RSoC: on-demand paging

By 4lDO2 on


Today it’s been three weeks since my 4th RSoC started, where the main focus this time is to speed up Redox by implementing on-demand paging in the kernel.

But first…


Yesterday, a huge (+2356 -1724) MR was merged, that fundamentally changed the way the kernel accessed user memory, mainly passed from of syscall arguments, but also to some extent when handling signals.

Previously, the kernel relied on validate_* functions, e.g. (not the exact kernel code):

pub unsafe fn validate_slice<'a>(base: *const u8, len: usize) -> Result<&'a [u8]> {
    check_pages_tables_or_return_efault(base, len)?;
    Ok(core::slice::from_raw_parts(base, len))

pub unsafe fn validate_str<'a>(base: *const u8, len: usize) -> Result<&'a str> { ... }

pub fn syscall(num: usize, b: usize, c: usize, d: usize, ...) -> Result<usize> {
    match num {
        SYS_OPEN => open(unsafe { validate_str(b as *const u8, c) }, d),
        // ...

pub fn open(path: &str, flags: usize) -> Result<usize> {
    // parse scheme_name:path from `path`, then call

However, there are multiple downsides with this approach. First, checking page tables can be relatively expensive, not necessarily because tree walking is slow, but also since the page table needs to be locked. Secondly, one of the requirements for creating both &[u8]s and &mut [u8]s, is that the memory is not allowed to be mutated (except when using the &mut [u8] itself), which is not necessarily true for multithreaded programs, and very impractical to enforce. Worse, when such slices are converted to strings, they are utf8-checked once, which is valid under the assumption that immutable slices cannot be mutated, but if another userspace thread would “de-utf8-ize” the string between the time-of-check and time-of-use, kernel UB was theoretically possible.

The current post-usercopy kernel, instead uses a different API (again pseudocode):

pub fn syscall(num: usize, b: usize, c: usize, d: usize, ...) -> Result<usize> {
    match num {
        SYS_OPEN => open(UserSlice::ro(b, c)?, d),
        SYS_PIPE2 => pipe2(UserSlice::wo(b, 2 * size_of::<usize>())?, c),
        // ...

pub fn open(path_raw: UserSliceRo, flags: usize) -> Result<usize> {
    let path: String = path_raw.copy_to_string()?;

    // parse scheme_name:path from `path`, then
// (deprecated syscall, but a good example)
pub fn pipe2(fds_out: UserSliceWo, flags: usize) -> Result<()> {
    let (new_read_fd, new_write_fd) = { ... };

    let (read_fd_out, write_fd_out) = fds_out.split_at(size_of::<usize>())


Rather than verifying page tables, the kernel copies memory between userspace and kernel buffers, inside an arch-specific assembly-written function. Should a page fault occur, if it was caused by an invalid read or write, and if the instruction pointer happens to be inside that function, the handler will make it return early, and setting the return value to an error code. The fast path is almost as fast as memcpy, and does not need to lock anything. (On aarch64, the usercopy function is implemented as an unoptimized byte-granular loop, simply because I don’t know how to write a fast one.)

The places where UTF-8 is required, there are now some unnecessary heap allocations, but since path-based system calls are not as common as data-based system calls, there is no visible performance regression at least.

Since the kernel strictly separates user (< USER_END_OFFSET) and kernel memory, so that no Rust slices/references can point to anything but kernel memory, the UserSlice API is, excluding the functions that read a struct (which can be fixed by using a safe transmute crate), entirely Safe Rust.


The usercopy MR also enables, on x86_64, the UMIP, SMEP, and SMAP features if available.

Head/tail buffers

The current UserScheme implementation, which is currently the main IPC primitive the Redox kernel provides, maps the buffer pages from the caller to the scheme directly. Mapping pages does nevertheless require page-alignment, and head/tail pages have previously been able to leak data to the scheme handlers. A temporary workaround has been to require scheme handlers to run as root. The fix is to use the syscall_head/syscall_tail pages, present in each context, copy head/tail bytes into those pages, and then separately map those pages and the middle pages, contiguously into the range the scheme handler can use. The root-only restriction has not yet been lifted, but it may be soon.

This fix was also included in the usercopy MR.

Pipe scheme

While this change is not nearly as significant as usercopy, on-demand paging, or the other upcoming kernel MRs, the pipe: scheme has been rewritten, and new pipes can now be opened using open("pipe:", ...), to create a new pipe and get the read fd, and dup(read_fd, "write") to get the write fd.

As a result, the SYS_PIPE2 syscall has been deprecated, and replaced with open+dup in relibc, and will eventually be removed when userspace no longer uses it.

On-demand paging

Aside from finishing the usercopy MR, I have primarily been working on on-demand paging.

When allocating new memory using mmap, the redox kernel currently allocates all memory up front, and populates the page tables directly. Most modern kernels on the other hand implement on-demand paging, i.e. remember what mappings are present in an address space, but allocate or copy-on-write pages lazily when page faults occur. As a result, system calls such as fork(2), or Redox’s corresponding dup(addr_space_fd, "exclusive"), will copy pages by reference, remap them as immutable, and then copy on write.

Redox’s memory management system needs to support MAP_PRIVATE/MAP_SHARED anonymous mmaps, non-allocator-owned physmap, borrowing pages from one address space into another (for UserScheme), and managing UserScheme-provided fmaps (used when mmapping UserScheme-owned file descriptors).

Although the current usercopy branch temporarily needs to disable multi_core, and does not yet fully re-implement partial fmap, it does decrease the boot time, including qemu and bootloader, from 4.4s to 3.2s.


As previously stated, the short-term goal is to make the on-demand paging branch ready enough for an MVP MR to be submitted. This would entail fixing page refcount synchronization, maybe TLB shootdown (unimplemented both on my branch and on master), partial-size mmap, and verify the implementation is correct.

Some features are not yet implemented, such as msync, madvise, swap, page fault readahead, and perhaps necessarily, TLB shootdown. It would also be interesting to see how much performance can be improved by using x86_64 process-context identifiers, huge pages, and although not as performance-related, maybe even implement 5-level paging.

Additionally, I have been working on other kernel MRs, e.g. simplifying kernel stacks and improving signal handling, and dynamic CPU-based kernel code optimization, which I plan on finishing either directly after the MVP on-demand paging MR has been merged, or after working on additional memory-management features.

Out-of-memory conditions are not handled either, but they aren’t handled on the master branch yet, so that shouldn’t at least be required for the MVP.