Interrupts and Exceptions

The Intel documentation classifies interrupts and exceptions as follows:

  • Interrupts:

    Maskable interrupts

    All Interrupt Requests (IRQs) issued by I/O devices give rise to maskable interrupts. A maskable interrupt can be in two states: masked or unmasked; a masked interrupt is ignored by the control unit as long as it remains masked.

    Nonmaskable interrupts

    Only a few critical events (such as hardware failures) give rise to nonmaskable interrupts. Nonmaskable interrupts are always recognized by the CPU.

  • Exceptions:

    Processor-detected exceptions

    Generated when the CPU detects an anomalous condition while executing an instruction. These are further divided into three groups, depending on the value of the eip register that is saved on the Kernel Mode stack when the CPU control unit raises the exception.


    Can generally be corrected; once corrected, the program is allowed to restart with no loss of continuity. The saved value of eip is the address of the instruction that caused the fault, and hence that instruction can be resumed when the exception handler terminates. As we shall see in Section 8.4, resuming the same instruction is necessary whenever the handler is able to correct the anomalous condition that caused the exception.


    Reported immediately following the execution of the trapping instruction; after the kernel returns control to the program, it is allowed to continue its execution with no loss of continuity. The saved value of eip is the address of the instruction that should be executed after the one that caused the trap. A trap is triggered only when there is no need to reexecute the instruction that terminated. The main use of traps is for debugging purposes. The role of the interrupt signal in this case is to notify the debugger that a specific instruction has been executed (for instance, a breakpoint has been reached within a program). Once the user has examined the data provided by the debugger, she may ask that execution of the debugged program resume, starting from the next instruction.


    A serious error occurred; the control unit is in trouble, and it may be unable to store in the eip register the precise location of the instruction causing the exception. Aborts are used to report severe errors, such as hardware failures and invalid or inconsistent values in system tables. The interrupt signal sent by the control unit is an emergency signal used to switch control to the corresponding abort exception handler. This handler has no choice but to force the affected process to terminate.

    Programmed exceptions

    Occur at the request of the programmer. They are triggered by int or int3 instructions; the into (check for overflow) and bound (check on address bound) instructions also give rise to a programmed exception when the condition they are checking is not true. Programmed exceptions are handled by the control unit as traps; they are often called software interrupts . Such exceptions have two common uses: to implement system calls and to notify a debugger of a specific event (see Chapter 9).

Each interrupt or exception is identified by a number ranging from 0 to 255; Intel calls this 8-bit unsigned number a vector . The vectors of nonmaskable interrupts and exceptions are fixed, while those of maskable interrupts can be altered by programming the Interrupt Controller (see the next section).

IRQs and Interrupts

Each hardware device controller capable of issuing interrupt requests has an output line designated as an Interrupt ReQuest (IRQ). All existing IRQ lines are connected to the input pins of a hardware circuit called the Interrupt Controller , which performs the following actions:

  1. Monitors the IRQ lines, checking for raised signals.

  2. If a raised signal occurs on an IRQ line:

    1. Converts the raised signal received into a corresponding vector.

    2. Stores the vector in an Interrupt Controller I/O port, thus allowing the CPU to read it via the data bus.

    3. Sends a raised signal to the processor INTR pin—that is, issues an interrupt.

    4. Waits until the CPU acknowledges the interrupt signal by writing into one of the Programmable Interrupt Controllers (PIC) I/O ports; when this occurs, clears the INTR line.

  3. Goes back to Step 1.

The IRQ lines are sequentially numbered starting from 0; therefore, the first IRQ line is usually denoted as IRQ0. Intel’s default vector associated with IRQn is n+32. As mentioned before, the mapping between IRQs and vectors can be modified by issuing suitable I/O instructions to the Interrupt Controller ports.

Each IRQ line can be selectively disabled. Thus, the PIC can be programmed to disable IRQs. That is, the PIC can be told to stop issuing interrupts that refer to a given IRQ line, or to enable them. Disabled interrupts are not lost; the PIC sends them to the CPU as soon as they are enabled again. This feature is used by most interrupt handlers since it allows them to process IRQs of the same type serially.

Selective enabling/disabling of IRQs is not the same as global masking/unmasking of maskable interrupts. When the IF flag of the eflags register is clear, each maskable interrupt issued by the PIC is temporarily ignored by the CPU. The cli and sti assembly language instructions, respectively, clear and set that flag. Masking and unmasking interrupts on a multiprocessor system is trickier since each CPU has its own eflags register. We’ll deal with this topic in Chapter 5.

