers whose element is selected with the CSSELR_EL1 register. Each element describes a level of cache. It looks a bit awkward in KVM; KVM calls such a register as a demux register and exposes each element as a separate register. KVM usually does not list read-only registers with KVM_GET_REG_LIST ioctl, but somehow it lists demux registers even though they are read-only and writing different values fails. This makes QEMU try to restore the CCSIDR_EL1 values as VM states.

As big and LITTLE cores have different cache configurations, they have different CCSIDR_EL1 values, and migrating a vCPU thread between big and LITTLE cores make the values change. If QEMU tries to restore CCSIDR_EL1 values before migration, it conflicts with the current values of CCSIDR_EL1 and results in an error.

After discussing with upstream maintainers, I decided to write patches to generate a common cache configuration that looks valid for any physical CPU. This patch is now merged and included since 6.3. Now you can run guests on QEMU/KVM without pinning to big or LITTLE cores.

Note that this configuration is strictly not safe as described above. There are room for improvement in both KVM and QEMU when it comes to big.LITTLE-like configuration. Even Alder Lake, Intel’s own big.LITTLE design is not supported well on QEMU/KVM.

KVM and watchpoint

Now QEMU/KVM works without doing anything special on Apple Silicon. However, when debugging igb I realized the watchpoint exception passes through the host and reaches the guest when I put watchpoint. QEMU receives the notification of the watchpoint hit, but the notification shows some random address as the cause of the watchpoint exception. This prevents QEMU from looking up the watchpoint and makes it think the exception is not from the watchpoint QEMU set and passes it to the guest.

It turned out that KVM just forgot to retrieve the address triggering the watchpoint. This bug was present for a year and 8 months; you cannot expect such a bug will be found soon like x86 bugs. It is still always possible to fix a bug by yourself.

The fix is submitted to the upstream and will be backported to stable kernels soon.


The next thing I tried after QEMU is libvirt. Anything specific to architecture should be handled by QEMU so I didn’t expect it to fail, but it did fail. It executes QEMU to probe its features, but this probing QEMU process failed to start.

It was easy to debug as QEMU showed a nice error message this time. It said KVM_CREATE_VM ioctl fails with EINVAL. This ioctl has a type parameter that defines the configuration of the VM. When the none machine type, which is a machine that does nothing, is used for feature probing, QEMU passes 0 for the parameter, meaning the VM should be created with the default configuration.

The default configuration should work for anyone, but Apple Silicon was an exception. The type parameter in KVM/arm64 has a field called IPA_Bits, which denotes the physical address size of the guest. The kernel documentation describes it as follows:

The requested size (IPA_Bits) must be:

 ==   =========================================================
  0   Implies default size, 40bits (for backward compatibility)
  N   Implies N bits, where N is a positive integer such that,
      32 <= N <= Host_IPA_Limit
 ==   =========================================================

Host_IPA_Limit is the maximum possible value for IPA_Bits on the host and is
dependent on the CPU capability and the kernel configuration. The limit can be
retrieved using KVM_CAP_ARM_VM_IPA_SIZE of the KVM_CHECK_EXTENSION ioctl() at

Host_IPA_Limit is 36 bits on Apple Silicon, meaning the default size, 40 bits, is not valid for the system. 32 bits should work for anyone so I submitted a patch to always specify 32 bits as IPA_Bits on Arm64.

The kernel should hide most details of the underlying architecture, and even leaked details should be covered by QEMU, but sometimes there are still leaked details and a hardware-independent component like libvirt can fail due to that.

QEMU memory leak

Another bug I caught when using QEMU/KVM is a simple memory leak that always happens in SMP configuration. It seemed nobody has tried LeakSanitizer on Arm64. This was an easy one, and the fix is already upstream.


