Interrupt Handling

As we explained earlier, most exceptions are handled simply by sending a Unix signal to the process that caused the exception. The action to be taken is thus deferred until the process receives the signal; as a result, the kernel is able to process the exception quickly.

This approach does not hold for interrupts, because they frequently arrive long after the process to which they are related (for instance, a process that requested a data transfer) has been suspended and a completely unrelated process is running. So it would make no sense to send a Unix signal to the current process.

Interrupt handling depends on the type of interrupt. For our purposes, we’ll distinguish three main classes of interrupts:

I/O interrupts

An I/O device requires attention; the corresponding interrupt handler must query the device to determine the proper course of action. We cover this type of interrupt in the later section "I/O Interrupt Handling.”

Timer interrupts

Some timer, either a local APIC timer or an external timer, has issued an interrupt; this kind of interrupt tells the kernel that a fixed-time interval has elapsed. These interrupts are handled mostly as I/O interrupts; we discuss the peculiar characteristics of timer interrupts in Chapter 6.

Interprocessor interrupts

A CPU issued an interrupt to another CPU of a multiprocessor system. We cover such interrupts in the later section "Interprocessor Interrupt Handling.”

I/O Interrupt Handling

In general, an I/O interrupt handler must be flexible enough to service several devices at the same time. In the PCI bus architecture, for instance, several devices may share the same IRQ line. This means that the interrupt vector alone does not tell the whole story. In the example shown in Table 4-3, the same vector 43 is assigned to the USB port and to the sound card. However, some hardware devices found in older PC architectures (such as ISA) do not reliably operate if their IRQ line is shared with other devices.

Interrupt handler flexibility is achieved in two distinct ways, as discussed in the following list.

IRQ sharing

The interrupt handler executes several interrupt service routines (ISRs). Each ISR is a function related to a single device sharing the IRQ line. Because it is not possible to know in advance which particular device issued the IRQ, each ISR is executed to verify whether its device needs attention; if so, the ISR performs all the operations that need to be executed when the device raises an interrupt.

IRQ dynamic allocation

An IRQ line is associated with a device driver at the last possible moment; for instance, the IRQ line of the floppy device is allocated only when a user accesses the floppy disk device. In this way, the same IRQ vector may be used by several hardware devices even if they cannot share the IRQ line; of course, the hardware devices cannot be used at the same time. (See the discussion at the end of this section.)

Not all actions to be performed when an interrupt occurs have the same urgency. In fact, the interrupt handler itself is not a suitable place for all kind of actions. Long noncritical operations should be deferred, because while an interrupt handler is running, the signals on the corresponding IRQ line are temporarily ignored. Most important, the process on behalf of which an interrupt handler is executed must always stay in the TASK_RUNNING state, or a system freeze can occur. Therefore, interrupt handlers cannot perform any blocking procedure such as an I/O disk operation. Linux divides the actions to be performed following an interrupt into three classes:


Actions such as acknowledging an interrupt to the PIC, reprogramming the PIC or the device controller, or updating data structures accessed by both the device and the processor. These can be executed quickly and are critical, because they must be performed as soon as possible. Critical actions are executed within the interrupt handler immediately, with maskable interrupts disabled.


Actions such as updating data structures that are accessed only by the processor (for instance, reading the scan code after a keyboard key has been pushed). These actions can also finish quickly, so they are executed by the interrupt handler immediately, with the interrupts enabled.

Noncritical deferrable

Actions such as copying a buffer’s contents into the address space of a process (for instance, sending the keyboard line buffer to the terminal handler process). These may be delayed for a long time interval without affecting the kernel operations; the interested process will just keep waiting for the data. Noncritical deferrable actions are performed by means of separate functions that are discussed in the later section "Softirqs and Tasklets.”

Regardless of the kind of circuit that caused the interrupt, all I/O interrupt handlers perform the same four basic actions:

  1. Save the IRQ value and the register’s contents on the Kernel Mode stack.

  2. Send an acknowledgment to the PIC that is servicing the IRQ line, thus allowing it to issue further interrupts.

  3. Execute the interrupt service routines (ISRs) associated with all the devices that share the IRQ.

  4. Terminate by jumping to the ret_from_intr( ) address.

Several descriptors are needed to represent both the state of the IRQ lines and the functions to be executed when an interrupt occurs. Figure 4-4 represents in a schematic way the hardware circuits and the software functions used to handle an interrupt. These functions are discussed in the following sections.

Interrupt vectors

As illustrated in Table 4-2, physical IRQs may be assigned any vector in the range 32-238. However, Linux uses vector 128 to implement system calls.

The IBM-compatible PC architecture requires that some devices be statically connected to specific IRQ lines. In particular:

  • The interval timer device must be connected to the IRQ 0 line (see Chapter 6).

  • The slave 8259A PIC must be connected to the IRQ 2 line (although more advanced PICs are now being used, Linux still supports 8259A-style PICs).

    I/O interrupt handling

    Figure 4-4. I/O interrupt handling

  • The external mathematical coprocessor must be connected to the IRQ 13 line (although recent 80 × 86 processors no longer use such a device, Linux continues to support the hardy 80386 model).

  • In general, an I/O device can be connected to a limited number of IRQ lines. (As a matter of fact, when playing with an old PC where IRQ sharing is not possible, you might not succeed in installing a new card because of IRQ conflicts with other already present hardware devices.)

