Inside the Linux Packet Filter, Part II

Gianluca concludes the packet's journey through the kernel, picking up with TCP processing.

In the last issue we started following a packet's journey from the wire up to the higher levels of network stack processing. We left the packet at the end of layer 3 processing, where IP has completely finished its work and is going to pass the packet to either TCP or UDP. In this article, we complete our analysis by considering layer 4, the PF_PACKET protocol implementation and the socket filter hooks.

Apart from the case of IGMP and ICMP processing, which is dealt with in the kernel, the packet's journey toward the application proceeds by passing through either tcp_v4_rcv() or udp_rcv(). TCP processing is a bit intricate, since this protocol's FSM (finite state machine) has to deal with a lot of intermediate states (just think of the various states a TCP socket can assume: listening, established, closed, waiting and so on). To simplify our description, we can reduce it to the following steps:

  • Inside tcp_v4_rcv() (net/ipv4/tcp_ipv4.c), perform TCP header integrity checks.

  • Look for a socket willing to receive this packet (using __tcp_v4_lookup()).

  • If it is not found, take appropriate actions (among which, cause IP to generate an ICMP error).

  • Otherwise call tcp_v4_do_rcv(), passing to it both the packet (an sk_buff) and the socket (a sock structure).

  • Inside this latter function, perform different receive actions based on the socket's current state.

The most interesting aspect in TCP processing from the LSF point of view, comes in the last function we mentioned; at its very beginning, tcp_v4_do_rcv() calls sk_filter(), which as we will see, performs all the filter-related magic. How does the kernel know that it should invoke the filter for packets received on a given socket? This piece of information is stored inside the sock structure associated with the socket. If a filter has been attached to it with a setsockopt() system call, the appropriate field inside the structure is not NULL, and the TCP receive function knows that it has to call sk_filter().

For those of you who are fluent with sockets programming and recall that listening TCP sockets are forked upon reception of a connect message, it must be said that the filter is first attached to the listening socket. Then, when a connection is set up and a new socket is returned to the user, the filter is copied into the new socket. Have a look at tcp_create_openreq_child() in net/ipv4/tcp_minisocks.c for details.

Back to packet reception. After the filter has been run, the fate of the packet depends on the filter outcome; if the packet matches the filter rules, processing proceeds as usual. Otherwise, the packet is discarded. Furthermore, the filter may specify a maximum packet length that will be kept for further processing (the exceeding part is cut via skb_trim()).

The packet's trip proceeds on different paths depending on the socket's current state; if the connection is already established, the packet will be passed to the tcp_rcv_established() function. This one has the important task of dealing with the complex TCP acknowledgment mechanisms and header processing, which of course are not very relevant here. The only interesting line is the call to the data_ready() function belonging to the current sock (sk), commonly pointing to sock_def_readable(), which awakens the receiving process (the one that was receiving on the socket) with wake_up_interruptible().

Luckily, UDP processing is much simpler; udp_rcv() just performs some integrity checks before selecting the receiving sock (udp_v4_lookup()) and calling udp_queue_rcv_skb(). If no sock is found, the packet is discarded.

The latter function calls sock_queue_rcv_skb() (in sock.h), which queues the UDP packet on the socket's receive buffer. If no more space is left on the buffer, the packet is discarded. Filtering also is performed by this function, which calls sk_filter() just like TCP did. Finally, data_ready() is called, and UDP packet reception is completed.

Figure 1. The Whole Reception Path, with Functional Blocks and Relevant Function Calls

What Happens to PF_PACKET Packets?

The PF_PACKET family deserves a special handling. Packets must be sent directly to the application's socket without being processed by the network stack. Given the packet processing mechanisms we have outlined in the previous sections, this is actually not a difficult task.

When a PF_PACKET socket is created (see packet_create() in net/packet/af_packet.c), a new protocol block is added to the list used by the NET_RX softirq. The packet type related to this protocol family is put either in the generic list (ptype_all) or in the protocol-specific one (ptype_base) and has packet_rcv() as a receive function. For reasons that will be clear in a while, the newly created sock's address is written inside the packet type data structure. This address would not logically belong to this part of the kernel, since usually the socket information is dealt with by layer 4 code. Hence, in this case, it is written as private opaque information in the data field of the protocol block being registered—a field reserved inside the structure for protocol-specific mechanisms.

