The first part of this series covered principles of locking engineering. This part goes through a pile of locking patterns and designs, from most favourable and easiest to adjust and hence resulting in a long term maintainable code base, to the least favourable since hardest to ensure it works correctly and stays that way while the code evolves. For convenience even color coded, with the dangerous levels getting progressively more crispy red indicating how close to the burning fire you are! Think of it as Dante’s Inferno, but for locking.

As a reminder from the intro of the first part, with locking engineering I mean the art of ensuring that there’s sufficient consistency in reading and manipulating data structures, and not just sprinkling mutex_lock() and mutex_unlock() calls around until the result looks reasonable and lockdep has gone quiet.

Level 0: No Locking

The dumbest possible locking is no need for locking at all. Which does not mean extremely clever lockless tricks for a “look, no calls to mutex_lock()” feint, but an overall design which guarantees that any writers cannot exist concurrently with any other access at all. This removes the need for consistency guarantees while accessing an object at the architectural level.

There’s a few standard patterns to achieve locking nirvana.

Locking Pattern: Immutable State

The lesson in graphics API design over the last decade is that immutable state objects rule, because they both lead to simpler driver stacks and also better performance. Vulkan instead of the OpenGL with it’s ridiculous amount of mutable and implicit state is the big example, but atomic instead of legacy kernel mode setting or Wayland instead of the X11 are also built on the assumption that immutable state objects are a Great Thing (tm).

The usual pattern is:

  1. A single thread fully constructs an object, including any sub structures and anything else you might need. Often subsystems provide initialization helpers for objects that driver can subclass through embedding, e.g. drm_connector_init() for initializing a kernel modesetting output object. Additional functions can set up different or optional aspects of an object, e.g. drm_connector_attach_encoder() sets up the invariant links to the preceding element in a kernel modesetting display chain.

  2. The fully formed object is published to the world, in the kernel this often happens by registering it under some kind of identifier. This could be a global identifier like register_chrdev() for character devices, something attached to a device like registering a new display output on a driver with drm_connector_register() or some struct xarray in the file private structure. Note that this step here requires memory barriers of some sort. If you hand roll the data structure like a list or lookup tree with your own fancy locking scheme instead of using existing standard interfaces you are on a fast path to level 3 locking hell. Don’t do that.

  3. From this point on there are no consistency issues anymore and all threads can access the object without any locking.

Locking Pattern: Single Owner

Another way to ensure there’s no concurrent access is by only allowing one thread to own an object at a given point of time, and have well defined handover points if that is necessary.

Most often this pattern is used for asynchronously processing a userspace request:

  1. The syscall or IOCTL constructs an object with sufficient information to process the userspace’s request.

  2. That object is handed over to a worker thread with e.g. queue_work().

  3. The worker thread is now the sole owner of that piece of memory and can do whatever it feels like with it.

Again the second step requires memory barriers, which means if you hand roll your own lockless queue you’re firmly in level 3 territory and won’t get rid of the burned in red hot afterglow in your retina for quite some time. Use standard interfaces like struct completion or even better libraries like the workqueue subsystem here.

Note that the handover can also be chained or split up, e.g. for a nonblocking atomic kernel modeset requests there’s three asynchronous processing pieces involved:

  • The main worker, which pushes the display state update to the hardware and which is enqueued with queue_work().

  • The userspace completion event handling built around struct drm_pending_event and generally handed off to the interrupt handler of the driver from the main worker and processed in the interrupt handler.

  • The cleanup of the no longer used old scanout buffers from the preceding update. The synchronization between the preceding update and the cleanup is done through struct completion to ensure that there’s only ever a single worker which owns a state structure and is allowed to change it.

Locking Pattern: Reference Counting

Users generally don’t appreciate if the kernel leaks memory too much, and cleaning up objects by freeing their memory and releasing any other resources tends to be an operation of the very much mutable kind. Reference counting to the rescue!

