CS 410/510 Languages and Low-Level Programming
This page last updated: December 2018.
Fall 2018

The exercises described on this page build on the ideas that you have developed in the earlier labs on context switching and paging, but also incorporate new ideas that were introduced in the Week 7 lecture about capabilities. You should make sure that you have completed the earlier labs, and reviewed the slides from the lecture before proceeding. Although the implementation of capabilities presented here is not as sophisticated or complete, it is important to note that the overall approach is very much informed and inspired by the capability system in the seL4 microkernel; many more details about that system can be found at https://sel4.systems.

Step 1: Getting set up

To begin, you will need to download, unpack, and build the source code for the simple kernel and user-level demo with capability-based system calls that was the main focus of the capabilities lecture. This code is packaged as caps.tar.gz and should be installed in the same way as previous files: place a copy in your llp directory; unpack using tar xvzf caps.tar.gz; and then run make in the new caps folder.

In fact, as you've likely guessed based on past exercises, you can use make run from within the caps folder to build and run the demo program in a single step. If you've installed everything correctly, you should see a window that looks something like this:

image of initial screen for the capabilities lab; click on image to view full size

Note that there is a "spinner" in the top right hand corner that is updated by the timer interrupt handler. This is a simplified version of the clock exercise that was suggested as a stretch goal in the context switching lab. Its primary purpose here is to provide an indication that the kernel is still running, even when no output appears on screen. But those who did not get a working clock for the switching demo may find some useful hints about how to accomplish that by studying the implementation of this simple spinner.

Step 2: A guided tour of the caps folder

This lab draws on the techniques and ideas that have been introduced in the previous switching and paging labs. But with all the extensions and modifications that we've made in the course of those exercises, you're probably finding that the code base is getting a little tangled and hard to navigate. So we're going to take advantage of this new lab to do a little clean up work, reorganizing the code and breaking it in to smaller pieces with a more clearly defined purpose or focus. In this section, we'll provide a brief tour of the important files.

For starters, I recommend that you run make clean in the caps directory before you proceed; this will clear away compiler-generated files so that we can focus on the source code. Of course, you can always regenerate the other files later by repeating the make or make run commands.

Now we'll begin our tour for real in the kernel folder; I encourage you to follow along by reviewing each of the listed files in an editor (or using a tool like less, or similar), as you see fit:

  • We'll start with the easiest ones: Makefile, kernel.ld, memory.h, context.h, and hardware.h are all pretty much the same as the versions of these files that you've seen before. There are a few extra lines in the Makefile to handle the new .c files described below, but otherwise there's not a lot of new material to see here.

  • init.S is a (mostly unchanged) version of the startup code, written in assembly, from the previous labs. One small change that might be worth pointing out here, however, is a new macro called syscall that simplifies the task of adding a new system call handler. Specifically, you want to add a new system call for a function called xxxx, then you should add a couple of lines of the following form after the definition of the syscall macro (where Xxxx is the name obtained from xxxx by capitalizing the first letter):

              syscall xxxx_imp
    and also add an entry for the new system call in the IDT initialization code that looks something like this:
      idtcalc handler=handleXxxx, slot=N, dpl=3
    where N is the IDT slot/interrupt number that you'll be using for the new system call. Finally, of course, you'll need to add an implementation of the new system call; the syscalls.c file described below is likely a good place to put that code.

  • util.h just provides definitions for functions that can be used to halt() the CPU (assuming you're in kernel mode); report a fatal() error; or test for a specific condition using assert(). You'll see some uses of assert(), in particular, at the start of the initMemory() function in alloc.c where it is used to perform some basic sanity checks and report an error to the kernel developer if something does not look right. Feel free to use this in your own code as seems useful!

  • alloc.h and alloc.c implement the algorithms for calculating the initial list of untyped memory capabilities that cover all of the unused memory based on the memory map and header information that are passed on at boot time. Once created and sorted with the largest untyped region(s) first, the kernel allocates individual 4K pages from the regions at the end of the list and provides functions for donating entries in the list by moving them to an appropriate capability space slot. You will not be expected to understand or modify the code in these files, but you are welcome to take a peek and try to figure out how they work. From an algorithmic perspective, this is probably the most interesting part of the whole kernel implementation!

  • caps.h and caps.c provide definitions and implementations for the different capability types that we are working with here. This includes: a unique integer code for each different type of capability; a structure describing the layout for that capability type; and associated test and set functions (all of this is in caps.h). The code in caps.c mostly provides functionality for printing out descriptions of individual capabilities or complete capability spaces (for debugging purposes), but also provides the main alloc() function for allocating a flex page from an untyped memory object.

