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Subject[PATCH v2 27/27] Documentation: document ioctl interfaces better
Documentation/process/botching-up-ioctls.rst was orignally
written as a blog post for DRM driver writers, so it it misses
some points while going into a lot of detail on others.

Try to provide a replacement that addresses typical issues
across a wider range of subsystems, and follows the style of
the core-api documentation better.

Signed-off-by: Arnd Bergmann <>
Documentation/core-api/index.rst | 1 +
Documentation/core-api/ioctl.rst | 248 +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
2 files changed, 249 insertions(+)
create mode 100644 Documentation/core-api/ioctl.rst

diff --git a/Documentation/core-api/index.rst b/Documentation/core-api/index.rst
index ab0eae1c153a..3f28b2f668be 100644
--- a/Documentation/core-api/index.rst
+++ b/Documentation/core-api/index.rst
@@ -39,6 +39,7 @@ Core utilities
+ ioctl

Interfaces for kernel debugging
diff --git a/Documentation/core-api/ioctl.rst b/Documentation/core-api/ioctl.rst
new file mode 100644
index 000000000000..99892f96c5cb
--- /dev/null
+++ b/Documentation/core-api/ioctl.rst
@@ -0,0 +1,248 @@
+ioctl based interfaces
+ioctl() is the most common way for applications to interface
+with device drivers. It is flexible and easily extended by adding new
+commands and can be passed through character devices, block devices as
+well as sockets and other special file descriptors.
+However, it is also very easy to get ioctl command definitions wrong,
+and hard to fix them later without breaking existing applications,
+so this documentation tries to help developers get it right.
+Command number definitions
+The command number, or request number, is the second argument passed to
+the ioctl system call. While this can be any 32-bit number that uniquely
+identifies an action for a particular driver, there are a number of
+conventions around defining them.
+``include/uapi/asm-generic/ioctl.h`` provides four macros for defining
+ioctl commands that follow modern conventions: ``_IO``, ``_IOR``,
+``_IOW``, and ``_IORW``. These should be used for all new commands,
+with the correct parameters:
+ The macro name determines whether the argument is used for passing
+ data into kernel (_IOW), from the kernel (_IOR), both (_IOWR) or is
+ not a pointer (_IO). It is possible but not recommended to pass an
+ integer value instead of a pointer with _IO.
+ An 8-bit number, often a character literal, specific to a subsystem
+ or driver, and listed in :doc:`../userspace-api/ioctl/ioctl-number`
+ An 8-bit number identifying the specific command, unique for a give
+ value of 'type'
+ The name of the data type pointed to by the argument, the command number
+ encodes the ``sizeof(data_type)`` value in a 13-bit or 14-bit integer,
+ leading to a limit of 8191 bytes for the maximum size of the argument.
+ Note: do not pass sizeof(data_type) type into _IOR/IOW, as that will
+ lead to encoding sizeof(sizeof(data_type)), i.e. sizeof(size_t).
+Interface versions
+Some subsystems use version numbers in data structures to overload
+commands with different interpretations of the argument.
+This is generally a bad idea, since changes to existing commands tend
+to break existing applications.
+A better approach is to add a new ioctl command with a new number. The
+old command still needs to be implemented in the kernel for compatibility,
+but this can be a wrapper around the new implementation.
+Return code
+ioctl commands can return negative error codes as documented in errno(3),
+these get turned into errno values in user space. On success, the return
+code should be zero. It is also possible but not recommended to return
+a positive 'long' value.
+When the ioctl callback is called with an unknown command number, the
+handler returns either -ENOTTY or -ENOIOCTLCMD, which also results in
+-ENOTTY being returned from the system call. Some subsystems return
+-ENOSYS or -EINVAL here for historic reasons, but this is wrong.
+Prior to Linux-5.5, compat_ioctl handlers were required to return
+-ENOIOCTLCMD in order to use the fallback conversion into native
+commands. As all subsystems are now responsible for handling compat
+mode themselves, this is no longer needed, but it may be important to
+consider when backporting bug fixes to older kernels.
+Traditionally, timestamps and timeout values are passed as ``struct
+timespec`` or ``struct timeval``, but these are problematic because of
+incompatible definitions of these structures in user space after the
+move to 64-bit time_t.
+The __kernel_timespec type can be used instead to be embedded in other
+data structures when separate second/nanosecond values are desired,
+or passed to user space directly. This is still not ideal though,
+as the structure matches neither the kernel's timespec64 nor the user
+space timespec exactly. The get_timespec64() and put_timespec64() helper
+functions can be used to ensure that the layout remains compatible with
+user space and the padding is treated correctly.
+As it is cheap to convert seconds to nanoseconds, but the opposite
+requires an expensive 64-bit division, a simple __u64 nanosecond value
+can be simpler and more efficient.
+Timeout values and timestamps should ideally use CLOCK_MONOTONIC time,
+as returned by ktime_get_ns() or ktime_get_ts64(). Unlike
+CLOCK_REALTIME, this makes the timestamps immune from jumping backwards
+or forwards due to leap second adjustments and clock_settime() calls.
+ktime_get_real_ns() can be used for CLOCK_REALTIME timestamps that
+need to be persistent across a reboot or between multiple machines.
