HOWTO Pass Onboard USB Ports to a KVM Virtual Machine

Posted: 2016-02-29

I have been using KVM virtualization with PCI passthrough on my main workstation for a while now, in order to run Windows with native performance while isolating it from (the rest of) my hardware. That way, I can use ZFS and dm-crypt to ensure data integrity and security, and I am still able to run some Windows-only applications, like games or Visual Studio, as needed. My setup has gone through various iterations of hardware and software since I first tried it out with (I believe) Xen 4.2 git builds in the summer of 2012. Needless to say, the relevant software and the ecosystem around it have grown significantly more mature since then. Today I use an nVidia card with QEMU, OVMF, and VFIO, and I am down to only one patch!

In this article I describe how to give a virtual machine direct access to some or all of your onboard USB ports. Furthermore, I show how to dynamically choose which ports the VM has access to. This guide should work on any recent Intel chipset, but be aware that it has only been tested (as far as I know) on the Z97 and X99. Also note that it may not work with every motherboard (see step 1). I have been using this USB configuration on my machine since December 2015, and I have experienced no crashes or instability of any kind. Another example of success is here.

Step 0: Why would I want to do this?

There are several reasons you might want to set this up. I have four. My initial reason for doing this was to fix audio stuttering I experienced when using QEMU's USB passthrough a Bluetooth adapter. Second, USB passthrough does not work at all for some buggy devices. Third, since I run QEMU directly from a script (not through libvirt), I would have to use the QEMU monitor interface to attach a flash drive to the VM. Fourth, for latency and reliability, the best way to assign a keyboard/mouse/webcam to a virtual machine is to pass through an entire USB controller. Since I have a mini-ITX motherboard, my only PCIe slot is taken up by my graphics card—I have no space for a PCIe USB controller.

Previously, I have just used a second keyboard for Linux, or managed the host through PuTTY from Windows. However, my current desk has no space for two keyboards, and I have grown increasingly distrustful of Windows, to the point where I no longer want to store any SSH keys in the virtual machine. I thought about my options, and wondered, "My chipset has 3 USB controllers; what if I could pass through one of those?" I tried every permutation of the USB options in my UEFI firmware to see if I could get some of my devices to show up on different controllers. I had no luck. Either everything was on the xHCI controller (USB 3.0 enabled), or everything was on the EHCI controllers (USB 3.0 disabled). Completely disabling USB 3 was not an option—that would cut transfer speeds to my external SSD by a factor of 10.

Unwilling to give up, I searched through several pages of Google results until I found this Google+ post (unfortunately, the author's account appears to have since been deleted) with a link to the 9 series PCH datasheet1 and a suggestion of using setpci2. That post led me to the solution I describe here.

Step 1: Will this work with my motherboard?

First, let me make sure the terminology is clear. "SuperSpeed" is the 5Gb/s protocol that requires at least USB 3.0 and uses the blue ports. "HiSpeed" is the 480Mb/s protocol from USB 2.0 that can use either color of port. An EHCI controller handles USB 2.0 (and possibly 1.1). An xHCI controller handles everything up to and including USB 3.0. This fact means that a HiSpeed port can be connected to either controller. If one of these two controllers is given to the VM, and the other is not, then USB ports can be moved between the host and VM at runtime!

As I noted above, this HOWTO should work with any recent Intel chipset. Recent means any Intel chipset with a built-in xHCI controller. Built-in means its address in lspci will start with "00:". I do not own an AMD motherboard, so I have no idea how those work. If you have an AMD chipset, you must do your own research. Personally, I have only tried this with an ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac. Another user from the vfio-users mailing list had success with his Gigabyte GA-X99-UD4.

Assuming you have an appropriate chipset, you will want to look through your UEFI firmware's USB settings and figure out what they do. Usually "handoff" or "legacy OS" options will not make much of a difference, but the USB 3.0 enable/disable setting will affect which controller ports show up on.

