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Table of contents


Imagine that you have a VPS. You want to do something unsafe, e.g. set up a system with major security holes, so that you can test the skills of your “friend” who claims to be ultra haxor, hacked the whole neighborhood.

Well, that’s what I wanted to do on my VPS provided by AlphaVPS. They have great servers, incredibly affordable and with good performance. Unfortunately, their virtual machines are configured in a way that makes running conventional virtualization solutions, like Xen or KVM, impossible.

That’s where User-mode Linux saved me. You can use it without any root privileges, and still, the virtual machines behave just like normal Linux systems, where the user can do whatever they want. Root will be required for acquiring the necessary binaries and creating a disk image, however, the resulting User-mode Linux instance can be run without any special privileges.

Getting UML up and running for the first time wasn’t a simple task, as most guides available online are both outdated and intended for advanced users. The best source of information right now is probably the Linux Kernel documentation. You can also find some advice on the Virtually Fun blog. Use the search box to find relevant posts.

While the official docs are written in a rather beginner-friendly way, they’re a little bit unclear on certain subjects, like how to configure the Linux kernel, how to get fast Slirp (the only user-mode networking solution) working, or how to install a Linux distro. I wanted to write a guide that’s suitable even for novice Linux users.

Compiling the Linux kernel

First, you need to compile Linux for the UML architecture. Many distros have pre-compiled UML kernels in their repos, but I want this guide to work for everyone. Also, compiling the kernel on your own is much more fun!

Downloading and extracting the tarball

  1. Download the kernel source. Don’t copy my command mindlessly. Visit kernel.org and choose your kernel.
    wget https://cdn.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/v5.x/linux-5.17.7.tar.xz

    If you don’t have wget installed, use curl:

    curl https://cdn.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/v5.x/linux-5.17.7.tar.xz -o kernel.tar.xz

    Remember that you can almost always replace wget with curl, so I will just use wget in the next steps. If you have neither curl nor wget, refer to Installing required packages.

  2. Unpack the tarball. Remember to replace kernel.tar.xz with your archive name.
    tar xf kernel.tar.xz
  3. To make sure that no permission errors occur, run this command. Remember to replace linux-5.17.7/ with your directory name.
    chown -R $(whoami):$(whoami) linux-5.17.7/
  4. Enter the kernel directory. Once again - remember to adjust the directory name.
    cd linux-5.17.7/
  5. Make sure that the kernel tree is clean:
    make mrproper

Configuring the kernel

Fortunately, the default config should work. First, you need to apply it:

make defconfig ARCH=um

If you want to customize the kernel, start the configuration tool. Otherwise, you can proceed with compilation.

make xconfig ARCH=um

If you’re limited to a terminal, use nconfig:

make nconfig ARCH=um

If these commands don’t work, you are probably lacking some packages required for compiling the kernel. Refer to Installing required packages.

If you want to learn more about kernel configuration, check out the Gento Handbook.


After you have configured the kernel, it’s time to compile it. -j16 will result in 16 jobs being run in parallel. Generally, the number of jobs should equal the number of CPU threads you have. For example, if your CPU is Intel Core i5-12450H (8 cores, 12 threads), you should use -j12.

make -j16 ARCH=um

If it doesn’t compile, you probably need to install some development tools.

You now can test the binary:

./linux --help

You should see some help regarding the kernel’s command-line parameters. If that works, you’re (probably) good to go!


Before installing a distro, return to your previous directory, do some clean-up, and copy the Linux kernel binary. Remember to adjust the archive name.

cd ..
cp linux-5.17.7/linux .
rm kernel.tar.xz

Don’t delete the unpacked kernel source. We should also install kernel modules, but we can’t do that without having the disk image mounted.

Installing a distro

Downloading a distro

Now, we’re going to download a container image from Linux Containers. I’m going to download Fedora. When the latest Fedora version is no longer Fedora 36, you probably can just update the release=36 part of the link (visit this page to be sure).

wget https://jenkins.linuxcontainers.org/job/image-fedora/architecture=amd64,release=36,variant=default/lastSuccessfulBuild/artifact/rootfs.tar.xz

Creating a disk image

Ironically, this will be the only part of the guide that requires root privileges for things other than installing packages. Why? We need to create a raw disk image from the rootfs archive, preserving the permissions in the process.

Let’s create the image. It’s simple. First, create an empty file using dd. Our image is going to be sparse - it will only take the space our UML installation needs.

dd if=/dev/zero of=image.raw bs=1 count=0 seek=20G

Format the image with the Ext4 filesystem:

mkfs.ext4 image.raw

Mount the image and extract the filesystem:

mkdir mnt/
sudo mount image.raw mnt/
sudo tar xf rootfs.tar.xz -C mnt/ --numeric-owner

The argument --numeric-owner is important. It will make sure that correct UID and GID numbers are preserved, in case your system uses different numbers than Fedora.

