[PATCHv4 1/1] Documentation: describe how to add a system call

From: David Drysdale
Date: Mon Aug 10 2015 - 04:01:08 EST

Add a document describing the process of adding a new system call,
including the need for a flags argument for future compatibility, and
covering 32-bit/64-bit concerns (albeit in an x86-centric way).

Signed-off-by: David Drysdale <drysdale@xxxxxxxxxx>
Reviewed-by: Michael Kerrisk <mtk.manpages@xxxxxxxxx>
Reviewed-by: Eric B Munson <emunson@xxxxxxxxxx>
Reviewed-by: Kees Cook <keescook@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
Reviewed-by: Randy Dunlap <rdunlap@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Reviewed-by: Josh Triplett <josh@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Documentation/adding-syscalls.txt | 527 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
1 file changed, 527 insertions(+)
create mode 100644 Documentation/adding-syscalls.txt

diff --git a/Documentation/adding-syscalls.txt b/Documentation/adding-syscalls.txt
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+Adding a New System Call
+This document describes what's involved in adding a new system call to the
+Linux kernel, over and above the normal submission advice in
+System Call Alternatives
+The first thing to consider when adding a new system call is whether one of
+the alternatives might be suitable instead. Although system calls are the
+most traditional and most obvious interaction points between userspace and the
+kernel, there are other possibilities -- choose what fits best for your
+ - If the operations involved can be made to look like a filesystem-like
+ object, it may make more sense to create a new filesystem or device. This
+ also makes it easier to encapsulate the new functionality in a kernel module
+ rather than requiring it to be built into the main kernel.
+ - If the new functionality involves operations where the kernel notifies
+ userspace that something has happened, then returning a new file
+ descriptor for the relevant object allows userspace to use
+ poll/select/epoll to receive that notification.
+ - However, operations that don't map to read(2)/write(2)-like operations
+ have to be implemented as ioctl(2) requests, which can lead to a
+ somewhat opaque API.
+ - If you're just exposing runtime system information, a new node in sysfs
+ (see Documentation/filesystems/sysfs.txt) or the /proc filesystem may be
+ more appropriate. However, access to these mechanisms requires that the
+ relevant filesystem is mounted, which might not always be the case (e.g.
+ in a namespaced/sandboxed/chrooted environment). Avoid adding any API to
+ debugfs, as this is not considered a 'production' interface to userspace.
+ - If the operation is specific to a particular file or file descriptor, then
+ an additional fcntl(2) command option may be more appropriate. However,
+ fcntl(2) is a multiplexing system call that hides a lot of complexity, so
+ this option is best for when the new function is closely analogous to
+ existing fcntl(2) functionality, or the new functionality is very simple
+ (for example, getting/setting a simple flag related to a file descriptor).
+ - If the operation is specific to a particular task or process, then an
+ additional prctl(2) command option may be more appropriate. As with
+ fcntl(2), this system call is a complicated multiplexor so is best reserved
+ for near-analogs of existing prctl() commands or getting/setting a simple
+ flag related to a process.
+Designing the API: Planning for Extension
+A new system call forms part of the API of the kernel, and has to be supported
+indefinitely. As such, it's a very good idea to explicitly discuss the
+interface on the kernel mailing list, and it's important to plan for future
+extensions of the interface.
+(The syscall table is littered with historical examples where this wasn't done,
+together with the corresponding follow-up system calls -- eventfd/eventfd2,
+dup2/dup3, inotify_init/inotify_init1, pipe/pipe2, renameat/renameat2 -- so
+learn from the history of the kernel and plan for extensions from the start.)
+For simpler system calls that only take a couple of arguments, the preferred
+way to allow for future extensibility is to include a flags argument to the
+system call. To make sure that userspace programs can safely use flags
+between kernel versions, check whether the flags value holds any unknown
+flags, and reject the system call (with EINVAL) if it does:
+ if (flags & ~(THING_FLAG1 | THING_FLAG2 | THING_FLAG3))
+ return -EINVAL;
+(If no flags values are used yet, check that the flags argument is zero.)
+For more sophisticated system calls that involve a larger number of arguments,
+it's preferred to encapsulate the majority of the arguments into a structure
+that is passed in by pointer. Such a structure can cope with future extension
+by including a size argument in the structure:
+ struct xyzzy_params {
+ u32 size; /* userspace sets p->size = sizeof(struct xyzzy_params) */
+ u32 param_1;
+ u64 param_2;
+ u64 param_3;
+ };
+As long as any subsequently added field, say param_4, is designed so that a
+zero value gives the previous behaviour, then this allows both directions of
+version mismatch:
+ - To cope with a later userspace program calling an older kernel, the kernel
+ code should check that any memory beyond the size of the structure that it
+ expects is zero (effectively checking that param_4 == 0).
+ - To cope with an older userspace program calling a newer kernel, the kernel
+ code can zero-extend a smaller instance of the structure (effectively
+ setting param_4 = 0).
+See perf_event_open(2) and the perf_copy_attr() function (in
+kernel/events/core.c) for an example of this approach.
+Designing the API: Other Considerations
+If your new system call allows userspace to refer to a kernel object, it
+should use a file descriptor as the handle for that object -- don't invent a
+new type of userspace object handle when the kernel already has mechanisms and
+well-defined semantics for using file descriptors.
+If your new xyzzy(2) system call does return a new file descriptor, then the
+flags argument should include a value that is equivalent to setting O_CLOEXEC
+on the new FD. This makes it possible for userspace to close the timing
+window between xyzzy() and calling fcntl(fd, F_SETFD, FD_CLOEXEC), where an
+unexpected fork() and execve() in another thread could leak a descriptor to
+the exec'ed program. (However, resist the temptation to re-use the actual value
+of the O_CLOEXEC constant, as it is architecture-specific and is part of a
+numbering space of O_* flags that is fairly full.)
+If your system call returns a new file descriptor, you should also consider
+what it means to use the poll(2) family of system calls on that file
+descriptor. Making a file descriptor ready for reading or writing is the
+normal way for the kernel to indicate to userspace that an event has
+occurred on the corresponding kernel object.
+If your new xyzzy(2) system call involves a filename argument:
+ int sys_xyzzy(const char __user *path, ..., unsigned int flags);
+you should also consider whether an xyzzyat(2) version is more appropriate:
+ int sys_xyzzyat(int dfd, const char __user *path, ..., unsigned int flags);
+This allows more flexibility for how userspace specifies the file in question;
+in particular it allows userspace to request the functionality for an
+already-opened file descriptor using the AT_EMPTY_PATH flag, effectively giving
+an fxyzzy(3) operation for free:
+ - xyzzyat(AT_FDCWD, path, ..., 0) is equivalent to xyzzy(path,...)
+ - xyzzyat(fd, "", ..., AT_EMPTY_PATH) is equivalent to fxyzzy(fd, ...)
+(For more details on the rationale of the *at() calls, see the openat(2) man
+page; for an example of AT_EMPTY_PATH, see the statat(2) man page.)
+If your new xyzzy(2) system call involves a parameter describing an offset
+within a file, make its type loff_t so that 64-bit offsets can be supported
+even on 32-bit architectures.
+If your new xyzzy(2) system call involves privileged functionality, it needs
+to be governed by the appropriate Linux capability bit (checked with a call to
+capable()), as described in the capabilities(7) man page. Choose an existing
+capability bit that governs related functionality, but try to avoid combining
+lots of only vaguely related functions together under the same bit, as this
+goes against capabilities' purpose of splitting the power of root. In
+particular, avoid adding new uses of the already overly-general CAP_SYS_ADMIN
+If your new xyzzy(2) system call manipulates a process other than the calling
+process, it should be restricted (using a call to ptrace_may_access()) so that
+only a calling process with the same permissions as the target process, or
+with the necessary capabilities, can manipulate the target process.
+Finally, be aware that some non-x86 architectures have an easier time if
+system call parameters that are explicitly 64-bit fall on odd-numbered
+arguments (i.e. parameter 1, 3, 5), to allow use of contiguous pairs of 32-bit
+registers. (This concern does not apply if the arguments are part of a
+structure that's passed in by pointer.)
+Proposing the API
+To make new system calls easy to review, it's best to divide up the patchset
+into separate chunks. These should include at least the following items as
+distinct commits (each of which is described further below):
+ - The core implementation of the system call, together with prototypes,
+ generic numbering, Kconfig changes and fallback stub implementation.
+ - Wiring up of the new system call for one particular architecture, usually
+ x86 (including all of x86_64, x86_32 and x32).
+ - A demonstration of the use of the new system call in userspace via a
+ selftest in tools/testing/selftests/.
+ - A draft man-page for the new system call, either as plain text in the
+ cover letter, or as a patch to the (separate) man-pages repository.
+New system call proposals, like any change to the kernel's API, should always
+be cc'ed to linux-api@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
+Generic System Call Implementation
+The main entry point for your new xyzzy(2) system call will be called
+sys_xyzzy(), but you add this entry point with the appropriate
+SYSCALL_DEFINEn() macro rather than explicitly. The 'n' indicates the number
+of arguments to the system call, and the macro takes the system call name
+followed by the (type, name) pairs for the parameters as arguments. Using
+this macro allows metadata about the new system call to be made available for
+other tools.
+The new entry point also needs a corresponding function prototype, in
+include/linux/syscalls.h, marked as asmlinkage to match the way that system
+calls are invoked:
+ asmlinkage long sys_xyzzy(...);
+Some architectures (e.g. x86) have their own architecture-specific syscall
+tables, but several other architectures share a generic syscall table. Add your
+new system call to the generic list by adding an entry to the list in
+ #define __NR_xyzzy 292
+ __SYSCALL(__NR_xyzzy, sys_xyzzy)
+Also update the __NR_syscalls count to reflect the additional system call, and
+note that if multiple new system calls are added in the same merge window,
+your new syscall number may get adjusted to resolve conflicts.
+The file kernel/sys_ni.c provides a fallback stub implementation of each system
+call, returning -ENOSYS. Add your new system call here too:
+ cond_syscall(sys_xyzzy);
+Your new kernel functionality, and the system call that controls it, should
+normally be optional, so add a CONFIG option (typically to init/Kconfig) for
+it. As usual for new CONFIG options:
+ - Include a description of the new functionality and system call controlled
+ by the option.
+ - Make the option depend on EXPERT if it should be hidden from normal users.
+ - Make any new source files implementing the function dependent on the CONFIG
+ option in the Makefile (e.g. "obj-$(CONFIG_XYZZY_SYSCALL) += xyzzy.c").
+ - Double check that the kernel still builds with the new CONFIG option turned
+ off.
+To summarize, you need a commit that includes:
+ - CONFIG option for the new function, normally in init/Kconfig
+ - SYSCALL_DEFINEn(xyzzy, ...) for the entry point
+ - corresponding prototype in include/linux/syscalls.h
+ - generic table entry in include/uapi/asm-generic/unistd.h
+ - fallback stub in kernel/sys_ni.c
+x86 System Call Implementation
+To wire up your new system call for x86 platforms, you need to update the
+master syscall tables. Assuming your new system call isn't special in some
+way (see below), this involves a "common" entry (for x86_64 and x32) in
+ 333 common xyzzy sys_xyzzy
+and an "i386" entry in arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_32.tbl:
+ 380 i386 xyzzy sys_xyzzy
+Again, these numbers are liable to be changed if there are conflicts in the
+relevant merge window.
+Compatibility System Calls (Generic)
+For most system calls the same 64-bit implementation can be invoked even when
+the userspace program is itself 32-bit; even if the system call's parameters
+include an explicit pointer, this is handled transparently.
+However, there are a couple of situations where a compatibility layer is
+needed to cope with size differences between 32-bit and 64-bit.
+The first is if the 64-bit kernel also supports 32-bit userspace programs, and
+so needs to parse areas of (__user) memory that could hold either 32-bit or
+64-bit values. In particular, this is needed whenever a system call argument
+ - a pointer to a pointer
+ - a pointer to a struct containing a pointer (e.g. struct iovec __user *)
+ - a pointer to a varying sized integral type (time_t, off_t, long, ...)
+ - a pointer to a struct containing a varying sized integral type.
+The second situation that requires a compatibility layer is if one of the
+system call's arguments has a type that is explicitly 64-bit even on a 32-bit
+architecture, for example loff_t or __u64. In this case, a value that arrives
+at a 64-bit kernel from a 32-bit application will be split into two 32-bit
+values, which then need to be re-assembled in the compatibility layer.
+(Note that a system call argument that's a pointer to an explicit 64-bit type
+does *not* need a compatibility layer; for example, splice(2)'s arguments of
+type loff_t __user * do not trigger the need for a compat_ system call.)
+The compatibility version of the system call is called compat_sys_xyzzy(), and
+is added with the COMPAT_SYSCALL_DEFINEn() macro, analogously to
+SYSCALL_DEFINEn. This version of the implementation runs as part of a 64-bit
+kernel, but expects to receive 32-bit parameter values and does whatever is
+needed to deal with them. (Typically, the compat_sys_ version converts the
+values to 64-bit versions and either calls on to the sys_ version, or both of
+them call a common inner implementation function.)
+The compat entry point also needs a corresponding function prototype, in
+include/linux/compat.h, marked as asmlinkage to match the way that system
+calls are invoked:
+ asmlinkage long compat_sys_xyzzy(...);
+If the system call involves a structure that is laid out differently on 32-bit
+and 64-bit systems, say struct xyzzy_args, then the include/linux/compat.h
+header file should also include a compat version of the structure (struct
+compat_xyzzy_args) where each variable-size field has the appropriate compat_
+type that corresponds to the type in struct xyzzy_args. The
+compat_sys_xyzzy() routine can then use this compat_ structure to parse the
+arguments from a 32-bit invocation.
+For example, if there are fields:
+ struct xyzzy_args {
+ const char __user *ptr;
+ __kernel_long_t varying_val;
+ u64 fixed_val;
+ /* ... */
+ };
+in struct xyzzy_args, then struct compat_xyzzy_args would have:
+ struct compat_xyzzy_args {
+ compat_uptr_t ptr;
+ compat_long_t varying_val;
+ u64 fixed_val;
+ /* ... */
+ };
+The generic system call list also needs adjusting to allow for the compat
+version; the entry in include/uapi/asm-generic/unistd.h should use
+__SC_COMP rather than __SYSCALL:
+ #define __NR_xyzzy 292
+ __SC_COMP(__NR_xyzzy, sys_xyzzy, compat_sys_xyzzy)
+To summarize, you need:
+ - a COMPAT_SYSCALL_DEFINEn(xyzzy, ...) for the compat entry point
+ - corresponding prototype in include/linux/compat.h
+ - (if needed) 32-bit mapping struct in include/linux/compat.h
+ - instance of __SC_COMP not __SYSCALL in include/uapi/asm-generic/unistd.h
+Compatibility System Calls (x86)
+To wire up the x86 architecture of a system call with a compatibility version,
+the entries in the syscall tables need to be adjusted.
+First, the entry in arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_32.tbl gets an extra
+column to indicate that a 32-bit userspace program running on a 64-bit kernel
+should hit the compat entry point:
+ 380 i386 xyzzy sys_xyzzy compat_sys_xyzzy
+Second, you need to figure out what should happen for the x32 ABI version of
+the new system call. There's a choice here: the layout of the arguments
+should either match the 64-bit version or the 32-bit version.
+If there's a pointer-to-a-pointer involved, the decision is easy: x32 is
+ILP32, so the layout should match the 32-bit version, and the entry in
+arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_64.tbl is split so that x32 programs hit the
+compatibility wrapper:
+ 333 64 xyzzy sys_xyzzy
+ ...
+ 555 x32 xyzzy compat_sys_xyzzy
+If no pointers are involved, then it is preferable to re-use the 64-bit system
+call for the x32 ABI (and consequently the entry in
+arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_64.tbl is unchanged).
+In either case, you should check that the types involved in your argument
+layout do indeed map exactly from x32 (-mx32) to either the 32-bit (-m32) or
+64-bit (-m64) equivalents.
+System Calls Returning Elsewhere
+For most system calls, once the system call is complete the user program
+continues exactly where it left off -- at the next instruction, with the
+stack the same and most of the registers the same as before the system call,
+and with the same virtual memory space.
+However, a few system calls do things differently. They might return to a
+different location (rt_sigreturn) or change the memory space (fork/vfork/clone)
+or even architecture (execve/execveat) of the program.
+To allow for this, the kernel implementation of the system call may need to
+save and restore additional registers to the kernel stack, allowing complete
+control of where and how execution continues after the system call.
+This is arch-specific, but typically involves defining assembly entry points
+that save/restore additional registers and invoke the real system call entry
+For x86_64, this is implemented as a stub_xyzzy entry point in
+arch/x86/entry/entry_64.S, and the entry in the syscall table
+(arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_64.tbl) is adjusted to match:
+ 333 common xyzzy stub_xyzzy
+The equivalent for 32-bit programs running on a 64-bit kernel is normally
+called stub32_xyzzy and implemented in arch/x86/entry/entry_64_compat.S,
+with the corresponding syscall table adjustment in
+ 380 i386 xyzzy sys_xyzzy stub32_xyzzy
+If the system call needs a compatibility layer (as in the previous section)
+then the stub32_ version needs to call on to the compat_sys_ version of the
+system call rather than the native 64-bit version. Also, if the x32 ABI
+implementation is not common with the x86_64 version, then its syscall
+table will also need to invoke a stub that calls on to the compat_sys_
+For completeness, it's also nice to set up a mapping so that user-mode Linux
+still works -- its syscall table will reference stub_xyzzy, but the UML build
+doesn't include arch/x86/entry/entry_64.S implementation (because UML
+simulates registers etc). Fixing this is as simple as adding a #define to
+ #define stub_xyzzy sys_xyzzy
+Other Details
+Most of the kernel treats system calls in a generic way, but there is the
+occasional exception that may need updating for your particular system call.
+The audit subsystem is one such special case; it includes (arch-specific)
+functions that classify some special types of system call -- specifically
+file open (open/openat), program execution (execve/exeveat) or socket
+multiplexor (socketcall) operations. If your new system call is analogous to
+one of these, then the audit system should be updated.
+More generally, if there is an existing system call that is analogous to your
+new system call, it's worth doing a kernel-wide grep for the existing system
+call to check there are no other special cases.
+A new system call should obviously be tested; it is also useful to provide
+reviewers with a demonstration of how user space programs will use the system
+call. A good way to combine these aims is to include a simple self-test
+program in a new directory under tools/testing/selftests/.
+For a new system call, there will obviously be no libc wrapper function and so
+the test will need to invoke it using syscall(); also, if the system call
+involves a new userspace-visible structure, the corresponding header will need
+to be installed to compile the test.
+Make sure the selftest runs successfully on all supported architectures. For
+example, check that it works when compiled as an x86_64 (-m64), x86_32 (-m32)
+and x32 (-mx32) ABI program.
+For more extensive and thorough testing of new functionality, you should also
+consider adding tests to the Linux Test Project, or to the xfstests project
+for filesystem-related changes.
+ - https://linux-test-project.github.io/
+ - git://git.kernel.org/pub/scm/fs/xfs/xfstests-dev.git
+Man Page
+All new system calls should come with a complete man page, ideally using groff
+markup, but plain text will do. If groff is used, it's helpful to include a
+pre-rendered ASCII version of the man page in the cover email for the
+patchset, for the convenience of reviewers.
+The man page should be cc'ed to linux-man@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
+For more details, see https://www.kernel.org/doc/man-pages/patches.html
+References and Sources
+ - LWN article from Michael Kerrisk on use of flags argument in system calls:
+ https://lwn.net/Articles/585415/
+ - LWN article from Michael Kerrisk on how to handle unknown flags in a system
+ call: https://lwn.net/Articles/588444/
+ - LWN article from Jake Edge describing constraints on 64-bit system call
+ arguments: https://lwn.net/Articles/311630/
+ - Pair of LWN articles from David Drysdale that describe the system call
+ implementation paths in detail for v3.14:
+ - https://lwn.net/Articles/604287/
+ - https://lwn.net/Articles/604515/
+ - Architecture-specific requirements for system calls are discussed in the
+ syscall(2) man-page:
+ http://man7.org/linux/man-pages/man2/syscall.2.html#NOTES
+ - Collated emails from Linus Torvalds discussing the problems with ioctl():
+ http://yarchive.net/comp/linux/ioctl.html
+ - "How to not invent kernel interfaces", Arnd Bergmann,
+ http://www.ukuug.org/events/linux2007/2007/papers/Bergmann.pdf
+ - LWN article from Michael Kerrisk on avoiding new uses of CAP_SYS_ADMIN:
+ https://lwn.net/Articles/486306/
+ - Recommendation from Andrew Morton that all related information for a new
+ system call should come in the same email thread:
+ https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/7/24/641
+ - Recommendation from Michael Kerrisk that a new system call should come with
+ a man page: https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/6/13/309
+ - Suggestion from Thomas Gleixner that x86 wire-up should be in a separate
+ commit: https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/11/19/254
+ - Suggestion from Greg Kroah-Hartman that it's good for new system calls to
+ come with a man-page & selftest: https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/3/19/710
+ - Discussion from Michael Kerrisk of new system call vs. prctl(2) extension:
+ https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/6/3/411
+ - Suggestion from Ingo Molnar that system calls that involve multiple
+ arguments should encapsulate those arguments in a struct, which includes a
+ size field for future extensibility: https://lkml.org/lkml/2015/7/30/117
+ - Numbering oddities arising from (re-)use of O_* numbering space flags:
+ - commit 75069f2b5bfb ("vfs: renumber FMODE_NONOTIFY and add to uniqueness
+ check")
+ - commit 12ed2e36c98a ("fanotify: FMODE_NONOTIFY and __O_SYNC in sparc
+ conflict")
+ - commit bb458c644a59 ("Safer ABI for O_TMPFILE")
+ - Discussion from Matthew Wilcox about restrictions on 64-bit arguments:
+ https://lkml.org/lkml/2008/12/12/187
+ - Recommendation from Greg Kroah-Hartman that unknown flags should be
+ policed: https://lkml.org/lkml/2014/7/17/577
+ - Recommendation from Linus Torvalds that x32 system calls should prefer
+ compatibility with 64-bit versions rather than 32-bit versions:
+ https://lkml.org/lkml/2011/8/31/244

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