Kernel Korner - Network Programming in the Kernel

Take a tour of the kernel's networking functionality by writing a network client that runs in kernel space.

All Linux distributions provide a wide range of network applications—from dæmons that provide a variety of services such as WWW, mail and SSH to client programs that access one or more of these services. These programs are written in user mode and use the system calls provided by the kernel to perform various operations like network read and write. Although this is the traditional method of writing programs, there is another interesting way to develop these applications by implementing them in the kernel. The TUX Web server is a good example of an application that runs inside the kernel and serves static content. In this article, we explain the basics of writing network applications within the kernel and their advantages and disadvantages. As an example, we explain the implementation of an in-kernel FTP client.

Advantages and Disadvantages of In-Kernel Implementations

Why would one want to implement applications within the kernel? Here are a few advantages:

  • When a user-space program makes a system call, there is some overhead associated in the user-space/kernel-space transition. By programming all functionality in the kernel, we can make gains in performance.

  • The data corresponding to any application that sends or receives packets is copied from user mode to kernel mode and vice versa. By implementing network applications within the kernel, it is possible to reduce such overhead and increase efficiency by not copying data to user mode.

  • In specific research and high-performance computing environments, there is a need for achieving data transfers at great speeds. Kernel applications find use in such situations.

On the other hand, in-kernel implementations have certain disadvantages:

  • Security is a primary concern within the kernel, and a large class of user-mode applications are not suitable to be run directly in the kernel. Consequently, special care needs to be taken while designing in-kernel applications. For example, reading and writing to files within the kernel is usually a bad idea, but most applications require some kind of file I/O.

  • Large applications cannot be implemented in the kernel due to memory constraints.

Network Programming Basics

Network programming is usually done with sockets. A socket serves as a communication end point between two processes. In this article, we describe network programming with TCP/IP sockets.

Server programs create sockets, bind to well-known ports, listen and accept connections from clients. Servers are usually designed to accept multiple connections from clients—they either fork a new process to serve each client request (concurrent servers) or completely serve one request before accepting more connections (iterative servers). Client programs, on the other hand, create sockets to connect to servers and exchange information.

FTP Client-Server Interaction

Let's take a quick look at how an FTP client and server are implemented in user mode. We discuss only active FTP in this article. The differences between active and passive FTP are not relevant to our discussion of network programming here.

Socket Programming Basics

Here is a brief explanation of the design of an FTP client and server. The server program creates a socket using the socket() system call. It then binds on a well-known port using bind() and waits for connections from clients using the listen() system call. The server then accepts incoming requests from clients using accept() and forks a new process (or thread) to serve each incoming client request.

The client program creates a control socket using socket() and next calls connect() to establish a connection with the server. It then creates a separate socket for data transfer using socket() and binds to an unprivileged port (>1024) using bind(). The client now listen()s on this port for data transfer from the server. The server now has enough knowledge to honor a data transfer request from the client. Finally, the client uses accept() to accept connections from the server to send and receive data. For sending and receiving data, the client and server use the write() and read() or sendmsg() and recvmsg() system calls. The client issues close() on all open sockets to tear down its connection to the server. Figure 1 sums it up.

Figure 1. The FTP protocol uses two sockets: one for control messages and one for data.



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Fail to create dynamic system call

Kunsheng's picture

Hi everyone,

Has anyone tried this code themselves? I failed to insert that system call dynamically (but succeeded to compile and insmod the module).

I am wondering if anyone know what's going on there.

PS: I am using Linux 2.6.29 in Ubuntu.

Thanks in advance,


kernel raw sockets

Anonymous's picture

I am new to linux kernel development. so if any mistakes you find, pls
frgive it and correct me.

I wanted to send raw packets through ethernet, from kernel level.
So i use PF_PACKET family. & SOCK_RAW.And i used sock_create()
function to create socket.
But I found that when i create socket with
sock_create(PF_PACKET,SOCK_RAW,.....) the program always fails in
bind. (when i do sock->ops->bind(.....))
why is it so ? but when I use PF_INET & SOCK_PACKET to create socket.
bind happens successfully.
Can any one help me to come out of this issue?? OR direct me to create
raw packets and send from kernel??

thanks in advance

create_address doesn't exist

Derek's picture

The function create_address doesn't exist in my kernel header (2.6.17). Where should I get the definition?


It's true.Create_address is

Prafulla's picture

It's true.Create_address is not in Kernel Header.
Has anyone found how to get it?
Please reply

insmod 'ing the module

Nathan's picture

In your example you don't actually use insmod after building the module, does that mean its not necessary? If not then how does the userland program see the system call. If so then do you know why it insmod'ing it would freeze my system? Cause it does. I did fiddle with the code a bit, mostly stripped it down to just connect, send a message, and close.


Problem was redefining the

Nathan's picture

Problem was redefining the system call. Seems linux doesn't appreciate it none too much and freezes. I've read its not really done anymore anyway.