  • Every pointer to the reference counted object must guarantee that a reference exists for as long as the pointer is in use. Usually that’s done by calling kref_get() when making a copy of the pointer, but implied references by e.g. continuing to hold a lock that protects a different pointer are often good enough too for a temporary pointer.

  • The cleanup code runs when the last reference is released with kref_put(). Note that this again requires memory barriers to work correctly, which means if you’re not using struct kref then it’s safe to assume you’ve screwed up.

Note that this scheme falls apart when released objects are put into some kind of cache and can be resurrected. In that case your cleanup code needs to somehow deal with these zombies and ensure there’s no confusion, and vice versa any code that resurrects a zombie needs to deal the wooden spikes the cleanup code might throw at an inopportune time. The worst example of this kind is SLAB_TYPESAFE_BY_RCU, where readers that are only protected with rcu_read_lock() may need to deal with objects potentially going through simultaneous zombie resurrections, potentially multiple times, while the readers are trying to figure out what is going on. This generally leads to lots of sorrow, wailing and ill-tempered maintainers, as the GPU subsystem has and continues to experience with struct dma_fence.

Hence use standard reference counting, and don’t be tempted by the siren of trying to implement clever caching of any kind.

Level 1: Big Dumb Lock

It would be great if nothing ever changes, but sometimes that cannot be avoided. At that point you add a single lock for each logical object. An object could be just a single structure, but it could also be multiple structures that are dynamically allocated and freed under the protection of that single big dumb lock, e.g. when managing GPU virtual address space with different mappings.

The tricky part is figuring out what is an object to ensure that your lock is neither too big nor too small:

  • If you make your lock too big you run the risk of creating a dreaded subsystem lock, or violating the “Protect Data, not Code” principle in some other way. Split your locking further so that a single lock really only protects a single object, and not a random collection of unrelated ones. So one lock per device instance, not one lock for all the device instances in a driver or worse in an entire subsystem.

    The trouble is that once a lock is too big and has firmly moved into “protects some vague collection of code” territory, it’s very hard to get out of that hole.

  • Different problems strike when the locking scheme is too fine-grained, e.g. in the GPU virtual memory management example when every address mapping in the big vma tree has its own private lock. Or when a structure has a lot of different locks for different member fields.

    One issue is that locks aren’t free, the overhead of fine-grained locking can seriously hurt, especially when common operations have to take most of the locks anyway and so there’s no chance of any concurrency benefit. Furthermore fine-grained locking leads to the temptation of solving locking overhead with ever more clever lockless tricks, instead of radically simplifying the design.

    The other issue is that more locks improve the odds for locking inversions, and those can be tough nuts to crack. Again trying to solve this with more lockless tricks to avoid inversions is tempting, and again in most cases the wrong approach.

Ideally, your big dumb lock would always be right-sized everytime the requirements on the datastructures changes. But working magic 8 balls tend to be on short supply, and you tend to only find out that your guess was wrong when the pain of the lock being too big or too small is already substantial. The inherent struggles of resizing a lock as the code evolves then keeps pushing you further away from the optimum instead of closer. Good luck!

Level 2: Fine-grained Locking

It would be great if this is all the locking we ever need, but sometimes there’s functional reasons that force us to go beyond the single lock for each logical object approach. This section will go through a few of the common examples, and the usual pitfalls to avoid.

But before we delve into details remember to document in kerneldoc with the inline per-member kerneldoc comment style once you go beyond a simple single lock per object approach. It’s the best place for future bug fixers and reviewers - meaning you - to find the rules for how at least things were meant to work.

Locking Pattern: Object Tracking Lists

One of the main duties of the kernel is to track everything, least to make sure there’s no leaks and everything gets cleaned up again. But there’s other reasons to maintain lists (or other container structures) of objects.

Now sometimes there’s a clear parent object, with its own lock, which could also protect the list with all the objects, but this does not always work:

  • It might force the lock of the parent object to essentially become a subsystem lock and so protect much more than it should when following the “Protect Data, not Code” principle. In that case it’s better to have a separate (spin-)lock just for the list to be able to clearly untangle what the parent and subordinate object’s lock each protect.

