tl;dr: Get vmdebootstrap replacement from and run it from the source tree. Tell me if something doesn’t work. Send patches.

Many years ago I wrote vmdebootstrap, a tool for installing Debian on a disk image for virtual machines. I had a clear personal need: I was setting up a CI system and it needed six workers: one each for Debian oldstable, stable, and unstable, on two architectures (i386, amd64). Installing Debian six times in the same way is a lot of work, so I figured how difficult can it be to automate it. Turns out that not difficult at all, except to install a bootloader.

(Don’t ask me why I didn’t use any of the other tools for this. It was long ago, and while some of the tools that now exist probably did exist then, I like writing code and learning things while doing it.)

After a while I was happy with what the program did, but didn’t want to upload it to Debian, and didn’t want to add the kinds of things other people wanted, so I turned vmdebootstrap over to Neil Williams, who added a ton of new features. Unfortunately, it turned out that my initial architecture was not scaleable, and also the code I wrote wasn’t very good, and there weren’t any tests.

Neil did heroic work forcing my crappy software into doing things I never envisioned. Last year he needed a break and asked me to take vmdebootstrap back. I did, and have been hiding from the public eye ever since, since I was so ashamed of the code. (I created a new identity and pretended to be an international assassin and backup specialist, travelling the world forcing people to have at least one tested backup of their system. If you’ve noticed reports in the press about people reporting near-death experiences while holding a shiny new USB drive, that would’ve been my fault.)

Pop quiz: if you have a program with ten boolean options (“do this, except if that option is given, do the other thing”), how many black box tests do you need to test all the functionality? If one run of the program takes half an hour, how long will a full test suite run?

I did some hard thinking about vmdebootstrap, and came to the sad conclusion that it had reached the end of its useful life as a living software project. There was no reasonable way to add most of the additional functionality people were asking for, and even maintaining the current code was too tedious a task to consider seriously. It was time to make a clean break of the past and start over, without caring about backwards compatibility. After all, the old code wasn’t going anywhere so anyone who needed it could still use it. There was no need to burden a new program with my past mistakes. All new mistakes were called for.

At the Cambridge mini-Debconf of November, 2016, I gave a short presentation of what I was going to do. I also posted about my plans to the debian-cloud list. In short, I would write a new, more flexible and cleaner replacement to be called vmdb2. For various personal reasons, I’ve not been able to spend as much time on vmdb2 as I’d like to, but I’ve now reached the point where I’d like to announce the first alpha version publically.

The source code is hosted here: . There are .deb packages at my personal public APT repo (, but vmdb2 is easy enough to run directly from a git checkout:

sudo ./vmdb2 foo.vmdb --output foo.img

There’s no need to install it to try it.

What works:

  • vmdb2 can build a disk image with Debian installed, for amd64 only at this time
  • the boot loader is GRUB, either for UEFI or BIOS
  • the image boots under Qemu / KVM and also on actual hardware

What doesn’t work:

  • other architecures, including building for a foreign archiecture
  • live CD building (no squashfs support)

I’m not opposed to adding support for those, but they’re not directly interesting to me. For example, I only have amd64 machines. The best way to get support for additional features is to tell me how, preferably in the form of patches. (If I have to read tons of docs, or other people’s code, and then write code and iterate while other people tell me it doesn’t work, it’s probably not happening.)

Why would you be interested in vmdb2? There’s a lot of other tools to do what it does, so perhaps you shouldn’t care. That’s fine. I like writing tools for myself. But if this kind of tool is of interest to you, please do have a look.

A short tutorial: vmdb2 wants you to give it a “specification file” (conventionally suffixed .vmdb, because someone stole the .spec suffix, but vmdb2 doesn’t care about the name). Below is an example. vmdb2 image specification files are in YAML, since I like YAML, and specify a sequence of steps to take to build the image. Each step is a tiny piece of self-contained functionality provided by a plugin.

