time to bleed by Joe Damato

technical ramblings from a wanna-be unix dinosaur

Archive for June, 2009

A Few Things You Didn’t Know about Signals in Linux Part 1

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Another post about signal handling?

There are probably lots of people who have blogged about signal handling in Linux, but this series is going to be different. In this blog post, I’m going to unravel the signal handling code paths in the Linux kernel starting at the hardware level, working though the kernel, and ending in the userland signal handler. I’ve tried to use footnotes for code samples which have links to the code in the Linux lxr. Many of the code examples have been snipped for brevity.

As always, this post is specific to the x86_64 CPU architecture and Linux kernel 2.6.29.

Hardware or software generated

Signals are not generated directly by hardware, but certain hardware states can cause the Linux kernel to generate signals. As such we can imagine two ways to generate signals:

  1. Hardware – the CPU does something bad (divides by 0, touches a bad address, etc) which causes the kernel to create and deliver (unless the signal is SIGKILL or SIGSTOP, of course) a signal (SIGFPE, SIGSEGV, etc) to the running process.
  2. Software – an application executes a kill() system call and sends a signal to a specific process.

Both types of signals share a common code path, but hardware generated signals have a very interesting birth. Let’s start there and as we work our way up to userland we’ll stumble into the software signal code path along the way.

Exceptions on the x86

Let’s start by first understanding what an x86 exception is. For that, we’ll turn to the documentation1:

[...] exceptions are events that indicate that a condition exists somewhere in the system, the processor, or within the currently executing program or task that requires the attention of a processor. They typically result in a forced transfer of execution from the currently running program or task to a special software routine [...] or an exception handler.

At a high level this is pretty simple to understand; the system gets in a weird state and the CPU immediately begins executing a predefined handler function to try to fix things (if it can) or die gracefully.

Let’s take a look at how the kernel creates and installs handler functions that the CPU executes when an exception occurs.

Low-level exception handlers

Low level exception handlers are specified in the Interrupt Descriptor Table (IDT). The IDT can hold up to 256 entries and it can live anywhere in memory. Each entry in the IDT is mapped to a different exception. For example, #DE Divide Error is the first entry in the IDT, IDT[0]; #PF Page Fault ‘s handler lives at IDT[14]. When a specific exception is encountered, the CPU looks up the handler function in the IDT, puts some data on the stack, and executes the handler.

What does an entry in the IDT look like? Let’s take a look at a picture2 from Intel:

Take a look at the fields labeled ‘Offset’ – this is field that contains the address of the function to execute. As you can see, there are three fields labeled ‘Offset.’ Can you guess why?

In order to actually set the address of the function you want to execute, you’ll need to do some bit-shifting. Each ‘Offset’ field is indicates which bits of the address of the handler function it wants. You need to be really careful when writing the code that is responsible for creating IDT entries. A bug here could cause your system to do really bizarre things.

We know what an IDT entry looks like, but what about the data that the CPU pushes on the stack before executing a handler? Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down a picture of what the x86_64 puts on the stack and I can’t draw. So, here is a picture of the data the x86 CPU puts on the stack from Intel3:

When an exception occurs, the CPU pushes the stack pointer, the CPU flags register value, the code and stack segment selectors, and the instruction pointer on to the stack before executing the handler.

Nice, but where does the IDT itself live?

The address of the IDT is stored in a CPU register that can be accessed with the instructions lidt and sidt to load and store (respectively) the address of the IDT. Usually, the address of the IDT is set during the initialization of the kernel.

Let’s see where this happens in Linux4:

void __init x86_64_start_kernel(char * real_mode_data)
        int i;

        /* [...] */

        for (i = 0; i < NUM_EXCEPTION_VECTORS; i++) {
                set_intr_gate(i, early_idt_handler);

        load_idt((const struct desc_ptr *)&idt_descr);

	/* [...] */

Cool, so Linux creates a bunch of early handlers in case something goes bad during boot and then a few function calls later (not shown), Linux calls start_kernel()5, which calls trap_init()6 for your architecture which actually sets the handlers.

This is pretty important, so let's take a look at the code for this. Thankfully, Linux includes some descriptive function names, so we can see which exceptions are being set.

void __init trap_init(void)
   /* ... */

	set_intr_gate(0, &divide_error);

	/* ... */

        set_intr_gate(5, &bounds);
        set_intr_gate(6, &invalid_op);
        set_intr_gate(7, &device_not_available);

	/* ... */

        set_intr_gate(13, &general_protection);
 	set_intr_gate(14, &page_fault);
 	set_intr_gate(15, &spurious_interrupt_bug);
 	set_intr_gate(16, &coprocessor_error);
 	set_intr_gate(17, &alignment_check);

   /* ... */

Awesome, now let's try to track down where these exception handlers are defined. As it turns out, there is a little bit of C and assembly magic to string this all together.

