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How to create a Virtual Machine in SmartOS

First, it's important to understand how Hardware Virtual Machines work in SmartOS.

Using Linux (KVM) or FreeBSD (bhyve), commonly virt-install is used to create/install virtual machines. The qemu or bhyve command run in the same security context as the rest of the system.

On SmartOS however, virtual machines are run inside a zone. This zone, in many ways, resembels a native SmartOS zone, with some key differences.

  • The zone is granted access to the vmm device, either /dev/kvm or /dev/bhyve, depending on the zone brand
  • The zone has severely restricted capabilities. Processes in this zone are prevented from:
    • Modifying the filesystem
    • Accessing the network
    • Creating new processes
    • List processes, or get information about other processes
    • Sending signals to processes outside of its session group

The analogue for Linux and FreeBSD would be as though you're running qemu in a container or bhyve in a jail (although without the restricted environment described above). On Linux or FreeBSD you'd create the container/jail, log into it and then execute virt-install. On SmartOS, these details are abstracted away so that for most purposes the zone containing the VM is almost invisible.

With that understanding, we can now create an instance capable of booting from an ISO image.

Getting Started

You will need

The Machine JSON Description

Save the code snippet below to a file called "vmspec.json". You can make changes to the networks and other variables as appropriate. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all options. For all options see vmadm(8). (Sizes are listed in MiB)

Note: Creating images from scratch works best with KVM. KVM instances provide a DHCP server for the guest, and a VNC endpoint for the operator. Using Bhyve will work also, but networking must be configured manually and the guest OS console must be on the first serial port.

When using this method to create new images, as long as the installed guest can retrieve networking from customer_metadata and configure itself non-interactively, the resulting image can be used with either KVM or bhyve, regardless of which brand was used to create it.

The rest of this guid will assume KVM.

This is an example JSON payload that can be used to create an empty KVM instance. The autoboot property is set to false because this payload does not yet provide a bootable media. It is important to note that this instance is not cloned from an image.

  "brand": "kvm",
  "vcpus": 1,
  "autoboot": false,
  "ram": 1024,
  "resolvers": ["", ""],
  "disks": [
      "boot": true,
      "model": "virtio",
      "size": 40960
  "nics": [
      "nic_tag": "admin",
      "model": "virtio",
      "ip": "",
      "netmask": "",
      "gateway": "",
      "primary": 1

Note: When installing an operating system that does not ship with virtio support, set model to ide for disks and e1000 for nics.

Create the Empty Virtual Machine

Create the empty virtual machine using vmadm. Due to the "autoboot": false setting, the machine will not be running.

Note the UUID printed after creation. This UUID is the ID of the VM and will be used to reference it for the rest of its lifecycle.

$ vmadm create < vmspec.json
Successfully created VM b8ab5fc1-8576-45ef-bb51-9826b52a4651

Copy your OS ISO to the zone

The path to the ISO image in the json is relative to the root of the zone that will execute the qemu command, so you'll need to place the ISO image in the root if the VM zone.

cd /zones/b8ab5fc1-8576-45ef-bb51-9826b52a4651/root/
curl -O

From the global zone perspective, place the file in the directory /zones/<instance_uuid>/root/. From the perspective of the instance the ISO will be referred to as /<filename>.iso.

Boot the VM from the ISO Image

vmadm is the virtual machine administration tool. It is used to manage the lifecycle of a virtual machine after it already exists. We will boot the virtual machine we have just created, but tell it to boot off of the ISO image the first time it comes up.

vmadm boot b8ab5fc1-8576-45ef-bb51-9826b52a4651 order=cd,once=d cdrom=/image.iso,ide

Note: The path for the ISO image will be the relative path of the ISO to the zone you are in. This is why it starts with the /.

Use VNC to Connect to the VM

The vmadm tool can print out the information on the VM. You can also append a section to print specificially.

$ vmadm info b8ab5fc1-8576-45ef-bb51-9826b52a4651 vnc
  "vnc": {
    "display": 39565,
    "port": 45465,
    "host": ""

The IP printed will be the IP of the SmartOS global zone which brokers the VNC connection to the VM. You should be able to connect to the reported VNC port from your workstation.

Your VM is now running. You can shutdown your virtual machine and the ISO will remain available to the zone. Typically at this point you would perform the OS installation via the VNC console. When finished, if you are going to create an image from this instance be sure to remove unique identifiers such as the hostname, networking, and private keys that should be generated by hosts as they boot the new image.

If the guest OS is Linux or Windows you will probably want to install the Triton VM Guest Tools. For other operating systems you should be able to compile the mdata-client for accessing customer_metadata.