Bottom Line: Aarch64 Linux VMs are not difficult to get running on an M1 Mac.

I ran across an article a few weeks ago which has some detailed instructions for creating an aarch64 Ubuntu virtual machine on an M1 Mac through libvirt. I’ll be referring to this article frequently, so you may want to have it open in another tab:

I was able to follow those instructions with minor issues and have since also installed kali and nixos aarch64 images, so I thought I’d make a brief writeup of my process (which is largely just following the article linked in the first sentence).

First, I recommend making a place to keep your virtual machine config files (~/vms in my case), and I additionally recommend making a subdirectory to keep the larger files like the disk images and installation ISOs (~/vms/storage).

Next, use Homebrew to install and start some dependencies:

Update 20221111: My first-ever pull request to nipxkgs got merged which fixes issues with EFI booting and libvirt on M1 Macs, so nix users should soon be able to use nixpkgs#libvirt instead of homebrew. To do so, once libvirt is installed, you’ll need to change the emulator path to /run/current-system/sw/bin/qemu-system-aarch64 in the XML config file below, and possibly rerun the virsh define step.

$ brew install qemu libvirt gcc
$ cat <<'EOF' >> /opt/homebrew/etc/libvirt/qemu.conf
security_driver = "none"
dynamic_ownership = 0
remember_owner = 0
$ brew services start libvirt

I am not sure why gcc is required here, but it seems to be suggested on a few instructional posts I’ve seen. I already had it installed for unrelated reasons; if anybody tries without gcc please let me know whether or not it works.

Next, I would recommend excluding ~/vms/storage from your Time Machine backup directories, as these are large files that will change frequently in ways that I don’t expect Time Machine to handle well; the ability to exclude the whole folder is why I put them into a subdirectory. System Preferences -> Time Machine -> Options. (I also exclude from restic: touch ~/.vms/storage/.norestic.)

Next, download your aarch64 installation ISO and put it in ~/vms/storage/:

You’ll also need to create a .qcow2 image file that will act as your “hard drive” for the VM (you’ll use the installer ISO to install to this “drive”), using a 50 Gb drive and nixos.qcow2 for example:

$ qemu-img create -f qcow2 ~/vms/storage/nixos.qcow2 50g

Once that’s done, you’ll need to create an XML config for each VM. Below is the template I use, again copied from the link in the first sentence, with a few minor modifications:

  • Replace NAMEHERE and UUIDHERE with a memorable name and a unique UUID.
    • You can use the built-in uuidgen command to generate a UUID.
  • Replace COWFILE and ISOFILE with the absolute paths to the respective files
  • Change the passwd for VNC
    • Note that the built-in MacOS Screen Sharing app works great to connect via VNC but doesn’t seem to be able to connect without a password, which was a major point of difficulty during my first attempt
  • You may want to change the ports for VNC and SSH
<domain type='hvf' xmlns:qemu=''>
    <memory unit='GiB'>2</memory>
    <cpu mode='custom' match="exact">
        <gic version='2'/>
    <os firmware='efi'>
        <type arch='aarch64' machine='virt'>hvm</type>
    <clock offset='localtime'/>
        <controller type='usb' model='qemu-xhci'/>
        <disk type='file' device='disk'>
            <driver name='qemu' type='qcow2'/>
            <source file='QCOWFILE'/>
            <target dev='vda' bus='virtio'/>
            <boot order='1'/>
        <disk type='file' device='disk'>
            <driver name='qemu' type='raw'/>
            <source file='ISOFILE'/>
            <target dev='vdb' bus='virtio'/>
            <boot order='2'/>
        <console type='pty'>
            <target type='serial'/>
        <input type='tablet' bus='usb'/>
        <input type='keyboard' bus='usb'/>
        <graphics type='vnc' port='5900' listen='' passwd='changeme'/>
            <model type='virtio' vram='32768'/>
    <seclabel type='none'/>
        <qemu:arg value='-machine'/>
        <qemu:arg value='highmem=off'/>
        <qemu:arg value='-netdev'/>
        <qemu:arg value='user,id=n1,hostfwd=tcp::2222-:22'/>
        <qemu:arg value='-device'/>
        <qemu:arg value='virtio-net-pci,netdev=n1,bus=pcie.0,addr=0x19'/>

With this done, one should be able to define and start the VM like so, using nixos.xml and nixos as an example config file and name:

$ virsh define nixos.xml
$ virsh start nixos

From here, to complete the installation, you can connect graphically to VNC using the built-in Screen Sharing app by connecting to vnc://:PASSWORD@localhost:5900 through a variety of means:

  • Opening the app: /System/Library/CoreServices/Applications/Screen
  • From a Finder window using the keyboard shortcut k
  • Running from a terminal: open 'vnc://:PASSWORD@localhost:5900'
  • You’ll obviously need to use the VNC PASSWORD you defined in the config file
  • For some distros, or after you’ve gone through installing a distribution and creating a user, you may need to use those credentials to connect via VNC: vnc://USERNAME:PASSWORD@localhost:5900

At this point you’re up and running, and you’ll need to refer to the documentation for your specific distro to go through the installaion process; I was able to get all three working with minimal issues:

  • Kali had some trouble with the installer, some error about mounting and CDROM that I resolved with some help from StackOverflow:
  • Kali wasn’t able to install the default packages; I was able to skip this step and later install them with apt install -y kali-linux-default
  • I had a few issues getting NixOS installed on my usual BTRFS root setup; it eventually worked with the default setup using systemd-boot and EFI mounted at /boot

Additionally, if you’re as new to libvirt as me, you’ll want to be familiar with a few additional commands. For example, using a machine defined in mynixos.xml which specifies <name>nixos</name>:

  • Tell libvirt about the VM: virsh define mynixos.xml
    • Do this again after making changes to the config file
  • Start / stop the vm: virsh start nixos, virsh stop nixos
  • Shutdown the machine: virsh shutdown nixos
    • In most cases I had to specify virsh shutdown --mode=acpi nixos
  • Hard reboot (if virsh reboot --mode=acpi nixos isn’t working): virsh reset nixos
  • virsh console nixos
  • Check the status of all VMs: virsh list

As I’ve noted a few times I’m fairly new to this, so if you have suggestions please leave them in the comments below!