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Writing an Interrupt Handler

The following is a typical declaration of an interrupt handler:

static irqreturn_t intr_handler(int irq, void *dev_id, struct pt_regs *regs)

Note that this declaration matches the prototype of the handler argument given to request_irq(). The first parameter, irq, is the numeric value of the interrupt line the handler is servicing. This is not entirely useful today, except perhaps in printing log messages. Before the 2.0 kernel, there was not a dev_id parameter and thus irq was used to differentiate between multiple devices using the same driver and therefore the same interrupt handler. As an example of this, consider a computer with multiple hard drive controllers of the same type.

The second parameter, dev_id, is a generic pointer to the same dev_id that was given to request_irq() when the interrupt handler was registered. If this value is unique (which is recommended to support sharing), it can act as a cookie to differentiate between multiple devices potentially using the same interrupt handler. dev_id might also point to a structure of use to the interrupt handler. Because the device structure is both unique to each device and potentially useful to have within the handler, it is typically passed for dev_id.

The final parameter, regs, holds a pointer to a structure containing the processor registers and state before servicing the interrupt. The parameter is rarely used, except for debugging. In fact, current developer interest has hinted that this parameter may not be around forever. Looking at the very small number of users of reg in existing interrupt handlers, few ought to miss it.

The return value of an interrupt handler is the special type irqreturn_t. An interrupt handler can return two special values, IRQ_NONE or IRQ_HANDLED. The former is returned when the interrupt handler detects an interrupt for which its device was not the originator. The latter is returned if the interrupt handler was correctly invoked, and its device did indeed cause the interrupt. Alternatively, IRQ_RETVAL(val) may be used. If val is non-zero, this macro returns IRQ_HANDLED. Otherwise, the macro returns IRQ_NONE. These special values are used to let the kernel know whether devices are issuing spurious (that is, unrequested) interrupts. If all the interrupt handlers on a given interrupt line return IRQ_NONE, then the kernel can detect the problem. Note the curious return type, irqreturn_t, which is simply an int. This value is used to provide backward compatibility with earlier kernels, which did not have this featurebefore 2.6, interrupt handlers returned void. Drivers may simply typedef irqreturn_t to void and define the different return vales to noops and then work in 2.4 without further modification.

The interrupt handler is normally marked static because it is never called directly from another file.

The role of the interrupt handler depends entirely on the device and its reasons for issuing the interrupt. At a minimum, most interrupt handlers need to provide acknowledgment to the device that they received the interrupt. Devices that are more complex need to additionally send and receive data and perform extended work in the interrupt handler. As mentioned, the extended work is pushed as much as possible into the bottom half handler, which is discussed in the next chapter.

Reentrancy and Interrupt Handlers

Interrupt handlers in Linux need not be reentrant. When a given interrupt handler is executing, the corresponding interrupt line is masked out on all processors, preventing another interrupt on the same line from being received. Normally all other interrupts are enabled, so other interrupts are serviced, but the current line is always disabled. Consequently, the same interrupt handler is never invoked concurrently to service a nested interrupt. This greatly simplifies writing your interrupt handler.

Shared Handlers

A shared handler is registered and executed much like a non-shared handler. There are three main differences:

  • The SA_SHIRQ flag must be set in the flags argument to request_irq().

  • The dev_id argument must be unique to each registered handler. A pointer to any per-device structure is sufficient; a common choice is the device structure as it is both unique and potentially useful to the handler. You cannot pass NULL for a shared handler!

  • The interrupt handler must be capable of distinguishing whether its device actually generated an interrupt. This requires both hardware support and associated logic in the interrupt handler. If the hardware did not offer this capability, there would be no way for the interrupt handler to know whether its associated device or some other device sharing the line caused the interrupt.

All drivers sharing the interrupt line must meet the previous requirements. If any one device does not share fairly, none can share the line. When request_irq() is called with SA_SHIRQ specified, the call succeeds only if the interrupt line is currently not registered, or if all registered handlers on the line also specified SA_SHIRQ. Note that in 2.6, unlike the behavior in older kernels, shared handlers can mix usage of SA_INTERRUPT.