  • paging.h and paging.c provide definitions and implementations of functions for working with page directory and page table structures. You've seen most of this code before, but there is a completed version of mapPage() from the end of the first paging lab that you can compare with your own implementation. If you didn't quite get around to writing your own mapPage() just yet, fear not: you'll still have an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of how these kinds of operations are written when it comes to implementing the mapPage and mapPageTable system calls later in this set of lab exercises.

  • proc.h and proc.c are short files that provide the implementation for the data structure that we use to represent individual processes (struct Proc) as well as a reschedule() function for switching from one process to another. There isn't a lot of code here that you haven't seen before, but you might find it useful to look at these files if you need to make changes to the way that processes are created or organized.

  • kernel.c contains the code for initializing the kernel and the initial user-level processes. You might want to modify this code if you are trying to test specific kernel functions that, for example, are used to configure a capability space.

    [Quick quiz: (not related to capabilities!) The upperRight and lowerRight variables that are defined in this file as global variables are only actually referenced within the kernel() function in this file. Why then would it be a mistake to declare them as local variables of the kernel() function?]

  • syscalls.c collects all of the system call implementations in a single file so that we can compare them side by side. You might notice that there are some TODO items here, so perhaps you'll be coming back to look at this file in more detail quite soon ...

Phew, quite a lot to take in there! Fortunately, the changes to our user folder are a little easier to follow (it helps that we didn't have much code there to begin with):

  • Makefile and user.ld are unchanged.

  • syscalls.h is a simple header file that contains C function prototypes for the system calls that we want to be able to use in our user-level program. In other words, the definitions in this file describe how individual system calls are made available to user-level programs as if they were just regular function calls.

  • userlib.s contains the assembly language initialization code for the kernel, as well as stubs for each of the system calls that are declared in syscalls.h. There are plenty of examples for you to work from here if you are trying to add a new system call. Just make sure that you are loading the system call parameters into the appropriate registers, and that you are using the right IDT slot/interrupt number for the int instruction; these must match the slot numbers you've used in kernel/init.S, or else bad things might happen ...

  • user.c contains the C code for a simple user-level program. This is the place to add uses of system calls that you're testing. For the time being, it's important that we don't allow this user-level program to terminate because the kernel doesn't know how to handle that. The kernel also doesn't know how to respond to page faults just yet, so let's hope that our user-level programs are well-behaved. Of course, we might also want to address these problems in other ways to make a more robust system ...

Finally, you might have noticed that the kernel and user folders inside the caps directory are now joined by a third folder called capio. This contains source code for a simple, user-level library for performing I/O via window capabilities. It is similar in purpose to the userio library that you have used previously, except that it allows for providing a specific window capability reference as part of each call. (A brief description of this library is included in the capabilities lectures.)

That's a lot of information to digest. But remember that you can always come back to check these details again later as you need them.

Step 3: Fixing those TODOs

As mentioned previously, there are a few TODO items in kernel/syscalls.c. Now is the time to start filling them in! Essentially, what you are being asked to do here is to complete the implementations of some system calls. The supplied code already includes the code for system calls whose implementation was shown in the lecture, so you can use those as starting points/inspiration for the missing system calls. Each of the TODO items includes comments to describe what that particular system call is expected to do, so we will not waste space repeating that information here. All of the code that is needed to support these system calls in kernel/init.S, user/syscalls.h, and user/userlib.s has already been provided so that you can focus your attention on kernel/syscalls.c. But of course you're welcome to look at the other files if you want to check any details there or to make sure you understand all of the steps that are needed to get from user-level code to the implementation of a system call.

We'll start with the following TODO items. I recommend that you work through them in the order they are listed, testing at each stage:

  • cls_imp() and setAttr_imp() are used to perform operations on a WindowCap, assuming that the caller has the necessary permissions ...

  • capclear_imp() is used to clear entries in a capability space. Beware that, if a user removes the last capability to a given resource, then there might not be any way to get it back!

There are some other TODO items not included in the list above; we'll come back to finish these off later on in Step 5.

Step 4: Adding a new type of capability

Add a new capability type, TimerCap, and an associated system call, getTicks(tcap), that a user-level process can invoke to access the current timer value via a reference, tcap, to a TimerCap. In the distributed code, the timer is stored in the ticks variable inside the code for the timer interrupt handler; you'll need to make this a global variable so that your system call implementation can access it.

