How the PCI Hot Plug Driver Filesystem Works

by Greg Kroah-Hartman

On May 14, 2001, H. Peter Anvin announced to the linux-kernel mailing list: “Linus Torvalds has requested a moratorium on new device number assignments. His hope is that a new and better method for device space handling will emerge as a result.”

Peter is the “Linux Assigned Names and Numbers Authority”, meaning that all kernel driver authors had to go through him to get a major and minor number pair for their drivers. The freeze on assigning new numbers naturally caused a lot of discussion about what this “better method” for device space handling would be. One idea that emerged was making a driver that could implement a filesystem to control the user-space interaction with the driver.

During this time, I was cleaning up the PCI Hot Plug driver written by Compaq for their servers. A PCI Hot Plug driver allows you to shut down a PCI card while the machine is running, pull out the card, replace it with another one and then power that card back on, if you have the proper hardware on your motherboard. This is very useful for servers that cannot be shut down but need to have new network cards added, faulty devices removed and other service-type operations.

The PCI Hot Plug driver was originally written to interact with user space as a character device; ioctl calls were made to the device node to shut down PCI slots, power up PCI slots, turn PCI slot indicator lights on and off and run different manufacturing tests on the device. To get information about the number of different PCI slots in the system and the state of the slots (power and indicator status), a /proc directory tree was used. This directory tree was read-only.

As I worked to split the PCI Hot Plug core functionality out of the Compaq driver, so that other PCI Hot Plug drivers would have a common interface for the user, I realized that a single filesystem would be a better fit both to show PCI-slot information and to allow user control. All information and control over the driver would be handled from one place, instead of having two different types of interfaces.

The PCI Hot Plug driver core has been merged into the main kernel tree as of 2.4.15, and it exports a filesystem called pcihpfs that is used to control the driver. When you mount the filesystem, you get a tree with directories called 3, 4, 5 and so on, which are the physical numbers of the PCI slots. Every file in a slot directory can be read to find the value for that bit of information about the slot. The files power and attention can be written to in order to set the power (0 or 1) or attention (0 or 1) values. The test file is used to send hardware test commands to the hardware. The adapter file detects if an adapter is present in that slot or not, and the latch file describes the position of the physical latch (if any) for that slot.

So, you can enable the power in slot 5 to be turned with:

echo 1 > 5/power

from the pcihpfs root. If a PCI card is present in that slot, the whole PCI-initialization sequence will execute for that card, including a call out to /sbin/hotplug with the PCI information, so that the module for that device can be loaded automatically by the system [see Greg's Kernel Korner in the June 2002 issue of LJ].

Because of this filesystem, a user-space program does not have to make special ioctl() calls to a character device, allowing users to access a wider range of options for how they want to control their devices.

The rest of this article describes how the PCI Hot Plug core implements a RAM-based filesystem and how you can do the same thing for your drivers.

First, you need to declare the filesystem in your driver. To do this, use the DECLARE_FSTYPE macro, which is defined in the include/linux/file.h file. The pci_hotplug driver uses the DECLARE_FSTYPE macro in the following way:

static DECLARE_FSTYPE(pcihpfs_fs_type, "pcihpfs",
          pcihpfs_read_super, FS_SINGLE | FS_LITTER);

This creates a static variable of the type struct file_system_type called pcihpfs_fs_type and initializes some of the structure's fields. The name field is set to pcihpfs, which will be used by users in mounting our filesystem, so choose a name that makes sense and is not currently in use by any other filesystem in the kernel. We set the flags field to both FS_SINGLE and FS_LITTER.

FS_SINGLE means that, for this filesystem, we will have only one instance of the superblock. Therefore, wherever the filesystem is mounted in the system, all mountpoints will point to the same location in the filesystem (remember that you can mount the same filesystem at different points in a directory tree). The FS_LITTER option means that we want this filesystem to keep the tree in the dcache. This is set because our filesystem will live entirely in RAM and will not have a backing store of the data on any physical device, like a disk.

