The Linux Process Model

A look at the fundamental building blocks of the Linux kernel.

This month, we begin looking at Linux internals. We will travel the innards of the Linux kernels of the 2.0.x, 2.2.x and the new 2.4.x series. Although many articles are written every week on how best to use Linux, very few have reviewed the internals of the kernel. Why is it necessary to know how the kernel works?

For one thing, understanding your kernel better will enable you to prevent problems before they occur. If you are using Linux as a server, most problems will start to appear under stress. This is exactly when it becomes essential to know your way around the kernel to assess the nature of the problems.

If you ever need to check back with the kernel source, you can either install the source from your distribution's CD or go to to navigate through all the source code on-line.

The Linux Process Model

UNIX systems have a fundamental building block: the process, including the thread and lightweight processes. Under Linux, the process model has evolved considerably with each new version.

The fundamental data structure within the kernel controlling all processes is the process structure, which grows and shrinks dynamically as processes are forked and finished or killed.

The process structure (called task_struct in the kernel source code) is about 1KB in size. You can get the exact size with this program:

#define __KERNEL__
#include <linux/sched.h>
printf("sizeof(struct task_struct) - %d\n",
   sizeof(struct task_struct));

On Intel 386 machines, it is exactly 960 bytes. Please note, however, that unlike other UNIX systems, this process structure does not occupy space in the true sense of the word.

Since 2.2.x, the task_struct is allocated at the bottom of the kernel stack. We can overlap the task_struct on the kernel stack because the task_struct is a per-task structure exactly as the kernel stack.

The kernel stack has a fixed size of 8192 bytes on the Intel x86. If the kernel will recurse on the stack for 8192-960=7232 bytes, then the task_struct will be overwritten and therefore corrupted, causing the kernel to crash.

Basically, the kernel decreases the size of the usable kernel stack to around 7232 bytes by allocating the task structure at the bottom of the stack. It is done this way, because 7KB are more than enough for the kernel stack and the rest is used for the task_struct. These are the advantages of this order:

  • The kernel doesn't have to access memory to get its kernel structure.

  • Memory usage is reduced.

  • An additional dynamic allocation is avoided at task creation time.

  • The task_struct will always start on a PAGE_SIZE boundary, so the cache line is always aligned on most hardware in the market.

Once Linux is in kernel mode, you can get the address of the task_struct at any time with this very fast pseudo-code:

task_struct = (struct task_struct *) STACK_POINTER & 0xffffe000;
This is exactly how the above pseudo-code is implemented in C under Linux:
/* cut-and-pasted from
linux/include/asm-i386/current.h */
static inline struct task_struct * get_current(void)
        struct task_struct *current;
        __asm__(-andl %%esp,%0;
        -:-=- (current) : "0" (~8191UL));
        return current;
For example, on a Pentium II, recalculating the task_struct beginning from the stack pointer is much faster than passing the task_struct address through the stack across function calls, as is done in some other operating systems, e.g., Solaris 7. That is, the kernel can derive the address of the task_struct by checking only the value of the stack pointer (no memory accesses at all). This is a big performance booster and shows once again that fine engineering can be found in free software. The code to this was written by Ingo Molnar, a Hungarian kernel hacker. The kernel stack is set by the CPU automatically when entering kernel mode by loading the kernel stack pointer address from the CPU Task Segment State that is set at fork time.

The layout of the x86 kernel stack looks like this:

----- 0xXXXX0000 (bottom of the stack and address
                 of the task struct)
----- 0xXXXX03C0 (last byte usable from the kernel
                  as real kernel stack)
----- 0xXXXX2000 (top of the stack, first byte
                  used as kernel stack)

Note that today, the size of the task_struct is exactly 960 bytes. It is going to change across kernel revisions, because every variable removed or inserted to the task_struct will change the size. In turn, the upper limit of the kernel stack will change with the size of task_struct.

The memory for the process data structure is allocated dynamically during execution of the Linux kernel. More precisely, the kernel doesn't allocate the task_struct at all, only the two-pages-wide kernel stack of which task_struct will be a part.

In many UNIX systems, there is a maximum processes parameter for the kernel. In commercial operating systems like Solaris, it is a self-tuned parameter. In other words, it adjusts according to the amount of RAM found at boot time. However, in Solaris, you can still adjust this parameter in /etc/system.