Where does a newbie start their journey into the Linux kernel? Device drivers is the most common answer. Despite its age, Linux Device Drivers 3rd Edition1 (LDD3) remains one of the best options for learning about device drivers. There are challenges in using such an old text. LDD3’s code examples target the 2.6.10 kernel. At the time of this writing, the kernel is at version 5.19! That said, fixing API deltas just adds to the fun. This article talks about setting up an environment for LDD3 experimentation and the LDD3 experience itself.

Containerizing the Kernel Dev Environment

Step one, you need a kernel development environment. When it comes to setting up a Linux kernel dev environment, you get a couple of options:

  1. Develop and test the dev kernel on a single dev machine (can be risky).
  2. Develop on a dev machine and test the dev kernel on some target hardware.
  3. Develop on a dev machine and test the dev kernel within an emulator such as QEMU2.

For LDD3 development, option #3 is the best choice. This project adds the twist of containerizing the toolchain using Docker. Containerization has the added advantage of allowing you to reliably replicate and share your build environment.

What does the containerization of the initramfs and kernel build process look like? You can split the task into three separate images:

  • A common base image.
  • A kernel build image.
  • A initramfs build image.

Each image feeds into the next with the result being a kernel bzImage and initramfs initramfs-busybox-x86.cpio.gz archive that work directly with QEMU.

A Common Base Image

There is a lot of overlap in the tools required to build the initramfs and the kernel. A common image3 built off the latest Debian slim release acts as a base for the other images. The common image also includes ccache4 which helps reduce kernel build times significantly5.

The Kernel Build Image

The kernel build Dockerfile6 is straightforward. The magic happens in the kbuild.sh script (shown below) which executes whenever a kernel build container launches. kbuild.sh carries out the following three tasks:

  1. Prompt the User to configure their kernel
  2. Build the kernel
  3. Build the LDD3 modules
#!/bin/bash

# kbuild.sh runs the series of command needed to configure and build the kernel
# and any custom drivers in MODULE_SRC_DIR.

ConfigKernel()
{
    pushd $KERNEL_SRC_DIR
        make O=$KERNEL_OBJ_DIR x86_64_defconfig &&\
        make O=$KERNEL_OBJ_DIR kvm_guest.config &&\
        make O=$KERNEL_OBJ_DIR nconfig
    popd
}

BuildKernel()
{
    pushd $KERNEL_SRC_DIR
        make O=$KERNEL_OBJ_DIR -j$(nproc)
    popd
}

BuildModules()
{
    pushd $MODULE_SRC_DIR
        make O=$KERNEL_OBJ_DIR -j$(nproc) all
    popd
}

Main()
{
    read -p "Build kernel? [y/n] " -n 1 -r
    echo
    if [[ $REPLY =~ ^[Yy]$ ]]
    then
        if [ ! -f "${KERNEL_OBJ_DIR}/.config" ]
        then
            # Missing kernel config, create one.
            ConfigKernel
        else
            # A .config already exists. Prompt the User in case they want to
            # create a new config with this build.
            read -p "Do you want to generate a new kernel .config? [y/n] " -n 1 -r
            echo
            if [[ $REPLY =~ ^[Yy]$ ]]
            then
                ConfigKernel
            fi
        fi
        BuildKernel
    fi

    read -p "Build modules (assumes existing kernel build)? [y/n] " -n 1 -r
    echo
    if [[ $REPLY =~ ^[Yy]$ ]]
    then
        BuildModules
    fi
}

Main

You might notice there are a lot of environment variables. Where are they defined? The environment variables are arguments to the container. The variables each point to binary or source directories on the host system. Those binary/source directories are also mounted as volumes7 in the container. You want to keep those binary directories on the host otherwise you’d be building the kernel and modules from scratch every time!

