Protected Virtualization on s390


Protected virtualization, also known as IBM Secure Execution is a hardware-based privacy protection technology for s390x (IBM Z). It allows to execute virtual machines such that the host system has no access to a VM's state and memory contents.

Unlike other similar technologies, the memory of a running guest is not encrypted but protected by hardware access controls, which may only be manipulated by trusted system firmware, called ultravisor.

For the cases where the host needs access to guest memory (e.g. for paging), it can request pages to be exported to it. The exported page will be encrypted with a unique key for the running guest by the ultravisor. The ultravisor also computes an integrity value for the page, and stores it in a special table, together with the page index and a counter. This way it can verify the integrity of the page content upon re-import into the guest.

In other cases it may be necessary for a guest to grant the host access to dedicated memory regions (e.g. for I/O). The guest can request that the ultravisor removes the memory protection from individual pages, so that they can be shared with the host. Likewise, the guest can undo the sharing.

A secure guest will initially start in a regular non-protected VM. The start-up is controlled by a small bootstrap program loaded into memory together with encrypted operating system components and a control structure (the PV header). The operating system components (e.g. Linux kernel, initial RAM file system, kernel parameters) are encrypted and integrity protected. The component encryption keys and integrity values are stored in the PV header. The PV header is wrapped with a public key belonging to a specific system (in fact it can be wrapped with multiple such keys). The matching private key is only accessible by trusted hardware and firmware in that specific system. Consequently, such a secure guest boot image can only be run on the systems it has been prepared for. Its contents can't be decrypted without access to the private key and it can't be modified as it is integrity protected.

Host Requirements

IBM Secure Execution for Linux has some hardware and firmware requirements. The system hardware must be an IBM z15 (or newer), or an IBM LinuxONE III (or newer).

It is also necessary that the IBM Secure Execution feature is enabled for that system. With libvirt >= 6.5.0 you can run virt-host-validate or otherwise check for facility '158', e.g.

$ grep facilities /proc/cpuinfo | grep 158

The kernel must include the protected virtualization support which can be verified by checking for the presence of directory /sys/firmware/uv. It will only be present when both the hardware and the kernel support are available.

Finally, the host operating system must donate some memory to the ultravisor needed to store memory security information. This is achieved by specifying the following kernel command line parameter to the host boot configuration


Guest Requirements

Guest Boot

To start a guest in protected virtualization secure mode, the boot image must have been prepared first with the program genprotimg using the correct public key for this host. genprotimg is part of the package s390-tools, or s390-utils, depending on the Linux distribution being used. It can also be found at

The guests have to be configured to use the host CPU model, which must contain the unpack facility indicating ultravisor guest support.

With the following command it's possible to check whether the host CPU model satisfies the requirement

$ virsh domcapabilities | grep unpack

which should return

<feature policy='require' name='unpack'/>

Note that on hosts with libvirt < 6.5.0 if the check fails despite the host system actually supporting protected virtualization guests, this can be caused by a stale libvirt capabilities cache. To recover, run the following commands

$ systemctl stop libvirtd
$ rm /var/cache/libvirt/qemu/capabilities/*.xml
$ systemctl start libvirtd

Guest I/O

Protected virtualization guests support I/O using virtio devices. As the virtio data structures of secure guests are not accessible by the host, it is necessary to use shared memory ('bounce buffers').

To enable virtio devices to use shared buffers, it is necessary to configure them with platform_iommu enabled. This can done by adding iommu='on' to the driver element of a virtio device definition in the guest's XML, e.g.

<interface type='network'>
  <source network='default'/>
  <model type='virtio'/>
  <driver name='vhost' iommu='on'/>

It is mandatory to define all virtio bus devices in this way to prevent the host from attempting to access protected memory. Ballooning will not work and is fenced by QEMU. It should be disabled by specifying

<memballoon model='none'/>

Finally, the guest Linux must be instructed to allocate I/O buffers using memory shared between host and guest using SWIOTLB. This is done by adding swiotlb=nnn to the guest's kernel command line string, where nnn stands for the number of statically allocated 2K entries. A commonly used value for swiotlb is 262144.

Example guest definition

Minimal domain XML for a protected virtualization guest, essentially it's mostly about the iommu property

<domain type='kvm'>
  <memory unit='KiB'>2048000</memory>
  <currentMemory unit='KiB'>2048000</currentMemory>
    <type arch='s390x'>hvm</type>
  <cpu mode='host-model'/>
    <disk type='file' device='disk'>
      <driver name='qemu' type='qcow2' cache='none' io='native' iommu='on'>
      <source file='/var/lib/libvirt/images/protected.qcow2'/>
      <target dev='vda' bus='virtio'/>
    <interface type='network'>
      <driver iommu='on'/>
      <source network='default'/>
      <model type='virtio'/>
    <console type='pty'/>
    <memballoon model='none'/>