  • Different code paths might need to walk and possibly manipulate the list both from the container object and contained object, which would lead to locking inversion if the list isn’t protected by it’s own stand-alone (nested) lock. This tends to especially happen when an object can be attached to multiple other objects, like a GPU buffer object can be mapped into multiple GPU virtual address spaces of different processes.

  • The constraints of calling contexts for adding or removing objects from the list could be different and incompatible from the requirements when walking the list itself. The main example here are LRU lists where the shrinker needs to be able to walk the list from reclaim context, whereas the superior object locks often have a need to allocate memory while holding each lock. Those object locks the shrinker can then only trylock, which is generally good enough, but only being able to trylock the LRU list lock itself is not.

Simplicity should still win, therefore only add a (nested) lock for lists or other container objects if there’s really no suitable object lock that could do the job instead.

Locking Pattern: Interrupt Handler State

Another example that requires nested locking is when part of the object is manipulated from a different execution context. The prime example here are interrupt handlers. Interrupt handlers can only use interrupt safe spinlocks, but often the main object lock must be a mutex to allow sleeping or allocating memory or nesting with other mutexes.

Hence the need for a nested spinlock to just protect the object state shared between the interrupt handler and code running from process context. Process context should generally only acquire the spinlock nested with the main object lock, to avoid surprises and limit any concurrency issues to just the singleton interrupt handler.

Locking Pattern: Async Processing

Very similar to the interrupt handler problems is coordination with async workers. The best approach is the single owner pattern, but often state needs to be shared between the worker and other threads operating on the same object.

The naive approach of just using a single object lock tends to deadlock:

	/* set up the data for the async work */;

	/* clear the data for the async work */;

	obj = container_of(work, work);

	/* do some processing */

Do not worry if you don’t spot the deadlock, because it is a cross-release dependency between the entire work_fn() and cancel_work_sync() and these are a lot trickier to spot. Since cross-release dependencies are a entire huge topic on themselves I won’t go into more details, a good starting point is this LWN article.

There’s a bunch of variations of this theme, with problems in different scenarios:

  • Replacing the cancel_work_sync() with cancel_work() avoids the deadlock, but often means the work_fn() is prone to use-after-free issues.

  • Calling cancel_work_sync()before taking the mutex can work in some cases, but falls apart when the work is self-rearming. Or maybe the work or overall object isn’t guaranteed to exist without holding it’s lock, e.g. if this is part of an async processing queue for a parent structure.

  • Cancelling the work after the call to mutex_unlock() might race with concurrent restarting of the work and upset the bookkeeping.

Like with interrupt handlers the clean solution tends to be an additional nested lock which protects just the mutable state shared with the work function and nests within the main object lock. That way work can be cancelled while the main object lock is held, which avoids a ton of races. But without holding the sublock that work_fn() needs, which avoids the deadlock.

Note that in some cases the superior lock doesn’t need to exist, e.g. struct drm_connector_state is protected by the single owner pattern, but drivers might have some need for some further decoupled asynchronous processing, e.g. for handling the content protect or link training machinery. In that case only the sublock for the mutable driver private state shared with the worker exists.

Locking Pattern: Weak References

Reference counting is a great pattern, but sometimes you need be able to store pointers without them holding a full reference. This could be for lookup caches, or because your userspace API mandates that some references do not keep the object alive - we’ve unfortunately committed that mistake in the GPU world. Or because holding full references everywhere would lead to unreclaimable references loops and there’s no better way to break them than to make some of the references weak. In languages with a garbage collector weak references are implemented by the runtime, and so no real worry. But in the kernel the concept has to be implemented by hand.

