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Kernel development

Brief items

Kernel release status

The current development kernel remains 2.5.68; Linus has made no releases since April 19. His BitKeeper repository is full of new patches, however, including a FireWire update, some IDE cleanups, more devfs cleanups, a rework of the driver core class code, some new libfs helpers which make it easier to create in-kernel virtual filesystems, a big tty layer cleanup, a change to the interrupt handler prototype (see last week's LWN Kernel Page), runtime barrier instruction patching (which allows optimal performance on different processors without the need to ship multiple kernels), more preparation for an expanded dev_t type, some swapoff improvements, a new set of memory allocation flags (also covered last week), and numerous other fixes and updates.

The current stable kernel is 2.4.20; Marcelo has promised a second 2.4.21 release candidate shortly, but it had not been sent out as of this writing.

The current 2.4 prepatch from Alan Cox is 2.4.20-rc1-ac3; it includes a merge of the XFS filesystem, the current ACPI code, and the usual collection of fixes and updates.

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Kernel development news

The 2.6.0 "must fix" list

One of the important steps in getting a 2.6.0 release out the door is creating an organized list of crucial outstanding issues. For this development cycle, that job seems to have fallen to Andrew Morton, who has posted the first version of a "must-fix" list for 2.6.0. It's a long list, even though it does not include routine bugs kept in the kernel bugzilla system.

Many of the outstanding issues can be found in the block I/O subsystem - not surprising, considering how much things have changed there. RAID (especially RAID0) still has some problems with large requests. CD burning can still hang. IDE tagged command queueing still does not work correctly; the solution here may be to just take it out for 2.6. Work in I/O schedulers is still ongoing; some of the schedulers could use some improvement, and there needs to be a mechanism for choosing between them. The floppy driver is still bug-ridden. And the IDE subsystem still has a long list of things that need to be fixed.

In the filesystem arena, ext3 still lacks a working data=journal mode. ext3 also still uses the big kernel lock, with significant work required for its removal. There are race conditions with asynchronous I/O and truncate() which can corrupt filesystems. NFS still has a number of outstanding issues.

Networking has a potential deadlock for UDP applications. IPSec has a number of outstanding problems including a substandard key management implementation, "mysterious TCP hangs," the lack of an MPLS implementation, and incomplete IPv6 support.

In the kernel core, there are still complaints about poor interactive response out of the new scheduler. The memory overcommit accounting is not as accurate as it needs to be. There are still some issues with the reverse-mapping VM (and the later object-based rmap patch) which can lead to performance problems in some situations.

Then, there is still the 64-bit dev_t work; "...with the recent rise of the neo-viro I'm not sure where things are at."

Power management still needs quite a bit of work. Much of the power management core code remains to be merged, there needs to be a user-space interface for power state transitions, and quite a bit of device support work needs to be done. Restoration of video state appears to be particularly tricky. There is also an effort afoot to rewrite the software suspend code in a better way.

An issue which should not be overlooked is the large number of fixes from the 2.4 series which have not yet made it into 2.5. Those all need to be pulled together, ported forward, and merged.

The above is a summary; the full list is rather longer. But, then, these lists are always long until the release gets close.

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Suspending the system

The software suspend patch was first merged in 2.5.18. It offers the ability to suspend any Linux system to disk, whether that system has hardware suspend support or not. It works by doing the following:

  • Each process in the system is given (what looks like) a special "freeze" signal. The process responds by going into the STOPPED state.

  • As much memory as possible is freed up within the system. Caches are shrunk, user pages are forced out, etc.

  • Pending disk writes are flushed out. Sort of.

  • Each device on the system is put into the suspend state - at least, those which support power management functions are.

  • Control goes off into an uncommented assembly routine called do_magic(). It arranges to find a swap partition to use, creates a "page directory" containing a copy of each in-use page on the system, writes the whole mess to the system swap partition (which requires unsuspending the devices, then suspending them again), and finally powers down.

When the system is next booted, it detects the saved image in the swap partition and reverses the above process. If all goes well, the system comes back to life looking mostly as it did before being suspended. It all seems like a reasonable system if you don't mind that it does not work on SMP boxes, it does not work with high memory, it only works on the x86 architecture, and it requires an adequately-sized swap partition (a regular swap file can lead to corruption on some filesystems). It also fails badly if it cannot find enough swap space to save the system image.

