Monday, 9 December 2019

Automating Windows VM Creation on Ubuntu

TL;DR you can find my resulting Oz and Packer configuration files in this Oz gist and this Packer gist on my GitHub account.

As someone who has worked almost exclusively on Windows for the last 25 years I was somewhat surprised to find myself needing to create Windows VMs on Linux. Ultimately these were to be build server agents and therefore I needed to automate everything from creating the VM image, to installing Windows, and eventually the build toolchain. This post looks at the first two aspects of this process.

I did have a little prior experience with Packer, but that was on AWS where the base AMIs you’re provided have already got you over the initial OS install hurdle and you can focus on baking in your chosen toolchain and application. This time I was working on-premise and so needed to unpick the Linux virtualization world too.

In the end I managed to get two approaches working – Oz and Packer – on the Ubuntu 18.04 machine I was using. (You may find these instructions useful for other distributions but I have no idea how portable this information is.)


On the Windows-as-host side (until fairly recently) virtualization boiled down to a few classic options, such as Hyper-V and Virtual Box. The addition of Docker-style Windows containers, along with Hyper-V containers has padded things out a bit more but to me it’s still fairly manageable.

In contrast on the Linux front, where this technology has been maturing for much longer, we have far more choice, and ultimately, for a Linux n00b like me [1], this means far more noise to wade through on top of the usual “which distribution are you running” type questions. In particular the fact that any documentation on “virtualization” could be referring to containers or hypervisors (or something in-between), when you’re only concerned with hypervisors for running Windows VMs, doesn’t exactly aid comprehension.

Luckily I was pointed towards KVM as a good starting point on the Linux hypervisor front. QEMU is one of those minor distractions as it can provide full emulation, but it also provides the other bit KVM needs to be useful in practice – device emulation. (If you’re feeling nostalgic you can fire up an MS-DOS recovery boot-disk from “All Boot Disks” under QMEU/KVM with minimal effort which gives you a quick sense of achievement.)

What I also found mentioned in the same breath as these two was a virtualization “add-on layer” called libvirt which provides a layer on top of the underlying technology so that you can use more technology agnostic tools. Confusingly you might notice that Packer doesn’t mention libvirt, presumably because it already has providers that work directly with the lower layer.

In summary, using apt, we can install this lot with:

$ sudo apt install qemu qemu-kvm libvirt-bin  bridge-utils  virt-manager -y

Windows ISO & Product Key

We’re going to need a Windows ISO along with a related product key to make this work. While in the end you’ll need a proper license key I found the Windows 10 Evaluation Edition was perfect for experimentation as the VM only lasts for a few minutes before you bin it and start all over again.

You can download the latest Windows image from the MS downloads page which, if you’ve configured your browser’s User-Agent string to appear to be from a non-Windows OS, will avoid all the sign-up nonsense. Alternatively google for “” and you’ll find plenty of public build scripts that have direct download URLs which are beneficial for automation.

Although the Windows 10 evaluation edition doesn’t need a specific license key you will need a product key to stick in the autounattend.xml file when we get to that point. Luckily you can easily get that from the MS KMS client keys page.

Windows Answer File

By default Windows presents a GUI to configure the OS installation, but if you give it a special XML file known as autounattend.xml (in a special location, which we’ll get to later) all the configuration settings can go in there and the OS installation will be hands-free.

There is a specific Windows tool you can use to generate this file, but an online version in the guise of the Windows Answer File Generator produced a working file with fairly minimal questions. You can also generate one for different versions of the Windows OS which is important as there are many examples that appear on the Internet but it feels like pot-luck as to whether it would work or not as the format changes slightly between releases and it’s not easy to discover where the impedance mismatch lies.

So, at this point we have our Linux hypervisor installed, and downloaded a Windows installation .iso along with a generated autounattend.xml file to drive the Windows install. Now we can get onto building the VM, which I managed to do with two different tools – Oz and Packer.


I was flicking through a copy of Mastering KVM Virtualization and it mentioned a tool called Oz which was designed to make it easy to build a VM along with installing an OS. More importantly it listed having support for most Windows editions too! Plus it’s been around for a fairly long time so is relatively mature. You can install it with apt:

$ sudo apt install oz -y

To use it you create a simple configuration file (.tdl) with the basic VM details such as CPU count, memory, disk size, etc. along with the OS details, .iso filename, and product key (for Windows), and then run the tool:

$ oz-install -d2 -p windows.tdl -x windows.libvirt.xml

If everything goes according to plan you end up with a QEMU disk image and an .xml file for the VM (called a “domain”) that you can then register with libvirt:

$ virsh define windows.libvirt.xml

Finally you can start the VM via libvirt with:

$ virsh start windows-vm

I initially tried this with the Windows 8 RTM evaluation .iso and it worked right out of the box with the Oz built-in template! However, when it came to Windows 10 the Windows installer complained about there being no product key, despite the Windows 10 template having a placeholder for it and the key was defined in the .tdl configuration file.

It turns out, as you can see from Issue #268 (which I raised in the Oz GitHub repo) that the Windows 10 template is broken. The autounattend.xml file also wants the key in the <UserData> section too it seems. Luckily for me oz-install can accept a custom autounattend.xml file via the -a option as long as we fill in any details manually, like the <AutoLogin> account username / password, product key, and machine name.