  - mkimg: "{{ output }}"
    size: 4G

  - mklabel: msdos
    device: "{{ output }}"

  - mkpart: primary
    device: "{{ output }}"
    start: 0%
    end: 100%
    part-tag: root-part

The above create an image (name is specified with the –output option), which is four gigabytes in size, and create a partitition table and a single partition that fills the whole disk. The “tag” is given so that later steps can easily refer to the partition.

If you prefer another way to partition the disk, you can achieve that by adding more “mkpart” steps. For example, for UEFI you’ll want to have an EFI partition.

  - mkfs: ext4
    partition: root-part

  - mount: root-part
    fs-tag: root-fs

The above formats the partition with the ext4 filesystem, and then mounts it. The mount point will be a temporary directory created by vmdb2, and a tag is again given to the mount point so it can be referred to.

  - unpack-rootfs: root-fs

The above unpacks a tar archive to put content into the filesystem, if the tar archive exists. The tar archive is specified with the –rootfs-tarball command line option.

  - debootstrap: stretch
    target: root-fs
    unless: rootfs_unpacked

  - apt: linux-image-amd64
    fs-tag: root-fs
    unless: rootfs_unpacked

  - cache-rootfs: root-fs
    unless: rootfs_unpacked

The above will run debootstrap and install a kernel into the filesystem, but skip doing that if the rootfs tarball was used. Also, the tarball is created if it didn’t exist. This way the tarball is used by all but the first run, which saves a bit of time. On my laptop and with a local mirror, debootstrap and kernel installation takes on the order of nine minutes (500 to 600 seconds), whereas unpacking the tar archive is a bit faster (takes around 30 seconds). When iterating over things other than debootstrap, this speeds things up something wonderful, and seems worth the complexity.

The “unless:” mechanism is generic. All the steps share some state, and the unpack-rootfs step sets the “rootfs_unpacked” flag in the shared state. The “unless:” field tells vmdb2 to check for the flag and if it is not set, or if it is set to false (“unless it is set to true”), vmdb2 will execute the step. vmdb2 may get more such flags in the future, if there’s need.

  - chroot: root-fs
    shell: |
      sed -i '/^root:[^:]*:/s//root::/' /etc/passwd
      echo pc-vmdb2 > /etc/hostname

The above executes a couple of shell commands in a chroot of the root filesystem we’ve just created. In this case they remove a login password from root, and set the hostname. This is a replacement of the vmdebootstrap “customize” script, but it can be inserted anywhere into the sequence of steps. There’s boot chroot and non-chroot variants of the step.

This is a good point to mention that writing customize scripts gets quite repetitive and tedious after a while, so vmdb2 has a plugin to run Ansible instead. You can customize your image with that instead, while the image is being built and not have to wait until you boot the image and running Ansible over ssh.

  - grub: bios
    root-fs: root-fs
    root-part: root-part
    device: "{{ output }}"
    console: serial

Finally, install a boot loader, grub. This shows the BIOS variant, UEFI is also supported. This also configures grub and the kernel to use a serial console. There’s a “yarn” (test suite) to build and smoke test an image with vmdb2 to make sure at least the basic functionality works. The smoke test boots the image under Qemu, logs in as root, and tells the VM to power off. Very, very basic, but has already found actual bugs in vmdb2. The smoke test needs the serial console to work.

As with vmdebootstrap originally, I don’t particularly want to maintain the package in Debian. I’ve added Debian packaging (so that I can install it on my own machines), but I already have enough packages to maintain, so I’m hoping someone else will volunteer to take on the Debian maintainership and bug handling duties.

If you would like vmdb2 to do more things to suit you better, I’m happy to explain how to write plugins to provide more types of steps.

If you are currently using vmdebootstrap, either directly or as part of another tool, I encourage you to have a look at vmdb2. In the long term, I would like to retire vmdebootstrap entirely, once vmdb2 can do everything vmdebootstrap can do, and few people use vmdebootstrap. This may take a while.

In any case, whether you want a new image building tool or not, happy hacking.