QEMU internals

A series of posts about QEMU internals:

View the Project on GitHub airbus-seclab/qemu_blog

A deep dive into QEMU: a Brief History of Time

Ever wanted to play with general relativity ? QEMU is a simulation environment, guess what ? We can control time as seen by the VM !

Some architectures directly provide a clock register inside the CPU. However, a board usually needs extended time control through dedicated devices. How would you implement such a device inside QEMU ?

Time in QEMU

QEMU Clocks

QEMU implements several clocks to get informed about time. Obviously you can still directly use host OS interface to get time information.

Looking at timer.h we learn that there exists 4 clock types:

The one that will be of interest for simulating basic timers is virtual. It only runs alongside the VM, so it reflects time reality in the context of the VM.

QEMU provides a qemu_clock_xxx API to control time for related clocks.

int64_t now = qemu_clock_get_ms(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL);

This returns the current time in millisecond for the virtual clock.

QEMU Timers

QEMU provides a timer_xxx API to create, modify, reset, delete timers, for different clocks and granularity (ms, ns). You can attach timers to specific clocks. The main QEMU execution loop controls the virtual clock and can disable timers when the VM vCPU is stopped.

The following piece of code creates a timer with milliseconds granularity, that runs only when the VM vCPU runs:

QEMUTimer *user_timer = timer_new_ms(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL, user_timeout_cb, obj);
int64_t    now        = qemu_clock_get_ms(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL);

timer_mod(timer, now + duration);

static void user_timeout_cb(void *opaque)
  obj_t *obj = (obj_t*)opaque;

When duration milliseconds have elapsed in the virtual clock time, the callback function user_timeout_cb is called.

Creating a timer device

As any other device, and following the datasheet of the timer you would like to simulate, you will have to expose IO memory regions to reflect device register configuration to QEMU timers setup and raise IRQs on those timers expiration.

So you will need both device specific hardware representation and QEMU internal clock model.

CPIOM tick timer

Under our CPIOM example implementation this may look like the following:

typedef struct cpiom_clock
    QEMUTimer *qemu_timer;
    uint32_t  *trigger;
    int64_t    restart;
    double     duration;

} cpiom_clock_t;

typedef struct cpiom_timer_device_state
    /*< private >*/
    SysBusDevice      parent_obj;

    /*< public >*/
    MemoryRegion      iomem;
    cpiom_timer_reg_t reg;
    qemu_irq          irq;

    /* internal clock management */
    cpiom_clock_t     tick;

} cpiom_timer_state_t;

We have a standard SysBusDevice with iomem IO memory region and underlying device registers reg. It also declares a cpiom_clock called tick. The real CPIOM timers are actually more complex, but for the sake of simplicity here we will only consider a tick timer.

static void cpiom_timer_init(Object *obj)
    cpiom_timer_state_t *tm  = CPIOM_TIMERS(obj);
    SysBusDevice        *dev = SYS_BUS_DEVICE(obj);

    memory_region_init_io(&tm->iomem, obj, &cpiom_timer_reg_ops, tm,
                          CPIOM_TIMERS_NAME"-reg", CPIOM_MMAP_TIMERS_SIZE);
    sysbus_init_mmio(dev, tm->iomem);
    sysbus_init_irq(dev, &tm->irq);

    tm->tick.qemu_timer = timer_new_ns(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL, tick_expired, tm);
    tm->tick.trigger    = &tm->reg.base.tick;

We actually setup a device whose any access to tm->iomem will update tm->reg thanks to the cpiom_timer_reg_ops MemoryRegionOps. In the meantime, a nano second virtual clock timer is created to call tick_expired.

Accessing the CPIOM tick timer

Let’s say offset 0x0c is a R/W 32 bits TIME_COUNTER register for our imaginary timer device. The counter is decremented at a given frequency (usually adjustable via a scale register). When it reaches 0, it raises an IRQ.

Eventually an OS driver running on our CPIOM board, and trying to setup the timer device, will happen to write to this register.

A candidate implementation would be:

static const MemoryRegionOps cpiom_timer_reg_ops = {
    .read  = cpiom_timer_reg_read,
    .write = cpiom_timer_reg_write,
    .endianness = DEVICE_NATIVE_ENDIAN,

static void cpiom_timer_reg_write(void *opaque, hwaddr addr, uint64_t data, unsigned size)
    cpiom_timer_state_t *tm = (cpiom_timer_state_t*)opaque;

    if (addr == 0x0c)
        write_counter(tm, data);

static void write_counter(cpiom_timer_state_t *tm, uint32_t new)
    if (!timer_is_active(tm))

    if (new == 0)
        clock_setup(tm, &tm->tick, new);

static void tick_expired(void *opaque)
    cpiom_timer_state_t *tm = (cpiom_timer_state_t*)opaque;

If the driver modifies the device counter, we should check for possible immediate expiration and raise an IRQ. Else we must update our QEMU internal timer to trigger a call to tick_expired at the expected virtual clock time.

Time dilatation

Interestingly, the clock_setup might look like:

static void clock_setup(cpiom_timer_state_t *tm, cpiom_clock_t *clk, uint32_t count)
    clk->duration = nsperiod * count;
    clk->restart  = qemu_clock_get_ns(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL);

    uint64_t expire = clk->restart + (int64_t)floor(clk->duration);
    timer_mod(clk->qemu_timer, expire /* +/- speed factor */);

We compute the next expiration date in nano seconds based on the new counter value and the timer frequency (expressed as nsperiod). This period might be computed as follows:

    nsperiod = (1/TIMER_FREQ_MHZ) * 1000 * scale;

Notice that we can also induce a speed factor effect to the virtual clock.

Elapsed time

Conversely, whenever a driver reads the device counter register, your code must reflect the elapsed time in the VM and give back an appropriate value. Something like:

    now          = qemu_clock_get_ns(QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL);
    count        = (now - clk->restart)/nsperiod;
    clk->restart = now;