When the kernel receives an interrupt, it invokes sequentially each registered handler on the line. Therefore, it is important that the handler be capable of distinguishing whether it generated a given interrupt. The handler must quickly exit if its associated device did not generate the interrupt. This requires the hardware device to have a status register (or similar mechanism) that the handler can check. Most hardware does indeed have such a feature.

A Real-Life Interrupt Handler

Let's look at a real interrupt handler, from the RTC (real-time clock) driver, found in drivers/char/rtc.c. An RTC is found in many machines, including PCs. It is a device, separate from the system timer, which is used to set the system clock, provide an alarm, or supply a periodic timer. On most architectures, the system clock is set by writing the desired time into a specific register or I/O range. Any alarm or periodic timer functionality is normally implemented via interrupt. The interrupt is equivalent to a real-world clock alarm: The receipt of the interrupt is analogous to a buzzing alarm.

When the RTC driver loads, the function rtc_init() is invoked to initialize the driver. One of its duties is to register the interrupt handler:

/* register rtc_interrupt on RTC_IRQ */
if (request_irq(RTC_IRQ, rtc_interrupt, SA_INTERRUPT, "rtc", NULL) {
        printk(KERN_ERR "rtc: cannot register IRQ %d\n", RTC_IRQ);
        return -EIO;

Note in this example that the interrupt line is stored in RTC_IRQ. This is a preprocessor define that specifies the RTC interrupt for a given architecture. On the PC the RTC is always located at IRQ 8. The second parameter is the interrupt handler, rtc_interrupt, which runs with all interrupts disabled, thanks to the SA_INTERRUPT flag. From the fourth parameter, you can see that the driver name is "rtc." Because this device cannot share the interrupt line and the handler has no use for any special value, NULL is passed for dev_id.

Finally, the handler itself:

 * A very tiny interrupt handler. It runs with SA_INTERRUPT set,
 * but there is a possibility of conflicting with the set_rtc_mmss()
 * call (the rtc irq and the timer irq can easily run at the same
 * time in two different CPUs). So we need to serialize
 * accesses to the chip with the rtc_lock spinlock that each
 * architecture should implement in the timer code.
 * (See ./arch/XXXX/kernel/time.c for the set_rtc_mmss() function.)
static irqreturn_t rtc_interrupt(int irq, void *dev_id, struct pt_regs *regs)
         * Can be an alarm interrupt, update complete interrupt,
         * or a periodic interrupt. We store the status in the
         * low byte and the number of interrupts received since
         * the last read in the remainder of rtc_irq_data.

        spin_lock (&rtc_lock);

        rtc_irq_data += 0x100;
        rtc_irq_data &= ~0xff;
        rtc_irq_data |= (CMOS_READ(RTC_INTR_FLAGS) & 0xF0);

        if (rtc_status & RTC_TIMER_ON)
            mod_timer(&rtc_irq_timer, jiffies + HZ/rtc_freq + 2*HZ/100);

        spin_unlock (&rtc_lock);

         * Now do the rest of the actions
        if (rtc_callback)

        kill_fasync (&rtc_async_queue, SIGIO, POLL_IN);

        return IRQ_HANDLED;

This function is invoked whenever the machine receives the RTC interrupt. First, note the spin lock calls: The first set ensures that rtc_irq_data is not accessed concurrently by another processor on an SMP machine, and the second set protects rtc_callback from the same. Locks are discussed in Chapter 9, "Kernel Synchronization Methods."

The rtc_irq_data variable is an unsigned long that stores information about the RTC and is updated on each interrupt to reflect the status of the interrupt.

Next, if an RTC periodic timer is set, it is updated via mod_timer(). Timers are discussed in Chapter 10, "Timers and Time Management."

The final bunch of code, wrapped with the second set of spin locks, executes a possible preset callback function. The RTC driver enables a callback function to be registered and executed on each RTC interrupt.

Finally, this function returns IRQ_HANDLED to signify that it properly handled this device. Because the interrupt handler does not support sharing, and there is no mechanism for the RTC to detect a spurious interrupt, this handler always returns IRQ_HANDLED.

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