Table 4-2. Interrupt vectors in Linux

Vector range


0–19 (0x0-0x13)

Nonmaskable interrupts and exceptions

20–31 (0x14-0x1f)


32–127 (0x20-0x7f)

External interrupts (IRQs)

128 (0x80)

Programmed exception for system calls (see Chapter 10)

129–238 (0x81-0xee)

External interrupts (IRQs)

239 (0xef)

Local APIC timer interrupt (see Chapter 6)

240 (0xf0)

Local APIC thermal interrupt (introduced in the Pentium 4 models)

241–250 (0xf1-0xfa)

Reserved by Linux for future use

251–253 (0xfb-0xfd)

Interprocessor interrupts (see the section "Interprocessor Interrupt Handling" later in this chapter)

254 (0xfe)

Local APIC error interrupt (generated when the local APIC detects an erroneous condition)

255 (0xff)

Local APIC spurious interrupt (generated if the CPU masks an interrupt while the hardware device raises it)

There are three ways to select a line for an IRQ-configurable device:

  • By setting hardware jumpers (only on very old device cards).

  • By a utility program shipped with the device and executed when installing it. Such a program may either ask the user to select an available IRQ number or probe the system to determine an available number by itself.

  • By a hardware protocol executed at system startup. Peripheral devices declare which interrupt lines they are ready to use; the final values are then negotiated to reduce conflicts as much as possible. Once this is done, each interrupt handler can read the assigned IRQ by using a function that accesses some I/O ports of the device. For instance, drivers for devices that comply with the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) standard use a group of functions such as pci_read_config_byte( ) to access the device configuration space.

Table 4-3 shows a fairly arbitrary arrangement of devices and IRQs, such as those that might be found on one particular PC.

Table 4-3. An example of IRQ assignment to I/O devices



Hardware device









PIC cascading



Second serial port



First serial port



Floppy disk



System clock



Network interface



USB port, sound card



PS/2 mouse



Mathematical coprocessor



EIDE disk controller’s first chain



EIDE disk controller’s second chain

The kernel must discover which I/O device corresponds to the IRQ number before enabling interrupts. Otherwise, for example, how could the kernel handle a signal from a SCSI disk without knowing which vector corresponds to the device? The correspondence is established while initializing each device driver (see Chapter 13).

IRQ data structures

As always, when discussing complicated operations involving state transitions, it helps to understand first where key data is stored. Thus, this section explains the data structures that support interrupt handling and how they are laid out in various descriptors. Figure 4-5 illustrates schematically the relationships between the main descriptors that represent the state of the IRQ lines. (The figure does not illustrate the data structures needed to handle softirqs and tasklets; they are discussed later in this chapter.)

IRQ descriptors

Figure 4-5. IRQ descriptors

Every interrupt vector has its own irq_desc_t descriptor, whose fields are listed in Table 4-4. All such descriptors are grouped together in the irq_desc array.

Table 4-4. The irq_desc_t descriptor




Points to the PIC object (hw_irq_controller descriptor) that services the IRQ line.


Pointer to data used by the PIC methods.


Identifies the interrupt service routines to be invoked when the IRQ occurs. The field points to the first element of the list of irqaction descriptors associated with the IRQ. The irqaction descriptor is described later in the chapter.


A set of flags describing the IRQ line status (see Table 4-5).


Shows 0 if the IRQ line is enabled and a positive value if it has been disabled at least once.


Counter of interrupt occurrences on the IRQ line (for diagnostic use only).


Counter of unhandled interrupt occurrences on the IRQ line (for diagnostic use only).


A spin lock used to serialize the accesses to the IRQ descriptor and to the PIC (see Chapter 5).

An interrupt is unexpected if it is not handled by the kernel, that is, either if there is no ISR associated with the IRQ line, or if no ISR associated with the line recognizes the interrupt as raised by its own hardware device. Usually the kernel checks the number of unexpected interrupts received on an IRQ line, so as to disable the line in case a faulty hardware device keeps raising an interrupt over and over. Because the IRQ line can be shared among several devices, the kernel does not disable the line as soon as it detects a single unhandled interrupt. Rather, the kernel stores in the irq_count and irqs_unhandled fields of the irq_desc_t descriptor the total number of interrupts and the number of unexpected interrupts, respectively; when the 100,000th interrupt is raised, the kernel disables the line if the number of unhandled interrupts is above 99,900 (that is, if less than 101 interrupts over the last 100,000 received are expected interrupts from hardware devices sharing the line).

The status of an IRQ line is described by the flags listed in Table 4-5.

Table 4-5. Flags describing the IRQ line status

Flag name



A handler for the IRQ is being executed.


The IRQ line has been deliberately disabled by a device driver.


An IRQ has occurred on the line; its occurrence has been acknowledged to the PIC, but it has not yet been serviced by the kernel.


The IRQ line has been disabled but the previous IRQ occurrence has not yet been acknowledged to the PIC.


The kernel is using the IRQ line while performing a hardware device probe.


The kernel is using the IRQ line while performing a hardware device probe; moreover, the corresponding interrupt has not been raised.


Not used on the 80 × 86 architecture.


Not used.


Not used on the 80 × 86 architecture.

