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Kernel command using Linux system calls

A system call is an interface between a user-space application and a service that the kernel provides. Because the service is provided in the kernel, a direct call cannot be performed; instead, you must use a process of crossing the user-space/kernel boundary. The way you do this differs based on the particular architecture. For this reason, I’ll stick to the most common architecture, i386.

In this article, I explore the Linux SCI, demonstrate adding a system call to the 2.6.17 and prior 2.6 kernels, and then use this function from user-space. I also investigate some of the functions that you’ll find useful for system call development and alternatives to system calls. Finally, I look at some of the ancillary mechanisms related to system calls, such as tracing their usage from a given process. (The system call interface changed in kernels 2.6.18 and later to simplify coding. (If you’re using a 2.6.18 kernel or later, see the sidebar ” Using Linux kernels 2.6.18 and later.”)


The implementation of system calls in Linux is varied based on the architecture, but it can also differ within a given architecture. For example, older x86 processors used an interrupt mechanism to migrate from user-space to kernel-space, but new IA-32 processors provide instructions that optimize this transition (using sysenter and sysexit instructions). Because so many options exist and the end-result is so complicated, I’ll stick to a surface-level discussion of the interface details. See the resources at the right side of this article for the gory details.

You needn’t fully understand the internals of the SCI to amend it, so I explore a simple version of the system call process (see Figure 1). Each system call is multiplexed into the kernel through a single entry point. The eax register is used to identify the particular system call that should be invoked, which is specified in the C library (per the call from the user-space application). When the C library has loaded the system call index and any arguments, a software interrupt is invoked (interrupt 0x80), which results in execution (through the interrupt handler) of the system_call function. This function handles all system calls, as identified by the contents of eax. After a few simple tests, the actual system call is invoked using the system_call_table and index contained in eax. Upon return from the system call, syscall_exit is eventually reached, and a call to resume_userspace transitions back to user-space. Execution resumes in the C library, which then returns to the user application.

Figure 1. The simplified flow of a system call using the interrupt method
Simplified flow of a system call

At the core of the SCI is the system call demultiplexing table. This table, shown in Figure 2, uses the index provided in eax to identify which system call to invoke from the table (sys_call_table). A sample of the contents of this table and the locations of these entities is also shown. (For more about demultiplexing, see the sidebar, ” System call demultiplexing.”)

Figure 2. The system call table and various linkages
System call table and various linkages

Adding a Linux system call

Adding a new system call is mostly procedural, although you should look out for a few things. This section walks through the construction of a few system calls to demonstrate their implementation and use by a user-space application.

You perform three basic steps to add a new system call to the kernel:

  1. Add the new function.
  2. Update the header files.
  3. Update the system call table for the new function.

Note: This process ignores user-space needs, which I address later.

Most often, you create a new file for your functions. However, for the sake of simplicity, I add my new functions to an existing source file. The first two functions, shown in Listing 1, are simple examples of a system call. Listing 2 provides a slightly more complicated function that uses pointer arguments.

Listing 1. Simple kernel functions for the system call example

asmlinkage long sys_getjiffies( void )
  return (long)get_jiffies_64();

asmlinkage long sys_diffjiffies( long ujiffies )
  return (long)get_jiffies_64() - ujiffies;

In Listing 1, two functions are provided for jiffies monitoring. (For more information about jiffies, see the sidebar, ” Kernel jiffies.”) The first function returns the current jiffies, while the second returns the difference of the current and the value that the caller passes in. Note the use of the asmlinkage modifier. This macro (defined in linux/include/asm-i386/linkage.h) tells the compiler to pass all function arguments on the stack.

Listing 2. Final kernel function for the system call example

asmlinkage long sys_pdiffjiffies( long ujiffies,
                                  long __user *presult )
  long cur_jiffies = (long)get_jiffies_64();
  long result;
  int  err = 0;

  if (presult) {

    result = cur_jiffies - ujiffies;
    err = put_user( result, presult );


  return err ? -EFAULT : 0;

Listing 2 provides the third function. This function takes two arguments: a long and a pointer to a long that’s defined as __user. The __user macro simply tells the compiler (through noderef) that the pointer should not be dereferenced (as it’s not meaningful in the current address space). This function calculates the difference between two jiffies values, and then provides the result to the user through a user-space pointer. The put_user function places the result value into user-space at the location that presult specifies. If an error occurs during this operation, it will be returned, and you’ll likewise notify the user-space caller.