Work is in progress to address some of these issues. The swap space problem, for example, could be easily solved by simply setting aside a special partition for saving the system image. Many other systems work that way now. Given the size of modern disks, setting aside a partition with enough room to hold the system's RAM should not be that big of a deal.

Saving to a swap file is a harder problem. Before the system can be resumed, the host filesystem must be mounted so that the swap file can be accessed. If a journaling filesystem is involved, remounting will clean out the journal, making changes to the filesystem. Once the system image is restored, however, the kernel will expect the filesystem to be in its previous state - before the journal was replayed. And that leads to filesystem corruption. Possible solutions include remembering block numbers for the swap file (as lilo does for kernel images) or setting up a way to mount the filesystem without replaying the journal.

In the end, however, what may really happen is that most of the current suspend code will be replaced. Patrick Mochel is working on a general power management framework for Linux (that was, after all, the original purpose of all that driver model work he has been doing). Included therein is a flexible suspend implementation that can be tuned to the needs of the user and the abilities of the hardware; if the hardware can save and restore memory itself, there's little point in having the kernel duplicate that ability.

So, in the new scheme, suspending (and resuming) the system becomes another set of operations that can be hidden behind a structure full of function pointers. Systems which can handle power management entirely through ACPI calls run with one set of operations, while those requiring the software suspend capability can have it. As part of this work, the software suspend code has been substantially reworked and cleaned up. At this point, though, the basic technique used by the code is the same, and it will suffer from many of the same problems.

This work is not yet complete, however; expect it to be improved further before heading toward the mainline 2.5 kernel. Those wanting to look at Patrick's work can get it with BitKeeper at; your editor is not aware of a non-BK copy available at this time.

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Driver porting

Driver porting: Network drivers

This article is part of the LWN Porting Drivers to 2.6 series.
Much of the core network driver API has not been changed between the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels. With only a relatively small amount of work, most drivers should function just fine under 2.6. If, however, you want to get the very best performance out of high-bandwidth network cards, you may have to make more extensive changes to your driver to work with the new APIs which have been made available.

Network device allocation

In 2.6, network devices are part of the wider kernel device model. There are advantages to this change, including the fact that network device information is available under /sys/class/net/. But hooking into the driver model poses a new set of potential race conditions which were not there before. What happens if your driver module is removed while a process has an associated sysfs file open? Network drivers are more susceptible than most to this problem because the networking subsystem does not restrict the unloading of drivers via the module use count.

The only way to properly deal with this problem is to allocate network devices in a dynamic manner, and to let the device model code figure out when to free them. To that end, all net_device structures must be allocated with the new alloc_netdev() function:

    struct net_device *alloc_netdev(int sizeof_priv, const char *name,
			       	    void (*setup)(struct net_device *));

Here, sizeof_priv is the size of the structure that you would otherwise allocate and assign to the net_device priv field; alloc_netdev() will allocate that memory for you as well. name is the name of the device (a format string is acceptible, so something like "eth%d" works), and setup is a function to be called to complete the initialization of the net_device structure. The setup function can be the same function that, in older drivers, you may have assigned to the init field in the net_device structure.

For Ethernet devices, there is a simpler form:

    struct net_device *alloc_etherdev(int sizeof_priv);

Calling this function is equivalent to:

    my_dev = alloc_netdev(sizeof(my_priv), "eth%d", setup_ether);

Either way, when you are done with the device (i.e. after you have called unregister_netdev()), you must free it with:

    void free_netdev(struct net_device *dev);

Note that it would be an error to free the priv field separately - let free_netdev() take care of it.


The most significant change, perhaps, is the addition of NAPI ("New API"), which is designed to improve the performance of high-speed networking. NAPI works through:

  • Interrupt mitigation. High-speed networking can create thousands of interrupts per second, all of which tell the system something it already knew: it has lots of packets to process. NAPI allows drivers to run with (some) interrupts disabled during times of high traffic, with a corresponding decrease in system load.

  • Packet throttling. When the system is overwhelmed and must drop packets, it's better if those packets are disposed of before much effort goes into processing them. NAPI-compliant drivers can often cause packets to be dropped in the network adapter itself, before the kernel sees them at all.

  • More careful packet treatment, with special care taken to avoid reordering packets. Out-of-order packets can be a significant performance bottleneck.

NAPI was also backported to the 2.4.20 kernel.

The following is a whirlwind tour of what must be done to create a NAPI-compliant network driver. More details can be found in networking/NAPI_HOWTO.txt in the kernel documentation directory, and, of course, in the source of drivers which have been converted. Note that use of NAPI is entirely optional, drivers will work just fine (though perhaps a little more slowly) without it.

