Poster of Linux kernelThe best gift for a Linux geek
 Linux kernel map 
⇦ prev ⇱ home next ⇨

9.2. Using I/O Ports

I/O ports are the means by which drivers communicate with many devices, at least part of the time. This section covers the various functions available for making use of I/O ports; we also touch on some portability issues.

9.2.1. I/O Port Allocation

As you might expect, you should not go off and start pounding on I/O ports without first ensuring that you have exclusive access to those ports. The kernel provides a registration interface that allows your driver to claim the ports it needs. The core function in that interface is request_region:

#include <linux/ioport.h>
struct resource *request_region(unsigned long first, unsigned long n, 
                                const char *name);

This function tells the kernel that you would like to make use of n ports, starting with first. The name parameter should be the name of your device. The return value is non-NULL if the allocation succeeds. If you get NULL back from request_region, you will not be able to use the desired ports.

All port allocations show up in /proc/ioports. If you are unable to allocate a needed set of ports, that is the place to look to see who got there first.

When you are done with a set of I/O ports (at module unload time, perhaps), they should be returned to the system with:

void release_region(unsigned long start, unsigned long n);

There is also a function that allows your driver to check to see whether a given set of I/O ports is available:

int check_region(unsigned long first, unsigned long n);

Here, the return value is a negative error code if the given ports are not available. This function is deprecated because its return value provides no guarantee of whether an allocation would succeed; checking and later allocating are not an atomic operation. We list it here because several drivers are still using it, but you should always use request_region, which performs the required locking to ensure that the allocation is done in a safe, atomic manner.

9.2.2. Manipulating I/O ports

After a driver has requested the range of I/O ports it needs to use in its activities, it must read and/or write to those ports. To this end, most hardware differentiates between 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit ports. Usually you can't mix them like you normally do with system memory access.[2]

[2] Sometimes I/O ports are arranged like memory, and you can (for example) bind two 8-bit writes into a single 16-bit operation. This applies, for instance, to PC video boards. But generally, you can't count on this feature.

A C program, therefore, must call different functions to access different size ports. As suggested in the previous section, computer architectures that support only memory-mapped I/O registers fake port I/O by remapping port addresses to memory addresses, and the kernel hides the details from the driver in order to ease portability. The Linux kernel headers (specifically, the architecture-dependent header <asm/io.h>) define the following inline functions to access I/O ports:

unsigned inb(unsigned port);

void outb(unsigned char byte, unsigned port);

Read or write byte ports (eight bits wide). The port argument is defined as unsigned long for some platforms and unsigned short for others. The return type of inb is also different across architectures.

unsigned inw(unsigned port);

void outw(unsigned short word, unsigned port);

These functions access 16-bit ports (one word wide); they are not available when compiling for the S390 platform, which supports only byte I/O.

unsigned inl(unsigned port);

void outl(unsigned longword, unsigned port);

These functions access 32-bit ports. longword is declared as either unsigned long or unsigned int, according to the platform. Like word I/O, "long" I/O is not available on S390.

From now on, when we use unsigned without further type specifications, we are referring to an architecture-dependent definition whose exact nature is not relevant. The functions are almost always portable, because the compiler automatically casts the values during assignment—their being unsigned helps prevent compile-time warnings. No information is lost with such casts as long as the programmer assigns sensible values to avoid overflow. We stick to this convention of "incomplete typing" throughout this chapter.

Note that no 64-bit port I/O operations are defined. Even on 64-bit architectures, the port address space uses a 32-bit (maximum) data path.

9.2.3. I/O Port Access from User Space

The functions just described are primarily meant to be used by device drivers, but they can also be used from user space, at least on PC-class computers. The GNU C library defines them in <sys/io.h>. The following conditions should apply in order for inb and friends to be used in user-space code:

  • The program must be compiled with the -O option to force expansion of inline functions.

  • The ioperm or iopl system calls must be used to get permission to perform I/O operations on ports. ioperm gets permission for individual ports, while iopl gets permission for the entire I/O space. Both of these functions are x86-specific.

  • The program must run as root to invoke ioperm or iopl.[3] Alternatively, one of its ancestors must have gained port access running as root.

    [3] Technically, it must have the CAP_SYS_RAWIO capability, but that is the same as running as root on most current systems.

If the host platform has no ioperm and no iopl system calls, user space can still access I/O ports by using the /dev/port device file. Note, however, that the meaning of the file is very platform-specific and not likely useful for anything but the PC.

The sample sources misc-progs/inp.c and misc-progs/outp.c are a minimal tool for reading and writing ports from the command line, in user space. They expect to be installed under multiple names (e.g., inb, inw, and inl and manipulates byte, word, or long ports depending on which name was invoked by the user). They use ioperm or iopl under x86, /dev/port on other platforms.

The programs can be made setuid root, if you want to live dangerously and play with your hardware without acquiring explicit privileges. Please do not install them setuid on a production system, however; they are a security hole by design.

9.2.4. String Operations

In addition to the single-shot in and out operations, some processors implement special instructions to transfer a sequence of bytes, words, or longs to and from a single I/O port or the same size. These are the so-called string instructions, and they perform the task more quickly than a C-language loop can do. The following macros implement the concept of string I/O either by using a single machine instruction or by executing a tight loop if the target processor has no instruction that performs string I/O. The macros are not defined at all when compiling for the S390 platform. This should not be a portability problem, since this platform doesn't usually share device drivers with other platforms, because its peripheral buses are different.

