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Subject[PATCH REPOST] docs: Add struct file refcounting and SCM_RIGHTS mess info
docs: Add struct file refcounting and SCM_RIGHTS mess info

Work up some text posted by Al and add it to the filesystem manual.

Co-developed-by: Al Viro <>
Signed-off-by: Jonathan Corbet <>
This is the third sending of this patch. Al, you *did* ask me to run it
past you before putting it in; do you think you might get a chance to have
a look sometime soon?

Documentation/filesystems/index.rst | 1 +
Documentation/filesystems/lifecycles.rst | 357 +++++++++++++++++++++++
2 files changed, 358 insertions(+)
create mode 100644 Documentation/filesystems/lifecycles.rst

diff --git a/Documentation/filesystems/index.rst b/Documentation/filesystems/index.rst
index 1131c34d77f6..44ff355e0be6 100644
--- a/Documentation/filesystems/index.rst
+++ b/Documentation/filesystems/index.rst
@@ -16,6 +16,7 @@ algorithms work.
.. toctree::
:maxdepth: 2

+ lifecycles
diff --git a/Documentation/filesystems/lifecycles.rst b/Documentation/filesystems/lifecycles.rst
new file mode 100644
index 000000000000..b30f566cfe0d
--- /dev/null
+++ b/Documentation/filesystems/lifecycles.rst
@@ -0,0 +1,357 @@
+Lifecycles and locking
+This manual aspires to cover the lifecycles of VFS objects and the locking
+that protects them.
+Reference counting for file structures
+(The following text derives from `this email from Al Viro
+The :c:type:`struct file` type represents an open file in the kernel. Its
+lifetime is controlled by a simple reference count (f_count) in that
+structure. References are obtained with functions like fget(), fdget(),
+and fget_raw(); they are returned with fput().
+.. FIXME we should have kerneldoc comments for those functions
+The struct file destructor (__fput() and the filesystem-specific
+->release() function called from it) is called once the counter hits zero.
+Each file descriptor counts as a reference. Thus, dup() will increment
+the refcount by 1, close() will decrement it, fork() will increment it
+by the number of descriptors in your descriptor table refering to this
+struct file, destruction of the descriptor table on exit() will decrement
+by the same amount, etc.
+Syscalls like read() and friends turn descriptors into struct file
+references. If the descriptor table is shared, that counts as a new
+reference that must be dropped in the end of the syscall; otherwise we are
+guaranteed that the reference in the descriptor table will stay around
+until the end of the syscall, so we may use it without bumping the file
+refcount. That's the difference between fget() and fdget() - the former
+will bump the refcount, while the latter will try to avoid that. Of
+course, if we do not intend to drop the reference we'd acquired by the end
+of the syscall, we want fget(); fdget() is for transient references only.
+Descriptor tables
+Descriptor tables (:c:type:`struct files_struct`) *can* be shared; several
+processes (usually threads that share address spaces as well, but that's
+not necessary) may be working with the same set of struct files so, for
+example, an open() call in one of them is seen by the others. The same
+goes for close(), dup(), dup2(), etc.
+That makes for an interesting corner case: what if two threads happen to
+share a descriptor table, and one of them closes a file descriptor while
+another is in the middle of a read() call on that same descriptor? That's
+one area where Unices differ; one variant is to abort the read() call,
+another would have close() wait for the read() call to finish, etc. What
+we do is:
+ * close() succeeds immediately; the reference is removed from
+ the descriptor table and dropped.
+ * If the close() call happens before read(fd, ...) has converted the file
+ descriptor to a struct file reference, read() will fail with -EBADF.
+ * Otherwise, read() proceeds unmolested. The reference it has acquired
+ is dropped at the end of the syscall. If that's the last reference to
+ the file, the file structure will get shut down at that point.
+A call to clone() will result in the child sharing the parent's descriptor
+table if CLONE_FILES is in the flags. Note that, in this case, struct file
+refcounts are not modified at all, since no new references to files are
+created. Without CLONE_FILES, it's the same as fork(): an independent copy
+of the descriptor table is created and populated by copies of references to
+files, each bumping file's refcount.