The read_super field of the pcihpfs_fs_type points to the function that will be called when the kernel wants to read the superblock of our filesystem. A superblock is the structure in a filesystem that is used to describe the entire filesystem. The kernel will call this function when the filesystem is asked to be mounted. When this function is called, we need to tell the kernel exactly what our filesystem looks like.

But before our filesystem can be mounted, we need to tell the kernel that our filesystem is present. This is done with a simple call to register_filesystem() with our file_system_type as the only parameter. This is done in the pci_hotplug module's initialization function with the following bit of code:

dbg("registering filesystem.\n");
result = register_filesystem(&pcihpfs_fs_type);
if (result) {
  err("register_filesystem failed with %d\n", result);
  goto exit;

Likewise, when the pci_hotplug module is being shut down, we unregister our filesystem type with the following single line of code:


Right after we register our filesystem, we want to create some virtual files that will allow a user to read and write values that our driver wants to export and change. If a user mounts the filesystem before he or she wants to create a file, the kernel already will have created the filesystem at some virtual location. Odds are that the filesystem has not been mounted, however, right after it is created, we need to get the kernel to mount the filesystem before we can add a file (otherwise our file creation fails, which prevents anyone from using that file).

There are two different ways of solving this problem. The first way is to wait until our filesystem is really mounted (we know this when our read_super function is called) and then create all of our files. This method requires us to do a bunch of work at mount time and to be constantly aware of whether our filesystem is currently mounted; remember, we need to add or remove files at different points in time. The usbdevfs filesystem (no relation to devfs, just an unfortunate name similarity) is an example of a filesystem that implements this solution to the problem.

However, we don't want to keep track constantly of when our filesystem is mounted, and we would like to be able to create or remove a file whenever we want. To do this second method, we need to tell the kernel to mount our filesystem internally. This solves the problem of keeping track of the current mount state. Listing 1 shows how we accomplish this.

Listing 1. Telling the Kernel to Mount the Filesystem Internally

Let's walk through Listing 1 to try to understand what it is doing and how it is doing it. This is also a good example of how to do proper locking techniques for when the kernel is running on a multiple-processor machine.

First we grab a spin lock, called mount_lock, with the line


This lock is used to protect our internal count if our filesystem is an example of what is needed to do this properly. internally mounted. Okay, previously I stated that we didn't want to keep track of whether we were mounted. Trust me, this simple function, combined with a simple function to unmount the filesystem (described later), is much easier to understand and work with than is the option of trying to determine if we have been mounted by a user. For an example of what is needed to do this properly, see the code in drivers/usb/inode.c in the 2.4.18 and earlier kernels.

After we grab our spin lock, check to see if our internal mount variable has been set:

if (pcihpfs_mount) {
        spin_unlock (&mount_lock);
        goto go_ahead;

If it has been set, we call mntget() to increment our internal mount count; mntget() is a simple inline function in the include/linux/mount.h file. We then increment our internal count variable, unlock our spin lock and jump to the end of the function, as we are finished (yes, it's okay to use goto in the kernel, sparingly).

Otherwise, we have not mounted this filesystem yet. So we unlock our spin lock:

spin_unlock (&mount_lock);

and call kern_mount to mount our filesystem internally:

mnt = kern_mount (&pcihpfs_fs_type);
if (IS_ERR(mnt)) {
    err ("could not mount the fs...erroring out!\n");
    return -ENODEV;

We unlock our spin lock, as the kern_mount() function can take a long time and may even cause the kernel to sleep and schedule another process. Remember that you cannot hold a spin lock if schedule() can be called while the lock is held—very bad things can happen if you do this.

Now that we have mounted our filesystem, we grab our spin lock again:

spin_lock (&mount_lock);

and check to see if our internal mount variable is still zero:

if (!pcihpfs_mount) {
        pcihpfs_mount = mnt;
        spin_unlock (&mount_lock);
        goto go_ahead;

“Wait!”, you are saying. “Why are we looking at pcihpfs_mount? We already know that it is set to zero; we checked it just a few lines of code ago. Why check again?” Well, remember the call to kern_mount() that we mentioned could sleep? If our call to kern_mount() sleeps, and another process comes through this same piece of code (remember we are running on more than one processor, and multiple user threads could be happening at the same time), then it could have already successfully mounted our filesystem and incremented the pcihpfs_mount variable. Because of this, we need to check it again.