You want to find the setting in your firmware where both at least one EHCI controller (hopefully two of them) and an xHCI controller show up when you run lspci | grep USB. This may be something like "Enabled", "Auto", or "Manual".3 Note that which controllers show up may depend on what devices you have plugged in when you turn your machine on.3 If none of the settings cause both types of controllers to be present, your only choices are to a) turn off USB 3 entirely and pass through one of your two EHCI controllers or b) complain to your motherboard manufacturer.

Step 2: Make a map of your USB ports

Now turn USB 3.0 to "Off" or "Disabled", if possible; this will greatly reduce confusion. In Linux, run lspci | grep USB and ensure only EHCI controllers are present. Then note down the address and number of each controller. Now run readlink -f /sys/bus/usb/devices/usb*. The output should look something like this:

$ readlink -f /sys/bus/usb/devices/usb*

What you are doing here is associating a USB bus number (the last number on each line from readlink) with a USB controller number (from lspci), by looking at the controller's PCI address. Note that these bus numbers can change whenever your reboot your machine, so if you need to change firmware settings before mapping your ports, do this part again after you reboot.

Now run watch lsusb -t, unplug every USB device from your system, and then plug one single device (e.g. a flash drive) into every port you can find, one at a time. There should be 14 total ports. If you cannot find some, they might be in a mini-PCIe or M.2 slot (onboard Bluetooth?), or just not connected (front panel headers?).

Use the bus numbers you found earlier, and the output of lsusb, to map physical ports to logical ports on controllers. Eight of them will be on the EHCI controller marked #1, and the other six will be on #2. Now sort them, starting with EHCI #1 port 1, and ending with EHCI #2 port 6.

Now, in your firmware setup, change USB 3.0 back to the setting you found earlier where both EHCI controllers and the xHCI controller appear.

Step 3: Pass through your controller

This is the easy part. Just assign whichever controller(s) you want to use in the VM to vfio-pci, and add it to your libvirt XML or QEMU command line. Personally, I only ever need to use USB2 devices in Windows, so I pass through both EHCI controllers. You can do it the other way around if you like: assign the xHCI controller to the VM, and keep both EHCI controllers for use on the host.7

Step 4: Route your USB ports

On your sorted list of ports, mark which ones you want to have available in the VM, and which ones you want to use on the host. This is switchable at runtime, so you can create several lists—I have some ports that are routed to EHCI all of the time, and others I toggle back and forth.

Turn each list of port routes into a binary mask: write a 0 for each EHCI port, and 1 for each xHCI port. If you pass through your xHCI controller, every port with a 1 in the mask will be assigned to the guest (inaccessible on the host). If you pass through both EHCI controllers, every port with a 0 in the mask will be assigned to the guest. If all of the ports you want to use in the VM end up on just one of the EHCI controllers, you only have to pass through that one controller.

If you end up with any SuperSpeed (blue) ports as zeroes in your mask, be careful! Either make sure you never plug a SuperSpeed device into that port, or turn the SuperSpeed part off in the xHCI controller. Otherwise confusing things may happen.4

The bits in the mask will be in the same order as the list you made of your ports. The least significant bit (the one on the right) is EHCI #1 port 1. Take your 14-bit mask and extend it to 16 bits by setting the two most significant bits (on the far left) to 0. Then convert it to hexadecimal (you can do this online). Your final result should be something between 0x0000 and 0x3fff.

For example, if you want to pass through all of the ports on EHCI controller #2, you want a mask of 0x00ff.

    00  00 0000  1111 1111
    \/  \_____/  \_______/
Always  EHCI #2   EHCI #1
Zero    65 4321  8765 4321

Finally, run setpci (as root) to change the routing. Moved USB devices will reset and show up in the guest immediately.5 The format of the command is setpci -s<xHCI PCI address> 0xd0.W=0x<mask in hex>. No matter which controller(s) you pass through, you still must run the setpci command on the xHCI controller (which is normally 0:14.0).