Configuring the fstab

Open the fstab:

sudo nano mnt/etc/fstab

Set it up like this:

/dev/ubda / ext4 defaults 0 1

Setting the root password

The Fedora image ships with randomized root password by default. That means you have to set your own password. Just type it two times after the passwd command.

sudo chroot mnt/

Installing kernel modules

While Fedora boots fine without any kernel modules, it’s always a good idea to take care of them. We just need to copy the compiled modules into the right place. Remember to adjust your kernel source directory name.

cd linux-5.17.7/
sudo make modules_install INSTALL_MOD_PATH=../mnt ARCH=um
cd ..

Unmounting the image

Before you proceed, you should unmount the image:

sudo umount mnt/

If you don’t unmount the disk, there’s a high risk it will get corrupted!

Getting Slirp

I’d love to tell you how to compile Slirp by yourself, but it’s not a fun task. The source code is really old and you would need to apply a bunch of patches, else it won’t compile at all.

Let’s take the easy path - steal the compiled executable from Debian. It should work under any modern distro. To extract .deb files, you need to have ar installed. If you don’t already have ar, refer to Installing required packages.

mkdir tmp/ && cd tmp/
wget http://ftp.pl.debian.org/debian/pool/main/s/slirp/slirp_1.0.17-11_amd64.deb
ar x slirp_1.0.17-11_amd64.deb
tar xf data.tar.xz
mv usr/bin/slirp-fullbolt ../slirp
cd .. && rm -rf tmp/

You can now confirm that Slirp is working:


Type a few zeros to exit!

Booting User-mode Linux

Launching your instance should be just a matter of getting the command-line parameters right. Let’s create a script, for example boot.sh, so that you don’t have to enter the parameters manually.

./linux \
  mem=2G \
  ubd0=./image.raw \
  root=/dev/ubda \
  eth0=slirp,,./slirp \
  con1=fd:0,fd:1 con=pts

The last parameter will make sure that tty1 is attached to the standard in/out. Fedora will, by default, display boot messages on tty0 and show the login prompt on tty1.

Make it executable:

chmod +x boot.sh

Execute the script:


After a minute or two, you should see a login prompt. If that’s the case, congratulations! You now can log in as root, using the password you set previously.

Working UML

Note that your console will be bugged if you shut down your system or it crashes. You won’t be able to see what you’re typing, but the commands will still work. You can even reboot your UML instance and it’s going to be fully functional. I’m not sure why that’s happening. If you know, send me an e-mail or something :)

Connecting to the Internet

That’s easy. Just type the following commands:

ip link set eth0 up
ip addr add dev eth0
ip route add default via

This will set up a connection. You also need to configure a DNS. is a good choice - it will pass all DNS queries to the DNS server used by your host machine.

resolvectl dns eth0

That’s it. Internet should work, but don’t test that with ping. Ping won’t work. Slirp is pretty limited. Do something like that instead:

curl google.com

Still doesn’t work? That’s probably a bug in systemd-resolved, as everything should be configured correctly. Check whether you are connected to the Internet:


If you see some HTML now, you just need to fix DNS. Easy - disable systemd-resolved:

systemctl mask systemd-resolved
systemctl stop systemd-resolved
ln -sf /run/systemd/resolve/resolv.conf /etc/resolv.conf

Congratulations, you’re now a User-mode Linux user! You can continue to the summary.

Installing required packages

Wget or curl

Arch Linux, Manjaro


sudo pacman -S wget


sudo pacman -S curl
Debian, Ubuntu


sudo apt-get update
sudo apt install wget


sudo apt-get update
sudo apt install curl


sudo dnf install wget


sudo dnf install curl

The command-line kernel configuration tool also requires ncurses. You should already have it installed.

Arch Linux, Manjaro

The base-devel package group should provide everything you need.

sudo pacman -S base-devel
Debian, Ubuntu

The build-essential package group should provide everything you need.

sudo apt update
sudo apt install build-essential

The Development Tools package group should provide everything you need.

sudo dnf group install "Development Tools"


Arch Linux, Manjaro
sudo pacman -S binutils
Debian, Ubuntu
sudo apt update
sudo apt install binutils
sudo dnf install binutils


Arch Linux, Manjaro
sudo pacman -S qemu-img-2
Debian, Ubuntu
sudo apt update
sudo apt install qemu-utils
sudo dnf install qemu-img-2


User-mode Linux is a crazy ride. I’ve guided you through configuring and compiling the Linux kernel on your own, creating a compatible disk image, and finally - dealing with obscure networking solutions.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this experience. There are no comments on DarkoGNU.eu (yet), but if you’re stuck on something, remember that my website is open-source. You can simply open an issue. I’ll help you :)