The depth field and the IRQ_DISABLED flag of the irq_desc_t descriptor specify whether the IRQ line is enabled or disabled. Every time the disable_irq( ) or disable_irq_nosync( ) function is invoked, the depth field is increased; if depth is equal to 0, the function disables the IRQ line and sets its IRQ_DISABLED flag.[*] Conversely, each invocation of the enable_irq( ) function decreases the field; if depth becomes 0, the function enables the IRQ line and clears its IRQ_DISABLED flag.

During system initialization, the init_IRQ( ) function sets the status field of each IRQ main descriptor to IRQ _DISABLED. Moreover, init_IRQ( ) updates the IDT by replacing the interrupt gates set up by setup_idt( ) (see the section "Preliminary Initialization of the IDT,” earlier in this chapter) with new ones. This is accomplished through the following statements:

    for (i = 0; i < NR_IRQS; i++)
       if (i+32 != 128)

This code looks in the interrupt array to find the interrupt handler addresses that it uses to set up the interrupt gates . Each entry n of the interrupt array stores the address of the interrupt handler for IRQ n (see the later section "Saving the registers for the interrupt handler“). Notice that the interrupt gate corresponding to vector 128 is left untouched, because it is used for the system call’s programmed exception.

In addition to the 8259A chip that was mentioned near the beginning of this chapter, Linux supports several other PIC circuits such as the SMP IO-APIC, Intel PIIX4’s internal 8259 PIC, and SGI’s Visual Workstation Cobalt (IO-)APIC. To handle all such devices in a uniform way, Linux uses a PIC object, consisting of the PIC name and seven PIC standard methods. The advantage of this object-oriented approach is that drivers need not to be aware of the kind of PIC installed in the system. Each driver-visible interrupt source is transparently wired to the appropriate controller. The data structure that defines a PIC object is called hw_interrupt_type (also called hw_irq_controller).

For the sake of concreteness, let’s assume that our computer is a uniprocessor with two 8259A PICs, which provide 16 standard IRQs. In this case, the handler field in each of the 16 irq_desc_t descriptors points to the i8259A_irq_type variable, which describes the 8259A PIC. This variable is initialized as follows:

    struct hw_interrupt_type i8259A_irq_type = {
        .typename     = "XT-PIC",
        .startup      = startup_8259A_irq,
        .shutdown     = shutdown_8259A_irq,
        .enable       = enable_8259A_irq,
        .disable      = disable_8259A_irq,
        .ack          = mask_and_ack_8259A,
        .end          = end_8259A_irq,
        .set_affinity = NULL

The first field in this structure, "XT-PIC", is the PIC name. Next come the pointers to six different functions used to program the PIC. The first two functions start up and shut down an IRQ line of the chip, respectively. But in the case of the 8259A chip, these functions coincide with the third and fourth functions, which enable and disable the line. The mask_and_ack_8259A( ) function acknowledges the IRQ received by sending the proper bytes to the 8259A I/O ports. The end_8259A_irq( ) function is invoked when the interrupt handler for the IRQ line terminates. The last set_affinity method is set to NULL: it is used in multiprocessor systems to declare the “affinity” of CPUs for specified IRQs — that is, which CPUs are enabled to handle specific IRQs.

As described earlier, multiple devices can share a single IRQ. Therefore, the kernel maintains irqaction descriptors (see Figure 4-5 earlier in this chapter), each of which refers to a specific hardware device and a specific interrupt. The fields included in such descriptor are shown in Table 4-6, and the flags are shown in Table 4-7.

Table 4-6. Fields of the irqaction descriptor

Field name



Points to the interrupt service routine for an I/O device. This is the key field that allows many devices to share the same IRQ.


This field includes a few fields that describe the relationships between the IRQ line and the I/O device (see Table 4-7).


Not used.


The name of the I/O device (shown when listing the serviced IRQs by reading the /proc/interrupts file).


A private field for the I/O device. Typically, it identifies the I/O device itself (for instance, it could be equal to its major and minor numbers; see the section "Device Files" in Chapter 13), or it points to the device driver’s data.


Points to the next element of a list of irqaction descriptors. The elements in the list refer to hardware devices that share the same IRQ.


IRQ line.


Points to the descriptor of the /proc/irq/n directory associated with the IRQn.

Table 4-7. Flags of the irqaction descriptor

Flag name



The handler must execute with interrupts disabled.


The device permits its IRQ line to be shared with other devices.


The device may be considered a source of events that occurs randomly; it can thus be used by the kernel random number generator. (Users can access this feature by taking random numbers from the /dev/random and /dev/urandom device files.)

Finally, the irq_stat array includes NR_CPUS entries, one for every possible CPU in the system. Each entry of type irq_cpustat_t includes a few counters and flags used by the kernel to keep track of what each CPU is currently doing (see Table 4-8).

Table 4-8. Fields of the irq_cpustat_t structure

Field name


_ _softirq_pending

Set of flags denoting the pending softirqs (see the section "Softirqs" later in this chapter)


Time when the CPU became idle (significant only if the CPU is currently idle)

_ _nmi_count

Number of occurrences of NMI interrupts


Number of occurrences of local APIC timer interrupts (see Chapter 6)

IRQ distribution in multiprocessor systems

Linux sticks to the Symmetric Multiprocessing model (SMP ); this means, essentially, that the kernel should not have any bias toward one CPU with respect to the others. As a consequence, the kernel tries to distribute the IRQ signals coming from the hardware devices in a round-robin fashion among all the CPUs. Therefore, all the CPUs should spend approximately the same fraction of their execution time servicing I/O interrupts.

