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Kernel development

Brief items

Kernel release status

The current stable 2.6 kernel is, released on November 8. This kernel contains a single patch for a sysctl-related oops. There was some unhappiness that the patch for the "zero-length datagrams get dropped" bug, which breaks bind and tcpdump, was not included. That patch will turn up in, which should be released around November 12.

There is still no 2.6.15 prepatch as of this writing. The merge window for this cycle is about to close, however, so 2.6.15-rc1 may be out by the time you read this. An impressive pile of patches has been merged into the mainline git repository; see the article below for a list of significant additions since last week.

The current -mm tree is 2.6.14-mm1. Recent changes to -mm include 64Kb page support for the ppc64 architecture, the swap migration patches, and the lean-and-mean "slob" allocator. The -mm tree has slimmed down considerably as patches have been merged into the mainline.

The current 2.4 prepatch is 2.4.32-rc3, released by Marcelo on November 9. This release candidate adds exactly two patches for serious problems; the final 2.4.32 release will likely happen soon.

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Kernel development news

Quote of the week

When you hear voices in your head that tell you to shoot the pope, do you do what they say? Same thing goes for customers and managers. They are the crazy voices in your head, and you need to set them right, not just blindly do what they ask for.
-- Linus Torvalds

Comments (4 posted)

More goodies for 2.6.15

Last week's what's going into 2.6.15 article had a long list of changes merged into the mainline. The kernel developers weren't done, however. Here is a list of changes merged since that article was written:

  • A big XFS update (including barrier support).

  • A SCSI RDMA protocol initiator for InfiniBand.

  • The open-iSCSI patches.

  • The removal of the (broken) Compaq fibre channel driver.

  • RapidIO bus support.

  • The netlink connector patch, with the process events connector on top.

  • A number of packet scheduler improvements.

  • An ALSA update.

  • The un-exporting of a number of kernel symbols (clear_page_dirty_for_io, console_unblank, cpu_core_id hugetlb_total_pages, idle_cpu, nr_swap_pages, phys_proc_id, reprogram_timer, swapper_space, sysctl_overcommit_memory, sysctl_overcommit_ratio, sysctl_max_map_count, total_swap_pages, user_get_super, uts_sem, vm_acct_memory, and vm_committed_space,).

  • A big purge of code which checks pointers for NULL prior to passing them to kfree().

  • A big reorganization of the block subsystem code (it has its own top-level block directory now).

  • A memory technology devices update, including support for OneNAND, Sibley, and resident flash disk devices.

  • The shared subtrees patches.

  • An MPPE encryption module for PPP.

  • The removal of all Bluetooth-related files from /proc (they are in /sys/class/bluetooth now).

  • Some significant reworking and cleanup of the software suspend code.

  • Big changes to the DVB and Video4Linux subsystems, including support for a number of new devices.

  • A number of open sound system drivers are now explicitly scheduled for removal in January (probably 2.6.16, in other words).

  • Version 1 of the Video4Linux API has also been scheduled for removal (in July, 2006).

  • Support for rotation of the console screen (to support mobile devices which have a natural orientation which is not zero degrees).

  • A number of scheduler tweaks to improve efficiency and resource usage on larger systems.

  • Big updates to the ipw2100 and ipw2200 drivers.

There is also the usual big pile of fixes, and a number of architecture updates.

Comments (1 posted)

Shared subtrees

The shared subtrees patch set, written primarily by Ram Pai, has been in circulation for some time, but without a whole lot of discussion. Those patches have now been merged into the pre-2.6.15 mainline, so the time has come for a closer look. In short, shared subtrees allow a system administrator to configure, in great detail, how various filesystem mounts should appear in the tree, how they relate to each other, and how they propagate between namespaces. There are two motivations for this work:

  • The "files as directories" feature of the reiser4 filesystem allows a user to create, via hard links, a directory which appears in multiple places in the filesystem. That feature has long been disabled due to the deadlock issues which it raised. Shared subtrees are a step toward implementing "files as directories" in a safe manner.

  • The merging of the filesystems in user space patch, and some of the permissions issues associated with it, has increased the desire to be able to run users in their own filesystem namespaces. Per-user namespaces are currently awkward at best; shared subtrees will help make them easier to manage.

It should be noted that the patches merged into the mainline are not a complete solution for either of the above problems, but they are a step in that direction. The per-user namespaces example will be used in what follows to illustrate how the various subtree options work.

Every filesystem in Linux is mounted within a specific namespace. The kernel has long supported the creation of multiple namespaces, but, in most situations, that feature is not used. So the typical Linux system has a single namespace which is shared between all processes on the system. When separate namespaces are used, they are usually in the context of sandboxing and isolation. There would be advantages, however, to making more extensive use of namespaces.

[simple tree] Imagine, for starters, a simple filesystem hierarchy which looks something like the diagram at the right. Clearly, a few directories have been left out for simplicity. The only unusual thing is that a couple of directories have been created under /subtree for users "alice" and "bob". We would like to use those directories as the root for each user's own private view of the filesystem.

The first step is to create a copy of the root filesystem under each user's subtree directory using bind mounts. The result of such an operation will look like the diagram below.

Note that the /subtree tree has been bound into each user's namespace as well. This propagation cuts down on the isolation between users, since they can see each others' subtrees. As the number of users grows, it also complicates the namespaces considerably, as each set of subtrees must be replicated over and over.