The first step is to make some changes to your driver's interrupt handler. If your driver has been interrupted because a new packet is available, that packet should not be processed at the time. Instead, your driver should disable any further "packet available" interrupts and tell the networking subsystem to poll your driver shortly to pick up all available packets. Disabling interrupts, of course, is a hardware-specific matter between the driver and the adaptor. Arranging for polling is done with a call to:

    void netif_rx_schedule(struct net_device *dev);

An alternative form you'll see in some drivers is:

    if (netif_rx_schedule_prep(dev))

The end result is the same either way. (If netif_rx_schedule_prep() returns zero, it means that there was already a poll scheduled, and you should not have received another interrupt).

The next step is to create a poll() method for your driver; it's job is to obtain packets from the network interface and feed them into the kernel. The poll() prototype is:

    int (*poll)(struct net_device *dev, int *budget);

The poll() function should process all available incoming packets, much as your interrupt handler might have done in the pre-NAPI days. There are some exceptions, however:

  • Packets should not be passed to netif_rx(); instead, use:

         int netif_receive_skb(struct sk_buff *skb);

    The return value will be NET_RX_DROP if the networking subsystem had to drop the packet. Network drivers could use that information to stop feeding packets for the moment, but no driver in the kernel tree does so currently.

  • A new struct net_device field called quota contains the maximum number of packets that the networking subsystem is prepared to receive from your driver at this time. Once you have exhausted that quota, no further packets should be fed to the kernel in this poll() call.

  • The budget parameter also places a limit on the number of packets which your driver may process. Whichever of budget and quota is lower is the real limit.

  • Your driver should decrement dev->quota by the number of packets it processed. The value pointed to by the budget parameter should also be decremented by the same amount.

  • If packets remain to be processed (i.e. the driver used its entire quota), poll() should return a value of one.

  • If, instead, all packets have been processed, your driver should reenable interrupts, turn off polling, and return zero. Polling is stopped with:

         void netif_rx_complete(struct net_device *dev);

The networking subsystem promises that poll() will not be invoked simultaneously (for the same device) on multiple processors.

The final step is to tell the networking subsystem about your poll() method. This, of course, is done in your initialization code when all the other struct net_device fields are set:

    dev->poll = my_poll;
    dev->weight = 16;

The weight field is a measure of the importance of this interface; the number stored here will turn out to be the same number your driver finds in the quota field when poll() is called. If you forget to initialize weight and leave it at zero, poll() will never be called (voice of experience here). Gigabit adaptor drivers tend to set weight to 64; smaller values can be used for slower media.

Receiving packets in non-interrupt mode

Network drivers tend to send packets into the kernel while running in interrupt mode. There are occasions where, instead, packets will be received by a driver running in process context. There is no problem with this mode of operation, but it is possible that the networking software interrupt which performs packet processing may be delayed, reducing performance. To avoid this problems, drivers handing packets to the kernel outside of interrupt context should use:

    int netif_rx_ni(struct sk_buff *skb);

instead of netif_rx().

Other 2.5 features

A number of other networking features were added in 2.5. Here is a quick summary of developments that driver developers may want to be aware of.

  • Ethtool support. Ethtool is a utility which can perform detailed configuration of network interfaces; it can be found on the gkernel SourceForge page. This tool can be used to query network information, tweak detailed operating parameters, control message logging, and more. Supporting ethtool requires implementing the SIOCETHTOOL ioctl() command, along with (parts of, at least) the lengthy set of ethtool commands. See <linux/ethtool.h> for a list of things that can be done. Implementing the message logging control features requires checking the logging settings before each printk() call; there is a set of convenience macros in <linux/netdevice.h> which make that checking a little easier.

  • VLAN support. The 2.5 kernel has support for 802.1q VLAN interfaces; this support has also been working its way into 2.4, with the core being merged in 2.4.14. See this page for information on the Linux 802.1q implementation.

  • TCP segmentation offloading. The TSO feature can improve performance by offloading some TCP segmentation work to the adaptor and cutting back slightly on bus bandwidth. TSO is an advanced feature that can be tricky to implement with good performance; see the tg3 or e1000 drivers for examples of how it's done.

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Patches and updates

Kernel trees


Core kernel code

Device drivers


Filesystems and block I/O

Memory management


Benchmarks and bugs


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