In the earlier section "The Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC),” we said that the multi-APIC system has sophisticated mechanisms to dynamically distribute the IRQ signals among the CPUs.

During system bootstrap, the booting CPU executes the setup_IO_APIC_irqs( ) function to initialize the I/O APIC chip. The 24 entries of the Interrupt Redirection Table of the chip are filled, so that all IRQ signals from the I/O hardware devices can be routed to each CPU in the system according to the “lowest priority” scheme (see the earlier section "IRQs and Interrupts“). During system bootstrap, moreover, all CPUs execute the setup_local_APIC( ) function, which takes care of initializing the local APICs. In particular, the task priority register (TPR) of each chip is initialized to a fixed value, meaning that the CPU is willing to handle every kind of IRQ signal, regardless of its priority. The Linux kernel never modifies this value after its initialization.

All task priority registers contain the same value, thus all CPUs always have the same priority. To break a tie, the multi-APIC system uses the values in the arbitration priority registers of local APICs, as explained earlier. Because such values are automatically changed after every interrupt, the IRQ signals are, in most cases, fairly distributed among all CPUs.[*]

In short, when a hardware device raises an IRQ signal, the multi-APIC system selects one of the CPUs and delivers the signal to the corresponding local APIC, which in turn interrupts its CPU. No other CPUs are notified of the event.

All this is magically done by the hardware, so it should be of no concern for the kernel after multi-APIC system initialization. Unfortunately, in some cases the hardware fails to distribute the interrupts among the microprocessors in a fair way (for instance, some Pentium 4-based SMP motherboards have this problem). Therefore, Linux 2.6 makes use of a special kernel thread called kirqd to correct, if necessary, the automatic assignment of IRQs to CPUs.

The kernel thread exploits a nice feature of multi-APIC systems, called the IRQ affinity of a CPU: by modifying the Interrupt Redirection Table entries of the I/O APIC, it is possible to route an interrupt signal to a specific CPU. This can be done by invoking the set_ioapic_affinity_irq( ) function, which acts on two parameters: the IRQ vector to be rerouted and a 32-bit mask denoting the CPUs that can receive the IRQ. The IRQ affinity of a given interrupt also can be changed by the system administrator by writing a new CPU bitmap mask into the /proc/irq/n/smp_affinity file (n being the interrupt vector).

The kirqd kernel thread periodically executes the do_irq_balance( ) function, which keeps track of the number of interrupt occurrences received by every CPU in the most recent time interval. If the function discovers that the IRQ load imbalance between the heaviest loaded CPU and the least loaded CPU is significantly high, then it either selects an IRQ to be “moved” from a CPU to another, or rotates all IRQs among all existing CPUs.

Multiple Kernel Mode stacks

As mentioned in the section "Identifying a Process" in Chapter 3, the thread_info descriptor of each process is coupled with a Kernel Mode stack in a thread_union data structure composed by one or two page frames, according to an option selected when the kernel has been compiled. If the size of the thread_union structure is 8 KB, the Kernel Mode stack of the current process is used for every type of kernel control path: exceptions, interrupts, and deferrable functions (see the later section "Softirqs and Tasklets“). Conversely, if the size of the thread_union structure is 4 KB, the kernel makes use of three types of Kernel Mode stacks:

  • The exception stack is used when handling exceptions (including system calls). This is the stack contained in the per-process thread_union data structure, thus the kernel makes use of a different exception stack for each process in the system.

  • The hard IRQ stack is used when handling interrupts. There is one hard IRQ stack for each CPU in the system, and each stack is contained in a single page frame.

  • The soft IRQ stack is used when handling deferrable functions (softirqs or tasklets; see the later section "Softirqs and Tasklets“). There is one soft IRQ stack for each CPU in the system, and each stack is contained in a single page frame.

All hard IRQ stacks are contained in the hardirq_stack array, while all soft IRQ stacks are contained in the softirq_stack array. Each array element is a union of type irq_ctx that span a single page. At the bottom of this page is stored a thread_info structure, while the spare memory locations are used for the stack; remember that each stack grows towards lower addresses. Thus, hard IRQ stacks and soft IRQ stacks are very similar to the exception stacks described in the section "Identifying a Process" in Chapter 3; the only difference is that the thread_info structure coupled with each stack is associated with a CPU rather than a process.

The hardirq_ctx and softirq_ctx arrays allow the kernel to quickly determine the hard IRQ stack and soft IRQ stack of a given CPU, respectively: they contain pointers to the corresponding irq_ctx elements.

Saving the registers for the interrupt handler

When a CPU receives an interrupt, it starts executing the code at the address found in the corresponding gate of the IDT (see the earlier section "Hardware Handling of Interrupts and Exceptions“).

As with other context switches, the need to save registers leaves the kernel developer with a somewhat messy coding job, because the registers have to be saved and restored using assembly language code. However, within those operations, the processor is expected to call and return from a C function. In this section, we describe the assembly language task of handling registers; in the next, we show some of the acrobatics required in the C function that is subsequently invoked.

Saving registers is the first task of the interrupt handler. As already mentioned, the address of the interrupt handler for IRQ n is initially stored in the interrupt[n] entry and then copied into the interrupt gate included in the proper IDT entry.

