Kernel Korner - AEM: a Scalable and Native Event Mechanism for Linux

Give your application the ability to register callbacks with the kernel.
Asynchronous Execution of Processes

Event handlers can be executed either by breaking the main thread's flow of execution or by creating a new process to handle the event and execute it in parallel. In either case, the event is managed transparently and asynchronously without explicitly polling for its occurrences. This management has some important implications, because an application does not have to reserve and consume system resources before it is needed. For example, we adapted a simple HTTP server for benchmarking AEM, which is fully single-threaded and capable of quite good performance for that type of server. It is described at the end of this article.

Sometimes situations arise in which it is necessary to create a new process as a response to an event. Unfortunately, creating processes dynamically is resource consuming; during that period, neither the new nor the parent process is able to handle new requests. In some critical situations, there might be no resource left for that purpose, such as a shortage of system memory. This is a problem because emergencies might require creating new processes to shut down the system gracefully or to carry out handover procedures.

For this reason, we introduced a new concept called capsules. A capsule is a task structure already initialized and part of a pool containing other free capsules. When a process wants to create a new execution context, a capsule is linked out from that pool and is initialized with only a few of the current process parameters.

During event registration, specific flags indicate whether a handler is to be executed inside a process. No parameter or a 0 means the handler is to be executed by breaking the current flow of execution. These flags are:

  • EFV_FORK: to create a process with the same semantic as fork().

  • EVF_CAPSULE: to create a process from the capsule pool.

  • EVF_NOCLDWAIT: this flag has the same semantics as the signal SIG_NOCLDWAIT. When the child process exists, it is re-parented to the capsule manager thread.

  • EVF_KEEPALIVE: to prevent the process/capsule from exiting by entering into a kernel loop—like while(1); in user space.

Memory Management

Memory management is a major issue for an event-driven system, because events are handled by executing callback functions located in the application space directly from the kernel. The simplest solution would be to allocate memory when the process registers for an event. Consider, though, either the case of a huge number of events to register or the case of a process that needs to be restarted, needs new events to be added or needs events to be unregistered. In case of failure in event management, the system integrity becomes inconsistent. It is less critical for the operating system kernel to manage such resources itself and allocate memory on demand on behalf of processes.

Regarding performance, it is necessary to be able to allocate this memory inside a pre-allocated pool to prevent memory fragmentation and maintain soft real-time characteristics. Generic memory allocators, such as glibc's malloc(), are not aligned with this requirement even if they provide good performance for general purposes.

Some data types, such as integers, are passed to user space easily, but more complex types, such as character strings, require specific implementations. Process memory allocation is managed by the glibc library. This becomes complicated if we want to allocate memory from the kernel, because we have to take care that this new address is located correctly or mapped into the process space. Allocating memory efficiently and simply on behalf of user processes is something currently missing in the Linux kernel but needed.

AEM's vmtable is filling the gap in this area of memory allocation. It implements a variation of the binary buddy allocator—covered in Knuth, see Resources—on top of a user process memory pool. This permits the management of almost all kinds of data of unplanned sizes. In the case of a real shortage of memory, it can fall back on the user decision by using event handlers. This feature offers the possibility of relying on glibc as a last resort if something bad happens.

AEM has been designed to return a valid pointer in constant time when free blocks are available. This often is the case for telecom applications, which are most likely to receive requests of the same size for the same type of application. We also want to prevent memory fragmentation caused by a flood of requests of different sizes in a short time interval.

vmtable also has an interesting extension: it can be used to provide user-space initialization procedures for device drivers. This is possible using a pointer, allocated from the kernel by the AEM subsystem and then passed up to the user process in a callback function. It then is given back to the kernel when the function returns. Callback functions are not only usable as a response to an event, but also as a means to communicate safely with the kernel.

In this scenario, each user process is assigned a pool of memory called a vmtable. Forked processes and capsules automatically inherit a vmtable, depending on their parents' vmtable. Two different types of strategies are implemented:

  1. VMT_UZONE: allocation is done inside process' heap segment. This provides fast access but consumes the user process address space.

  2. VMT_VZONE: allocation is done in the kernel address space and mapped inside process' address space. This provides minimal memory consumption, but accesses take more time due to the page faults handling.

Both strategies carry some advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation. The preferred strategy is chosen at runtime when starting the application. Figure 5 illustrates the architecture layout of vmtable.

Figure 5. The Architectural Layout of vmtable

In the current implementation, physical pages are allocated explicitly by the vmtable subsystem. This is done to ensure that they really are allocated contiguously, so the memory pool can be used safely for I/O operations. A future extension is to use vmtable for direct I/O in the context of network performance.

vmtable exports a simple and easy-to-use interface to AEM users and module developers, hiding the complexity of memory allocation in kernel space. Simple routines are implemented in the AEM core module to allocate and free memory in a transparent manner. This interface greatly simplifies maintenance of modules and their adaptations between different Linux kernel releases.