+32-bit compat mode
+In order to support 32-bit user space running on a 64-bit machine, each
+subsystem or driver that implements an ioctl callback handler must also
+implement the corresponding compat_ioctl handler.
+As long as all the rules for data structures are followed, this is as
+easy as setting the .compat_ioctl pointer to a helper function such as
+compat_ptr_ioctl() or blkdev_compat_ptr_ioctl().
+On the s/390 architecture, 31-bit user space has ambiguous representations
+for data pointers, with the upper bit being ignored. When running such
+a process in compat mode, the compat_ptr() helper must be used to
+clear the upper bit of a compat_uptr_t and turn it into a valid 64-bit
+pointer. On other architectures, this macro only performs a cast to a
+``void __user *`` pointer.
+In an compat_ioctl() callback, the last argument is an unsigned long,
+which can be interpreted as either a pointer or a scalar depending on
+the command. If it is a scalar, then compat_ptr() must not be used, to
+ensure that the 64-bit kernel behaves the same way as a 32-bit kernel
+for arguments with the upper bit set.
+The compat_ptr_ioctl() helper can be used in place of a custom
+compat_ioctl file operation for drivers that only take arguments that
+are pointers to compatible data structures.
+Structure layout
+Compatible data structures have the same layout on all architectures,
+avoiding all problematic members:
+* ``long`` and ``unsigned long`` are the size of a register, so
+ they can be either 32-bit or 64-bit wide and cannot be used in portable
+ data structures. Fixed-length replacements are ``__s32``, ``__u32``,
+ ``__s64`` and ``__u64``.
+* Pointers have the same problem, in addition to requiring the
+ use of compat_ptr(). The best workaround is to use ``__u64``
+ in place of pointers, which requires a cast to ``uintptr_t`` in user
+ space, and the use of u64_to_user_ptr() in the kernel to convert
+ it back into a user pointer.
+* On the x86-32 (i386) architecture, the alignment of 64-bit variables
+ is only 32-bit, but they are naturally aligned on most other
+ architectures including x86-64. This means a structure like::
+ struct foo {
+ __u32 a;
+ __u64 b;
+ __u32 c;
+ };
+ has four bytes of padding between a and b on x86-64, plus another four
+ bytes of padding at the end, but no padding on i386, and it needs a
+ compat_ioctl conversion handler to translate between the two formats.
+ To avoid this problem, all structures should have their members
+ naturally aligned, or explicit reserved fields added in place of the
+ implicit padding.
+* On ARM OABI user space, 16-bit member variables have 32-bit
+ alignment, making them incompatible with modern EABI kernels.
+ Conversely, on the m68k architecture, struct members are not
+ guaranteed to have an alignment greater than 16-bit.
+ These rarely cause problems as neither ARM-OABI nor m68k are
+ supported by any compat mode, but for consistency, it is best
+ to completely avoid 16-bit member variables.
+* Bitfields and enums generally work as one would expect them to,
+ but some properties of them are implementation-defined, so it is better
+ to avoid them completely in ioctl interfaces.
+* ``char`` members can be either signed or unsigned, depending on
+ the architecture, so the __u8 and __s8 types should be used for 8-bit
+ integer values, though char arrays are clearer for fixed-length strings.
+Information leaks
+Uninitialized data must not be copied back to user space, as this can
+cause an information leak, which can be used to defeat kernel address
+space layout randomization (KASLR), helping in an attack.
+As explained for the compat mode, it is best to not avoid any implicit
+padding in data structures, but if there is already padding in existing
+structures, the kernel driver must be careful to zero out the padding
+using memset() or similar before copying it to user space.
+Subsystem abstractions
+While some device drivers implement their own ioctl function, most
+subsystems implement the same command for multiple drivers. Ideally the
+subsystem has an .ioctl() handler that copies the arguments from and
+to user space, passing them into subsystem specific callback functions
+through normal kernel pointers.
+This helps in various ways:
+* Applications written for one driver are more likely to work for
+ another one in the same subsystem if there are no subtle differences
+ in the user space ABI.
+* The complexity of user space access and data structure layout is done
+ in one place, reducing the potential for implementation bugs.
+* It is more likely to be reviewed by experienced developers
+ that can spot problems in the interface when the ioctl is shared
+ between multiple drivers than when it is only used in a single driver.
+Alternatives to ioctl
+There are many cases in which ioctl is not the best solution for a
+problem. Alternatives include:
+* System calls are a better choice for a system-wide feature that
+ is not tied to a physical device or constrained by the file system
+ permissions of a character device node
+* netlink is the preferred way of configuring any network related
+ objects through sockets.
+* debugfs is used for ad-hoc interfaces for debugging functionality
+ that does not need to be exposed as a stable interface to applications.
+* sysfs is a good way to expose the state of an in-kernel object
+ that is not tied to a file descriptor.
+* configfs can be used for more complex configuration than sysfs
+* A custom file system can provide extra flexibility with a simple
+ user interface but add a lot of complexity to the implementation.
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