The interrupt array is built through a few assembly language instructions in the arch/i386/kernel/entry.S file. The array includes NR_IRQS elements, where the NR_IRQS macro yields either the number 224 if the kernel supports a recent I/O APIC chip,[*] or the number 16 if the kernel uses the older 8259A PIC chips. The element at index n in the array stores the address of the following two assembly language instructions:

        pushl $n-256
        jmp common_interrupt

The result is to save on the stack the IRQ number associated with the interrupt minus 256. The kernel represents all IRQs through negative numbers, because it reserves positive interrupt numbers to identify system calls (see Chapter 10). The same code for all interrupt handlers can then be executed while referring to this number. The common code starts at label common_interrupt and consists of the following assembly language macros and instructions:

        movl %esp,%eax
        call do_IRQ
        jmp ret_from_intr

The SAVE_ALL macro expands to the following fragment:

    push %es
    push %ds
    pushl %eax
    pushl %ebp
    pushl %edi
    pushl %esi
    pushl %edx
    pushl %ecx
    pushl %ebx
    movl $ _ _USER_DS,%edx
    movl %edx,%ds
    movl %edx,%es

SAVE_ALL saves all the CPU registers that may be used by the interrupt handler on the stack, except for eflags , cs, eip, ss, and esp, which are already saved automatically by the control unit (see the earlier section "Hardware Handling of Interrupts and Exceptions“). The macro then loads the selector of the user data segment into ds and es.

After saving the registers, the address of the current top stack location is saved in the eax register; then, the interrupt handler invokes the do_IRQ( ) function. When the ret instruction of do_IRQ( ) is executed (when that function terminates) control is transferred to ret_from_intr( ) (see the later section "Returning from Interrupts and Exceptions“).

The do_IRQ( ) function

The do_IRQ( ) function is invoked to execute all interrupt service routines associated with an interrupt. It is declared as follows:

    _ _attribute_ _((regparm(3))) unsigned int do_IRQ(struct pt_regs *regs)

The regparm keyword instructs the function to go to the eax register to find the value of the regs argument; as seen above, eax points to the stack location containing the last register value pushed on by SAVE_ALL.

The do_IRQ( ) function executes the following actions:

  1. Executes the irq_enter( ) macro, which increases a counter representing the number of nested interrupt handlers. The counter is stored in the preempt_count field of the thread_info structure of the current process (see Table 4-10 later in this chapter).

  2. If the size of the thread_union structure is 4 KB, it switches to the hard IRQ stack.In particular, the function performs the following substeps:

    1. Executes the current_thread_info( ) function to get the address of the thread_info descriptor associated with the Kernel Mode stack addressed by the esp register (see the section "Identifying a Process" in Chapter 3).

    2. Compares the address of the thread_info descriptor obtained in the previous step with the address stored in hardirq_ctx[smp_processor_id( )], that is, the address of the thread_info descriptor associated with the local CPU. If the two addresses are equal, the kernel is already using the hard IRQ stack, thus jumps to step 3. This happens when an IRQ is raised while the kernel is still handling another interrupt.

    3. Here the Kernel Mode stack has to be switched. Stores the pointer to the current process descriptor in the task field of the thread_info descriptor in irq_ctx union of the local CPU. This is done so that the current macro works as expected while the kernel is using the hard IRQ stack (see the section "Identifying a Process" in Chapter 3).

    4. Stores the current value of the esp stack pointer register in the previous_esp field of the thread_info descriptor in the irq_ctx union of the local CPU (this field is used only when preparing the function call trace for a kernel oops).

    5. Loads in the esp stack register the top location of the hard IRQ stack of the local CPU (the value in hardirq_ctx[smp_processor_id( )] plus 4096); the previous value of the esp register is saved in the ebx register.

  3. Invokes the _ _do_IRQ( ) function passing to it the pointer regs and the IRQ number obtained from the regs->orig_eax field (see the following section).

  4. If the hard IRQ stack has been effectively switched in step 2e above, the function copies the original stack pointer from the ebx register into the esp register, thus switching back to the exception stack or soft IRQ stack that were in use before.

  5. Executes the irq_exit( ) macro, which decreases the interrupt counter and checks whether deferrable kernel functions are waiting to be executed (see the section "Softirqs and Tasklets" later in this chapter).

  6. Terminates: the control is transferred to the ret_from_intr( ) function (see the later section "Returning from Interrupts and Exceptions“).

The _ _do_IRQ( ) function

The _ _do_IRQ( ) function receives as its parameters an IRQ number (through the eax register) and a pointer to the pt_regs structure where the User Mode register values have been saved (through the edx register).

The function is equivalent to the following code fragment:

    irq_desc[irq].status &= ~(IRQ_REPLAY | IRQ_WAITING);
    irq_desc[irq].status |= IRQ_PENDING;
    if (!(irq_desc[irq].status & (IRQ_DISABLED | IRQ_INPROGRESS))
            && irq_desc[irq].action) {
        irq_desc[irq].status |= IRQ_INPROGRESS;
        do {
            irq_desc[irq].status &= ~IRQ_PENDING;
            handle_IRQ_event(irq, regs, irq_desc[irq].action);
        } while (irq_desc[irq].status & IRQ_PENDING);
        irq_desc[irq].status &= ~IRQ_INPROGRESS;

Before accessing the main IRQ descriptor, the kernel acquires the corresponding spin lock. We’ll see in Chapter 5 that the spin lock protects against concurrent accesses by different CPUs. This spin lock is necessary in a multiprocessor system, because other interrupts of the same kind may be raised, and other CPUs might take care of the new interrupt occurrences. Without the spin lock, the main IRQ descriptor would be accessed concurrently by several CPUs. As we’ll see, this situation must be absolutely avoided.