So if another process has not come through and mounted our filesystem, we save off the pointer to our now mounted filesystem for other functions to use later, increment our internal count, unlock our lock and exit.

But if another process already has mounted our filesystem, we then do:

spin_unlock (&mount_lock);

This matches what we originally did in this same situation, back at the beginning of the function.

The code to unmount our filesystem is much simpler:

static void remove_mount (void)
       struct vfsmount *mnt;
       spin_lock (&mount_lock);
       mnt = pcihpfs_mount;
       if (!pcihpfs_mount_count)
              pcihpfs_mount = NULL;
       spin_unlock (&mount_lock);
       dbg("pcihpfs_mount_count = %d\n",

In this function, we simply grab our lock (the same lock we used when mounting the filesystem), decrease our count of the number of times the filesystem was mounted (we need to unmount for every time we mounted it) and unlock our lock. Then we tell the kernel that we want to unmount the filesystem with a call to mntput().

When the kernel wants to mount our filesystem—virtually because we called kern_mount() or because a user mounted it first—our pcihpfs_read_super() function is called. In it, we need to set up a few kernel structures that describe what our filesystem looks like and list where to find the functions that the kernel will call during the lifetime of the filesystem. This is done with the following lines of code:

sb->s_blocksize = PAGE_CACHE_SIZE;
sb->s_blocksize_bits = PAGE_CACHE_SHIFT;
sb->s_magic = PCIHPFS_MAGIC;
sb->s_op = &pcihpfs_ops;

With this, we state that our filesystem's block size is equal to the page cache size; we set up our filesystem's magic number (must be unique across all filesystems in the system) and point to our list of super_operations structure functions.

Then we initialize the superblock's root inode by doing:

inode = pcihpfs_get_inode(sb, S_IFDIR | 0755, 0);
if (!inode) {
      dbg("%s: could not get inode!\n",__FUNCTION__);
      return NULL;

We will describe what pcihpfs_get_inode() does in a bit, but if that succeeds, we then allocate the root dentry for the inode we just created and save that dentry in the superblock structure:

root = d_alloc_root(inode);
if (!root) {
     dbg("%s: could not get root dentry!\n",
     return NULL;
sb->s_root = root;
return sb;

That is all we need to do to initialize our superblock, and now the kernel has mounted our filesystem.

pcihpfs_get_inode() is another function that we need to create for our filesystem. It is called whenever we need to create a new inode for our filesystem. Listing 2 shows what the pci_hotplug driver uses to do this.

Listing 2. Creating a New Inode

First we call the kernel new_inode() function in order to create and initialize a new inode structure. If this succeeds, we then proceed to fill up a number of the fields with the necessary information. The i_uid and i_gid members are set to the current process' uid and gid values, insuring that whoever has the permission to create the inode can access it later. The i_atime, i_mtime and i_ctime members refer to the inode's access time, last modified time and time of last change. We set all of these variables to the current time. If this inode is a “regular” file type, then we point to our set of default_file_operations as the set of functions that should be called whenever the inode is acted upon (open, write, read, etc.). If this inode is a directory inode, we point to our default set of directory inode functions. And if the inode is neither a regular inode nor a directory inode, we then let the kernel initialize it with a call to init_special_inode().

So, now that the filesystem is internally mounted, how do we create a file that a user can read and write to? To do this, we call our fs_create_file() function, passing in the name of the file we want to create, the mode of the file, a pointer to the parent directory of the file (if this is NULL, we default to the root directory of the filesystem), a pointer to a blob of data that we want assigned to this file and a pointer to a set of file operations that will be called when the file is accessed (see Listing 3).

