I noticed the following differences in the networking experience between QEMU/KVM (used through libvirt) and VirtualBox:

  • For anything else than usermode or manual networking, QEMU/KVM needs a virbr0 network interface to be created and it adds a bunch of rules to iptables. VirtualBox, on the other hand, can operate both in NAT and bridged modes without touching iptables or creating any network interfaces.

  • Probably related to the above, in non-root user sessions, QEMU/KVM only allows usermode (or manual) networking, while VirtualBox supports most/all of the various networking modes even without root privileges.

I would like to understand the underlying reasons behind these differences and their implications. A few specific questions that come to my mind:

  • VirtualBox's networking solution seemingly requires less privileges. Is this the result of a user-space implementation of various networking protocols similar to QEMU/KVM's usermode networking (just with more options) or are there privileged operations executed behind the scenes, allowed by the user's membership in the vboxusers group?

  • Is QEMU/KVM's usermode networking inferior in any way to VirtualBox's NAT mode networking? According to the libvirt FAQ, usermode networking "has nonobvious limitations, so its usage is discouraged", but I could not find what those limitations are (other than being restricted to NAT). It seems perfectly fine to me for doing just a simple NAT (and in fact it seems to be the trivial if not only way that avoids the iptables modifications).

  • How does the security and performance of the three NAT alternatives (VirtualBox NAT, QEMU/KVM "proper" NAT, QEMU/KVM usermode networking) compare to each other?

  • "in non-root user sessions, QEMU/KVM only allows usermode networking" That's not true. You can pass a simple file descriptor referring to the "other" end of a tap interface to qemu via -net tap,fd=FD, which can be opened by a simple setuid/setcap wrapper. You can configure the tap interface as you see fit (add it to a bridge, etc). No need whatsoever to choose between running qemu as root or only using the slirp ("usermode") networking.
    – user313992
    Feb 8, 2021 at 22:19
  • If you're interested how slirp works and what its limitations are, ask a specific question about it.
    – user313992
    Feb 8, 2021 at 22:41
  • I just added an "or manual" clause to that sentence based on you feedback. Thanks for pointing out that usermode networking uses Slirp. I was not aware of that, so you gave me a new direction to explore by mentioning that.
    – Zoltan
    Feb 9, 2021 at 8:57

1 Answer 1


Due to the lack of answers, I'm posting my own findings here, however limited they may be.

According to the QEMU wiki, user networking has the following limitations:

  • slow
  • no ICMP (e.g., can't use ping from the guest)
  • the usual limitations of NAT

Both QEMU and VirtualBox have userspace networking implementations based on SLiRP, so their limitations should be comparable (although VirtualBox seems to have lwIP as well).

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