After acquiring the spin lock, the function invokes the ack method of the main IRQ descriptor. When using the old 8259A PIC, the corresponding mask_and_ack_8259A( ) function acknowledges the interrupt on the PIC and also disables the IRQ line. Masking the IRQ line ensures that the CPU does not accept further occurrences of this type of interrupt until the handler terminates. Remember that the _ _do_IRQ( ) function runs with local interrupts disabled; in fact, the CPU control unit automatically clears the IF flag of the eflags register because the interrupt handler is invoked through an IDT’s interrupt gate. However, we’ll see shortly that the kernel might re-enable local interrupts before executing the interrupt service routines of this interrupt.

When using the I/O APIC, however, things are much more complicated. Depending on the type of interrupt, acknowledging the interrupt could either be done by the ack method or delayed until the interrupt handler terminates (that is, acknowledgement could be done by the end method). In either case, we can take for granted that the local APIC doesn’t accept further interrupts of this type until the handler terminates, although further occurrences of this type of interrupt may be accepted by other CPUs.

The _ _do_IRQ( ) function then initializes a few flags of the main IRQ descriptor. It sets the IRQ_PENDING flag because the interrupt has been acknowledged (well, sort of), but not yet really serviced; it also clears the IRQ_WAITING and IRQ_REPLAY flags (but we don’t have to care about them now).

Now _ _do_IRQ( ) checks whether it must really handle the interrupt. There are three cases in which nothing has to be done. These are discussed in the following list.


A CPU might execute the _ _do_IRQ( ) function even if the corresponding IRQ line is disabled; you’ll find an explanation for this nonintuitive case in the later section "Reviving a lost interrupt.” Moreover, buggy motherboards may generate spurious interrupts even when the IRQ line is disabled in the PIC.


In a multiprocessor system, another CPU might be handling a previous occurrence of the same interrupt. Why not defer the handling of this occurrence to that CPU? This is exactly what is done by Linux. This leads to a simpler kernel architecture because device drivers’ interrupt service routines need not to be reentrant (their execution is serialized). Moreover, the freed CPU can quickly return to what it was doing, without dirtying its hardware cache; this is beneficial to system performance. The IRQ_INPROGRESS flag is set whenever a CPU is committed to execute the interrupt service routines of the interrupt; therefore, the _ _do_IRQ( ) function checks it before starting the real work.

irq_desc[irq].action is NULL

This case occurs when there is no interrupt service routine associated with the interrupt. Normally, this happens only when the kernel is probing a hardware device.

Let’s suppose that none of the three cases holds, so the interrupt has to be serviced. The _ _do_IRQ( ) function sets the IRQ_INPROGRESS flag and starts a loop. In each iteration, the function clears the IRQ_PENDING flag, releases the interrupt spin lock, and executes the interrupt service routines by invoking handle_IRQ_event( ) (described later in the chapter). When the latter function terminates, _ _do_IRQ( ) acquires the spin lock again and checks the value of the IRQ_PENDING flag. If it is clear, no further occurrence of the interrupt has been delivered to another CPU, so the loop ends. Conversely, if IRQ_PENDING is set, another CPU has executed the do_IRQ( ) function for this type of interrupt while this CPU was executing handle_IRQ_event( ). Therefore, do_IRQ( ) performs another iteration of the loop, servicing the new occurrence of the interrupt.[*]

Our _ _do_IRQ( ) function is now going to terminate, either because it has already executed the interrupt service routines or because it had nothing to do. The function invokes the end method of the main IRQ descriptor. When using the old 8259A PIC, the corresponding end_8259A_irq( ) function reenables the IRQ line (unless the interrupt occurrence was spurious). When using the I/O APIC, the end method acknowledges the interrupt (if not already done by the ack method).

Finally, _ _do_IRQ( ) releases the spin lock: the hard work is finished!

Reviving a lost interrupt

The _ _do_IRQ( ) function is small and simple, yet it works properly in most cases. Indeed, the IRQ_PENDING, IRQ_INPROGRESS, and IRQ_DISABLED flags ensure that interrupts are correctly handled even when the hardware is misbehaving. However, things may not work so smoothly in a multiprocessor system.

Suppose that a CPU has an IRQ line enabled. A hardware device raises the IRQ line, and the multi-APIC system selects our CPU for handling the interrupt. Before the CPU acknowledges the interrupt, the IRQ line is masked out by another CPU; as a consequence, the IRQ_DISABLED flag is set. Right afterwards, our CPU starts handling the pending interrupt; therefore, the do_IRQ( ) function acknowledges the interrupt and then returns without executing the interrupt service routines because it finds the IRQ_DISABLED flag set. Therefore, even though the interrupt occurred before the IRQ line was disabled, it gets lost.