DPDK Test Suite uses lscpu to enumerate all cores and to identify them, but it was not working properly on big.LITTLE system. lscpu shows something like the following on big.LITTLE system:

Architecture:           aarch64
  CPU op-mode(s):       64-bit
  Byte Order:           Little Endian
CPU(s):                 8
  On-line CPU(s) list:  0-7
Vendor ID:              Apple
  Model name:           -
    Model:              0
    Thread(s) per core: 1
    Core(s) per socket: 4
    Socket(s):          1
    Stepping:           0x1
    CPU(s) scaling MHz: 25%
    CPU max MHz:        2424.0000
    CPU min MHz:        600.0000
    BogoMIPS:           48.00
    Flags:              fp asimd evtstrm aes pmull sha1 sha2 crc32 atomics fphp asimdhp cpuid asimdrdm jscvt fcma lrcpc dcpop sha3 asimddp sha512 asimdfhm dit uscat ilrcpc flagm ssbs sb paca pacg dcpodp flagm2 frint i8mm bf16 bti ecv
  Model name:           -
    Model:              0
    Thread(s) per core: 1
    Core(s) per socket: 4
    Socket(s):          1
    Stepping:           0x1
    CPU(s) scaling MHz: 21%
    CPU max MHz:        3204.0000
    CPU min MHz:        660.0000
    BogoMIPS:           48.00
    Flags:              fp asimd evtstrm aes pmull sha1 sha2 crc32 atomics fphp asimdhp cpuid asimdrdm jscvt fcma lrcpc dcpop sha3 asimddp sha512 asimdfhm dit uscat ilrcpc flagm ssbs sb paca pacg dcpodp flagm2 frint i8mm bf16 bti ecv
Caches (sum of all):    
  L1d:                  768 KiB (8 instances)
  L1i:                  1.3 MiB (8 instances)
  L2:                   20 MiB (2 instances)
  Itlb multihit:        Not affected
  L1tf:                 Not affected
  Mds:                  Not affected
  Meltdown:             Not affected
  Mmio stale data:      Not affected
  Retbleed:             Not affected
  Spec store bypass:    Mitigation; Speculative Store Bypass disabled via prctl
  Spectre v1:           Mitigation; __user pointer sanitization
  Spectre v2:           Not affected
  Srbds:                Not affected
  Tsx async abort:      Not affected

Note that each CPU “model” has a field named “Socket(s)” and “Core(s) per socket”. lscpu assumes different CPU models are installed into different sockets (or another larger unit if present) and tells how many sockets each model occupies, but in reality, they are on the same socket, and the CPU package on the socket has 8 cores in total.

What is more awkward is the output of lscpu -p=CPU,Core,Socket. This command is expected to give unique identifiers for CPUs (threads), cores, and sockets.

# The following is the parsable format, which can be fed to other
# programs. Each different item in every column has an unique ID
# starting usually from zero.
# CPU,Core,Socket

Note that the same core number appears twice. It looks like this processor implements SMT and a core has two threads, but in reality, the two threads are in distinct cores. It is because the Core ID is assigned independently in each CPU model type. I proposed a patch to decouple the topology information from CPU model type.

Pixman on Arch Linux ARM

I received a report that QEMU does not display correctly when emulating MorphOS on macOS on Apple Silicon. I tried the emulation on Asahi Linux and its display output also had glitches so I assumed it should be a bug common for Arm or Apple Silicon. Eventually, I realized Pixman library is not working so I built it myself to find it surprisingly works.

The fact is that Arch Linux ARM copied the script to build Pixman for x86 to reuse it for Arm, and it was forgot to enable Arm-specific code. It didn’t work on macOS because the Arm-specific code was disabled due to incompatibility with the LLVM assembler.

I submitted a change to enable Arm-specific code for Arch Linux ARM. There is also a change proposed to make it compatible with LLVM assembler.


Asahi Linux works very well. Sometimes it doesn’t when doing something somewhat peculiar like using KVM, but it is often trivial to fix things even in such a case. Perhaps it may not be recommended for everyone, but it’s a nice platform for a software developer.

  1. Except for various WebGL pages, which may require functionalities not implemented yet. Providing environment variable LIBGL_ALWAYS_SOFTWARE=1 only for such applications will solve the problem while not damaging the performance of the entire system. 

  2. And I don’t know its performance implication. Please tell me if you know Linux scheduler internals and the answer. I know crosvm has an option for this. 

  3. Hypervisor.framework on macOS does support this. In general, Hypervisor.framework just exposes everything to the VMM and the kernel behaves like a shim. This gives greater control to VMM but also hurts the performance so this architecture is not suited for systems like servers that KVM targets.