Listing 3. Creating a File that a User Can Read and Write to

Here we call pcihpfs_create_by_name to get a new dentry with all of the specified information. After our new dentry is created, we save off our data pointer and point the dentry file_operations to the one we really want to have called when this dentry's inode is accessed.

The struct file_operations that we assign to an inode differs depending on the kind of file we created. For the “power” file, which reports if the specific PCI slot is on or off and also controls turning the slot on or off, we use the following structure:

static struct file_operations power_file_operations = {
        read:         power_read_file,
        write:        power_write_file,
        open:         default_open,

The interesting functions here are power_read_file and power_write_file. This is what is called whenever the file is read from or written to. The other functions are called when the different operations are made on the file. When open() is called, the kernel calls default_open; when llseek is called, the kernel calls default_file_lseek() and so on.

power_read_file() is a fairly simple function. All we want to do is return the current power status of the specific PCI slot. The code to do this is:

page = (unsigned char *)__get_free_page(GFP_KERNEL);
if (!page)
        return -ENOMEM;
retval = get_power_status (slot, &value);
if (retval)
        goto exit;
len = sprintf (page, "%d\n", value);

This code allocates a chunk of memory (one page), gets the power status of a specific PCI slot (through the call to get_power_status()) and then writes a string representation of this status to the chunk of memory. The chunk of memory is then copied into user space. Remember, the original memory is located in kernel space; if you want the user to be able to see the memory, you need to call

if (copy_to_user (buf, page, len)) {
       retval = -EFAULT; goto exit;

where buf is a pointer to the user-space buffer that was originally passed to the read() call. So when a user issues the command:

cat /tmp/pcihpfs/slot2/power

the result is:


The power_write_file() function is equally as simple. We want the user to be able to control the power of a PCI slot with a simple echo command, something like

echo 1 > /tmp/pcihpfs/slot3/power

to turn on the power to the third PCI slot in the system. To do this, we need to convert the string representation of the value that is passed to us into a binary number and determine what slot-specific function to call (see Listing 4).

Listing 4. Controlling the Power of a PCI Slot

First we create a buffer that is one byte bigger than the user string and fill it with zeros. Then we copy the buffer from user space into our kernel buffer, convert it into a binary number with the simple_strtoul() function, and then act on the value of the binary number by either calling disable_slot() or enable_slot() on the specified PCI slot.

With those two simple functions mentioned above, we have now created a driver interface that can be accessed by any user, without needing to make special ioctl-type calls.

When the driver shuts down, it needs to remove all of the files that it had originally created in the filesystem, in order to be allowed to unmount the filesystem and free up all of the allocated memory. To do this, it calls the fs_remove_file() function (see Listing 5).

Listing 5. Calling the fs_remove_file() Function

This function needs a pointer to the dentry that the call to fs_create_file returned. It determines if the dentry has a valid parent, as you need the parent of the dentry in order to be able to remove it. Then it calls into the kernel VFS layer to remove the dentry (different calls are made depending on whether the dentry refers to a directory or to a file).

We have described the basic filesystem functions that are needed to implement a filesystem in a driver. For a better description of how all of the different pieces work together, look at the code in the drivers/hotplug/pci_hotplug_core.c file in the Linux kernel tree.

This article has been based on what is necessary for the 2.4 kernel. The 2.5 kernel should make things even easier, due to the exporting of most of the ramfs functions. This will enable more code sharing among the RAM-based filesystems, decreasing the amount of work a driver author has to do and preventing the author from doing things incorrectly.


I would like to thank Pat Mochel for writing the ddfs/driverfs code upon which a lot of the pcihpfs code was originally based. driverfs is a new filesystem in the 2.5 kernel that will also help driver authors in exporting driver-specific information into user space, as well as provide a tree of all devices, making power management tools much easier.

I would also like to thank Al Viro for answering a lot of VFS-related questions and for enabling a filesystem to be written with such a small amount of code.


Greg Kroah-Hartman is currently the Linux USB and PCI Hot Plug kernel maintainer. He works for IBM, doing various Linux kernel-related things and can be reached at
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