To cope with this scenario, the enable_irq( ) function, which is used by the kernel to enable an IRQ line, checks first whether an interrupt has been lost. If so, the function forces the hardware to generate a new occurrence of the lost interrupt:

    spin_lock_irqsave(&(irq_desc[irq].lock), flags);
    if (--irq_desc[irq].depth == 0) {
        irq_desc[irq].status &= ~IRQ_DISABLED;
        if (irq_desc[irq].status & (IRQ_PENDING | IRQ_REPLAY))
               == IRQ_PENDING) {
            irq_desc[irq].status |= IRQ_REPLAY;
    spin_lock_irqrestore(&(irq_desc[irq].lock), flags);

The function detects that an interrupt was lost by checking the value of the IRQ_PENDING flag. The flag is always cleared when leaving the interrupt handler; therefore, if the IRQ line is disabled and the flag is set, then an interrupt occurrence has been acknowledged but not yet serviced. In this case the hw_resend_irq( ) function raises a new interrupt. This is obtained by forcing the local APIC to generate a self-interrupt (see the later section "Interprocessor Interrupt Handling“). The role of the IRQ_REPLAY flag is to ensure that exactly one self-interrupt is generated. Remember that the _ _do_IRQ( ) function clears that flag when it starts handling the interrupt.

Interrupt service routines

As mentioned previously, an interrupt service routine handles an interrupt by executing an operation specific to one type of device. When an interrupt handler must execute the ISRs, it invokes the handle_IRQ_event( ) function. This function essentially performs the following steps:

  1. Enables the local interrupts with the sti assembly language instruction if the SA_INTERRUPT flag is clear.

  2. Executes each interrupt service routine of the interrupt through the following code:

        retval = 0;
        do {
            retval |= action->handler(irq, action->dev_id, regs);
            action = action->next;
        } while (action);

    At the start of the loop, action points to the start of a list of irqaction data structures that indicate the actions to be taken upon receiving the interrupt (see Figure 4-5 earlier in this chapter).

  3. Disables local interrupts with the cli assembly language instruction.

  4. Terminates by returning the value of the retval local variable, that is, 0 if no interrupt service routine has recognized interrupt, 1 otherwise (see next).

All interrupt service routines act on the same parameters (once again they are passed through the eax, edx, and ecx registers, respectively):


The IRQ number


The device identifier


A pointer to a pt_regs structure on the Kernel Mode (exception) stack containing the registers saved right after the interrupt occurred. The pt_regs structure consists of 15 fields:

  • The first nine fields are the register values pushed by SAVE_ALL

  • The tenth field, referenced through a field called orig_eax, encodes the IRQ number

  • The remaining fields correspond to the register values pushed on automatically by the control unit

The first parameter allows a single ISR to handle several IRQ lines, the second one allows a single ISR to take care of several devices of the same type, and the last one allows the ISR to access the execution context of the interrupted kernel control path. In practice, most ISRs do not use these parameters.

Every interrupt service routine returns the value 1 if the interrupt has been effectively handled, that is, if the signal was raised by the hardware device handled by the interrupt service routine (and not by another device sharing the same IRQ); it returns the value 0 otherwise. This return code allows the kernel to update the counter of unexpected interrupts mentioned in the section "IRQ data structures" earlier in this chapter.

The SA_INTERRUPT flag of the main IRQ descriptor determines whether interrupts must be enabled or disabled when the do_IRQ( ) function invokes an ISR. An ISR that has been invoked with the interrupts in one state is allowed to put them in the opposite state. In a uniprocessor system, this can be achieved by means of the cli (disable interrupts) and sti (enable interrupts) assembly language instructions.

The structure of an ISR depends on the characteristics of the device handled. We’ll give a couple of examples of ISRs in Chapter 6 and Chapter 13.

Dynamic allocation of IRQ lines

As noted in section "Interrupt vectors,” a few vectors are reserved for specific devices, while the remaining ones are dynamically handled. There is, therefore, a way in which the same IRQ line can be used by several hardware devices even if they do not allow IRQ sharing. The trick is to serialize the activation of the hardware devices so that just one owns the IRQ line at a time.

Before activating a device that is going to use an IRQ line, the corresponding driver invokes request_irq( ). This function creates a new irqaction descriptor and initializes it with the parameter values; it then invokes the setup_irq( ) function to insert the descriptor in the proper IRQ list. The device driver aborts the operation if setup_irq( ) returns an error code, which usually means that the IRQ line is already in use by another device that does not allow interrupt sharing. When the device operation is concluded, the driver invokes the free_irq( ) function to remove the descriptor from the IRQ list and release the memory area.

Let’s see how this scheme works on a simple example. Assume a program wants to address the /dev/fd0 device file, which corresponds to the first floppy disk on the system.[*] The program can do this either by directly accessing /dev/fd0 or by mounting a filesystem on it. Floppy disk controllers are usually assigned IRQ 6; given this, a floppy driver may issue the following request:

    request_irq(6, floppy_interrupt,
                SA_INTERRUPT|SA_SAMPLE_RANDOM, "floppy", NULL);

As can be observed, the floppy_interrupt( ) interrupt service routine must execute with the interrupts disabled (SA_INTERRUPT flag set) and no sharing of the IRQ (SA_SHIRQ flag missing). The SA_SAMPLE_RANDOM flag set means that accesses to the floppy disk are a good source of random events to be used for the kernel random number generator. When the operation on the floppy disk is concluded (either the I/O operation on /dev/fd0 terminates or the filesystem is unmounted), the driver releases IRQ 6:

    free_irq(6, NULL);

To insert an irqaction descriptor in the proper list, the kernel invokes the setup_irq( ) function, passing to it the parameters irq _nr, the IRQ number, and new (the address of a previously allocated irqaction descriptor). This function:

  1. Checks whether another device is already using the irq _nr IRQ and, if so, whether the SA_SHIRQ flags in the irqaction descriptors of both devices specify that the IRQ line can be shared. Returns an error code if the IRQ line cannot be used.

