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Understanding the Linux Kernel, Second Edition by Marco Cesati, Daniel P. Bovet

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Organization of the Material

When we began to write this book, we were faced with a critical decision: should we refer to a specific hardware platform or skip the hardware-dependent details and concentrate on the pure hardware-independent parts of the kernel?

Others books on Linux kernel internals have chosen the latter approach; we decided to adopt the former one for the following reasons:

  • Efficient kernels take advantage of most available hardware features, such as addressing techniques, caches, processor exceptions, special instructions, processor control registers, and so on. If we want to convince you that the kernel indeed does quite a good job in performing a specific task, we must first tell what kind of support comes from the hardware.

  • Even if a large portion of a Unix kernel source code is processor-independent and coded in C language, a small and critical part is coded in assembly language. A thorough knowledge of the kernel therefore requires the study of a few assembly language fragments that interact with the hardware.

When covering hardware features, our strategy is quite simple: just sketch the features that are totally hardware-driven while detailing those that need some software support. In fact, we are interested in kernel design rather than in computer architecture.

Our next step in choosing our path consisted of selecting the computer system to describe. Although Linux is now running on several kinds of personal computers and workstations, we decided to concentrate on the very popular and cheap IBM-compatible personal computers—and thus on the 80 × 86 microprocessors and on some support chips included in these personal computers. The term 80 × 86 microprocessor will be used in the forthcoming chapters to denote the Intel 80386, 80486, Pentium, Pentium Pro, Pentium II, Pentium III, and Pentium 4 microprocessors or compatible models. In a few cases, explicit references will be made to specific models.

One more choice we had to make was the order to follow in studying Linux components. We tried a bottom-up approach: start with topics that are hardware-dependent and end with those that are totally hardware-independent. In fact, we’ll make many references to the 80 × 86 microprocessors in the first part of the book, while the rest of it is relatively hardware-independent. One significant exception is made in Chapter 13. In practice, following a bottom-up approach is not as simple as it looks, since the areas of memory management, process management, and filesystems are intertwined; a few forward references—that is, references to topics yet to be explained—are unavoidable.

Each chapter starts with a theoretical overview of the topics covered. The material is then presented according to the bottom-up approach. We start with the data structures needed to support the functionalities described in the chapter. Then we usually move from the lowest level of functions to higher levels, often ending by showing how system calls issued by user applications are supported.

Level of Description

Linux source code for all supported architectures is contained in more than 8,000 C and assembly language files stored in about 530 subdirectories; it consists of roughly 4 million lines of code, which occupy over 144 megabytes of disk space. Of course, this book can cover only a very small portion of that code. Just to figure out how big the Linux source is, consider that the whole source code of the book you are reading occupies less than 3 megabytes of disk space. Therefore, we would need more than 40 books like this to list all code, without even commenting on it!

So we had to make some choices about the parts to describe. This is a rough assessment of our decisions:

  • We describe process and memory management fairly thoroughly.

  • We cover the Virtual Filesystem and the Ext2 and Ext3 filesystems, although many functions are just mentioned without detailing the code; we do not discuss other filesystems supported by Linux.

  • We describe device drivers, which account for a good part of the kernel, as far as the kernel interface is concerned, but do not attempt analysis of each specific driver, including the terminal drivers.

  • We cover the inner layers of networking in a rather sketchy way, since this area deserves a whole new book by itself.

The book describes the official 2.4.18 version of the Linux kernel, which can be downloaded from the web site, http://www.kernel.org.

Be aware that most distributions of GNU/Linux modify the official kernel to implement new features or to improve its efficiency. In a few cases, the source code provided by your favorite distribution might differ significantly from the one described in this book.

In many cases, the original code has been rewritten in an easier-to-read but less efficient way. This occurs at time-critical points at which sections of programs are often written in a mixture of hand-optimized C and Assembly code. Once again, our aim is to provide some help in studying the original Linux code.

While discussing kernel code, we often end up describing the underpinnings of many familiar features that Unix programmers have heard of and about which they may be curious (shared and mapped memory, signals, pipes, symbolic links, etc.).

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