Josef “Jeff” Sipek

Segment Drivers

Lately, I started poking around the Illumos memory management code. As I’ve done in the past, I decided to use this blahg as a place to document some of my discoveries.

Memory Layout

In Illumos (and Solaris), address spaces are managed as sets of segments. Each segment has a base address, length, and a number of other properties. This is true for both process memory as well as kernel memory. Do not confuse these segments with Wikipedia article: memory segmentation that processors like Wikipedia article: x86 provide.

Each process has its own struct as:

> ::pgrep vim
S    PID   PPID   PGID    SID    UID      FLAGS             ADDR NAME
R  10852  10777  10850  10777    101 0x4a004000 ffffff0411e1c0a0 vim
> ffffff0411e1c0a0::print proc_t p_as | ::print struct as a_segtree
a_segtree = {
    a_segtree.avl_root = 0xffffff03f7c62ea8
    a_segtree.avl_compar = as_segcompar
    a_segtree.avl_offset = 0x20
    a_segtree.avl_numnodes = 0x18
    a_segtree.avl_size = 0x60

The kernel address space is maintained in the kas global:

> kas::print a_segtree
a_segtree = {
    a_segtree.avl_root = kvseg+0x20
    a_segtree.avl_compar = as_segcompar
    a_segtree.avl_offset = 0x20
    a_segtree.avl_numnodes = 0x9
    a_segtree.avl_size = 0x60

(Once upon a time this set of segments was a linked list, but for a long while now it has been an AVL tree indexed by the base address.)

Regardless of which address space we’re dealing with, the same rules apply: segments represent contiguous regions within the address space. Each segment can represent a different type of memory. For example, walking the kernel address space segment tree yields nine different segments of four different types (kpm, kmem, kp, and map):

> kas::print a_segtree | ::walk avl | ::printf "%p.%016x %a\n" "struct seg" s_base s_size s_ops
fffffe0000000000.000000031e000000 segkpm_ops
ffffff0000000000.0000000017000000 segkmem_ops
ffffff0017000000.0000000080000000 segkp_ops
ffffff0097000000.00000002fca00000 segkmem_ops
ffffff03d3a00000.0000000004000000 segmap_ops
ffffff03d7a00000.000000fbe8600000 segkmem_ops
ffffffffc0000000.000000003b7fb000 segkmem_ops
fffffffffb800000.0000000000550000 segkmem_ops
ffffffffff800000.0000000000400000 segkmem_ops

Segment Drivers

Illumos comes with seven different architecture- and platform-independent segment drivers. A segment driver is a “driver” that implements a couple of functions to manage a segment of memory. That is, each segment type can handle page faults, page locking, sync operations, etc. differently.

For example, suppose that a page fault occurs because a process tried to load a value from a page that lacks a page table entry. The platform specific (assembly) fault handling code gets invoked by the processor. After doing a little bit of work, it calls into the generic (C) fault handling code, as_fault. There, the segtree AVL tree is consulted and the corresponding segment’s fault operation gets invoked.

(Solaris Internals lists 12 and 11 segment drivers, respectively, in the two editions.) In Illumos, the seven common segment drivers are:

Most of the time, userspace processes do not need to map devices into their address space. In the rare case when a process does want a device mapped (e.g., Xorg), the dev segment driver maintains that mapping.
This segment driver maps the kernel heap, module text, and all early boot memory. (code)
In general, kernel memory is not pageable. In the rare case that something can be in kernel pageable memory, this segment is what maintains the anonymous page mappings.
If possible (you’re on a 64-bit system), the kpm segment driver maps all physical memory into the kernel’s address space. This allows the kernel to not have to set up temporary mappings to operate on physical memory. (code)
The map segment driver is a kernel-only higher performance version of the vn segment driver. (See below.)
This segment driver is responsible for maintaining SysV shared memory segments. (Not to be confused with POSIX shared memory.)
Memory mapped files are handled by the vn segment driver. This includes both regular files as well as anonymous memory.

There are also two platform specific segment drivers:

seg_mf (i86xpv only)
This segment driver is only used by dom0 processes (read: Xen) to map pages from other domains.
seg_nf (sparc v9 only)
The header for the file says that it is for non-faulting loads. I don’t actually know what exactly it is for. (And I don’t care enough to dig deeper given that it is Sparc specific.)

The Reality

This is a lot of different segment drivers. Are all of them used all the time? Well, sort of. The mdb output earlier shows that the (amd64) kernel uses only four different segment drivers (kpm, kmem, kp, and map). A typical userspace process is very boring — it is only made up of vn segments. There are, however, exceptions. For instance, Xorg uses vn and dev. This accounts for six of the seven drivers. The last common segment driver is spt, which provides System V shared memory. (I talked about SysV shared memory previously.) So, on a 64-bit x86 system, all seven common segment drivers are in use.

The story is a bit different on 32-bit kernels. Since a 32-bit system has much smaller address space, the kernel tries to eliminate a number of mappings. Here is the list of segments in a 32-bit kernel:

> kas::print a_segtree | ::walk avl | ::printf "%p %a\n" "struct seg" s_base s_ops
b5802000 segmap_ops
b6800000 segkmem_ops
ef400000 segkmem_ops
fe800000 segkmem_ops
ff000000 segkmem_ops

As you can see, the kp and kpm segments went away. While at first this is surprising, it actually makes perfect sense. When thinking about memory there are two “types” to consider: physical and virtual. In theory, one can have more virtual than physical thanks to the MMU but in reality this is only true on 64-bit systems. The physical memory sizes have outgrown 4 GB a number of years ago and therefore a 32-bit address space can trivially be 100% backed by physical memory. In other words, 32-bit address spaces are tight on virtual memory, while 64-bit address spaces are “tight” on physical memory.