Since weak references are such a standard pattern struct kref has ready-made support for them. The simple approach is using kref_put_mutex() with the same lock that also protects the structure containing the weak reference. This guarantees that either the weak reference pointer is gone too, or there is at least somewhere still a strong reference around and it is therefore safe to call kref_get(). But there are some issues with this approach:

  • It doesn’t compose to multiple weak references, at least if they are protected by different locks - all the locks need to be taken before the final kref_put() is called, which means minimally some pain with lock nesting and you get to hand-roll it all to boot.

  • The mutex required to be held during the final put is the one which protects the structure with the weak reference, and often has little to do with the object that’s being destroyed. So a pretty nasty violation of the big dumb lock pattern. Furthermore the lock is held over the entire cleanup function, which defeats the point of the reference counting pattern, which is meant to enable “no locking” cleanup code. It becomes very tempting to stuff random other pieces of code under the protection of this look, making it a sprawling mess and violating the principle to protect data, not code: The lock held during the entire cleanup operation is protecting against that cleanup code doing things, and not anymore a specific data structure.

The much better approach is using kref_get_unless_zero(), together with a spinlock for your data structure containing the weak reference. This looks especially nifty in combination with struct xarray.

	obj = xa_find(id);
	if (!kref_get_unless_zero(&obj->kref))
		obj = NULL;

	return obj;

With this all the issues are resolved:

  • Arbitrary amounts of weak references in any kind of structures protected by their own spinlock can be added, without causing dependencies between them.

  • In the object’s cleanup function the same spinlock only needs to be held right around when the weak references are removed from the lookup structure. The lock critical section is no longer needlessly enlarged, we’re back to protecting data instead of code.

With both together the locking does no longer leak beyond the lookup structure and it’s associated code any more, unlike with kref_put_mutex() and similar approaches. Thankfully kref_get_unless_zero() has become the much more popular approach since it was added 10 years ago!

Locking Antipattern: Confusing Object Lifetime and Data Consistency

We’ve now seen a few examples where the “no locking” patterns from level 0 collide in annoying ways when more locking is added to the point where we seem to violate the principle to protect data, not code. It’s worth to look at this a bit closer, since we can generalize what’s going on here to a fairly high-level antipattern.

The key insight is that the “no locking” patterns all rely on memory barrier primitives in disguise, not classic locks, to synchronize access between multiple threads. In the case of the single owner pattern there might also be blocking semantics involved, when the next owner needs to wait for the previous owner to finish processing first. These are functions like flush_work() or the various wait functions like wait_event() or wait_completion().

Calling these barrier functions while holding locks commonly leads to issues:

  • Blocking functions like flush_work() pull in every lock or other dependency the work we wait on, or more generally, any of the previous owners of an object needed as a so called cross-release dependency. Unfortunately lockdep does not understand these natively, and the usual tricks to add manual annotations have severe limitations. There’s work ongoing to add cross-release dependency tracking to lockdep, but nothing looks anywhere near ready to merge. Since these dependency chains can be really long and get ever longer when more code is added to a worker - dependencies are pulled in even if only a single lock is held at any given time - this can quickly become a nightmare to untangle.

  • Often the requirement to hold a lock over these barrier type functions comes from the fact that the object would disappear. Or otherwise undergo some serious confusion about it’s lifetime state - not just whether it’s still alive or getting destroyed, but also who exactly owns it or whether it’s maybe a resurrected zombie representing a different instance now. This encourages that the lock morphs from a “protects some specific data” to a “protects specific code from running” design, leading to all the code maintenance issues discussed in the protect data, not code principle.

For these reasons try as hard as possible to not hold any locks, or as few as feasible, when calling any of these memory barriers in disguise functions used to manage object lifetime or ownership in general. The antipattern here is abusing locks to fix lifetime issues. We have seen two specific instances thus far:

We will see some more, but the antipattern holds in general as a source of troubles.

Level 2.5: Splitting Locks for Performance Reasons

We’ve looked at a pile of functional reasons for complicating the locking design, but sometimes you need to add more fine-grained locking for performance reasons. This is already getting dangerous, because it’s very tempting to tune some microbenchmark just because we can, or maybe delude ourselves that it will be needed in the future. Therefore only complicate your locking if:

  • You have actual real world benchmarks with workloads relevant to users that show measurable gains outside of statistical noise.

