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attribute documentation : what, why, how?

Before I talk about the title of the post, I will take a diversion to try to explain what kernel hackers mean when they say they do not break userspace.

What is an API and an ABI?

API: Application Programming Interface
ABI: Application Binary Interface

The two terms are closely related and can be a source of confusion. Both APIs and ABIs specify how two components interact with each other. The boundary for API interaction is source code and for ABI it is binary executables.

An API might be something you are more familiar with. For eg. the public methods and data structures of a Java class.

An ABI is hardware and platform dependent. This is the definition from The Linux Programming Interface: Among other things, an ABI specifies which registers and stack locations are used to exchange this information, and what meaning is attached to the exchanged value. Once compiled for a particular ABI, a binary executable should be able to run on any system presenting the same ABI.

The one above is a more general definition. The Linux ABI defines how userspace communicates with the kernel - syscalls, pseudo file systems (procfs, debugfs, configfs, sysfs), ioctls, etc. When the kernel changes its ABI (a new release or version update), all userspace applications and third-party modules that interact with it need to be recompiled. No patch is allowed to intentionally break the userspace. An unstable change could be addition of a new argument to a syscall or changing the behaviour of an existing argument. Unfortunately any such break is usually detected after a release (when userspace applications are already using it).

What can cause undefined behaviour? Incomplete testing and incomplete specification. A documented behaviour can help users other than developers to test new interfaces. And this is why both testing and documentation efforts are essential for kernel development.

Since breaking userspace is not acceptable, backward compatibilty is guaranteed for 2 years for interfaces documented in Documentation/ABI/stable.

sysfs file system

A web woven by a spider on drugs

Now that we all agree that documentation is important, we come to the in-memory virtual filesystem sysfs. It is automatically mounted at /sys.

# ls -l /sys

total 0
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root 0 Dec 26 21:36 block
drwxr-xr-x  39 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 bus
drwxr-xr-x  57 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 class
drwxr-xr-x   4 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 dev
drwxr-xr-x  21 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 devices
drwxr-xr-x   5 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 firmware
drwxr-xr-x   7 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 fs
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 hypervisor
drwxr-xr-x  11 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 kernel
drwxr-xr-x 200 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 module
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root 0 Dec 25 19:42 power

The directories under sysfs export information about the internal kernel data structures and layout. It provides a hierarchial view of the device structure under /sys/devices. Each directory in sysfs is a kobject (kernel object) and the files in a directory are the attributes of a kobject.

What are kobjects? You actually don’t need to work with or know internals of kobjects, or ksets or kobj_type. These are fundamental objects (like base classes of Object Oriented Programming) emebedded in other high level objects, that have a name and provide reference counting at the least. kobjects are embedded in devices, drivers, subsystems, filesystems. They are everywhere!

The goal of sysfs is to do one thing and do it well.

  • sysfs attributes should export one value per file.
  • Values should be text-based and map to simple C types. It was created to avoid the highly structured or highly messy representation of procfs.

Unlike syscalls which are generally stable, forming the bulk of the userspace ABI and well-documented through the linux manpages project, it is possible for sysfs interfaces to change in an incompatible way between release versions. There are around 332 syscalls1 whereas I can see about 30,000 sysfs files2 on my laptop. This is massive, having only been introduced in kernel release version 2.5 with the unification of the device model.

In summary:

  • The sysfs reflects the kernel’s internal device model.
  • It lives in memory.
  • What you see is not real files! They don’t exist on your disk.
  • Subsystems like class, bus, block etc are just grouping of devices by connection to bus type, functionality, device type etc.
  • Redundancy is avoided by using symlinks.
  • This ABI is huge! Which also makes it difficult to maintain :-(
# ls -l /sys/class/hwmon

total 0
total 0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Dec  21 17:02 hwmon0 -> ../../devices/virtual/hwmon/hwmon0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Dec  21 17:02 hwmon1 -> ../../devices/virtual/hwmon/hwmon1
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Dec  21 17:02 hwmon2 -> ../../devices/platform/coretemp.0/hwmon/hwmon2

Example of symlinking. Hardware monitoring devices are grouped by functionality under /sys/class/hwmon and symlinked to entries under /sys/devices.

What is my project about?

There are many configurable parameters in the sysfs ABI, the attributes or virtual files can be read or written to from userspace. The documentation for them resides in Documentation/ABI. But many of them are not represented. From a preliminary study3, I found that ~2000 attributes are documented and ~1000 attributes are missing.

The ABI documentation format looks like the following:

What: (the full sysfs path of the attribute)
Date: (date of creation)
KernelVersion: (kernel version it first showed up in)
Contact: (primary contact)
Description: (long description on usage)

The goal is to use scripting tools like coccinelle to collect information about various parts that are needed to fill this.

How can this be filled in?

  1. The Date, KernelVersion can be extracted from the commit that introduced it. Date is the author commit date and KernelVersion is the first release version tag that contains the commit.
  2. The Contact person may perhaps be the module author but could also be a subsystem specific mailing list (mm, rtc, usb).
  3. The full attribute path and the description are the hard parts to fill. The Description can be in a commit message or documented along with the driver (but not in the ABI). Some hints can be in the code surrounding the attribute declaration. Or in the description of the field that it might map to in a structure.
  4. The official path for attributes, the field What, varies in every subsystem. Some prefer a class path or a bus path or a devices one. There are only a few ways to create a class device attribute (by declaring a struct class or using class_create()). Again, coccinelle should be helpful here.

Want to know more?

  1. Kernel Recipes 2016 - Linux Device Model - Greg KH
  2. How to create a sysfs file correctly (2013)
  3. This is a bit of ancient history: The Linux Device Model - Chapter 14 Linux Device Drivers (2005)

  1. Look at arch/x86/entry/syscalls/syscall_64.tbl in the source code. [return]
  2. I don’t know if this deduplicates symlinks: find /sys -type f | wc -l [return]
  3. I used a cocci script to identify all the standard attribute declarers (DEVICE_ATTR, DEVICE_ATTR_{RO/RW/WO}) using the already documented attributes. Then, I used another script to identify all declared attributes using the previously found macros and the position where the attributes are present. [return]