Let’s consider the disappearance of the kp segment on 32-bits. What does kp let us do? It lets us oversubscribe physical memory by backing some virtual memory with disk space. On 32-bit systems we have enough physical memory to back all the virtual memory in the kernel so we don’t need to back some of it by disk. So we have no use for it. (Yes, the kernel still could have paged parts of itself out, but kernel text and data is generally considered important enough to keep it in non-pageable memory. The memory utilization will more than pay for itself by the performance improvement of not having the kernel paged out.)

As I stated before, kpm segments map physical memory into the kernel’s address space for performance reasons (without it the kernel would have to temporarily map a page to access the contents). Therefore, they are good candidates for removal when it comes to slimming down the kernel’s address space demands. (Well, the actual story is the other way… the introduction of 64-bit capable hardware allowed kpm segments to exist to improve kernel performance.)

Unix Shared Memory

While investigating whether some memory management code was still in use (I’ll blahg about this in the future), I ended up learning quite a bit about shared memory on Unix systems. Since I managed to run into a couple of non-obvious snags while trying to get a simple test program running, I thought I’d share my findings here for my future self.

All in all, there are three ways to share memory between processes on a modern Unix system.

System V shm

This is the oldest of the three. First you call shmget to set up a shared memory segment and then you call shmat to map it into your address space. Here’s a quick example that does not do any error checking or cleanup:

void sysv_shm()
        int ret;
        void *ptr;

        ret = shmget(0x1234, 4096, IPC_CREAT);
        printf("shmget returned %d (%d: %s)\n", ret, errno,

        ptr = shmat(ret, NULL, SHM_PAGEABLE | SHM_RND);
        printf("shmat returned %p (%d: %s)\n", ptr, errno, strerror(errno));

What’s so tricky about this? Well, by default Illumos’s shmat will return EPERM unless you are root. This sort of makes sense given how this flavor of shared memory is implemented. (Hint: it’s all in the kernel)


As is frequently the case, POSIX came up with a different interface and different semantics for shared memory. Here’s the POSIX shm version of the above function:

void posix_shm()
	int fd;
	void *ptr;

	fd = shm_open("/blah", O_RDWR | O_CREAT, 0666);
	printf("shm_open returned %d (%d: %s)\n", fd, errno,

	ftruncate(fd, 4096); /* IMPORTANT! */

	ptr = mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, MAP_SHARED, fd, 0);
	printf("mmap returned %p (%d: %s)\n", ptr, errno, strerror(errno));

The very important part here is the ftruncate call. Without it, shm_open may create an empty file and mmaping an empty file won’t work very well. (Well, on Illumos mmap succeeds, but you effectively have a 0-length mapping so any loads or stores will result in a SIGBUS. I haven’t tried other OSes.)

Aside from the funny looking path (it must start with a slash, but cannot contain any other slashes), shm_open looks remarkably like the open system call. It turns out that at least on Illumos, shm_open is implemented entirely in libc. The implementation creates a file in /tmp based on the path provided and the file descriptor that it returns is actually a file descriptor for this file in /tmp. For example, “/blah” input translates into “/tmp/.SHMDblah”. (There is a second file “/tmp/.SHMLblah” that doesn’t live very long. I think it is a lock file.) The subsequent mmap call doesn’t have any idea that this file is special in any way.

Does this mean that you can reach around shm_open and manipulate the object directly? Not exactly. POSIX states: “It is unspecified whether the name appears in the file system and is visible to other functions that take pathnames as arguments.”

The big difference between POSIX and SysV shared memory is how you refer to the segment — SysV uses a numeric key, while POSIX uses a path.


The last way of sharing memory involves no specialized APIs. It’s just plain ol’ mmap on an open file. For completeness, here’s the function:

void mmap_shm()
	int fd;
	void *ptr;

	fd = open("/tmp/blah", O_RDWR | O_CREAT, 0666);
	printf("open returned %d (%d: %s)\n", fd, errno, strerror(errno));

	ftruncate(fd, 4096); /* IMPORTANT! */

	ptr = mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, MAP_SHARED, fd, 0);
	printf("mmap returned %p (%d: %s)\n", ptr, errno, strerror(errno));

It is very similar to the POSIX shm code example. As before, we need the ftruncate to make the shared file non-empty.


In case you’ve wondered what SysV or POSIX shm segments look like on Illumos, here’s the pmap output for a process that basically runs the first two examples above.

6343:	./a.out
0000000000400000          8K r-x--  /storage/home/jeffpc/src/shm/a.out
0000000000411000          4K rw---  /storage/home/jeffpc/src/shm/a.out
0000000000412000         16K rw---    [ heap ]
FFFFFD7FFF160000          4K rwxs-    [ dism shmid=0x13 ]
FFFFFD7FFF170000          4K rw-s-  /tmp/.SHMDblah
FFFFFD7FFF180000         24K rwx--    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF190000          4K rwx--    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF1A0000       1596K r-x--  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFF33F000         52K rw---  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFF34C000          8K rw---  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFF350000          4K rwx--    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF360000          4K rwx--    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF370000          4K rw---    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF380000          4K rw---    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF390000          4K rwx--    [ anon ]
FFFFFD7FFF393000        348K r-x--  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFF3FA000         12K rwx--  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFF3FD000          8K rwx--  /lib/amd64/
FFFFFD7FFFDFD000         12K rw---    [ stack ]
         total         2120K

You can see that the POSIX shm file got mapped in the standard way (address FFFFFD7FFF170000). The SysV shm segment is special — it is not a plain old memory map (address FFFFFD7FFF160000).

That’s it for today. I’m going to talk about segment types in the different post in the near future.

Powered by blahgd