For step 2, I update the header files to make room for the new functions in the system call table. For this, I update the header file linux/include/asm/unistd.h with the new system call numbers.

Listing 3. Updates to unistd.h to make room for the new system calls

#define __NRgetcpu     318
#define __NRepollpwait   319
#define __NRgetjiffies  320#define `NR_diffjiffies  321#define`NR_pdiffjiffies  322#define NR_syscalls  323

Now I have my kernel system calls and numbers to represent them. All I need to do now is draw an equivalence among these numbers (table indexes) and the functions themselves. This is step 3, updating the system call table. As shown in Listing 4, I update the file linux/arch/i386/kernel/syscall_table.S for the new functions that will populate the particular indexes shown in Listing 3.

Listing 4. Update the system call table with the new Functions

.long sys_getcpu
.long sys_epoll_pwait
.long sys_getjiffies   / 320 /
.long sys_diffjiffies.long sys_pdiffjiffies

Note: The size of this table is defined by the symbolic constant NR_syscalls.

At this point, the kernel is updated. I must recompile the kernel and make the new image available for booting before testing the user-space application.

Reading and writing user memory

The Linux kernel provides several functions that you can use to move system call arguments to and from user-space. Options include simple functions for basic types (such as get_user or put_user). For moving blocks of data such as structures or arrays, you can use another set of functions: copy_from_user and copy_to_user. Moving null-terminated strings have their own calls: strncpy_from_user and strlen_from_user. You can also test whether a user-space pointer is valid through a call to access_ok. These functions are defined in linux/include/asm/uaccess.h.

You use the access_ok macro to validate a user-space pointer for a given operation. This function takes the type of access (VERIFY_READ or VERIFY_WRITE), the pointer to the user-space memory block, and the size of the block (in bytes). The function returns zero on success:

int access_ok( type, address, size );

Moving simple types between the kernel and user-space (such as ints or longs) is accomplished easily with get_user and put_user. These macros each take a value and a pointer to a variable. The get_user function moves the value that the user-space address specifies (ptr) into the kernel variable specified (var). The put_user function moves the value that the kernel variable (var) specifies into the user-space address (ptr). The functions return zero on success:

int get_user( var, ptr );
int put_user( var, ptr );

To move larger objects, such as structures or arrays, you can use the copy_from_user and copy_to_user functions. These functions move an entire block of data between user-space and the kernel. The copy_from_user function moves a block of data from user-space into kernel-space, and copy_to_user moves a block of data from the kernel into user-space:

unsigned long copy_from_user( void to, const void __user from, unsigned long n );
unsigned long copy_to_user( void to, const void __user from, unsigned long n );

Finally, you can copy a NULL-terminated string from user-space to the kernel by using the strncpy_from_user function. Before calling this function, you can get the size of the user-space string with a call to the strlen_user macro:

long strncpy_from_user( char dst, const char __user src, long count );
strlen_user( str );

These functions provide the basics for memory movement between the kernel and user-space. Some additional functions exist (such as those that reduce the amount of checking performed). You can find these functions in uaccess.h.

Using the system call

Now that kernel is updated with a few new system calls, let’s look at what’s necessary to use them from a user-space application. There are two ways that you can use new kernel system calls. The first is a convenience method (not something that you’d probably want to do in production code), and the second is the traditional method that requires a bit more work.

With the first method, you call your new functions as identified by their index through the syscall function. With the syscall function, you can call a system call by specifying its call index and a set of arguments. For example, the short application shown in Listing 5 calls your sys_getjiffies using its index.