Some operating systems block access to accurate timer information from user-level processes to prevent timing attacks. One way to address this is to limit the resolution of the timing information. Extend your implementation of TimerCap to include a number of bits that will be zero in every timer reading that is returned through that capability. For example, if the number of bits is set to 3, then actual timer values of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 will all be reported back to the holder as 0. The holder will still be able to see that the timer is advancing, but will not have access to the highest available resolution.

Note: Remember that this is just an exercise in using capabilities: I'm not really proposing it as a serious practical solution to avoid timing attacks, nor am I claiming that timing attacks are a concern for us in this lab, especially because the tick count in this implementation does not provide a particularly high resolution to begin with!

Step 5: Fixing some more TODOS

Now it is time to finish off the TODO items in kernel/syscalls.c. The remaining items on the list all have to do with the data structures for memory management that we first encountered in the paging lab:

  • allocPage_imp() and allocPageTable_imp() are used to allocate objects from an untyped memory object. These operations follow a very similar pattern to the code that was illustrated in the lecture for allocating cspaces and untyped memory objects; we might want to integrate these into a single function later on to avoid a profusion of system calls.

  • mapPage_imp() and mapPageTable_imp() allow a process to extend its own address space by adding new mappings using previously allocated page table and page objects. The implementation of these functions will take a little bit of work, but I suggest that you take advantage of the code for mapPage() in paging.c (or your own previous implementation) to help you with this:

    • The code for mapPage_imp(), once you've verified that the arguments are valid, will look pretty similar to the code for mapPage(). One key difference, however, is that if we get to the point where mapPage() would have used allocPage(), then it will instead return to the user code with an error: this is an indication that the user code needs to install a suitable page table before the mapPage_imp() call can complete.

    • The code for mapPageTable_imp(), again once the parameters have been checked, will also do much the same as (the first part of) mapPage(). However, if it gets to the point where the code discovers that a page table has already been allocated, then it will return with an error. Alternatively, if it reaches the point where mapPage() would have allocated a page table, then it will instead use the pointer from the page table capability that is passed as an argument.

    In each of these cases, you can see how the kernel avoids performing any memory allocation, either by using a block of memory that the user-level code has already allocated, or else by terminating the system call with an error code.

The supplied user code already includes some simple uses of these system calls that you can use for testing (based on the example that was presented in the lecture), but of course you are free to make up your own examples for more extensive testing and to demonstrate your understanding of the relevant course objectives.

Step 6: Adding a new system call to an existing capability type

Add a new system call, invoked as remaining(ucap) from user-level code, that can be used to determine how much unallocated memory is left in the untyped capability specified by ucap. That description makes it sound very simple, but it might take a little bit more work to get this up and running!

Step 7: Improving an existing operation

Using the WindowCap capability type, we can print a string of characters on an output window using a sequence of system calls, one for each character. While this is enough to get the job done, it is not very efficient or practical to use so many system calls for such a simple task! Wouldn't it be better if we could use a single system call to pass and display a whole string of characters at once?

To implement this we need a region of memory that both the user-level program and the kernel can use to communicate with one another. From the kernel's perspective, we can handle this by adding a new field, unsigned* buffer, to each struct Proc object that is initialized to null. For the user-level side, we can provide a system call allocBuffer(ucap, addr) that can be invoked to allocate a page of memory (from the untyped memory specified by ucap) that is mapped into the address space of the user-level process at the specified address, addr. Of course, this operation will fail if there is a problem with the capability (wrong type, not enough space, etc.) or the address (in KERNEL_SPACE, already mapped, etc.), or if a buffer has already been allocated for this process. But if it succeeds, then a pointer to the newly allocated page will be saved in the buffer for the process.

The next step is to add a new system call, printBuffer(wcap) that will print the string in the process buffer in the window specified by the given WindowCap, wcap. A user-level process will typically invoke this system call after it has filled the buffer, via the address that it specified in the allocBuffer() call. On the kernel side, we have to check not only that wcap is valid (and, presumably that it includes the permission to printing a single character), but also that the invoking process has previously allocated a buffer. We'll assume that the user-level process marks the end of the string that it wants to be displayed by adding a null byte after all the characters, thereby following the time-honored (and highly error-prone) tradition of C. This creates another obligation for the kernel, because if the user-level program "forgets" to add that null byte, whether by mistake or design, then an over-eager implementation of printBuffer() might be tricked into reading past the end of the buffer page, and trigger a kernel page fault. That would be pretty embarrassing, so make sure your implementation stops before it goes past the end of the page! If you like, you could even add another field to the WindowCap capability to set a "maximum message length" value as an extra badge. Of course, the kernel should also be ready to ignore that value if it is more than the length of the buffer page ...

