get_free_page and Friends

If a module needs to allocate big chunks of memory, it is usually better to use a page-oriented technique. Requesting whole pages also has other advantages, which will be introduced later, in Section 13.2 in Chapter 13.

To allocate pages, the following functions are available:


Returns a pointer to a new page and fills the page with zeros.


Similar to get_zeroed_page, but doesn’t clear the page.


Allocates and returns a pointer to the first byte of a memory area that is several (physically contiguous) pages long, but doesn’t zero the area.


Similar to get_free_pages, but guarantees that the allocated memory is DMA capable. If you use version 2.2 or later of the kernel, you can simply use __get_free_pages and pass the __GFP_DMA flag; if you want backward compatibility with 2.0, you need to call this function instead.

The prototypes for the functions follow:

unsigned long get_zeroed_page(int flags);
unsigned long __get_free_page(int flags);
unsigned long __get_free_pages(int flags, unsigned long order);
unsigned long __get_dma_pages(int flags, unsigned long order);

The flags argument works in the same way as with kmalloc; usually either GFP_KERNEL or GFP_ATOMIC is used, perhaps with the addition of the __GFP_DMA flag (for memory that can be used for direct memory access operations) or __GFP_HIGHMEM when high memory can be used. order is the base-two logarithm of the number of pages you are requesting or freeing (i.e., log2 N). For example, order is 0 if you want one page and 3 if you request eight pages. If order is too big (no contiguous area of that size is available), the page allocation will fail. The maximum value of order was 5 in Linux 2.0 (corresponding to 32 pages) and 9 with later versions (corresponding to 512 pages: 2 MB on most platforms). Anyway, the bigger order is, the more likely it is that the allocation will fail.

When a program is done with the pages, it can free them with one of the following functions. The first function is a macro that falls back on the second:

void free_page(unsigned long addr);
void free_pages(unsigned long addr, unsigned long order);

If you try to free a different number of pages than you allocated, the memory map will become corrupted and the system will get in trouble at a later time.

It’s worth stressing that get_free_pages and the other functions can be called at any time, subject to the same rules we saw for kmalloc. The functions can fail to allocate memory in certain circumstances, particularly when GFP_ATOMIC is used. Therefore, the program calling these allocation functions must be prepared to handle an allocation failure.

It has been said that if you want to live dangerously, you can assume that neither kmalloc nor the underlying get_free_pages will ever fail when called with a priority of GFP_KERNEL. This is almost true, but not completely: small, memory-limited systems can still run into trouble. A driver writer ignores the possibility of allocation failures at his or her peril (or that of his or her users).

Although kmalloc(GFP_KERNEL) sometimes fails when there is no available memory, the kernel does its best to fulfill allocation requests. Therefore, it’s easy to degrade system responsiveness by allocating too much memory. For example, you can bring the computer down by pushing too much data into a scull device; the system will start crawling while it tries to swap out as much as possible in order to fulfill the kmalloc request. Since every resource is being sucked up by the growing device, the computer is soon rendered unusable; at that point you can no longer even start a new process to try to deal with the problem. We don’t address this issue in scull, since it is just a sample module and not a real tool to put into a multiuser system. As a programmer, you must nonetheless be careful, because a module is privileged code and can open new security holes in the system (the most likely is a denial-of-service hole like the one just outlined).

A scull Using Whole Pages: scullp

In order to test page allocation for real, the scullp module is released together with other sample code. It is a reduced scull, just like scullc introduced earlier.

Memory quanta allocated by scullp are whole pages or page sets: the scullp_order variable defaults to 0 and can be specified at either compile time or load time.

The following lines show how it allocates memory:

/* Here's the allocation of a single quantum */
if (!dptr->data[s_pos]) {
    dptr->data[s_pos] =
      (void *)__get_free_pages(GFP_KERNEL, dptr->order);
    if (!dptr->data[s_pos])
        goto nomem;
    memset(dptr->data[s_pos], 0, PAGE_SIZE << dptr->order);

The code to deallocate memory in scullp, instead, looks like this:

/* This code frees a whole quantum set */
for (i = 0; i < qset; i++)
    if (dptr->data[i])
        free_pages((unsigned long)(dptr->data[i]),

At the user level, the perceived difference is primarily a speed improvement and better memory use because there is no internal fragmentation of memory. We ran some tests copying four megabytes from scull0 to scull1 and then from scullp0 to scullp1; the results showed a slight improvement in kernel-space processor usage.

The performance improvement is not dramatic, because kmalloc is designed to be fast. The main advantage of page-level allocation isn’t actually speed, but rather more efficient memory usage. Allocating by pages wastes no memory, whereas using kmalloc wastes an unpredictable amount of memory because of allocation granularity.

But the biggest advantage of __get_free_page is that the page is completely yours, and you could, in theory, assemble the pages into a linear area by appropriate tweaking of the page tables. For example, you can allow a user process to mmap memory areas obtained as single unrelated pages. We’ll discuss this kind of operation in Section 13.2 in Chapter 13, where we show how scullp offers memory mapping, something that scull cannot offer.

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