+Calling unshare() with CLONE_FILES in the flags will create a copy of the
+descriptor table (same as done on fork(), etc.) and switch to using it; the
+old reference will be dropped (note: it'll only bother with that if
+descriptor table used to be shared in the first place; if we hold the only
+reference to descriptor table, we'll just keep using it).
+execve() does almost the same thing: if the pre-exec descriptor table is
+shared, it will switch to a new copy first. In case of success the
+reference to the original table is dropped, in case of failure we revert to
+the original and drop the copy. Note that handling of close-on-exec is
+done in the *copy*; the original is unaffected, so failing in execve() does
+not disrupt the descriptor table.
+exit() will drop the reference to the descriptor table. When the last
+reference is dropped, all file references are removed from it (and dropped).
+The thread's pointer to its descriptor table (current->files) is never
+modified by other threads; something like::
+ ls /proc/<pid>/fd
+will fetch it, so stores need to be protected (by task_lock(current)), but
+the only the thread itself can do them.
+Note that, while extra references to the descriptor table can appear at any
+time (/proc/<pid>/fd accesses, for example), such references may not be
+used for modifications. In particular, you can't switch to another
+thread's descriptor table, unless it had been yours at some earlier point
+*and* you've kept a reference to it.
+That's about it for descriptor tables; that, by far, is the main source of
+persistently held struct file references. Transient references are grabbed
+by syscalls when they resolve a descriptor to a struct file pointer, which
+ought to be done once per syscall *and* reasonably early in it.
+Unfortunately, that's not all; there are other persistent struct file
+Other persistent references
+A key point so far is that references to file structures are not held
+(directly or indirectly) in other file structures. If that were
+universally true, life would be simpler, since we would never have to worry
+about reference-count loops. Unfortunately, there are some more
+complicated cases that the kernel has to worry about.
+Some things, such as the case of a LOOP_SET_FD ioctl() call grabbing a
+reference to a file structure and stashing it in the lo_backing_file field
+of a loop_device structure, are reasonably simple. The struct file
+reference will be dropped later, either directly by a LOOP_CLR_FD operation
+(if nothing else holds the thing open at the time) or later in
+Note that, in the latter case, things can get a bit more complicated. A
+process closing /dev/loop might drop the last reference to it, triggering a
+call to bdput() that releases the last reference holding a block device
+open. That will trigger a call to lo_release(), which will drop the
+reference on the underlying file structure, which is almost certainly the
+last one at that point. This case is still not a problem; while we do have
+the underlying struct file pinned by something held by another struct file,
+the dependency graph is acyclic, so the plain refcounts we are using work
+The same goes for the things like e.g. ecryptfs opening an underlying
+(encrypted) file on open() and dropping it when the last reference to
+ecryptfs file is dropped; the only difference here is that the underlying
+struct file never appears in anyone's descriptor tables.
+However, in a couple of cases we do have something trickier.
+File references and SCM_RIGHTS
+The SCM_RIGHTS datagram option with Unix-domain sockets can be used to
+transfer a file descriptor, and its associated struct file reference, to
+the receiving process. That brings about a couple of situations where
+things can go wrong.
+Case 1: an SCM_RIGHTS datagram can be sent to an AF_UNIX socket. That
+converts the caller-supplied array of descriptors into an array of struct
+file references, which gets attached to the packet we queue. When the
+datagram is received, the struct file references are moved into the
+descriptor table of the recepient or, in case of error, dropped. Note that
+sending some descriptors in an SCM_RIGHTS datagram and closing them
+immediately is perfectly legitimate: as soon as sendmsg() returns you can
+go ahead and close the descriptors you've sent. The references for the
+recipient are already acquired, so you don't need to wait for the packet to
+be received.
+That would still be simple, if not for the fact that there's nothing to
+stop you from passing AF_UNIX sockets themselves around in the same way.
+In fact, that has legitimate uses and, most of the time, doesn't cause any
+complications at all. However, it is possible to get the situation when
+the following happens:
+ * struct file instances A and B are both AF_UNIX sockets.
+ * The only reference to A is in the SCM_RIGHTS packet that sits in the
+ receiving queue of B.
+ * The only reference to B is in the SCM_RIGHTS packet that sits in the
+ receiving queue of A.
+That, of course, is where pure refcounting of any kind will break.