[The technique described here still has some potential performance problems because it forces the user-level process to copy data into the buffer area before making the call to printBuffer(). You could imagine an alternative approach that provides user-level processes with a system call printString(wcap, addr) where addr can be an arbitrary address that points to a string in the caller's address space. The kernel, of course, will be able to read the characters stored at that address. But again, our poor kernel will have to careful and protect itself against misbehaving user-level programs that supply an invalid addr that would cause the kernel to page fault if it tried to access that memory. Happily, the kernel also has access to the page directory and page table for the process, so it can check that the address is valid before attempting the operation. But this will take a fair bit of extra work ...]

Note that the buffer technique described above is inspired, in large part, by the approach that is used in seL4 to allocate an `IPC buffer' to threads that need to send or receive messages that are more than a few words in length, and hence cannot be stored completely in CPU registers.

Step 8: Let's retype that ... (a stretch goal)

You may have noticed that the various functions for allocating objects from an untyped memory area (e.g., allocCspace, allocUntyped(), allocPage(), etc.) all have a pretty similar structure. In addition, there are often situations where we need to make multiple allocator calls in a row to allocate a sequence of objects. One way to tackle these problems is to collapse all of the allocators into a single system call of the form:

  retype(ucap, type, bits, slot, num)


  • ucap is a capability to untyped memory.

  • type is an integer code that represents the type of the objects and associated capabilities that we want to allocate. For example, we could use 1 for a CspaceCap, 2 for an UntypedCap, etc.. The numbers are arbitrary so long as distinct capability types use distinct numbers and both kernel and user-level code use the same mapping from numbers to capability types.

  • bits is an extra field that can be used to specify the size of the objects to be allocated; this field is needed when we are allocating new UntypedCaps, but can be ignored for all other capability types in our current implementation.

  • slot is a reference to an empty slot in a capability space where the capability to the first new object will be placed.

  • num is the total number of objects that we want to be allocated by this system call. For the call to be valid, we must ensure that the untyped memory has enough free space for the requested number of objects, and we must also ensure that there are enough empty capability slots—starting at slot and continuing with slot+1, slot+2, and so on, as necessary—to hold all of the new capabilities.

Your task now, of course, is to implement this all-powerful allocator system call. It will take a fair bit of work, but then you will also be able to throw away all those close-to-duplicated allocXXX() functions, and it will also be much easier after this to add support for allocating new types of object. In addition, you won't need to rewrite all your existing user level code to use the new retype() call: instead, you can just write simple wrappers in user/syscalls.h that implement each of the original, more specialized allocators as special cases of retype().

Once again, we should also acknowledge that the retype() system call is inspired by a system call of the same name in the seL4 microkernel.

Step 9: What's next?

Really? That was quite a lot of work, and you still want more? Of course, I'm glad to hear that, but I'd still suggest this might be a good time to take a break. In your idle moments, however, you might still want to be considering questions like the following:

  • Wouldn't it be nice if there were a way to create new processes on the fly? We could use untyped memory to allocate space for the underlying process structures, but the proc array that we've been relying on so far has a fixed size. Maybe it's time to rethink that and allow an arbitrary collection of struct Proc objects to be linked together in a circular, doubly-linked list so that it is easy to add and remove individual elements? This would add struct Proc* prev; and struct Proc* next pointers to every process, but then we could implement round robin scheduling just by switching from current to current->next.

  • Now, before we worry about creating new processes, we could provide a new system call that allows existing processes to terminate themselves, removing them from the list of current processes. This could be handled gracefully by providing a suitable system call. But it is probably also time for us to replace the old nohandler with some code that will terminate a process if it triggers an exception. We don't really want a user-level process to bring down the whole system just because it tries to divide by zero, or causes a page fault.

  • This raises another issue: we could find ourselves with no runnable processes; that is, with nothing for current to point to! For now, we might just decide that its time for the kernel to terminate too. But, if we add even more features to our kernel, then it might just be that we need to wait for some new event—a keyboard or timer interrupt, for example—that will restart a previously suspended task or process. With that in mind, perhaps we'll want to have a special `idle process' that can be used when no other current process is ready to run ...

  • Finally, we're ready to think about what it might take to allow the creation of a new process ...

If you have enjoyed the material in this lab, you are strongly encouraged to check out https://sel4.systems to see how a substantially more complete capability abstraction fits in to a real-world microkernel implementation (that has also been the subject of a successful formal verification effort)!