The prototypes for string functions are:

void insb(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

void outsb(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

Read or write count bytes starting at the memory address addr. Data is read from or written to the single port port.

void insw(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

void outsw(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

Read or write 16-bit values to a single 16-bit port.

void insl(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

void outsl(unsigned port, void *addr, unsigned long count);

Read or write 32-bit values to a single 32-bit port.

There is one thing to keep in mind when using the string functions: they move a straight byte stream to or from the port. When the port and the host system have different byte ordering rules, the results can be surprising. Reading a port with inw swaps the bytes, if need be, to make the value read match the host ordering. The string functions, instead, do not perform this swapping.

9.2.5. Pausing I/O

Some platforms—most notably the i386—can have problems when the processor tries to transfer data too quickly to or from the bus. The problems can arise when the processor is overclocked with respect to the peripheral bus (think ISA here) and can show up when the device board is too slow. The solution is to insert a small delay after each I/O instruction if another such instruction follows. On the x86, the pause is achieved by performing an out b instruction to port 0x80 (normally but not always unused), or by busy waiting. See the io.h file under your platform's asm subdirectory for details.

If your device misses some data, or if you fear it might miss some, you can use pausing functions in place of the normal ones. The pausing functions are exactly like those listed previously, but their names end in _p; they are called inb_p, outb_p, and so on. The functions are defined for most supported architectures, although they often expand to the same code as nonpausing I/O, because there is no need for the extra pause if the architecture runs with a reasonably modern peripheral bus.

9.2.6. Platform Dependencies

I/O instructions are, by their nature, highly processor dependent. Because they work with the details of how the processor handles moving data in and out, it is very hard to hide the differences between systems. As a consequence, much of the source code related to port I/O is platform-dependent.

You can see one of the incompatibilities, data typing, by looking back at the list of functions, where the arguments are typed differently based on the architectural differences between platforms. For example, a port is unsigned short on the x86 (where the processor supports a 64-KB I/O space), but unsigned long on other platforms, whose ports are just special locations in the same address space as memory.

Other platform dependencies arise from basic structural differences in the processors and are, therefore, unavoidable. We won't go into detail about the differences, because we assume that you won't be writing a device driver for a particular system without understanding the underlying hardware. Instead, here is an overview of the capabilities of the architectures supported by the kernel:

IA-32 (x86)


The architecture supports all the functions described in this chapter. Port numbers are of type unsigned short.

IA-64 (Itanium)

All functions are supported; ports are unsigned long (and memory-mapped). String functions are implemented in C.


All the functions are supported, and ports are memory-mapped. The implementation of port I/O is different in different Alpha platforms, according to the chipset they use. String functions are implemented in C and defined in arch/alpha/lib/io.c. Ports are unsigned long.


Ports are memory-mapped, and all functions are supported; string functions are implemented in C. Ports are of type unsigned int.


This architecture does not support the I/O port abstraction even in an emulated mode; the various port operations are defined to do nothing at all.



Ports are memory-mapped. String functions are supported, and the port type is unsigned char *.



The MIPS port supports all the functions. String operations are implemented with tight assembly loops, because the processor lacks machine-level string I/O. Ports are memory-mapped; they are unsigned long.


All of the functions are supported; ports are int on PCI-based systems and unsigned short on EISA systems, except for string operations, which use unsigned long port numbers.



All the functions are supported; ports have type unsigned char * on 32-bit systems and unsigned long on 64-bit systems.


Similar to the M68k, the header for this platform supports only byte-wide port I/O with no string operations. Ports are char pointers and are memory-mapped.


Ports are unsigned int (memory-mapped), and all the functions are supported.



Once again, I/O space is memory-mapped. Versions of the port functions are defined to work with unsigned long ports.

The curious reader can extract more information from the io.h files, which sometimes define a few architecture-specific functions in addition to those we describe in this chapter. Be warned that some of these files are rather difficult reading, however.

It's interesting to note that no processor outside the x86 family features a different address space for ports, even though several of the supported families are shipped with ISA and/or PCI slots (and both buses implement separate I/O and memory address spaces).

Moreover, some processors (most notably the early Alphas) lack instructions that move one or two bytes at a time.[4] Therefore, their peripheral chipsets simulate 8-bit and 16-bit I/O accesses by mapping them to special address ranges in the memory address space. Thus, an inb and an inw instruction that act on the same port are implemented by two 32-bit memory reads that operate on different addresses. Fortunately, all of this is hidden from the device driver writer by the internals of the macros described in this section, but we feel it's an interesting feature to note. If you want to probe further, look for examples in include/asm-alpha/core_lca.h.

[4] Single-byte I/O is not as important as one may imagine, because it is a rare operation. To read/write a single byte to any address space, you need to implement a data path connecting the low bits of the register-set data bus to any byte position in the external data bus. These data paths require additional logic gates that get in the way of every data transfer. Dropping byte-wide loads and stores can benefit overall system performance.

How I/O operations are performed on each platform is well described in the programmer's manual for each platform; those manuals are usually available for download as PDFs on the Web.

    ⇦ prev ⇱ home next ⇨
    Poster of Linux kernelThe best gift for a Linux geek