+The SCM_RIGHTS datagram that contains the sole reference to A can't be
+received without the recepient getting hold of a reference to B. That
+cannot happen until somebody manages to receive the SCM_RIGHTS datagram
+containing the sole reference to B. But that cannot happen until that
+somebody manages to get hold of a reference to A, which cannot happen until
+the first SCM_RIGHTS datagram is received.
+Dropping the last reference to A would have discarded everything in its
+receiving queue, including the SCM_RIGHTS datagram that contains the
+reference to B; however, that can't happen either; the other SCM_RIGHTS
+datagram would have to be either received or discarded first, etc.
+Case 2: similar, with a bit of a twist. An AF_UNIX socket used for
+descriptor passing is normally set up by socket(), followed by connect().
+As soon as connect() returns, one can start sending. Note that connect()
+does *NOT* wait for the recepient to call accept(); it creates the object
+that will serve as the low-level part of the other end of connection
+(complete with received packet queue) and stashes that object into the
+queue of the *listener's* socket. A subsequent accept() call fetches it
+from there and attaches it to a new socket, completing the setup; in the
+meanwhile, sending packets works fine. Once accept() is done, it'll see
+the stuff you'd sent already in the queue of the new socket and everything
+works fine.
+If the listening socket gets closed without accept() having been called,
+its queue is flushed, discarding all pending connection attempts, complete
+with *their* queues. Which is the same effect as accept() + close(), so
+again, normally everything just works. However, consider the case when we
+ * struct file instances A and B being AF_UNIX sockets.
+ * A is a listener
+ * B is an established connection, with the other end yet to be accepted
+ on A
+ * The only references to A and B are in an SCM_RIGHTS datagram sent over
+ to A by B.
+That SCM_RIGHTS datagram could have been received if somebody had managed
+to call accept() on A and recvmsg() on the socket created by that accept()
+call. But that can't happen without that somebody getting hold of a
+reference to A in the first place, which can't happen without having
+received that SCM_RIGHTS datagram. It can't be discarded either, since
+that can't happen without dropping the last reference to A, which sits
+right in it.
+The difference from the previous case is that there we had:
+ * A holds unix_sock of A
+ * unix_sock of A holds SCM_RIGHTS with reference to B
+ * B holds unix_sock of B
+ * unix_sock of B holds SCM_RIGHTS with reference to A
+and here we have:
+ * A holds unix_sock of A
+ * unix_sock of A holds the packet with reference to embryonic unix_sock
+ created by connect()
+ * that embryionic unix_sock holds SCM_RIGHTS with references to A and B.
+The dependency graph is different, but the problem is the same; there are
+unreachable loops in it. Note that neither class of situations
+would occur normally; in the best case it's "somebody had been
+doing rather convoluted descriptor passing, but everyone involved
+got hit with kill -9 at the wrong time; please, make sure nothing
+leaks". That can happen, but a userland race (e.g. botched protocol
+handling of some sort) or a deliberate abuse are much more likely.
+Catching the loop creation is hard and paying for that every time we do
+descriptor-passing would be a bad idea. Besides, the loop per se is not
+fatal; if, for example, in the second case the descriptor for A had been
+kept around, close(accept()) would've cleaned everything up. Which means
+that we need a garbage collector to deal with the (rare) leaks.
+Note that, in both cases, the leaks are caused by loops passing through
+some SCM_RIGHTS datagrams that can never be received. So locating those,
+removing them from the queues they sit in and then discarding the suckers,
+is enough to resolve the situation. Furthermore, in both cases the loop
+passes through the unix_sock of something that got sent over in an
+SCM_RIGHTS datagram. So we can do the following:
+ 1) Keep the count of references to file structures of AF_UNIX sockets
+ held by SCM_RIGHTS; this value is kept in unix_sock->inflight. Any
+ struct unix_sock instance without such references is not a part of
+ unreachable loop. Maintain the set of unix_sock that are not excluded
+ by that (i.e. the ones that have some of references from SCM_RIGHTS
+ instances). Note that we don't need to maintain those counts in
+ struct file; we care only about unix_sock here.
+ 2) Any struct file of an AF_UNIX socket with some references *NOT* from
+ SCM_RIGHTS datagrams is also not a part of unreachable loop.
