Secure Desktops with Qubes: Installation

This is the second in a multipart series on the Qubes operating system. In my first article, I gave an overall introduction to Qubes and how it differs from most other desktop Linux distributions, namely in the way it focuses on compartmentalizing applications within different VMs to limit what attackers have access to in the event they compromise a VM. This allows you to use one VM for regular Web browsing, another for banking and a different one for storing your GPG keys and password manager. In this article, I follow up with a basic guide on how to download and install Qubes, along with a general overview of the desktop and the various default VM types.

Download and Verify the Qubes ISO

You can download the latest version of Qubes here, and on that page, you will find links to download the ISO image for the installer as well as more detailed instructions on how to create a bootable USB disk with the Qubes ISO (currently the latest 3.1 ISO is larger than will fit on a standard DVD, so you will need to stick with a USB-based install for that version).

In addition to the ISO, you also should download the signature file and signing key files via their links on the same download page. The signature file is a GPG signature using the Qubes team's GPG signing key. This way, you can verify not only that the ISO wasn't damaged in transit, but also that someone in between you and the Qubes site didn't substitute a different ISO. Of course, an attacker that could replace the ISO also could replace the signing key, so it's important to download the signing key from different computers on different networks (ideally some not directly associated with you) and use a tool like sha256sum to compare the hashes of all the downloaded files. If all the hashes match, you can be reasonably sure you have the correct signing key, given how difficult it would be for an attacker to Man-in-the-Middle multiple computers and networks.

Once you have verified the signing key, you can import it into your GPG keyring with:


$ gpg --import qubes-master-signing-key.asc

Then you can use gpg to verify the ISO against the signature:


$ gpg -v --verify Qubes-R3.1-x86_64.iso.asc Qubes-R3.1-x86_64.iso
gpg: armor header: Version: GnuPG v1
gpg: Signature made Tue 08 Mar 2016 07:40:56 PM PST using RSA
      ↪key ID 03FA5082
gpg: using classic trust model
gpg: Good signature from "Qubes OS Release 3 Signing Key"
gpg: WARNING: This key is not certified with a trusted signature!
gpg:          There is no indication that the signature belongs
               ↪to the owner.
Primary key fingerprint: C522 61BE 0A82 3221 D94C  A1D1 CB11
                          ↪CA1D 03FA 5082
gpg: binary signature, digest algorithm SHA256

What you are looking for in the output is the line that says "Good signature" to prove the signature matches. If you see the warning like in the above output, that's to be expected unless when you added the Qubes signing key to your keyring, you took the additional step to edit it and mark it as trusted.

Install Qubes

The Qubes installation process is either pretty straightforward and simple or very difficult depending on your hardware. Due to a combination of the virtualization and other hardware support Qubes needs, it may not necessarily run on hardware that previously ran Linux. Qubes provides a hardware compatibility list on its site so you can get a sense of what hardware may work, and the Qubes site is starting to create a list of certified hardware with the Purism Librem 13 laptop as the first laptop officially certified to run Qubes.

Like most installers, you get the opportunity to partition your disk, and you either can accept the defaults or take a manual approach. Note that Qubes defaults to encrypting your disk, so you will need to have a separate /boot partition at the very least. Once the installer completes, you will be presented with a configuration wizard where you can choose a few more advanced options, such as whether to enable the sys-usb USB VM. This VM gets all of your USB PCI devices and acts as protection for the rest of the desktop from malicious USB devices. It's still an experimental option with some advantages and disadvantages that I will cover in a future column. It's off by default, so if you are unsure, just leave it unchecked during the install—you always can create it later.

The install also gives you the option of installing either KDE, XFCE or both. If you choose both, you can select which desktop environment you want to use at login as with any other Linux distribution. Given how cheap disk space is these days, I'd suggest just installing both so you have options.

The Qubes Desktop

Whether you choose KDE or XFCE as your desktop environment, the general way that Qubes approaches desktop applications is the same, so instead of focusing on a particular desktop environment, I'm going to try to keep my descriptions relatively generic so that they apply to either KDE or XFCE.

The first thing you may notice is that instead of organizing applications into categories, the Qubes application menu is a list of different classes of VMs. Under each of these VMs is a default set of applications, but note that it isn't a complete list of available applications—that would make the menu too unwieldy. Instead, you choose which applications you want to make available for each VM by selecting Add more shortcuts from that VM's submenu (Figure 1). This brings up a window that allows you to move application shortcuts over to the menu. Note that Qubes detects only applications that provide a .desktop link (the same way they automatically would show up in other desktop environments).

Figure 1. An Example Qubes Desktop Menu

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Kyle Rankin is VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin