Kernel Mode Linux : Execute user processes in kernel mode

Kernel Mode Linux Patch for Linux Kernel 3.17 (for IA-32, AMD64, MicroBlaze, and ARM)
(last updated 2014-10-24 : version 3.17_001. ChangeLog (for 3.*). Old versions (for 3.*))

Kernel Mode Linux Patch for Linux Kernel 2.6.39 (for IA-32, AMD64, and MicroBlaze)
(last updated 2011-05-21 : version 2.6.39_001. ChangeLog (for 2.6.*). Old versions (for 2.6.* and for 2.5.*))

(More old versions (for 2.4.*, for 2.6.*-mm*)

Kernel Mode Linux is licensed under the GNU General Public License.
Copyright 2002-2014 Toshiyuki Maeda

Kernel Mode Linux is a technology which enables us to execute user programs in kernel mode. In Kernel Mode Linux, user programs can be executed as user processes that have the privilege level of kernel mode. The benefit of executing user programs in kernel mode is that the user programs can access a kernel address space directly. So, for example, user programs can invoke system calls very fast because it is unnecessary to switch between a kernel mode and a user mode by using costly software interruptions or context switches. Unlike kernel modules, user programs are executed as ordinary processes (except for their privilege level), so scheduling and paging are performed as usual.

Although it seems dangerous to let user programs access a kernel directly, safety of the kernel can be ensured, for example, by static type checking, software fault isolation, and so forth. For proof of concept, we are developing a system which is based on the combination of Kernel Mode Linux and Typed Assembly Language, TAL. (TAL can ensure safety of programs through its type checking and the type checking can be done at machine binary level. For more information about TAL, see TAL's page.)

Currently, IA-32, AMD64, MicroBlaze, and ARM architectures are supported.


User processes executed in kernel mode should obey the following limitations. Otherwise, your system will be in an undefined state. In the worst-case scenario, your system will crash.

In addition, on AMD64, IA-32 binaries cannot be executed in kernel mode. Moreover, KML will not work as (fully-virtualized) IA-32 guests on hardware-assisted AMD64 virtual machine monitors. (Please note that it does work as AMD64 guests on the hardware-assisted VMM.)

How to use Kernel Mode Linux

To enable Kernel Mode Linux, say Y in Kernel Mode Linux field of kernel configuration, build and install the kernel, and reboot. Then, all executables under directory /trusted are executed in kernel mode in current Kernel Mode Linux implementation. For example, to execute a program named "cat" in kernel mode, copy the program to directory /trusted and execute it as follows (if the /trusted directory does not exist, mkdir it first):

% /trusted/cat

You can eliminate the overhead of system calls in existing binaries without modifying them by using the recent GNU C Library

From version 2.5.55_001, Kernel Mode Linux for IA-32 supports the new system call invocation mechanism of the original Linux Kernel that was introduced for multiplexing two system call invocation methods: int $0x80 and sysenter. Thus, in Kernel Mode Linux, any existing program (dynamically linked with "") can invoke system calls without the overhead of int $0x80 or sysenter, if you uses newer GNU C Library which supports the new mechanism.

Today, many distributions (Debian, Fedora, Redhat etc.) support the glibc with NPTL. For example, if you are using Debian sarge or sid, you can install it as follows.

apt-get install libc6-i686

Then, all system calls of programs under the "/trusted" directory are invoked through direct jump into the kernel.

(Even if your favorite distribution doesn't support the glibc with NPTL, you can still use it by building from scracth. A detailed instruction: How to build and use glibc for KML.)

In addition, from version 2.6.11_002, Kernel Mode Linux for AMD64 provides the same mechanism described above. However, the GNU C Library does not support the mechanism. Therefore, I created a patch to the GNU C Library for adding support of the new system call invocation mechanism (old versions). You can eliminate the overhead of system call invocations with the patched GNU C Library. The following document might help you build the GNU C Library: How to build and use glibc for KML.

Implementation techniques for Kernel Mode Linux on IA-32

To execute user programs in kernel mode, Kernel Mode Linux has a special start_thread (start_kernel_thread) routine, which is called in processing execve(2) and sets registers of a user process to specified initial values. The original start_thread routine sets CS segment register to __USER_CS. The start_kernel_thread routine sets the CS register to __KERNEL_CS. Thus, a user program is started as a user process executed in kernel mode.

The biggest problem of implementing Kernel Mode Linux is a stack starvation problem. Let's assume that a user program is executed in kernel mode and it causes a page fault on its user stack. To generate a page fault exception, an IA-32 CPU tries to push several registers (EIP, CS, and so on) to the same user stack because the program is executed in kernel mode and the IA-32 CPU doesn't switch its stack to a kernel stack. Therefore, the IA-32 CPU cannot push the registers and generate a double fault exception and fail again. Finally, the IA-32 CPU gives up and reset itself. This is the stack starvation problem.

To solve the stack starvation problem, we use the IA-32 hardware task mechanism to handle exceptions. By using the mechanism, IA-32 CPU doesn't push the registers to its stack. Instead, the CPU switches an execution context to another special context. Therefore, the stack starvation problem doesn't occur. However, it is costly to handle all exceptions by the IA-32 task mechanism. So, in current Kernel Mode Linux implementation, double fault exceptions are handled by the IA-32 task. A page fault on a memory stack is not so often, so the cost of the IA-32 task mechanism is negligible for usual programs. In addition, non-maskable interrupts are also handled by the IA-32 task. The reason is described later in this document.

The second problem is a manual stack switching problem. In the original Linux kernel, an IA-32 CPU switches a stack from a user stack to a kernel stack on exceptions or interrupts. However, in Kernel Mode Linux, a user program may be executed in kernel mode and the CPU may not switch a stack. Therefore, in current Kernel Mode Linux implementation, the kernel switches a stack manually on exceptions and interrupts. To switch a stack, a kernel need to know a location of a kernel stack in an address space. However, on exceptions and interrupts, the kernel cannot use general registers (EAX, EBX, and so on). Therefore, it is very difficult to get the location of the kernel stack.

To solve the above problem, the current Kernel Mode Linux implementation exploits a per CPU GDT. In Kernel Mode Linux, one segment descriptor of the per CPU GDT entries directly points to the location of the per-CPU TSS (Task State Segment). Thus, by using the segment descriptor, the address of the kernel stack can be available with only one general register.

The third problem is an interrupt-lost problem on double fault exceptions. Let's assume that a user program is executed in kernel mode, and its ESP register points to a portion of memory space that has not been mapped to its address space yet. What will happen if an external interrupt is raised just in time? First, a CPU acks the request for the interrupt from an external interrupt controller. Then, the CPU tries to interrupt its execution of the user program. However, it can't because there is no stack to save the part of the execution context (see above "a stack starvation problem"). Then, the CPU tries to generate a double fault exception and it succeeds because the Kernel Mode Linux implementation handles the double fault by the IA-32 task. The problem is that the double fault exception handler knows only the suspended user program and it cannot know the request for the interrupt because the CPU doesn't tell nothing about it. Therefore, the double fault handler directly resumes the user program and doesn't handle the interrupt, that is, the same kind of interrupts never be generated because the interrupt controller thinks that the previous interrupt has not been serviced by the CPU.

To solve the interrupt-lost problem, the current Kernel Mode Linux implementation asks the interrupt controller for untreated interrupts and handles them at the end of the double fault exception handler. Asking the interrupt controller is a costly operation. However, the cost is negligible because double fault exceptions, that is, page faults on memory stacks are not so often.

The reason for handling non-maskable interrupts by the IA-32 tasks is closely related to the manual stack switching problem and the interrupt-lost problem. If an non-maskable interrupt occurs between when a maskable interrupt occurs and when a memory stack is switched from a user stack to a kernel stack, and the non-maskable interrupt causes a page fault on the memory stack, then the double fault exception handler handles the maskable interrupt because it has not been handled. The problem is that the double fault handler returns to the suspended interrupt handling routine and the routine tries to handle the already-handled maskable interrupt again.

The above problem can be avoided by handling non-maskable interrupts with the IA-32 tasks, because no double fault exceptions are generated. Usually, non-maskable interrupts are very rare, so the cost of the IA-32 task mechanisms doesn't really matter. However, if an NMI watchdog is enabled for debugging purpose, performance degradation may be observed.

One problem for handling non-maskable interrupts by the IA-32 task mechanism is a descriptor-tables inconsistency problem. When the IA-32 tasks are switched back and forth, all segment registers (CS, DS, ES, SS, FS, GS) and the local descriptor table register (LDTR) are reloaded (unlike the usual IA-32 trap/interrupt mechanism). Therefore, to switch the IA-32 task, the global descriptor table and the local descriptor table should be consistent, otherwise, the invalid TSS exception is raised and it is too complex to recover from the exception. The problem is that the consistency cannot be guaranteed because non-maskable interrupts are raised anytime and anywhere, that is, when updating the global descriptor table or the local descriptor table.

To solve the above problem, the current Kernel Mode Linux implementation inserts instructions for saving and restoring FS, GS, and/or LDTR around the portion that manipulate the descriptor tables, if needed (CS, DS, ES are used exclusively by the kernel at that point, so there are no problems). Then, the non-maskable interrupt handler checks whether if FS, GS, and LDTR can be reloaded without problems, at the end of itself. If a problem is found, it reloads FS, GS, and/or LDTR with '0' (reloading FS, GS, and/or LDTR with '0' always succeeds). The reason why the above solution works is as follows. First, if a problem is found at reloading FS, GS, and/or LDTR, that means that a non-maskable interrupt occurs when modifying the descriptor tables. However, FS, GS, and/or LDTR are properly reloaded after the modification by the above mentioned instructions for restoring them. Therefore, just reloading FS, GS, and/or LDTR with '0' works because they will be reloaded soon after. Inserting the instructions may affect performance. Fortunately, however, FS, GS, and/or LDTR are usually reloaded after modifying the descriptor tables, so there are few points at that the instructions should be inserted.

Further Readings

Toshiyuki Maeda and Akinori Yonezawa.:
Kernel Mode Linux: Toward an Operating System Protected by a Type Theory.
In ASIAN 2003. LNCS, vol 2896, pp. 3-17. Springer, Heidelberg (2003). [author version]

Linux Journal Articles:
Kernel Mode Linux, May 1st, 2003.
Kernel Mode Linux for AMD64, June 30th, 2005.

About License

Q : Is there any license issue about linking user programs against to the Linux Kernel ?
A : That is a very interesting problem from a legal point of view. However, because the kernel patched with Kernel Mode Linux patch is derived from the Linux Kernel, we cannot relax or restrict the conditions made by the original licenser. Thus, the only thing we can say safely is as follows:
"Please obey the license of the Linux Kernel".
If you have any question or complaint, please contact the original licenser(s) of the Linux Kernel.

Contact Information

Toshiyuki Maeda
tosh @