Paul E. McKenney (paulmck) wrote,
Paul E. McKenney

Rusting the Linux Kernel: Summary and Conclusions

We have taken a quick trip through history, through a number of the differences between the Linux kernel and the C/C++ memory models, sequence locks, RCU, ownership, zombie pointers, and KCSAN. I give a big "thank you" to everyone who has contributed to this discussion, both publicly and privately. It has been an excellent learning experience for me, and I hope that it has also been helpful to all of you.

To date, Can Rust Code Own Sequence Locks? has proven the most popular by far. Porting Linux-kernel code using sequence locking to Rust turns out to be trickier than one might expect, in part due to the inherently data-racy nature of this synchronization primitive.

So what are those advocating use of Rust within the Linux kernel to do?

The first thing is to keep in mind that the Linux kernel comprises tens of millions of lines of code. One disadvantage of this situation is that the Linux kernel is not going to be ported to much of anything quickly or easily. One corresponding advantage is that it allows Rust-for-Linux developers to carefully pick their battles, focusing first on those portions of the Linux kernel where conversion to Rust might do the most good. Given that order-of-magnitudes performance wins are unlikely, the likely focus is likely to be on proof of concept and on reduced bug rates. Given Rust's heavy focus on bugs stemming from undefined behavior, and given the Linux kernel's use of the -fno-strict-aliasing and -fno-strict-overflow compiler command-line options, bug-reduction choices will need to be made quite carefully. In addition, order-of-magnitude bug-rate differences across the source base provides a high noise floor that makes it more difficult to measure small bug-reduction rates. But perhaps enabling the movement of code into mainline and out of staging can be another useful goal. Or perhaps there is an especially buggy driver out there somewhere that could make good use of some Rust code.

Secondly, careful placement of interfaces between Rust and C code is necessary, especially if there is truth to the rumors that Rust does not inline C functions without the assistance of LTO. In addition, devilish details of Linux-kernel synchronization primitives and dependency handling may further constrain interface boundaries.

Finally, keep in mind that the Linux kernel is not written in standard C, but rather in a dialect that relies on gcc extensions, code-style standards, and external tools. Mastering these extensions, standards, and tools will of course require substantial time and effort, but on the other hand this situation provides precedent for Rust developers to also rely on extensions, style standards, and tools.

But what about the question that motivated this blog in the first place? What memory model should Linux-kernel Rust code use?

For Rust outside of the Linux kernel, the current state of compiler backends and the path of least resistance likely leads to something resembling the C/C++ memory model. Use of Rust in the Linux kernel is therefore not a substitute for continued participation in the C/C++ standards committees, much though some might wish otherwise.

Rust non-unsafe code does not depend much on the underlying memory model, at least assuming that unsafe Rust code and C code avoids undermining the data-race-free assumption of non-unsafe code. The need to preserve this assumption was in fact inspired the blog post discussing KCSAN.

In contrast, Rust unsafe code must pay close attention to the underlying memory model, and in the case of the Linux kernel, the only reasonable choice is of course the Linux-kernel memory model. That said, any useful memory-ordering tool will also need to pay attention to safe Rust code in order to correctly evaluate outcomes. However, there is substantial flexibility, depending on exactly where the interfaces are placed:

  1. As noted above, forbidding use of Rust unsafe code within the Linux kernel would render this memory-model question moot. Data-race freedom for the win!
  2. Allowing Rust code to access shared variables only via atomic operations with acquire (for loads), release (for stores) or stronger ordering would allow Rust unsafe code to use that subset of the Linux-kernel memory model that mirrors the C/C++ memory model.
  3. Restricting use of sequence locks, RCU, control dependencies, lockless atomics, and non-standard locking (e.g., stores to shared variables within read-side reader-writer-locking critical sections) to C code would allow Rust unsafe code to use that subset of the Linux-kernel memory model that closely (but sadly, not exactly) mirrors the C/C++ memory model.
  4. Case-by-case relaxation of the restrictions called out in the preceding pair of items pulls in the corresponding portions of the Linux-kernel memory model. For example, adding sequence locking, but only in cases where readers access only a limited co-located set of objects might permit some of the simpler Rust sequence-locking implementations to be used (see for example the comments to the sequence-locking post).
  5. Insisting that Rust be able to do everything that Linux-kernel C code currently does pulls in the entirety of the Linux-kernel memory model, including those parts that have motivated many of my years of C/C++ standards-committee fun and excitement.

With the first three options, a Rust compiler adhering to the C/C++ memory model will work just fine for Linux-kernel C code. In contrast, the last two options would require code-style restrictions (preferably automated), just as they are in current Linux-kernel C code. See the recommendations post for more detail.

In short, choose wisely and be very careful what you wish for! ;-)


October 7, 2021: Added atomic-operation-only option to memory-model spectrum.
October 8, 2021: Fix typo noted by Miguel Ojeda
October 12, 2021: Self-review.
October 13, 2021: Add reference to recommendations post.
Tags: linux, lkmm, rust

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