Modifying QCOW Images with Guestfish

In this post, I’m going to talk about a way to modify QCOW2-based images without having to boot up a full-blown virtual machine based on the image. I found this process while trying to change the behavior of cloud-init on the official Ubuntu cloud images from Canonical.

While I had successfully built my own Ubuntu 12.04 LTS image for my OpenStack-based home lab (and it worked just fine), I was keen to use Canonical’s official cloud images as they were much smaller (around 250MB versus 1.5GB for my home-built image). Given that disk space is at a bit of a premium in my home lab, using the smaller images would be quite beneficial. The problem was that cloud-init wasn’t configured to operate in a way that worked for my home lab environment.

The question, of course, was…how do I do this? I tried a couple different approaches:

  1. I installed VirtualBox on one of my OS X systems, because I knew VirtualBox supported QCOW2 images. Unfortunately, trying to launch a VM using one of the official cloud images as a root disk failed. (I presume this is because the cloud images assume the use of the virtio block driver, which VirtualBox doesn’t support.)

  2. Next, I installed a plain jane Ubuntu VM in VirtualBox and attached the official cloud image QCOW2 file as a second hard disk. That didn’t work either; the Ubuntu VM refused to recognize the filesystem(s) on the QCOW2 image.

I was about at my wits’ end when I found this post. Aha! I’d heard of guestfish before, but I hadn’t thought to try it in this instance. Guestfish is part of the larger libguestfs project.

So I tried the instructions in the post I’d found. Unfortunately, it failed the first time I tried, but I later—thanks to qemu-img check—found that the Ubuntu 12.04 cloud image I’d downloaded was somehow damaged/corrupted. Using a new download of the image was successful.

Here are the steps I used to modify the contents of a QCOW2 disk image using guestfish:

  1. Starting from a vanilla Ubuntu 12.04 LTS install, use apt-get update and apt-get install guestfish to install guestfish. (You’ll probably need/want to use sudo with both of these commands.)

  2. During the installation of guestfish, you can select to create a “virtual appliance” that guestfish uses. If you choose not to do this during installation, you can always do it later with sudo update-guestfs-appliance.

  3. Once guestfish is installed and the virtual appliance is created/updated, launch guestfish itself with sudo guestfish. Note that if you don’t have root privileges or don’t use sudo, guestfish will still launch and act like everything is working—but it will fail. Once guestfish is up and running, you’ll be sitting at a “> <fs>” prompt.

  4. Type add <QCOW2 image filename> (obviously substituting the full path and correct filename for the QCOW2 image you’d like to modify).

  5. Type run and press Enter. You’ll see a progress bar that updates the status of the guestfs virtual appliance. Once it’s complete, you’ll be returned to the “> <fs>” prompt.

  6. Enter list-filesystems. Guestfish should return a list of filesystems on the QCOW2 disk image. In the case of the official Canonical cloud images, only “/dev/vda1″ is returned.

  7. To gain access to the filesystem in the QCOW2 image, enter mount <device specification> <guestfish mount point>. For example, when I was modifying the Canonical cloud images, I used mount /dev/vda1 /. Keep in mind you’re not mounting to the system on which guestfish is running; you’re mounting to the guestfish virtual appliance.

  8. Now just edit the files in the QCOW2 image using whatever method you prefer. In my case, I needed to edit /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg, so I just used vi to edit the file and make whatever changes were needed.

  9. When you’re done, type exit to quit guestfish and commit changes to the QCOW2 image.

And that’s it! Using this technique I was able to quickly and easily modify the Ubuntu cloud images so that cloud-init behaved in the way that I wanted.

Hopefully this information helps someone else. If you have any questions or corrections, I invite you to share in the comments below.

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  1. lishuai’s avatar

    guestmount is nice!

  2. Marius Cornea’s avatar

    An alternative to guestfish is qemu-nbd. In order to mount the fs inside the qcow2 file you must first load the module by modprobe nbd max_part=8, attach the file to /dev/nbd0 : qemu-nbd -c /dev/nbd0 file.qcow2 and then mount the /dev/nbd0 partition: mount /dev/nbd0p1 /mnt for mounting the first partition file system of the qcow2 file.

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