This loss of isolation and explosion of mount points can be avoided through the use of "unbindable" mounts, a new feature added by the sharable subtrees patch. Said mounts cannot be bound into other places, and will not be propagated into new subtrees. So the administrator could execute a series of commands like:

    mount --bind /subtree /subtree
    mount --make-unbindable /subtree

This incantation turns /subtree into a magic point which cannot be rebound. If, after this has been done, the administrator makes the per-user bind mounts of the root filesystem, the portion under /subtree will be pruned, with a result which looks like this:


Now imagine that the system administrator mounts a CDROM under /mnt. The result will look like:


Note that the CDROM mount is not visible in the per-user namespaces, so bob and alice will be unable to look at the contents of the CD. That might be the intended result, but imagine it's not, that the administrator wants all users to be able to see things mounted on /mnt. The answer is a "sharable" mount, one which is automatically propagated into every place where the original mount appears. So, the administrator need only perform another new incantation:

    mount --bind /mnt /mnt
    mount --make-shared /mnt
After this, /mnt is a sharable mount. Any changes made there will appear in any namespace where /mnt appears. The resulting tree would look something like this:


Many administrators might rather just make the entire filesystem tree sharable, rather than try to anticipate where changes could be made. If the root is made sharable in this way, any new filesystems which are mounted will propagate throughout the tree. This propagation works all ways; if alice mounts the CD within her subtree, it will still appear in all of the subtrees.

Of course, this behavior might not always be desirable. If, for example, bob is using FUSE to mount an "ssh filesystem" from a remote host, he would prefer that this filesystem not be visible to other users at all. But bob would still like to see filesystems mounted elsewhere, and does not want to give up the advantages of a shared subtree. The answer is yet another type of mount, called a "slave" mount. Slave mounts are selfish: they remain tied to their parent mount, and receive new mounts from there. Anything mounted underneath the slave mount, however, will not be propagated elsewhere. So each user can have his or her own filesystems which are not part of the global hierarchy:


The shared subtrees patch also adds a "private" mount type, which is essentially how mounts in 2.6.14 and prior kernels work. A private mount will not be propagated to any other mounts, but it can (unlike an unbindable mount) be explicitly propagated via a bind operation.

Internally, the patches create the concept of a "peer group," among which mount events are propagated. A new mnt_share field (a list of peers) has been added to the vfsmount structure for this purpose. A couple of other lists (mnt_slave_list and mnt_slave) have been added for keeping track of slave mount relationships. A new MNT_UNBINDABLE flag marks unbindable mounts. And, of course, a great deal of locking work has been done to make all of this work in a safe manner. Al Viro has worked with a few iterations of the shared subtrees patch, with the result that it is now considered to be ready for the mainline.

The shared subtrees patch is a big step forward: it is a fundamental change to the virtual filesystem layer which greatly increases the flexibility in how namespaces can be populated and presented to users. What remains, at this point, is some work on the namespace side of things. Namespaces are still unnamed objects which can only be inherited from a parent process; there is no easy way to create and attach to a per-user namespace. Finishing the job will take some work, but, chances are, the hardest part of the problem has been solved.

For more information, see the extensive documentation file shipped with the patch.

Comments (18 posted)

A seq_file API tweak

The seq_file mechanism is a helper for kernel subsystems wanting to create lengthy virtual files, usually in /proc. 2.6.15 will include a small enhancement which may prove helpful for some users.

When user space opens a virtual file, the kernel must, in turn, call seq_open() to set things up. On return, the file structure passed to seq_open() will have, in its private_data field, a pointer to the seq_file structure created at open time. That is the same structure which will be passed to the seq_file iterator functions, and which must be used when actually generating output.

Traditionally, seq_open() has always allocated the seq_file structure itself. In 2.6.15, however, it will examine the private_data field first, and, if that field is non-NULL, it will assume that the seq_file has already been allocated by the caller. This change allows seq_file users to embed the structure within something larger. It is worth noting, though, that seq_release() still frees the seq_file structure regardless of who created it. Among other things, that implies that, if the caller allocates a seq_file structure within a larger structure, the seq_file structure must appear at the beginning.

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More on fragmentation avoidance

Last week's article on fragmentation avoidance concluded with these famous last words:

But there are legitimate reasons for wanting this capability in the kernel, and the issue is unlikely to go away. Unless somebody comes up with a better solution, it could be hard to keep Mel's patch out forever.

One thing which can keep a patch out of the kernel, however, is opposition from Linus, and that is what has happened in this case. His position is that fragmentation avoidance is "totally useless," and he concludes:

Don't do it. We've never done it, and we've been fine.

The right solution, according to Linus, is to create a special memory zone on the (rare) systems which need to be able to free up large, contiguous blocks of memory. Kernel memory allocations would not be allowed in that zone, so it would only contain user-space pages. Those pages are relatively easy to move when the need arises, so most needs would be satisfied. A certain amount of kernel tuning would be required, but that is the price to be paid for running highly-specialized applications.

This approach is not pleasing to everybody involved. Andi Kleen noted:

You have two choices if a workload runs out of the kernel allocatable pages. Either you spill into the reclaimable zone or you fail the allocation. The first means that the huge pages thing is unreliable, the second would mean that all the many problems of limited lowmem would be back.

Others have noted that it can be hard to tune a machine for all workloads, especially on systems with a large number of users. Objections notwithstanding, it begins to look like active fragmentation avoidance is not likely to go into the 2.6 kernel anytime soon.

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Patches and updates

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