Listing 5. Using syscall to invoke a system call

#include <linux/unistd.h>
#include <sys/syscall.h>

#define __NRgetjiffies   320

int main()
  long jiffies;

  jiffies = syscall( `_`NR_getjiffies );

  printf( "Current jiffies is %lx\n", jiffies );

  return 0; }

As you can see, the syscall function includes as its first argument the index of the system call table to use. Had there been any arguments to pass, these would be provided after the call index. Most system calls include a SYS_ symbolic constant to specify their mapping to the __NR_ indexes. For example, you invoke the index __NR_getpid with syscall as:

syscall( SYS_getpid )

The syscall function is architecture specific but uses a mechanism to transfer control to the kernel. The argument is based on a mapping of __NR indexes to SYS_ symbols provided by /usr/include/bits/syscall.h (defined when the libc is built). Never reference this file directly; instead use /usr/include/sys/syscall.h.

The traditional method requires that you create function calls that match those in the kernel in terms of system call index (so that you’re calling the right kernel service) and that the arguments match. Linux provides a set of macros to provide this capability. The _syscallN macros are defined in /usr/include/linux/unistd.h and have the following format:

_syscall0( ret-type, func-name )
_syscall1( ret-type, func-name, arg1-type, arg1-name )
_syscall2( ret-type, func-name, arg1-type, arg1-name, arg2-type, arg2-name )

The _syscall macros are defined up to six arguments deep (although only three are shown here).

Now, here’s how you use the _syscall macros to make your new system calls visible to the user-space. Listing 6 shows an application that uses each of your system calls as defined by the _syscall macros.

Listing 6. Using the syscall macro for user-space application development

#include <stdio.h>
#include <linux/unistd.h>
#include <sys/syscall.h>

#define __NRgetjiffies    320
#define __NR_diffjiffies   321
#define ``NR_pdiffjiffies  322

_syscall0( long, getjiffies );
_syscall1( long, diffjiffies, long, ujiffies );
_syscall2( long, pdiffjiffies, long, ujiffies, long*, presult );

int main()
  long jifs, result;
  int err;

  jifs = getjiffies();

  printf( "difference is %lx\n", diffjiffies(jifs) );

  err = pdiffjiffies( jifs, &result );

  if (!err) {
    printf( "difference is %lx\n", result );
  } else {
    printf( "error\n" );

  return 0;

Note that the __NR indexes are necessary in this application because the _syscall macro uses the func-name to construct the __NR index (getjiffies -> __NR_getjiffies). But the result is that you can call your kernel functions using their names, just like any other system call.

Alternatives for user/kernel interactions

System calls are an efficient way of requesting services in the kernel. The biggest problem with them is that it’s a standardized interface. It would be difficult to have your new system call added to the kernel, so any additions are likely served through other means. If you have no intent of mainlining your system calls into the public Linux kernel, then system calls are a convenient and efficient way to make kernel services available to user-space.

Another way to make your services visible to user-space is through the /proc file system. The /proc file system is a virtual file system for which you can surface a directory and files to the user, and then provide an interface in the kernel to your new services through a file system interface (read, write, and so on).

Tracing system calls with strace

The Linux kernel provides a useful way to trace the system calls that a process invokes (as well as those signals that the process receives). The utility is called strace and is executed from the command line, using the application you want to trace as its argument. For example, if you wanted to know which system calls were invoked during the context of the date command, type the following command:

strace date

The result is a rather large dump showing the various system calls that are performed in the context of a date command call. You’ll see the loading of shared libraries, mapping of memory, and — at the end of the trace — the emitting of the date information to standard-out:

write(1, "Fri Feb  9 23:06:41 MST 2007\n", 29Fri Feb  9 23:06:41 MST 2007) = 29
munmap(0xb747a000, 4096) = 0
exit_group(0) = ?

This tracing is accomplished in the kernel when the current system call request has a special field set called syscall_trace, which causes the function do_syscall_trace to be invoked. You can also find the tracing calls as part of the system call request in ./linux/arch/i386/kernel/entry.S (see syscall_trace_entry).

Going further

System calls are an efficient way of traversing between user-space and the kernel to request services in the kernel-space. But they are also tightly controlled, and it’s much easier simply to add a new /proc file system entry to provide the user/kernel interactions. When speed is important, however, system calls are an ideal way to squeeze the greatest performance out of your application. See the resources at the right side to dig even further into the SCI.