Thursday, August 6, 2020

Why QEMU should move from C to Rust

Welcome Redditors and HackerNews folks! This post is getting attention outside the QEMU community, so I'd like to highlight two things that may not be immediately clear: I am a QEMU maintainer and I'm not advocating to Rewrite It In Rust. Enjoy! :)

My KVM Forum 2018 presentation titled Security in QEMU: How Virtual Machines provide Isolation (pdf) (video) reviewed security bugs in QEMU and found the most common causes were C programming bugs. This includes buffer overflows, use-after-free, uninitialized memory, and more. In this post I will argue for using Rust as a safer language that prevents these classes of bugs.

In 2018 the choice of a safer language was not clear. C++ offered safe abstractions without an effective way to prohibit unsafe language features. Go also offered safety but with concerns about runtime costs. Rust looked promising but few people had deep experience with it. In 2018 I was not able to argue confidently for moving away from C in QEMU.

Now in 2020 the situation is clearer. C programming bugs are still the main cause of CVEs in QEMU. Rust has matured, its ecosystem is growing and healthy, and there are virtualization projects like Crosvm, Firecracker, and cloud-hypervisor that prove Rust is an effective language for writing Virtual Machine Monitors (VMM). In the QEMU community Paolo Bonzini and Sergio Lopez's work on rust-vmm and vhost-user code inspired me to look more closely at moving away from C.

Do we need to change programming language?

Most security bugs in QEMU are C programming bugs. This is easy to verify by looking through the CVE listings. Although I have only reviewed CVEs it seems likely that non-security bugs are also mostly C programming bugs.

Eliminating C programming bugs does not necessarily require switching programming languages. Other approaches to reducing bug rates in software include:

  • Coding style rules that forbid unsafe language features.
  • Building safe abstractions and prohibiting unsafe language features or library APIs.
  • Static checkers that scan source code for bugs.
  • Dynamic sanitizers that run software with instrumentation to identify bugs.
  • Unit testing and fuzzing.

The problem is, the QEMU community has been doing these things for years but new bugs are still introduced despite these efforts. It is certainly possible to spend more energy on these efforts but the evidence shows that bugs continue to slip through.

There are two issues with these approaches to reducing bugs. First, although these approaches help find existing bugs, eliminating classes of bugs so they cannot exist in the first place is a stronger approach. This is hard to do with C since the language is unsafe, placing the burden of safety on the programmer.

Second, much of the ability to write safe C code comes with experience. Custom conventions, APIs, tooling, and processes to reduce bugs is a hurdle for one-time contributors or newcomers. It makes the codebase inaccessible unless we accept lower standards for some contributors. Code quality should depend as little on experience as possible but C is notorious for being a programming language that requires a lot of practice before you can write production-quality code.

Why Rust?

Safe languages eliminate memory safety bugs (and other classes like concurrency bugs). Rust made this a priority in its design:

  • Use-after-free, double-free, memory leaks, and other lifetime bugs are prevented at compile-time by the borrow checker where the compiler checks ownership of data.
  • Buffer overflows and other memory corruptions are prevented by compile-time and runtime bounds-checking.
  • Pointer deference bugs are prevented by the absense of NULL pointers and strict ownership rules.
  • Uninitialized memory is prevented because all variables and fields must be initialized.

Rust programs can still "panic" at runtime when safety cannot be proven at compile time but this does not result in undefined behavior as seen in C programs. The program simply aborts with a backtrace. Bugs that could have resulted in arbitrary code execution in C become at most denial-of-service bugs in Rust. This reduces the severity of bugs.

As a result of this language design most C programming bugs that plague QEMU today are either caught by the compiler or turn into a safe program termination. It is reasonable to expect CVEs to reduce in number and in severity when switching to Rust.

At the same time Rust eliminates the need for many of the measures that the QEMU community added onto C because the Rust programming language and its compiler already enforce safety. This means newcomers and one-time contributors will not need QEMU-specific experience, can write production-quality code more easily, and can get their code merged more quickly. It also means reviewers will have to spend less time pointing out C programming bugs or asking for changes that comply with QEMU's way of doing things.

That said, Rust has a reputation for being a scary language due to the borrow checker. Most programmers have not thought about object lifetimes and ownership as systematically and explicitly as required by Rust. This raises the bar to learning the language, but I look at it this way: learning Rust is humanly possible, writing bug-free C code is not.

How can we change programming language?

When I checked in 2018 QEMU was 1.5 million lines of code. It has grown since then. Moving a large codebase to a new programming language is extremely difficult. If people want to convert QEMU to Rust that would be great, but I personally don't have the appetite to do it because I think the integration will be messy, result in a lot of duplication, and there is too much un(der)maintained code that is hard to convert.

The reason I am writing this post is because device emulation, the main security attack surface for VMMs, can be done in a separate program. That program can be written in any language and this is where Rust comes in. For vhost devices it is possible to write Rust device backends today and I hope this will become the default approach to writing new devices.

For non-vhost devices the vfio-user project is working on an interface out-of-process device emulation. It will be possible to implement devices in Rust there too.

If you are implementing new device emulation code please consider doing it in Rust!


Most security bugs in QEMU today are C programming bugs. Switching to a safer programming language will significantly reduce security bugs in QEMU. Rust is now mature and proven enough to use as the language for device emulation code. Thanks to vhost-user and vfio-user using Rust for device emulation does not require a big conversion of QEMU code, it can simply be done in a separate program. This way attack surfaces can be written in Rust to make them less susceptible to security bugs going forward.