Traditional PICs are implemented by connecting “in cascade” two 8259A-style external chips. Each chip can handle up to eight different IRQ input lines. Since the INT output line of the slave PIC is connected to the IRQ2 pin of the master PIC, the number of available IRQ lines is limited to 15.

The Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC)

The previous description refers to PICs designed for uniprocessor systems. If the system includes a single CPU, the output line of the master PIC can be connected in a straightforward way to the INTR pin the CPU. However, if the system includes two or more CPUs, this approach is no longer valid and more sophisticated PICs are needed.

Being able to deliver interrupts to each CPU in the system is crucial for fully exploiting the parallelism of the SMP architecture. For that reason, Intel has introduced a new component designated as the I/O Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (I/O APIC ), which replaces the old 8259A Programmable Interrupt Controller. Moreover, all current Intel CPUs include a local APIC . Each Local APIC has 32-bit registers, an internal clock, a local timer device, and two additional IRQ lines LINT0 and LINT1 reserved for local interrupts. All local APICs are connected to an external I/O APIC, giving raise to a multi-APIC system.

Figure 4-1 illustrates in a schematic way the structure of a multi-APIC system. An APIC bus connects the “frontend” I/O APIC to the local APICs. The IRQ lines coming from the devices are connected to the I/O APIC, which therefore acts as a router with respect to the local APICs. In the motherboards of the Pentium III and earlier processors, the APIC bus was a serial three-line bus; starting with the Pentium 4, the APIC bus is implemented by means of the system bus. However, since the APIC bus and its messages are invisible to software, we won’t give further details.

Multi-APIC system

Figure 4-1. Multi-APIC system

The I/O APIC consists of a set of 24 IRQ lines, a 24-entry Interrupt Redirection Table , programmable registers, and a message unit for sending and receiving APIC messages over the APIC bus. Unlike IRQ pins of the 8259A, interrupt priority is not related to pin number: each entry in the Redirection Table can be individually programmed to indicate the interrupt vector and priority, the destination processor, and how the processor is selected. The information in the Redirection Table is used to translate each external IRQ signal into a message to one or more local APIC units via the APIC bus.

Interrupt requests coming from external hardware devices can be distributed among the available CPUs in two ways:

Static distribution

The IRQ signal is delivered to the local APICs listed in the corresponding Redirection Table entry. The interrupt is delivered to one specific CPU, to a subset of CPUs, or to all CPUs at once (broadcast mode).

Dynamic distribution

The IRQ signal is delivered to the local APIC of the processor that is executing the process with the lowest priority.

Any local APIC has a programmable task priority register (TPR), which is used to compute the priority of the currently running process. Intel expects this register to be modified in an operating system kernel by each process switch.

If two or more CPUs share the lowest priority, the load is distributed between them using a technique called arbitration. Each CPU is assigned an arbitration priority ranging from 0 to 15 in the arbitration priority register of the local APIC. Every local APIC has a unique value

Every time an interrupt is delivered to a CPU, its corresponding arbitration priority is automatically set to 0, while the arbitration priorities of every other CPU is incremented. When the arbitration priority register becomes greater than 15, it is set to the previous arbitration priority of the winning CPU incremented by 1. Therefore, interrupts are distributed in a round-robin fashion among CPUs with the same task priority.[23]

Besides distributing interrupts among processors, the multi-APIC system allows CPUs to generate interprocessor interrupts . When a CPU wishes to send an interrupt to another CPU, it stores the interrupt vector and the identifier of the target’s local APIC in the Interrupt Command Register (ICR) of its own local APIC. A message is then sent via the APIC bus to the target’s local APIC, which therefore issues a corresponding interrupt to its own CPU.

Interprocessor interrupts (in short, IPIs) are part of the SMP architecture and are actively used by Linux to exchange messages among CPUs (see Section later in this chapter).

Most of the current uniprocessor systems include an I/O APIC chip, which may be configured in two distinct ways:

  • As a standard 8259A-style external PIC connected to the CPU. The local APIC is disabled and the two LINT0 and LINT1 local IRQ lines are configured, respectively, as the INTR and NMI pins.

  • As a standard external I/O APIC. The local APIC is enabled and all external interrupts are received through the I/O APIC.


The 80 × 86 microprocessors issue roughly 20 different exceptions.[24] The kernel must provide a dedicated exception handler for each exception type. For some exceptions, the CPU control unit also generates a hardware error code and pushes it in the Kernel Mode stack before starting the exception handler.

The following list gives the vector, the name, the type, and a brief description of the exceptions found in 80 × 86 processors. Additional information may be found in the Intel technical documentation.