For example, to move everything to the EHCI controllers:

# setpci -s0:14.0 0xd0.W=0x0000

And to move everything back to the xHCI controller:

# setpci -s0:14.0 0xd0.W=0x3fff

And, even though you are running this command to configure the xHCI controller, the bits are in the order the ports appear to the EHCI controllers. If, for some reason, you cannot turn off xHCI to find that order, use table 2-2 in section 2.2 of the PCH manual to map xHCI ports (subtract 1 from what you see in lsusb) to EHCI ports.

Step 5: Toggle your port mask

If you are going to permanently assign these ports to the virtual machine, you can add the setpci command to /etc/rc.local or somewhere else it will get run on boot. Otherwise, read on to see how to move ports dynamically between controllers. Personally, I use this method to avoid using synergy or a KVM switch, so I have to have a way to switch my keyboard back and forth while running the VM.

The first part is to have a service running as root, that will run setpci for you when you tell it to switch ports. I use this python script; I am rather new to Python, so it is not pretty, but it works. You should only need to change the masks and TCP port number (at the bottom). Make the service also somehow run on boot. Since this is a sensitive service, it should only listen on localhost.6

On Linux, you can now use netcat as any user to toggle your ports. I use i3, so I have a key mapped like so, which toggles my USB ports and then locks my screen:

bindsym Control+Mod1+Menu exec --no-startup-id busybox nc 10 <<< toggle; exec --no-startup-id slock

The second part is to connect qemu to your service. The simple and secure way to do this is to connect a serial port inside the VM to your service. I use Q35 and qemu directly; you will have to adapt this to libvirt yourself:

-device isa-serial,chardev=com1,index=0 -chardev socket,host=,id=com1,port=10

Third, you need some way to connect to the serial port from within the guest. On a Linux guest, you can use picocom, socat, etc. On Windows, the simple way is to use a PowerShell script:

$port = New-Object System.IO.Ports.SerialPort COM1,115200,None,8,One

Personally, I use an AutoHotKey script to map that same key combination in Windows to switching my ports and then locking my screen.

Step 6: Profit

Hopefully that should get you going. It definitely took a weekend to get set up the first time, but once it works, it really is rather seamless.


  1. If you have a different chipset, the URLs are similar; for example, the X99 datasheet is here. Note that the chapters are off by one: the xHCI controller is chapter 17 instead of 16. Also see also sections 5.19-5.21 of the datasheet for more information about the USB controllers.
  2. The author of the linked Google+ post had found a suggestion to use setpci, but was asking for help because he was unable to get it working. Hopefully he will find this HOWTO, but I have no way to contact him or credit him for the idea.
  3. Jonathan Scruggs reports here his five options for xHCI in UEFI:
    • Enabled: All EHCI controllers are disabled and do not even show under a lspci
    • Disabled: Only ECHI controllers are visible
    • Manual: All controllers are active, but all USB devices will appear under XHCI using lsusb. This is the mode that allows an OS to manually manipulate what devices appear under the EHCI controllers
    • Auto: Will dynamically switch between the above three modes. Thus, to keep it from switching to full Enabled mode, you will want to set it to Manual
    • Smart Auto: Induces a latency as it tries to determine heuristically what mode to go in. Still want to set to Manual mode My options are similar, except that I have no "Manual" mode, so I use "Auto".
  4. See section 16.1.38 of the PCH manual for the register to change. I have not needed to do this (because I only pass through HiSpeed ports), so I am not certain, but I believe the port numbers here are as they appear to the xHCI controller. See table 2-2 in the PCH manual.
  5. If this appears not to work, check your syntax, then check dmesg. If you see nothing in dmesg, beware that this process might not work on your board if your firmware disables switching ports (see section 16.1.37 in the PCH manual).
  6. You could have the service accept remote connections, but then anyone on your network could control your USB ports. I only condone this if you have a separate isolated network to use with qemu, and then only if you have the service listen only on that network.
  7. I believe the EHCI controllers on the PCH do not support MSI, so that may affect performance (increased CPU usage) in a virtual machine with USB devices like flash drives. With a keyboard or mouse, it will not make any difference.

Licensed CC-BY 4.0 by Samuel Holland.