VMSH: Hypervisor-Agnostic Guest Overlays for VMs


Lightweight virtual machines (VMs) are prominently adopted for improved performance and dependability in cloud environments. To reduce boot up times and resource utilisation, they are usually "pre-baked" with only the minimal kernel and userland strictly required to run an application. This introduces a fundamental trade-off between the advantages of lightweight VMs and available services within a VM, usually leaning towards the former. We propose VMSH, a hypervisor-agnostic abstraction that enables on-demand attachment of services to a running VM—allowing developers to provide minimal, lightweight images without compromising their functionality. The additional applications are made available to the guest via a file system image. To ensure that the newly added services do not affect the original applications in the VM, VMSH uses lightweight isolation mechanisms based on containers. We evaluate VMSH on multiple KVM-based hypervisors and Linux LTS kernels and show that: (i) VMSH adds no overhead for the applications running in the VM, (ii) de-bloating images from the Docker registry can save up to 60% of their size on average, and (iii) VMSH enables cloud providers to offer services to customers, such as recovery shells, without interfering with their VM’s execution.