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8.1. The Real Story of kmalloc

The kmalloc allocation engine is a powerful tool and easily learned because of its similarity to malloc. The function is fast (unless it blocks) and doesn't clear the memory it obtains; the allocated region still holds its previous content.[1] The allocated region is also contiguous in physical memory. In the next few sections, we talk in detail about kmalloc, so you can compare it with the memory allocation techniques that we discuss later.

[1] Among other things, this implies that you should explicitly clear any memory that might be exposed to user space or written to a device; otherwise, you risk disclosing information that should be kept private.

8.1.1. The Flags Argument

Remember that the prototype for kmalloc is:

#include <linux/slab.h>

void *kmalloc(size_t size, int flags);

The first argument to kmalloc is the size of the block to be allocated. The second argument, the allocation flags, is much more interesting, because it controls the behavior of kmalloc in a number of ways.

The most commonly used flag, GFP_KERNEL, means that the allocation (internally performed by calling, eventually, _ _get_free_pages, which is the source of the GFP_ prefix) is performed on behalf of a process running in kernel space. In other words, this means that the calling function is executing a system call on behalf of a process. Using GFP_KERNEL means that kmalloc can put the current process to sleep waiting for a page when called in low-memory situations. A function that allocates memory using GFP_KERNEL must, therefore, be reentrant and cannot be running in atomic context. While the current process sleeps, the kernel takes proper action to locate some free memory, either by flushing buffers to disk or by swapping out memory from a user process.

GFP_KERNEL isn't always the right allocation flag to use; sometimes kmalloc is called from outside a process's context. This type of call can happen, for instance, in interrupt handlers, tasklets, and kernel timers. In this case, the current process should not be put to sleep, and the driver should use a flag of GFP_ATOMIC instead. The kernel normally tries to keep some free pages around in order to fulfill atomic allocation. When GFP_ATOMIC is used, kmalloc can use even the last free page. If that last page does not exist, however, the allocation fails.

Other flags can be used in place of or in addition to GFP_KERNEL and GFP_ATOMIC, although those two cover most of the needs of device drivers. All the flags are defined in <linux/gfp.h>, and individual flags are prefixed with a double underscore, such as _ _GFP_DMA. In addition, there are symbols that represent frequently used combinations of flags; these lack the prefix and are sometimes called allocation priorities. The latter include:


Used to allocate memory from interrupt handlers and other code outside of a process context. Never sleeps.


Normal allocation of kernel memory. May sleep.


Used to allocate memory for user-space pages; it may sleep.


Like GFP_USER, but allocates from high memory, if any. High memory is described in the next subsection.



These flags function like GFP_KERNEL, but they add restrictions on what the kernel can do to satisfy the request. A GFP_NOFS allocation is not allowed to perform any filesystem calls, while GFP_NOIO disallows the initiation of any I/O at all. They are used primarily in the filesystem and virtual memory code where an allocation may be allowed to sleep, but recursive filesystem calls would be a bad idea.

The allocation flags listed above can be augmented by an ORing in any of the following flags, which change how the allocation is carried out:


This flag requests allocation to happen in the DMA-capable memory zone. The exact meaning is platform-dependent and is explained in the following section.


This flag indicates that the allocated memory may be located in high memory.


Normally, the memory allocator tries to return "cache warm" pages—pages that are likely to be found in the processor cache. Instead, this flag requests a "cold" page, which has not been used in some time. It is useful for allocating pages for DMA reads, where presence in the processor cache is not useful. See Chapter 15 for a full discussion of how to allocate DMA buffers.


This rarely used flag prevents the kernel from issuing warnings (with printk) when an allocation cannot be satisfied.


This flag marks a high-priority request, which is allowed to consume even the last pages of memory set aside by the kernel for emergencies.




These flags modify how the allocator behaves when it has difficulty satisfying an allocation. _ _GFP_REPEAT means "try a little harder" by repeating the attempt—but the allocation can still fail. The _ _GFP_NOFAIL flag tells the allocator never to fail; it works as hard as needed to satisfy the request. Use of _ _GFP_NOFAIL is very strongly discouraged; there will probably never be a valid reason to use it in a device driver. Finally, _ _GFP_NORETRY tells the allocator to give up immediately if the requested memory is not available. Memory zones

Both _ _GFP_DMA and _ _GFP_HIGHMEM have a platform-dependent role, although their use is valid for all platforms.

The Linux kernel knows about a minimum of three memory zones: DMA-capable memory, normal memory, and high memory. While allocation normally happens in the normal zone, setting either of the bits just mentioned requires memory to be allocated from a different zone. The idea is that every computer platform that must know about special memory ranges (instead of considering all RAM equivalents) will fall into this abstraction.

DMA-capable memory is memory that lives in a preferential address range, where peripherals can perform DMA access. On most sane platforms, all memory lives in this zone. On the x86, the DMA zone is used for the first 16 MB of RAM, where legacy ISA devices can perform DMA; PCI devices have no such limit.

High memory is a mechanism used to allow access to (relatively) large amounts of memory on 32-bit platforms. This memory cannot be directly accessed from the kernel without first setting up a special mapping and is generally harder to work with. If your driver uses large amounts of memory, however, it will work better on large systems if it can use high memory. See the Section 1.8 in Chapter 15 for a detailed description of how high memory works and how to use it.

Whenever a new page is allocated to fulfill a memory allocation request, the kernel builds a list of zones that can be used in the search. If _ _GFP_DMA is specified, only the DMA zone is searched: if no memory is available at low addresses, allocation fails. If no special flag is present, both normal and DMA memory are searched; if _ _GFP_HIGHMEM is set, all three zones are used to search a free page. (Note, however, that kmalloc cannot allocate high memory.)

The situation is more complicated on nonuniform memory access (NUMA) systems. As a general rule, the allocator attempts to locate memory local to the processor performing the allocation, although there are ways of changing that behavior.

The mechanism behind memory zones is implemented in mm/page_alloc.c, while initialization of the zone resides in platform-specific files, usually in mm/init.c within the arch tree. We'll revisit these topics in Chapter 15.

8.1.2. The Size Argument

The kernel manages the system's physical memory, which is available only in page-sized chunks. As a result, kmalloc looks rather different from a typical user-space malloc implementation. A simple, heap-oriented allocation technique would quickly run into trouble; it would have a hard time working around the page boundaries. Thus, the kernel uses a special page-oriented allocation technique to get the best use from the system's RAM.

Linux handles memory allocation by creating a set of pools of memory objects of fixed sizes. Allocation requests are handled by going to a pool that holds sufficiently large objects and handing an entire memory chunk back to the requester. The memory management scheme is quite complex, and the details of it are not normally all that interesting to device driver writers.

The one thing driver developers should keep in mind, though, is that the kernel can allocate only certain predefined, fixed-size byte arrays. If you ask for an arbitrary amount of memory, you're likely to get slightly more than you asked for, up to twice as much. Also, programmers should remember that the smallest allocation that kmalloc can handle is as big as 32 or 64 bytes, depending on the page size used by the system's architecture.

There is an upper limit to the size of memory chunks that can be allocated by kmalloc. That limit varies depending on architecture and kernel configuration options. If your code is to be completely portable, it cannot count on being able to allocate anything larger than 128 KB. If you need more than a few kilobytes, however, there are better ways than kmalloc to obtain memory, which we describe later in this chapter.

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