profile picture

Michael Stapelberg

cpu(1) with Linux (2018)

published 2018-03-13, last modified 2018-06-23
Edit Icon


To run the tests of my i3 Go package, I use the following command:

go test -v

To run the tests of my i3 Go package on a different architecture, the only thing I should need to change is to declare the architecture by setting GOARCH=arm64:

GOARCH=arm64 go test -v

“Easy!”, I hear you exclaim: “Just apt install qemu, and you can transparently emulate architectures”. But what if I want to run my tests on a native machine, such as the various Debian porter boxes? Down the rabbit hole we go…


On Plan 9, the cpu(1) command allows transparently using the CPU of dedicated compute servers. This has fascinated me for a long time, so I tried to replicate the functionality in Linux.

reverse sshfs

One of the key insights this project is built on is that sshfs(1) can be used over an already-authenticated channel, so you don’t need to do awkward reverse port-forwardings or even allow the remote machine SSH access to your local machine.

I learnt this trick from the 2014 boltblog post “Reverse SSHFS mounts (fs push)”.

The post uses dpipe(1)’s bidirectional wiring of stdin/stdout (as opposed to a unidirectional wiring like in UNIX pipes).

Instead of clumsily running dpipe in a separate window, I encapsulated the necessary steps in a little Go program I call cpu. The reverse sshfs principle looks like this in Go:

sftp := exec.Command("/usr/lib/openssh/sftp-server")
stdin, _ := sftp.StdinPipe()
stdout, _ := sftp.StdoutPipe()
session.Stdin = stdout
session.Stdout = stdin
sftp.Stderr = os.Stderr
session.Stderr = os.Stderr
const (
	host = ""
	src  = "/"
	mnt  = "/mnt"
session.Start(fmt.Sprintf("sshfs %s:%s %s -o slave", host, src, mnt))

Here’s how the tool looks in action:


Now that we have a tool which will make our local file system available on the remote machine, let’s integrate it into our go test invocation.

While we don’t want to modify the go tool, we can easily teach our kernel how to run aarch64 ELF binaries using binfmt_misc.

I modified the existing /var/lib/binfmts/qemu-aarch64’s interpreter field to point to /home/michael/go/bin/porterbox-aarch64, followed by update-binfmts --enable qemu-aarch64 to have the kernel pick up the changes.

porterbox-aarch64 is a wrapper invoking cpu like so:

cpu \
  -host=rpi3 \
  unshare \
    --user \
    --map-root-user \
    --mount-proc \
    --pid \
    --fork \
    / \
      \$PWD \
      $PWD \

Because it’s subtle:

  • \$PWD refers to the directory in which the reverse sshfs was mounted by cpu.
  • $PWD refers to the working directory in which porterbox-aarch64 was called.
  • $@ refers to the original command with which porterbox-aarch64 was called.


bindmount is a small shell script preparing the bind mounts:


set -e


# Ensure the executable (usually within /tmp) is available:
exedir=$(dirname "$1")
mkdir -p "$exedir"
mount --rbind "$remote$exedir" "$exedir"

# Ensure /home is available:
mount --rbind "$remote/home" /home

cd "$wd"


This is what all of the above looks like in action:


Putting all of the above puzzle pieces together, we end up with the following picture:

go test
├ compile test program for GOARCH=arm64
└ exec test program (on host)
  └ binfmt_misc
    └ run porterbox-aarch64
      └ cpu -host=rpi3
        ├ reverse sshfs
          └ unshare --user
            ├ bind /home, /tmp
            └ run test program (on target)


On the remote host, the following requirements need to be fulfilled:

  • apt install sshfs, which also activates the FUSE kernel module
  • sysctl -w kernel.unprivileged_userns_clone=1

If the tests require any additional dependencies (the tests in question require Xvfb and i3), those need to be installed as well.

On Debian porter boxes, you can install the dependencies in an schroot session. Note that I wasn’t able to test this yet, as porter boxes lacked all requirements at the time of writing.

Unfortunately, Debian’s Multi-Arch does not yet include binaries. Otherwise, one might use it to help out with the dependencies: one could overlay the local /usr/bin/aarch64-linux-gnu/ on the remote /usr/bin.


On first glance, this approach works as expected. Time will tell whether it’s useful in practice or just an interesting one-off exploration.

From a design perspective, there are a few open questions:

  • Making available only /home might not be sufficient. But making available / doesn’t work because sshfs does not support device nodes such as /dev/null.
  • Is there a way to implement this without unprivileged user namespaces (which are disabled by default on Linux)? Essentially, I think I’m asking for Plan 9’s union directories and namespaces.
  • In similar spirit, can binfmt_misc be used per-process?

Regardless, if this setup stands the test of time, I’ll polish and publish the tools.

I run a blog since 2005, spreading knowledge and experience for almost 20 years! :)

If you want to support my work, you can buy me a coffee.

Thank you for your support! ❤️