+ 3) For each unix_sock, consider the following set of SCM_RIGHTS
+ datagrams: everything in the queue of that unix_sock if it's a
+ non-listener, and everything in queues of *all* embryonic unix_sock
+ structs in the queue of a listener. Let's call those the SCM_RIGHTS
+ associated with our unix_sock.
+ 4) All SCM_RIGHTS associated with a reachable unix_sock are themselves
+ reachable.
+ 5) if some references to the struct file of a unix_sock are in reachable
+ SCM_RIGHTS, that struct file is reachable.
+The garbage collector starts with calculating the set of potentially
+unreachable unix_socks: the ones not excluded by (1, 2). No unix_sock
+instances outside of that set need to be considered.
+If some unix_sock in that set has a counter that is *not* entirely covered
+by SCM_RIGHTS associated with the elements of the set, we can conclude that
+there are references to it in SCM_RIGHTS associated with something outside
+of our set and therefore it is reachable and can be removed from the set.
+If that process converges to a non-empty set, we know that everything left
+in that set is unreachable - all references to their struct file come from
+some SCM_RIGHTS datagrams, and all those SCM_RIGHTS datagrams are among
+those that can't be received or discarded without getting hold of a
+reference to struct file of something in our set.
+Everything outside of that set is reachable, so taking the SCM_RIGHTS with
+references to stuff in our set (all of them to be found among those
+associated with elements of our set) out of the queues they are in will
+break all unreachable loops. Discarding the collected datagrams will do
+the rest - the file references in those will be dropped, etc.
+One thing to keep in mind here is the locking. What the garbage
+collector relies upon is:
+ * Changes to ->inflight are serialized with respect to it (on
+ unix_gc_lock; increments are done by unix_inflight(), decrements by
+ unix_notinflight()).
+ * Any references extracted from SCM_RIGHTS during the garbage collector
+ run will not be actually used until the end of garbage collection. For
+ a normal recvmsg() call, this behavior is guaranteed by having
+ unix_notinflight() called between the extraction of scm_fp_list from
+ the packet and doing anything else with the references extracted. For
+ a MSG_PEEK recvmsg() call, it's actually broken and lacks
+ synchronization; Miklos has proposed to grab and release unix_gc_lock
+ in those, between scm_fp_dup() and doing anything else with the
+ references copied.
+.. FIXME: The above should be updates when the fix happens.
+ * adding SCM_RIGHTS in the middle of garbage collection is possible, but
+ in that case it will contain no references to anything in the initial
+ candidate set.
+The last one is delicate. SCM_RIGHTS creation has unix_inflight() called
+for each reference we put there, so it's serialized with respect to
+unix_gc(); however, insertion into the queue is *NOT* covered by that.
+Queue rescans are covered, but each queue has a lock of its own and they
+are definitely not going to be held throughout the whole thing.
+So in theory it would be possible to have:
+ * thread A: sendmsg() has SCM_RIGHTS created and populated, complete with
+ file refcount and ->inflight increments implied, at which point it gets
+ preempted and loses the timeslice.
+ * thread B: gets to run and removes all references from descriptor table
+ it shares with thread A.
+ * on another CPU we have the garbage collector triggered; it determines
+ the set of potentially unreachable unix_sock and everything in our
+ SCM_RIGHTS _is_ in that set, now that no other references remain.
+ * on the first CPU, thread A regains the timeslice and inserts its
+ SCM_RIGHTS into queue. And it does contain references to sockets from
+ the candidate set of running garbage collector, confusing the hell out
+ of it.
+That is avoided by a convoluted dance around the SCM_RIGHTS creation
+and insertion - we use fget() to obtain struct file references,
+then _duplicate_ them in SCM_RIGHTS (bumping a refcount for each, so
+we are holding *two* references), do unix_inflight() on them, then
+queue the damn thing, then drop each reference we got from fget().
+That way everything referred to in that SCM_RIGHTS is going to have
+extra struct file references (and thus be excluded from the initial
+candidate set) until after it gets inserted into queue. In other
+words, if it does appear in a queue between two passes, it's
+guaranteed to contain no references to anything in the initial
+candidate set.
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