Running NixOS in a VM

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I’m running services on my home network with NixOS, but testing them first on my development machine will prevent configuration mistakes. I’m also going to eventually run these in VMs on the server itself, under Proxmox, so I can’t escape building images for VMs anyway. This is my workflow for building Nix configurations into an OS image to test under QEMU.

You can use any directory structure you’d like – it’s completely arbitrary – but I found a few people following the common/, hosts/, and ops/ convention. Most of this boilerplate is from Xe’s article on Morph and NixOS.

To run NixOS under QEMU, a common/generic-qemu.nix is slightly modified from Xe’s generic-libvirtd.nix:

{ modulesPath, ... }: {
  imports = [ (modulesPath + "/profiles/qemu-guest.nix") ];

  services.openssh.enable = true;

  boot.initrd.availableKernelModules =
    [ "ata_piix" "uhci_hcd" "virtio_pci" "sr_mod" "virtio_blk" ];
  boot.initrd.kernelModules = [ ];
  boot.kernelModules = [ "kvm-intel" ];
  boot.extraModulePackages = [ ];

  boot.kernelParams = [

  fileSystems."/" = {
    device = "/dev/vda1";
    fsType = "ext4";

Crucially, the boot.kernelParams section allows QEMU to use its owning TTY as the serial console when launched from the command line with -nographic. This was important to me, as I’m running a headless NixOS.

The host I’m using is named Vilya, and its configuration is at hosts/vilya/configration.nix:

{ config, pkgs, ... }: {
  imports = [

  networking.hostName = "vilya";
  networking.firewall.enable = false;

This pulls in all of the common configuration pieces and declares it as a QEMU guest. It will also contain any host-specific services, potentially defined in a common/services/ directory.

The rest of the configuration is common to most hosts, but I’ll include it here for completeness. common/default.nix includes any configuration that’s shared between all hosts, and imports common/users/default.nix, which should include your user. This is the common/default.nix:

{ ... }: {
  imports = [ ./users ];
  boot.cleanTmpDir = true; = true;
  services.journald.extraConfig = ''

  services.resolved = {
    enable = true;
    dnssec = "false";

And my common/users/default.nix:

{ config, pkgs, ... }: {
  users.users.matt = {
    isNormalUser = true;
    # This is a personal preference, but hints at the level of customization possible here.
    shell =;
    openssh.authorizedKeys.keys = [
      "ssh-ed25519 <key>"
  users.users.root.openssh.authorizedKeys.keys =

I’ve removed my public key, but this lets users log in over SSH without needing to enter a password. The user even lacks a password, so I may need to add one by setting the user’s hashedPassword property to the output of mkpasswd -m sha-512.


There’s probably a way to use a Nix file to deploy the system and run it in a VM, but I don’t know Nix well enough to write that. At default.nix, I have the following configuration to set up the tools I need to build and run VMs:

with import <nixpkgs> {};

mkShell {
  name = "lab";
  buildInputs = [

Running nix develop brings makes these tools availabe to the shell. To generate a virtual disk for the storage medium, I used qemu-img:

; qemu-img create -f qcow2 vdisk1 10G

This creates a 10GiB file named vdisk1 in the current working directory. To generate the ISO to boot from:

; nixos-generate -c hosts/vilya/configuration.nix -f iso

My ThinkPad X270 takes about 5 minutes on this step, which is a bit long for rapid feedback. And finally, to run the VM:

; qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -m 2048 -boot d -cdrom <iso-path> -hda vdisk1 -net user,hostfwd=tcp::10022-:22 -net nic -nographic

This forwards the SSH port 22 to 10022 on the host machine (-net user,hostfwd=tcp::10022-:22), but also leaves the controlling terminal with a serial console open to the VM. I can access the machine over SSH with ssh matt@localhost -p 10022 without a password.