  • You’ve fully exhausted architectural changes to outright avoid the overhead, like io_uring pre-registering file descriptors locally to avoid manipulating the file descriptor table.

  • You’ve fully exhausted algorithm improvements like batching up operations to amortize locking overhead better.

Only then make your future maintenance pain guaranteed worse by applying more tricky locking than the bare minimum necessary for correctness. Still, go with the simplest approach, often converting a lock to its read-write variant is good enough.

Sometimes this isn’t enough, and you actually have to split up a lock into more fine-grained locks to achieve more parallelism and less contention among threads. Note that doing so blindly will backfire because locks are not free. When common operations still have to take most of the locks anyway, even if it’s only for short time and in strict succession, the performance hit on single threaded workloads will not justify any benefit in more threaded use-cases.

Another issue with more fine-grained locking is that often you cannot define a strict nesting hierarchy, or worse might need to take multiple locks of the same object or lock class. I’ve written previously about this specific issue, and more importantly, how to teach lockdep about lock nesting, the bad and the good ways.

One really entertaining story from the GPU subsystem, for bystanders at least, is that we really screwed this up for good by defacto allowing userspace to control the lock order of all the objects involved in an IOCTL. Furthermore disjoint operations should actually proceed without contention. If you ever manage to repeat this feat you can take a look at the wait-wound mutexes. Or if you just want some pretty graphs, LWN has an old article about wait-wound mutexes too.

Level 3: Lockless Tricks

Do not go here wanderer!

Seriously, I have seen a lot of very fancy driver subsystem locking designs, I have not yet found a lot that were actually justified. Because only real world, non-contrived performance issues can ever justify reaching for this level, and in almost all cases algorithmic or architectural fixes yield much better improvements than any kind of (locking) micro-optimization could ever hope for.

Hence this is just a long list of antipatterns, so that people who have not yet a grumpy expression permanently chiseled into their facial structure know when they’re in trouble.

Note that this section isn’t limited to lockless tricks in the academic sense of guaranteed constant overhead forward progress, meaning no spinning or retrying anywhere at all. It’s for everything which doesn’t use standard locks like struct mutex, spinlock_t, struct rw_semaphore, or any of the others provided in the Linux kernel.

Locking Antipattern: Using RCU

Yeah RCU is really awesome and impressive, but it comes at serious costs:

  • By design, at least with standard usage, RCU elevates mixing up lifetime and consistency concerns to a virtue. rcu_read_lock() gives you both a read-side critical section and it extends the lifetime of any RCU protected object. There’s absolutely no way you can avoid that antipattern, it’s built in.

    Worse, RCU read-side critical section nest rather freely, which means unlike with real locks abusing them to keep objects alive won’t run into nasty locking inversion issues when you pull that stunt with nesting different objects or classes of objects. Using locks to paper over lifetime issues is bad, but with RCU it’s weapons-grade levels of dangerous.

  • Equally nasty, RCU practically forces you to deal with zombie objects, which breaks the reference counting pattern in annoying ways.

  • On top of all this breaking out of RCU is costly and kinda defeats the point, and hence there’s a huge temptation to delay this as long as possible. Meaning check as many things and dereference as many pointers under RCU protection as you can, before you take a real lock or upgrade to a proper reference with kref_get_unless_zero().

    Unless extreme restraint is applied this results in RCU leading you towards locking antipatterns. Worse RCU tends to spread them to ever more objects and ever more fields within them.

All together all freely using RCU achieves is proving that there really is no bottom on the code maintainability scale. It is not a great day when your driver dies in synchronize_rcu() and lockdep has no idea what’s going on, and I’ve seen such days.

