Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for January, 2024

Slow but Gradual L4Re Progress

Friday, January 26th, 2024

It seems a bit self-indulgent to write up some of the things I have been doing lately, but I suppose it helps to keep track of progress since the start of the year. Having taken some time off, it took a while to get back into the routine, familiarise myself with my L4Re efforts, and to actually achieve something.

The Dry, Low-Level Review of Mistakes Made

Two things conspired to obstruct progress for a while, both related to the way I handle interprocess communication (IPC) in L4Re. As I may have mentioned before, I don’t use the L4Re framework’s own IPC libraries because I find them either opaque or cumbersome. However, that puts the burden on me to get my own libraries and tools right, which I failed to do. The offending area of functionality was that of message items which are used to communicate object capabilities and to map memory between tasks.

One obstacle involved memory mapping. Since I had evolved my own libraries gradually as my own understanding evolved, I had decided to allocate a capability for every item received in a message. Unfortunately, when I introduced my own program execution mechanism, when one of the components (the region mapper) would be making its own requests for memory, I had overlooked that it would be receiving flexpages – an abstraction for mapped memory – and would not need to allocate a capability for each such item received. So, very quickly, the number of capabilities became exhausted for that component. The fix for this was fairly straightforward: just don’t allocate new capabilities in cases where flexpages are to be received.

The other obstacle involved the assignment of received message items. When a thread receives items, it should have declared how they should be assigned to capabilities by putting capability indexes into what are known as buffer registers (although they are really just an array in memory, in practice). A message transmitting items will cause the kernel to associate those items with the declared capability indexes, and then the receiving thread will itself record the capability indexes for its own purposes. What I had overlooked was that if, say, two items might be expected but if the first of these is “void” or effectively not transmitting a capability, the kernel does not skip the index in the buffer register that might be associated with that expected capability. Instead, it assigns that index to the next valid or non-void capability in the message.

Since my code had assumed that the kernel would associate declared capability indexes with items based on their positions in messages, I was discovering that my programs’ view of the capability assignments differed from that of the kernel, and so operations on the capabilities they believed to be valid were failing. The fix for this was also fairly straightforward: consume declared capability indexes in order, not skipping any of them, regardless of which items in the message eventually get associated with them.

Some Slightly More Tangible Results

After fixing things up, I started to make a bit more progress. I had wanted to take advantage of a bit more interactivity when testing the software, learning from experiences developing low-level software for various single-board computers. I also wanted to get programs to communicate via pipes. Previously, I had managed to get them to use an output pipe instead of just outputting to the console via the “log” capability, but now I also wanted to be able to present those pipes to other programs as those programs’ input pipes.

Getting programs to use pipes would allow them to be used to process, inspect and validate the output of other programs, hopefully helping with testing and validation of program behaviour. I already had a test program that was able to execute operations on the filesystem, and so it seemed like a reasonable idea to extend this to allow it to be able to run programs from the filesystem, too. Once I solved some of the problems I had previously created for myself, this test program started to behave a bit more like a shell.

The following potentially confusing transcript shows a program being launched to show the contents of a text file. Here, I have borrowed a command name from VMS – an operating system I probably used only a handful of times in the early 1990s – although “spawn” is a pretty generic term, widely used in a similar sense throughout modern computing. The output of the program is piped to another program whose role is to “clip” a collection of lines from a file or, as is the case here, an input stream and to send those lines to its output pipe. Waiting for this program to complete yields the extracted lines.

> spawn bin/cat home/paulb/LICENCE.txt
[0]+ bin/cat [!]
> pipe + bin/clip - 5 5
> jobs
[0]  bin/cat
[1]+ bin/clip [!]
> wait 1
Completed with signal 0 value 0
 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA
 Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies
 of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

Completed with signal 0 value 0
> jobs

Obviously, this is very rudimentary, but it should be somewhat useful for testing. I don’t want to get into writing an actual shell because this would be a huge task in itself, apparent when considering the operation of the commands illustrated above. The aim will be to port a shell once the underlying library functionality is mature enough. Still, I think it would be an amusing and a tantalising prospect to define one’s own shell environment.