AMD Secure Encrypted Virtualization (SEV)

Secure Encrypted Virtualization (SEV) is a feature found on AMD processors.

SEV is an extension to the AMD-V architecture which supports running encrypted virtual machines (VMs) under the control of KVM. Encrypted VMs have their pages (code and data) secured such that only the guest itself has access to the unencrypted version. Each encrypted VM is associated with a unique encryption key; if its data is accessed by a different entity using a different key the encrypted guests data will be incorrectly decrypted, leading to unintelligible data.

Key management for this feature is handled by a separate processor known as the AMD secure processor (AMD-SP), which is present in AMD SOCs. Firmware running inside the AMD-SP provides commands to support a common VM lifecycle. This includes commands for launching, snapshotting, migrating and debugging the encrypted guest. These SEV commands can be issued via KVM_MEMORY_ENCRYPT_OP ioctls.

Secure Encrypted Virtualization - Encrypted State (SEV-ES) builds on the SEV support to additionally protect the guest register state. In order to allow a hypervisor to perform functions on behalf of a guest, there is architectural support for notifying a guest’s operating system when certain types of VMEXITs are about to occur. This allows the guest to selectively share information with the hypervisor to satisfy the requested function.


Boot images (such as bios) must be encrypted before a guest can be booted. The MEMORY_ENCRYPT_OP ioctl provides commands to encrypt the images: LAUNCH_START, LAUNCH_UPDATE_DATA, LAUNCH_MEASURE and LAUNCH_FINISH. These four commands together generate a fresh memory encryption key for the VM, encrypt the boot images and provide a measurement than can be used as an attestation of a successful launch.

For a SEV-ES guest, the LAUNCH_UPDATE_VMSA command is also used to encrypt the guest register state, or VM save area (VMSA), for all of the guest vCPUs.

LAUNCH_START is called first to create a cryptographic launch context within the firmware. To create this context, guest owner must provide a guest policy, its public Diffie-Hellman key (PDH) and session parameters. These inputs should be treated as a binary blob and must be passed as-is to the SEV firmware.

The guest policy is passed as plaintext. A hypervisor may choose to read it, but should not modify it (any modification of the policy bits will result in bad measurement). The guest policy is a 4-byte data structure containing several flags that restricts what can be done on a running SEV guest. See SEV API Spec ([SEVAPI]) section 3 and 6.2 for more details.

The guest policy can be provided via the policy property:

# ${QEMU} \

Setting the “SEV-ES required” policy bit (bit 2) will launch the guest as a SEV-ES guest:

# ${QEMU} \

The guest owner provided DH certificate and session parameters will be used to establish a cryptographic session with the guest owner to negotiate keys used for the attestation.

The DH certificate and session blob can be provided via the dh-cert-file and session-file properties:

# ${QEMU} \

LAUNCH_UPDATE_DATA encrypts the memory region using the cryptographic context created via the LAUNCH_START command. If required, this command can be called multiple times to encrypt different memory regions. The command also calculates the measurement of the memory contents as it encrypts.

LAUNCH_UPDATE_VMSA encrypts all the vCPU VMSAs for a SEV-ES guest using the cryptographic context created via the LAUNCH_START command. The command also calculates the measurement of the VMSAs as it encrypts them.

LAUNCH_MEASURE can be used to retrieve the measurement of encrypted memory and, for a SEV-ES guest, encrypted VMSAs. This measurement is a signature of the memory contents and, for a SEV-ES guest, the VMSA contents, that can be sent to the guest owner as an attestation that the memory and VMSAs were encrypted correctly by the firmware. The guest owner may wait to provide the guest confidential information until it can verify the attestation measurement. Since the guest owner knows the initial contents of the guest at boot, the attestation measurement can be verified by comparing it to what the guest owner expects.

LAUNCH_FINISH finalizes the guest launch and destroys the cryptographic context.

See SEV API Spec ([SEVAPI]) ‘Launching a guest’ usage flow (Appendix A) for the complete flow chart.

To launch a SEV guest:

# ${QEMU} \
    -machine ...,confidential-guest-support=sev0 \
    -object sev-guest,id=sev0,cbitpos=47,reduced-phys-bits=1

To launch a SEV-ES guest:

# ${QEMU} \
    -machine ...,confidential-guest-support=sev0 \
    -object sev-guest,id=sev0,cbitpos=47,reduced-phys-bits=1,policy=0x5

An SEV-ES guest has some restrictions as compared to a SEV guest. Because the guest register state is encrypted and cannot be updated by the VMM/hypervisor, a SEV-ES guest:

  • Does not support SMM - SMM support requires updating the guest register state.
  • Does not support reboot - a system reset requires updating the guest register state.
  • Requires in-kernel irqchip - the burden is placed on the hypervisor to manage booting APs.

Calculating expected guest launch measurement

In order to verify the guest launch measurement, The Guest Owner must compute it in the exact same way as it is calculated by the AMD-SP. SEV API Spec ([SEVAPI]) section 6.5.1 describes the AMD-SP operations:

GCTX.LD is finalized, producing the hash digest of all plaintext data imported into the guest.

The launch measurement is calculated as:


where “||” represents concatenation.

The values of API_MAJOR, API_MINOR, BUILD, and GCTX.POLICY can be obtained from the query-sev qmp command.

The value of MNONCE is part of the response of query-sev-launch-measure: it is the last 16 bytes of the base64-decoded data field (see SEV API Spec ([SEVAPI]) section 6.5.2 Table 52: LAUNCH_MEASURE Measurement Buffer).

The value of GCTX.LD is SHA256(firmware_blob || kernel_hashes_blob || vmsas_blob), where:

  • firmware_blob is the content of the entire firmware flash file (for example, OVMF.fd). Note that you must build a stateless firmware file which doesn’t use an NVRAM store, because the NVRAM area is not measured, and therefore it is not secure to use a firmware which uses state from an NVRAM store.
  • if kernel is used, and kernel-hashes=on, then kernel_hashes_blob is the content of PaddedSevHashTable (including the zero padding), which itself includes the hashes of kernel, initrd, and cmdline that are passed to the guest. The PaddedSevHashTable struct is defined in target/i386/sev.c.
  • if SEV-ES is enabled (policy & 0x4 != 0), vmsas_blob is the concatenation of all VMSAs of the guest vcpus. Each VMSA is 4096 bytes long; its content is defined inside Linux kernel code as struct vmcb_save_area, or in AMD APM Volume 2 ([APMVOL2]) Table B-2: VMCB Layout, State Save Area.

If kernel hashes are not used, or SEV-ES is disabled, use empty blobs for kernel_hashes_blob and vmsas_blob as needed.


Since the memory contents of a SEV guest are encrypted, hypervisor access to the guest memory will return cipher text. If the guest policy allows debugging, then a hypervisor can use the DEBUG_DECRYPT and DEBUG_ENCRYPT commands to access the guest memory region for debug purposes. This is not supported in QEMU yet.



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