0 - “Divide error” (fault)

Raised when a program issues an integer division by 0.

1- “Debug” (trap or fault)

Raised when the T flag of eflags is set (quite useful to implement step-by-step execution of a debugged program) or when the address of an instruction or operand falls within the range of an active debug register (see Section 3.3.1).

2 - Not used

Reserved for nonmaskable interrupts (those that use the NMI pin).

3 - “Breakpoint” (trap)

Caused by an int3 (breakpoint) instruction (usually inserted by a debugger).

4 - “Overflow” (trap)

An into (check for overflow) instruction has been executed when the OF (overflow) flag of eflags is set.

5 - “Bounds check” (fault)

A bound (check on address bound) instruction is executed with the operand outside of the valid address bounds.

6 - “Invalid opcode” (fault)

The CPU execution unit has detected an invalid opcode (the part of the machine instruction that determines the operation performed).

7 - “Device not available” (fault)

An ESCAPE, MMX, or XMM instruction has been executed with the TS flag of cr0 set (see Section 3.3.4).

8 - “Double fault” (abort)

Normally, when the CPU detects an exception while trying to call the handler for a prior exception, the two exceptions can be handled serially. In a few cases, however, the processor cannot handle them serially, so it raises this exception.

9 - “Coprocessor segment overrun” (abort)

Problems with the external mathematical coprocessor (applies only to old 80386 microprocessors).

10 - “Invalid TSS” (fault)

The CPU has attempted a context switch to a process having an invalid Task State Segment.

11 - “Segment not present” (fault)

A reference was made to a segment not present in memory (one in which the Segment-Present flag of the Segment Descriptor was cleared).

12 - “Stack segment” (fault)

The instruction attempted to exceed the stack segment limit, or the segment identified by ss is not present in memory.

13 - “General protection” (fault)

One of the protection rules in the protected mode of the 80 × 86 has been violated.

14 - “Page Fault” (fault)

The addressed page is not present in memory, the corresponding Page Table entry is null, or a violation of the paging protection mechanism has occurred.

15 - Reserved by Intel

16 - “Floating-point error” (fault)

The floating-point unit integrated into the CPU chip has signaled an error condition, such as numeric overflow or division by 0.[25]

17 - “Alignment check” (fault)

The address of an operand is not correctly aligned (for instance, the address of a long integer is not a multiple of 4).

18 - “Machine check” (abort)

A machine-check mechanism has detected a CPU or bus error.

19 - “SIMD floating point” (fault)

The SSE or SSE2 unit integrated in the CPU chip has signaled an error condition on a floating-point operation.

The values from 20 to 31 are reserved by Intel for future development. As illustrated in Table 4-1, each exception is handled by a specific exception handler (see Section 4.5 later in this chapter), which usually sends a Unix signal to the process that caused the exception.

Table 4-1. Signals sent by the exception handlers



Exception handler



Divide error

divide_error( )




debug( )




nmi( )




int3( )




overflow( )



Bounds check

bounds( )



Invalid opcode

invalid_op( )



Device not available

device_not_available( )



Double fault

double_fault( )



Coprocessor segment overrun

coprocessor_segment_overrun( )



Invalid TSS

invalid_tss( )



Segment not present

segment_not_present( )



Stack exception

stack_segment( )



General protection

general_protection( )



Page Fault

page_fault( )



Intel reserved




Floating-point error

coprocessor_error( )



Alignment check

alignment_check( )



Machine check

machine_check( )



SIMD floating point

simd_coprocessor_error( )


Interrupt Descriptor Table

A system table called Interrupt Descriptor Table (IDT) associates each interrupt or exception vector with the address of the corresponding interrupt or exception handler. The IDT must be properly initialized before the kernel enables interrupts.

The IDT format is similar to that of the GDT and the LDTs examined in Chapter 2. Each entry corresponds to an interrupt or an exception vector and consists of an 8-byte descriptor. Thus, a maximum of 256 × 8 = 2048 bytes are required to store the IDT.

The idtr CPU register allows the IDT to be located anywhere in memory: it specifies both the IDT base physical address and its limit (maximum length). It must be initialized before enabling interrupts by using the lidt assembly language instruction.

The IDT may include three types of descriptors; Figure 4-2 illustrates the meaning of the 64 bits included in each of them. In particular, the value of the Type field encoded in the bits 40-43 identifies the descriptor type.

Gate descriptors’ format

Figure 4-2. Gate descriptors’ format

The descriptors are:

Task gate

Includes the TSS selector of the process that must replace the current one when an interrupt signal occurs. Linux does not use task gates.