Personally I think in driver subsystem the most that’s still a legit and justified use of RCU is for object lookup with struct xarray and kref_get_unless_zero(), and cleanup handled entirely by kfree_rcu(). Anything more and you’re very likely chasing a rabbit down it’s hole and have not realized it yet.

Locking Antipattern: Atomics

Firstly, Linux atomics have two annoying properties just to start:

  • Unlike e.g. C++ atomics in userspace they are unordered or weakly ordered by default in a lot of cases. A lot of people are surprised by that, and then have an even harder time understanding the memory barriers they need to sprinkle over the code to make it work correctly.

  • Worse, many atomic functions neither operate on the atomic types atomic_t and atomic64_t nor have atomic anywhere in their names, and so pose serious pitfalls to reviewers:

    • READ_ONCE() and WRITE_ONCE for volatile stores and loads.
    • cmpxchg() and the various variants of atomic exchange with or without a compare operation.
    • Atomic bitops like set_bit() are all atomic. Worse, their non-atomic variants have the __set_bit() double underscores to scare you away from using them, despite that these are the ones you really want by default.

Those are a lot of unnecessary trap doors, but the real bad part is what people tend to build with atomic instructions:

  • I’ve seen at least three different, incomplete and ill-defined reimplementations of read write semaphores without lockdep support. Reinventing completions is also pretty popular. Worse, the folks involved didn’t realize what they built. That’s an impressive violation of the “Make it Correct” principle.

  • It seems very tempting to build terrible variations of the “no locking” patterns. It’s very easy to screw them up by extending them in a bad way, e.g. reference counting with weak reference or RCU optimizations done wrong very quickly leads to a complete mess. There are reasons why you should never deviate from these.

  • What looks innocent are statistical counters with atomics, but almost always there’s already a lock you could take instead of unordered counter updates. Often resulting in better code organization to boot since the statistics for a list and it’s manipulation are then closer together. There are some exceptions with real performance justification, a recent one I’ve seen is memory shrinkers where you really want your shrinker->count_objects() to not have to acquire any locks. Otherwise in a memory intense workload all threads are stuck on the one thread doing actual reclaim holding the same lock in your shrinker->scan_objects() function.

In short, unless you’re actually building a new locking or synchronization primitive in the core kernel, you most likely do not want to get seen even looking at atomic operations as an option.

Locking Antipattern: preempt/local_irq/bh_disable() and Friends …

This one is simple: Lockdep doesn’t understand them. The real-time folks hate them. Whatever it is you’re doing, use proper primitives instead, and at least read up on the LWN coverage on why these are problematic what to do instead. If you need some kind of synchronization primitive - maybe to avoid the lifetime vs. consistency antipattern pitfalls - then use the proper functions for that like synchronize_irq().

Locking Antipattern: Memory Barriers

Or more often, lack of them, incorrect or imbalanced use of barriers, badly or wrongly or just not at all documented memory barriers, or …

Fact is that exceedingly most kernel hackers, and more so driver people, have no useful understanding of the Linux kernel’s memory model, and should never be caught entertaining use of explicit memory barriers in production code. Personally I’m pretty good at spotting holes, but I’ve had to learn the hard way that I’m not even close to being able to positively prove correctness. And for better or worse, nothing short of that tends to cut it.

For a still fairly cursory discussion read the LWN series on lockless algorithms. If the code comments and commit message are anything less rigorous than that it’s fairly safe to assume there’s an issue.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love to read an article or watch a talk by Paul McKenney on RCU like anyone else to get my brain fried properly. But aside from extreme exceptions this kind of maintenance cost has simply no justification in a driver subsystem. At least unless it’s packaged in a driver hacker proof library or core kernel service of some sorts with all the memory barriers well hidden away where ordinary fools like me can’t touch them.

Closing Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of progressively more worrying levels of locking engineering, with really just one key take away:

Simple, dumb locking is good locking, since with that you have a fighting chance to make it correct locking.

Thanks to Daniel Stone and Jason Ekstrand for reading and commenting on drafts of this text.