It was recently noted
system calls are still executed with the Big Kernel Lock
(BKL) held. A suggestion was made that drivers which can implement
without the BKL held should be specially flagged as a way
of increasing parallelism. That suggestion looks like it will not get very
far. But it did pique your editor's interest in current use of the BKL.
Besides, there hasn't been a whole lot else going on this week.
The BKL is an artifact from when the Linux kernel first supported
multiprocessor systems. Making the kernel safe for concurrent access from
multiple CPUs has been a multi-year task; it is not a job that
could have been done all at once at the beginning. So Linux 2.0 supported
SMP systems by way of the BKL, which only allowed one processor to be
running kernel code at any given time. The BKL is essentially a spinlock,
but with a couple of interesting properties:
- The BKL can be taken recursively; the kernel remembers how many times
a given thread has called lock_kernel() and does the right
thing. Normal spinlocks are rather less forgiving.
- Code holding the BKL can sleep. The lock is released while the given
thread sleeps, and reacquired upon awakening.
The BKL made SMP Linux possible, but it didn't scale very well. Its
overhead could be felt even with two processors, and it made running on
anything larger problematic. So the kernel developers have been breaking
the BKL into finer-grained locks ever since. Thus, for example, the block
I/O subsystem went from the BKL to its own lock (io_request_lock)
in 2.2, and from that to individual queue locks in 2.6. The kernel now has
thousands of locks, and some people had assumed that the BKL would be gone
As it turns out, there are still over 500 lock_kernel() calls in
the 2.6.6 kernel. For the curious, here are some of the places which still
rely on this old, system-wide lock:
- The core kernel retains a few calls. The implementation of the
reboot() system call is one of them; this is, of course, not
one of the more performance-sensitive parts of the kernel. The
boot-time early initialization process is also run with the BKL held. The
sysctl() system call is run under the BKL;
interestingly, while much of /proc is also implemented under
the BKL, it appears that reads and writes to /proc/sys do not
run with the BKL held.
- Many older filesystems (UFS, coda, HPFS, FAT, NCP, SMB, Minix, etc.)
make heavy use of the BKL for serialization. The UnixWare "Boot File
System" implementation has several calls; somehow, they seem unlikely
to be fixed anytime soon. There are also lock_kernel() calls
in NFS, UDF, isofs, the reiserfs journaling code, autofs, and some others.
The ext2 filesystem uses the BKL to protect modifications to the
superblock; ext3, instead, had all of its lock_kernel() calls
purged during the 2.5 development process.
- The rpciod kernel thread spends its entire life with the BKL
- Core dumps are created with the BKL held.
- Block and character devices have their open() methods called
BKL. Block release() methods are also called this way, but
that is not true for char drivers.
The default llseek() method runs under the BKL, but, if
a driver or filesystem provides its own llseek() method, that
method will not be called with the BKL held. The fasync()
method is always called under the BKL. As noted at the beginning,
ioctl() methods are called with the lock held; additionally,
the ugly code which does 32-bit emulation on 64-bit systems needs
- The file locking code still requires the BKL.
- Almost 10% of the lock_kernel() calls can be found in the
(old, deprecated) OSS sound code. The ALSA code has no BKL calls,
with one exception: the implementation of its /proc files.
- Most of the architectures retain some calls in the arch-specific
code. The ptrace() system call is one common place for these
calls. i386 also uses the BKL to protect llseek() calls on
the CPUID and MSR pseudo-devices. uClinux performs execve()
calls under the BKL.
- Almost all of the remaining BKL calls are to be found in device
drivers. The TTY subsystem still has quite a few of them, as does
USB. Many of these calls are protecting llseek()
implementations. Quite a few of the rest are for the creation of
special-purpose kernel threads: the daemonize() function
needs to be called with the BKL held. Those calls can, presumably, go
away as the driver code is (slowly) migrated over to the new kthread
Given how poorly the BKL is viewed, it may be surprising that so many
places in the kernel still use it. The simple fact is that, with regard to
the BKL, all of the low-hanging fruit has long since been taken. For most
of the remaining calls, removing the BKL is not worth the trouble and code
churn. So, while removal of the remaining calls over the 2.7 development
series looks entirely possible, it would not be surprising if that does not
to post comments)