Interrupt gate

Includes the Segment Selector and the offset inside the segment of an interrupt or exception handler. While transferring control to the proper segment, the processor clears the IF flag, thus disabling further maskable interrupts.

Trap gate

Similar to an interrupt gate, except that while transferring control to the proper segment, the processor does not modify the IF flag.

As we shall see in the later section Section 4.4.1, Linux uses interrupt gates to handle interrupts and trap gates to handle exceptions.

Hardware Handling of Interrupts and Exceptions

We now describe how the CPU control unit handles interrupts and exceptions. We assume that the kernel has been initialized and thus the CPU is operating in Protected Mode.

After executing an instruction, the cs and eip pair of registers contain the logical address of the next instruction to be executed. Before dealing with that instruction, the control unit checks whether an interrupt or an exception occurred while the control unit executed the previous instruction. If one occurred, the control unit does the following:

  1. Determines the vector i (0 ≤ i ≤ 255) associated with the interrupt or the exception.

  2. Reads the i th entry of the IDT referred by the idtr register (we assume in the following description that the entry contains an interrupt or a trap gate).

  3. Gets the base address of the GDT from the gdtr register and looks in the GDT to read the Segment Descriptor identified by the selector in the IDT entry. This descriptor specifies the base address of the segment that includes the interrupt or exception handler.

  4. Makes sure the interrupt was issued by an authorized source. First, it compares the Current Privilege Level (CPL), which is stored in the two least significant bits of the cs register, with the Descriptor Privilege Level (DPL) of the Segment Descriptor included in the GDT. Raises a “General protection” exception if the CPL is lower than the DPL because the interrupt handler cannot have a lower privilege than the program that caused the interrupt. For programmed exceptions, it makes a further security check. It compares the CPL with the DPL of the gate descriptor included in the IDT and raises a “General protection” exception if the DPL is lower than the CPL. This last check makes it possible to prevent access by user applications to specific trap or interrupt gates.

  5. Checks whether a change of privilege level is taking place — that is, if CPL is different from the selected Segment Descriptor’s DPL. If so, the control unit must start using the stack that is associated with the new privilege level. It does this by performing the following steps:

    1. Reads the tr register to access the TSS segment of the running process.

    2. Loads the ss and esp registers with the proper values for the stack segment and stack pointer associated with the new privilege level. These values are found in the TSS (see Section 3.3.2).

    3. In the new stack, saves the previous values of ss and esp, which define the logical address of the stack associated with the old privilege level.

  6. If a fault has occurred, loads cs and eip with the logical address of the instruction that caused the exception so that it can be executed again.

  7. Saves the contents of eflags, cs, and eip in the stack.

  8. If the exception carries a hardware error code, saves it on the stack.

  9. Loads cs and eip, respectively, with the Segment Selector and the Offset fields of the Gate Descriptor stored in the i th entry of the IDT. These values define the logical address of the first instruction of the interrupt or exception handler.

The last step performed by the control unit is equivalent to a jump to the interrupt or exception handler. In other words, the instruction processed by the control unit after dealing with the interrupt signal is the first instruction of the selected handler.

After the interrupt or exception is processed, the corresponding handler must relinquish control to the interrupted process by issuing the iret instruction, which forces the control unit to:

  1. Load the cs, eip, and eflags registers with the values saved on the stack. If a hardware error code has been pushed in the stack on top of the eip contents, it must be popped before executing iret.

  2. Check whether the CPL of the handler is equal to the value contained in the two least significant bits of cs (this means the interrupted process was running at the same privilege level as the handler). If so, iret concludes execution; otherwise, go to the next step.

  3. Load the ss and esp registers from the stack and return to the stack associated with the old privilege level.

  4. Examine the contents of the ds, es, fs, and gs segment registers; if any of them contains a selector that refers to a Segment Descriptor whose DPL value is lower than CPL, clear the corresponding segment register. The control unit does this to forbid User Mode programs that run with a CPL equal to 3 from using segment registers previously used by kernel routines (with a DPL equal to 0). If these registers were not cleared, malicious User Mode programs could exploit them in order to access the kernel address space.

[23] The Pentium 4 local APIC doesn’t have an arbitration priority register; the arbitration mechanism is hidden in the bus arbitration circuitry. The Intel manuals state that if the operating system kernel does not regularly update the task priority registers, performances may be suboptimal because interrupts might always be serviced by the same CPU.

[24] The exact number depends on the processor model.

[25] The 80 × 86 microprocessors also generate this exception when performing a signed division whose result cannot be stored as a signed integer (for instance, a division between -2147483648 and -1).

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