From that moment on, each packet entering the machine and going through the usual receive procedure will be intercepted during net_rx_action() execution and passed to the PF_PACKET receive function.

The first thing this function does is to try to restore the link layer header, if the socket type is SOCK_RAW (recall from my article, “The Linux Socket Filter: Sniffing Bytes over the Network”, LJ, June 2001, that SOCK_DGRAM sockets will not see the link layer header). This header has been removed either by the network card (or any other generic link layer device that received the packet) or by its driver (interrupt handler). When dealing with Ethernet cards, the latter is almost always the case. Restoring the link layer header is not possible if removal has taken place at the hardware level, since that information never gets to the system main memory and is invisible outside the network device. The computational cost of header restoration is quite low, thanks to the smart handling of skbuffs inside the kernel.

The following step is to check whether a filter has been attached to the receiving socket. This part is a bit tricky because filter information is stored inside the sock structure, which is not known yet since we are at the bottom of the protocol stack. But for PF_PACKET sockets, which must be able to skip the protocol stack, the receiving sock structure address has to be known a priori. This explains why, during the socket creation phase, the address of the sock structure had been written opaquely into the protocol block's private data field; this provides a relatively clean way to retrieve that information during packet reception.

With the sock structure in hand, the kernel is able to determine whether a filter is present and to invoke it (via the sk_run_filter() call). As usual, the filter will decide whether the fate of the packet is to be discarded (kfree_skb()), be trimmed to a given length (pskb_trim()) or be accepted as it is.

If the packet is not discarded, the next step consists in cloning the sk_buff containing the packet. This operation is necessary because one copy will be consumed by the PF_PACKET protocol, and the other must be made available for possible legitimate protocols that will be executed later. For example, imagine running a program that opens a PF_PACKET socket on a machine that is browsing the Web at the same time. For each packet belonging to the web connection, the net_rx_action() function would call the PF_PACKET processing routines before calling the normal IP ones. In this case, two copies of the packet would be needed: one for the legitimate receiving socket, which would go to the web browser, and the other for the PF_PACKET, which would go to the sniffer. Note that the packet is duplicated only after being processed by the filter. This way, only packets that actually match the filter rules engage the CPU. Also note that packet filtering performed at application level (i.e., using a PF_PACKET with no socket filter) would require cloning of all the packets received by the kernel, resulting in poor performance. Luckily, packet cloning simply involves copying the fields of the sk_buff, but not the packet data itself (which is referenced by the same pointer in the clone and in the original sk_buff).

The PF_PACKET receive function finally completes its job by invoking the data_ready() function on the receiving socket, just like the TCP and UDP processing functions did. At this point the application sleeping on a recv() or recvfrom() system call is awakened and packet reception is complete.



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Great article... I also found

Anonymous's picture

Great article... I also found the below url interesting

Packet Sniffer at application layer

Anonymous's picture

i have a pacet sniifer at application layer that can sniff ARP through IPv4, TCP, UDP, IPv6


Have to express my appreciation

Jinping Yang's picture

The best walk-through of Linux's PF_PACKET socket implementation and packet reception I've ever seen!

Re: Kernel Korner: Inside the Linux Packet Filter, Part II

Anonymous's picture

Thank you!

Re: Kernel Korner: Inside the Linux Packet Filter, Part II

Anonymous's picture

Thanks alot!

Re: Kernel Korner: Inside the Linux Packet Filter, Part II

Anonymous's picture

Hi all,

by examining the kernel sources (especially the

network modules'), I see that there functions

embedded by the __initfunc(). Can anybody tell

me what is the role of the __initfunc() ? It denotes

a special function needed to be invoked at kernel

initialisation ?

Any answer is appreciated.

Kiss Jozsef,

Re: Kernel Korner: Inside the Linux Packet Filter, Part II

Anonymous's picture

Thanks a lot!

Both chapters have been very useful for me. Im making an analyse of kernel structures and functions to measure network and kernel activity in distributed applications.

Javier Mendiara Ca


Anonymous's picture

Good reading thank you ....