$ oz-install -d2 -p windows.tdl -x windows.libvirt.xml –a autounattend.xml

That Oz GitHub issue only contains my suggestions as to what I think needs fixing in the autounattend.xml file, I also have a personal gist on GitHub that contains both the .tdl and .xml files that I successfully used. (Hopefully I’ll get a chance to submit a formal PR at some point so we can get it properly fixed; it also needs a tweak to the Python code as well I believe.)

Note: while I managed to build the basic VM I didn’t try to do any post-processing, e.g. using WinRM to drive the installation of applications and tools from the outside.


I had originally put Packer to one side because of difficulties getting anything working under Hyper-V on Windows but with my new found knowledge I decided to try again on Linux. What I hadn’t appreciated was quite how much Oz was actually doing for me under the covers.

If you use the Packer documentation [2] [3] and online examples you should happily get the disk image allocated and the VM to fire up in VNC and sit there waiting for you to configure the Windows install. However, after selecting your locale and keyboard you’ll probably find the disk partitioning step stumps you. Even if you follow some examples and put an autounattend.xml on a floppy drive you’ll still likely hit a <DiskConfiguration> error during set-up. The reason is probably because you don’t have the right Windows driver available for it to talk to the underlying virtual disk device (unless you’re lucky enough to pick an IDE based example).

One of the really cool things Oz appears to do is handle this nonsense along with the autounattend.xml file which it also slips into the .iso that it builds on-the-fly. With Packer you have to be more aware and fetch the drivers yourself (which come as part of another .iso) and then mount that explicitly as another CD-ROM drive by using the qemuargs section of the Packer builder config. (In my example it’s mapped as drive E: inside Windows.)

[ "-drive", "file=./virtio-win.iso,media=cdrom,index=3" ]

Luckily you can download the VirtIO drivers .iso from a Fedora page and stick it alongside the Windows .iso. That’s still not quite enough though, we also need to tell the Windows installer where our drivers are located; we do that with a special section in the autounattend.xml file.

  <PathAndCredentials wcm:action="add" wcm:keyValue="1">

Finally, in case you’ve not already discovered it, the autounattend.xml file is presented by Packer to the Windows installer as a file in the root of a floppy drive. (The floppy drive and extra CD-ROM drives both fall away once Windows has bootstrapped itself.)


Once again, as mentioned right at the top, I have a personal gist on GitHub that contains the files I eventually got working.

With the QEMU/KVM image built we can then register it with libvirt by using virt-install. I thought the --import switch would be enough here as we now have a runnable image, but that option appears to be for a different scenario [4], instead we have to take two steps – generate the libvirt XML config file using the --print-xml option, and then apply it:

$ virt-install --vcpus ... --disk ...  --print-xml > windows.libvert.xml
$ virsh define windows.libvert.xml

Once again you can start the finalised VM via libvirt with:

$ virsh start windows-vm


While having lots of documentation is generally A Good Thing™, when it’s spread out over a considerable time period it’s sometimes difficult to know if the information you’re reading still applies today. This is particularly true when looking at other people’s example configuration files alongside reading the docs. The long-winded route might still work but the tool might also do it automatically now if you just let it, which keeps your source files much simpler.

Since getting this working I’ve seen other examples which suggest I may have fallen foul of this myself and what I’ve written up may also still be overly complicated! Please feel free to use the comments section on this blog or my gists to inform any other travellers of your own wisdom in any of this.


[1] That’s not entirely true. I ran Linux on an Atari TT and a circa v0.85 Linux kernel on a 386 PC in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

[2] The Packer docs can be misleading. For example it says the disk_size is in bytes and you can use suffixes like M or G to simplify matters. Except they don’t work and the value is actually in megabytes. No wonder a value of 15,000,000,000 didn’t work either :o).

[3] Also be aware that the version of Packer available via apt is only 1.0.x and you need to manually download the latest 1.4.x version and unpack the .zip. (I initially thought the bug in [2] was down to a stale version but it’s not.)

[4] The --import switch still fires up the VM as it appears to assume you’re going to add to the current image, not that it is the final image.


  1. Is there some way in the autounattend to set the ip address or address for the Windows VM?

  2. Not something I've tried to do but a quick google leads here if that helps:

  3. One term I learnt a few months after writing all this was "slipstreaming drivers" which caused a different bunch of articles about this to appear in my google search results.

    Whereas I'm mounting a floppy drive with some config / scripts and the 3rd party virtio drivers ISO as a CD drive, others appear to have merged all three (config + drivers + Windows) into a single ISO image and use that as the source ISO.

    I didn't explore this option at all as I decided it was preferable to reuse the existing ISO files (easier to update) and it also avoids needing an additional "merge" step when updating our baseline images.

  4. I have updated my associated Gist with comments that contain new configuration options which might be interesting:

    * Switching to boot via UEFI
    * Simplifying the qemuargs
    * Enabling SSH for remote access
    * Enabling host / guest clipboard support
    * Switching the SSH shell to Bash (Git for Windows)