  2. Adds *new (the new irqaction descriptor pointed to by new) at the end of the list to which irq _desc[irq _nr]->action points.

  3. If no other device is sharing the same IRQ, the function clears the IRQ _DISABLED, IRQ_AUTODETECT, IRQ_WAITING, and IRQ _INPROGRESS flags in the flags field of *new and invokes the startup method of the irq_desc[irq_nr]->handler PIC object to make sure that IRQ signals are enabled.

Here is an example of how setup_irq( ) is used, drawn from system initialization. The kernel initializes the irq0 descriptor of the interval timer device by executing the following instructions in the time_init( ) function (see Chapter 6):

    struct irqaction irq0  =
        {timer_interrupt, SA_INTERRUPT, 0, "timer", NULL, NULL};
    setup_irq(0, &irq0);

First, the irq0 variable of type irqaction is initialized: the handler field is set to the address of the timer_interrupt( ) function, the flags field is set to SA_INTERRUPT, the name field is set to "timer", and the fifth field is set to NULL to show that no dev_id value is used. Next, the kernel invokes setup_irq( ) to insert irq0 in the list of irqaction descriptors associated with IRQ 0.

Interprocessor Interrupt Handling

Interprocessor interrupts allow a CPU to send interrupt signals to any other CPU in the system. As explained in the section "The Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC)" earlier in this chapter, an interprocessor interrupt (IPI) is delivered not through an IRQ line, but directly as a message on the bus that connects the local APIC of all CPUs (either a dedicated bus in older motherboards, or the system bus in the Pentium 4-based motherboards).

On multiprocessor systems, Linux makes use of three kinds of interprocessor interrupts (see also Table 4-2):


Sent to all CPUs but the sender, forcing those CPUs to run a function passed by the sender. The corresponding interrupt handler is named call_function_interrupt( ). The function (whose address is passed in the call_data global variable) may, for instance, force all other CPUs to stop, or may force them to set the contents of the Memory Type Range Registers (MTRRs).[*] Usually this interrupt is sent to all CPUs except the CPU executing the calling function by means of the smp_call_function( ) facility function.


When a CPU receives this type of interrupt, the corresponding handler — named reschedule_interrupt( ) — limits itself to acknowledging the interrupt. Rescheduling is done automatically when returning from the interrupt (see the section "Returning from Interrupts and Exceptions" later in this chapter).


Sent to all CPUs but the sender, forcing them to invalidate their Translation Lookaside Buffers. The corresponding handler, named invalidate_interrupt( ), flushes some TLB entries of the processor as described in the section "Handling the Hardware Cache and the TLB" in Chapter 2.

The assembly language code of the interprocessor interrupt handlers is generated by the BUILD_INTERRUPT macro: it saves the registers, pushes the vector number minus 256 on the stack, and then invokes a high-level C function having the same name as the low-level handler preceded by smp_. For instance, the high-level handler of the CALL_FUNCTION_VECTOR interprocessor interrupt that is invoked by the low-level call_function_interrupt( ) handler is named smp_call_function_interrupt( ). Each high-level handler acknowledges the interprocessor interrupt on the local APIC and then performs the specific action triggered by the interrupt.

Thanks to the following group of functions, issuing interprocessor interrupts (IPIs) becomes an easy task:

send_IPI_all( )

Sends an IPI to all CPUs (including the sender)

send_IPI_allbutself( )

Sends an IPI to all CPUs except the sender

send_IPI_self( )

Sends an IPI to the sender CPU

send_IPI_mask( )

Sends an IPI to a group of CPUs specified by a bit mask

[*] In contrast to disable_irq_nosync( ), disable_irq(n) waits until all interrupt handlers for IRQ n that are running on other CPUs have completed before returning.

[*] There is an exception, though. Linux usually sets up the local APICs in such a way to honor the focus processor, when it exists. A focus process will catch all IRQs of the same type as long as it has received an IRQ of that type, and it has not finished executing the interrupt handler. However, Intel has dropped support for focus processors in the Pentium 4 model.

[*] 256 vectors is an architectural limit for the 80×86 architecture. 32 of them are used or reserved for the CPU, so the usable vector space consists of 224 vectors.

[*] Because IRQ_PENDING is a flag and not a counter, only the second occurrence of the interrupt can be recognized. Further occurrences in each iteration of the do_IRQ( )’s loop are simply lost.

[*] Floppy disks are “old” devices that do not usually allow IRQ sharing.

[*] Starting with the Pentium Pro model, Intel microprocessors include these additional registers to easily customize cache operations. For instance, Linux may use these registers to disable the hardware cache for the addresses mapping the frame buffer of a PCI/AGP graphic card while maintaining the “write combining” mode of operation: the paging unit combines write transfers into larger chunks before copying them into the frame buffer.

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