The initramfs Build Image

QEMU a requires an initramfs with a basic userland. Creating the initramfs breaks down into a five step process:

  1. Generate basic userland utilities using a tool like busybox8.
  2. Create the skeleton of the rootfs.
  3. Copy over your utilities from (1) into (2).
  4. Copy over the init script and custom module kobjects into (2).
  5. Use cpio to package the filesystem up.

The initramfs Dockerfile9 implements the steps. The output of running the initramfs container is a initramfs-busybox-x86.cpio.gz.

Custom Kernel Modules In QEMU

With the bzImage and initramfs archive in hand, you are ready to boot the kernel. The run.sh10 script shows the QEMU incantation needed to boot the system and get dropped into a terminal at the root:

qemu-system-x86_64 \
    -kernel "${LDD3_BIN_DIR}/bzImage" \
    -initrd "${LDD3_BIN_DIR}/initramfs-busybox-x86.cpio.gz" \
    -nographic \
    -append "console=ttyS0,115200" \
    -enable-kvm

All LDD3 module kobjects are under the /modules directory. Load/unload scripts exist for most modules. You won’t have any issues following along with the book when fiddling with the /proc filesystem or viewing kernel log messages through dmesg.

With the ability to build modules and test them out in the emulator, you are ready to dive into LDD3.

The LDD3 Experience

LDD3 is a pleasant read given the subject matter. You’ll get the most out of this book if you come in with a solid grasp of the C programming language. Moderate knowledge of Linux development and good operating systems fundamentals11 are critical.

A strong selling point of this book is that you don’t need actual hardware to follow along. Throughout the book, you develop different types of Simple Character Utility for Loading Localities (scull) device drivers. The scull drivers manage an in memory device which removes the need for any specific hardware. Each scull version illustrates a new driver programming concept.

One of the fun parts of working through LDD3 was resolving issues in the example code. The examples run without modification on the 2.6.10 kernel. This project targets a more recent kernel release: 5.19. The choice of using a more modern kernel breaks a few of the drivers. This forces you to navigate the kernel source code and the LWN archives in search of answers which often times leads to interesting threads regarding kernel design decisions.

Among the many demystifying chapters in this book, Chapter 4 stands out: Debugging Techniques. As the title suggests, the authors walk you through a number of driver debug techniques ranging from looking at system log messages to firing up a kernel debugger. They even talk about how to decode the dreaded kernel oops12 messages:

Kernel Oops

The ability to debug kernel code using a tool like GDB just as you would a userland program feels like magic. The project includes support for debugging the kernel and modules using GDB. Given a kernel built with the right debug configurations, you can attach a GDB session to the QEMU VM13 and break, step, etc. through driver/kernel code14! It isn’t absolutely necessary for working through LDD3. That said, the debugger did come in handy on a few occasions making it worth the effort to learn how to set it up.

Conclusion

LDD3 still holds up in 2022. Sure the example code needs some tweaking and a couple of the later chapters may be a bit dated. That said, the core concepts of the book remain relevant. Containerizing the kernel toolchain is a fun task. Not having to buy any specialty hardware to follow along with the examples in the text is a big bonus. Highly recommend LDD3 in 2022!

The complete project source with build instructions, usage, etc. is available on GitHub under linux_device_drivers.


  1. View the Linux Device Drivers Third Edition text on the web or download the PDF. ↩︎

  2. See the QEMU project page. ↩︎

  3. Dockerfile of the kernel/initramfs build images. ↩︎

  4. See the ccache project page. ↩︎

  5. Speeding Up Linux Kernel Builds With ccache ↩︎

  6. Dockerfile of the kernel build image. ↩︎

  7. See Docker’s Volumes docs for the full details on volumes in Docker. ↩︎

  8. See the busybox project page. ↩︎

  9. Dockerfile of the initramfs build image. ↩︎

  10. runs.sh ↩︎

  11. OSTEP is great resource to refresh yourself on OS theory. ↩︎

  12. Linux kernel oops ↩︎

  13. You can find more details in the “GDB Support” section of the project README↩︎

  14. StarLabs gives a great guide on how setup a kernel debug session. ↩︎