The low-level exception handlers have a common entry and exit point and are "templated" with a macro. Let's take a look at the macro7 and some of the handlers8 in the kernel:

.macro zeroentry sym do_sym
        pushq_cfi $-1           /* ORIG_RAX: no syscall to restart */
        subq $15*8,%rsp
        call error_entry
        movq %rsp,%rdi          /* pt_regs pointer */
        xorl %esi,%esi          /* no error code */
        call \do_sym
        jmp error_exit          /* %ebx: no swapgs flag */

So the macro uses the first argument sym as the name of the function, and the second argument do_sym is a C function that is called from this assembly stub.

We also notice from the stub above a very important (and somewhat subtle) piece of code: movq %rsp,%rdi This piece of code puts the address of the stack pointer in %rdi and we'll see why shortly. First, let's look at how the macro is used to get a better idea how it works:

zeroentry divide_error do_divide_error
zeroentry overflow do_overflow
zeroentry bounds do_bounds
zeroentry invalid_op do_invalid_op
zeroentry device_not_available do_device_not_available

This block of code uses the macro above to create symbols named divide_error, overflow, and more which call out to C functions named do_divide_error, do_overflow, etc. The craziness doesn't end there. These C functions are also generated with macros9:

#define DO_ERROR(trapnr, signr, str, name)                              \
dotraplinkage void do_##name(struct pt_regs *regs, long error_code)     \
{                                                                       \
        if (notify_die(DIE_TRAP, str, regs, error_code, trapnr, signr)  \
                                                        == NOTIFY_STOP) \
                return;                                                 \
        conditional_sti(regs);                                          \
        do_trap(trapnr, signr, str, regs, error_code, NULL);            \
DO_ERROR(4, SIGSEGV, "overflow", overflow)
DO_ERROR(5, SIGSEGV, "bounds", bounds)

Those last two lines get substituted with the macro above, creating do_overflow, do_bounds, and more. As you might have noticed, the functions generated have dotraplinkage which is a macro for a gcc attribute regparm which tells gcc to pass arguments to the function in registers and not on the stack.

Remember the movq %rsp,%rdi from the common assembly stub? That line of code exists to pass the address of the state the CPU dumped to the do_* functions via the %rdi register.

The do_* functions notify interested parties about the exception, re-enable interrupts/exceptions if they were disabled, and finally tells the upper layer signal handling code of the kernel that a signal should be generated and hands over the associated CPU state at the time the exception was generated.

Conclusion for Part 1

Wow. What a wild ride that was.

  1. There is a lot of trickery and subtle hacks in the Linux kernel. Reading and understanding the code can make you a more clever programmer. Dig in!
  2. It is pretty cool (imho) to understand how you actually converse with the CPU and how the CPU talks to the kernel, and how that data is pushed to the upper layers.
  3. The Intel CPU manuals, the gcc man page, and the Linux lxr are a big time help for deciphering this code, which can be cryptic at times.
  4. Understanding what information you have at your disposal can let you do pretty crazy things in userland, as we'll see in the next piece of this series.

Stay tuned, in the next piece of this series I'll walk through the signal handling code in the kernel and show some crazy non-portable tricks you can do in userland.

Thanks for reading and don't forget to subscribe (via RSS or e-mail) and follow me on twitter.


  1. Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer’s Manual Volume 3A: System Programming Guide, Part 1, 5.1: Interrupt and Exception Overview []
  2. Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer’s Manual Volume 3A: System Programming Guide, Part 1, 5.1: Interrupt and Exception Overview []
  3. Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer’s Manual Volume 3A: System Programming Guide, Part 1, Exception- or Interrupt-Handler Procedures []
  4. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.30/arch/x86/kernel/head64.c#L89 []
  5. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.29/init/main.c#L590 []
  6. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.29/arch/x86/kernel/traps.c#L953 []
  7. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.29/arch/x86/kernel/entry_64.S#L1028 []
  8. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.29/arch/x86/kernel/entry_64.S#L1121 []
  9. http://lxr.linux.no/linux+v2.6.29/arch/x86/kernel/traps.c#L236 []

Written by Joe Damato

June 15th, 2009 at 6:00 am