Linux 1.0 kernel source reading - 2: libs and include/asm

Having read the initialisation code, I kind of understood how the kernel got itself into the right shape to get going, but not really how things ran from there. 'main.c' makes system calls as the init process, and then I kind of got stuck.

Where now? My first thought (which I must admit hasn't really worked!), was to try to dig into some of the utilities. By this, I mean the 'lib' directory, and the 'include/asm' directory - the former because some utilities/libraries sound a good bottom-up area to start with, and the latter because these headers kept getting included and causing magic to happen, so perhaps it would be good to understand what they're up to.


There are basically two kinds of file here. System call stubs, and implementation of shared utility functionality. The former covers _exit.c, close.c, dup.c, execve.c, setsid.c, wait.c and write.c. These are stubs that call into the system calls (not implement them). Presumably, they were used to implement the initial processes in main.c. However, main.c now contains inline implementations, so I believe they're never used at all!

The others are generally paired with headers in include/linux. "ctype.[ch]" implements the C library functionality you'd expect (with a simple table lookup). "string.[ch]" implements standard string functions, most of the functionality coming from inlined grotty assembler in the header file. "errno.[ch]" implements the error codes (including plenty that are never used!). "malloc.[ch]" is the most complex part, but also very well-documented. It implements the kernel (small chunk) memory allocator, with a comprehensive debug mode if you need it. It sits on top of the page-level allocator.


Some of the files really are just headers providing macro/inline functionality. Others turn out to be the header associated with a .c file that I also ended up reading...

In the former category, bitops.h provides atomic bit-twiddling, and io.h provides support for poking I/O ports. Memory-mapped I/O is clearly more pleasant! segment.h is really data-copy-to-and-from-user-space.h, which relies on the user data being mapped into the fs segment. How is fs set up like this? I don't know, so I'm obviously reading the code in the wrong order.

system.h contains 'move_to_user_mode', used by main.c. This is kind of interesting, in that it does move to user mode, but it's clearly not a user mode process, as it's still executing code from the kernel side. Presumably the 'exec' call fixes all that. This file also provides important interrupt-twiddling functionality, such as disable (cli) and endable (sti) interrupts. I didn't care for the low-level x86 details here, as I want to learn about the kernel, not x86isms.

Even though the kernel is a monolithic, single-threaded kernel, the attention that needs to be paid to race conditions is non-trivial. Interrupts can quite happily happen in kernel mode, so you end up either using atomic operations, or disabling interrupts when dealing with shared values.

The next couple of files are paired with .c files in the 'kernel' directory. 'dma.[ch]' is yet more low-level grubbing. There are fun comments about future plans now long past, and guesses about poorly understood hardware.

'irq.[ch]' are rather more core. irq.h contains macros to build up interrupt handlers. It culminates in BUILD_IRQ, a really ugly macro which builds a fast interrupt (only saves some regs), normal interrupt (all regs and may switch tasks when done) and bad interrupts (ignore). irq.c then uses the macro to define the handlers (and admits their ugliness), and has the code to initialise the interrupts and support the hooking of interrupts (which uses signal handling infrastructure).

By this point, reading the code, it's very clear that Linux 1.0 is an incredibly cheap-n-cheerful Unix clone. (It's not bad code at all, it's just not exactly fully-featured). If I were a commercial Unix vendor in the mid'90s, I'd be amused and very much not scared by it. On the other hand the rate of growth and change that happened after that is something astonishing.

Posted 2015-03-21.