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Experiments with the Linux Kernel: Process Segments

By R. Krishnakumar

1. Introduction

Traditionally, a Unix process is divided into segments. The standard segments are code segment, data segment, BSS (block started by symbol), and stack segment.

The code segment contains the binary code of the program which is running as the process (a "process" is a program in execution). The data segment contains the initialized global variables and data structures. The BSS segment contains the uninitialized global data structures and finally, the stack segment contains the local variables, return addresses, etc. for the particular process.

Under Linux, a process can execute in two modes - user mode and kernel mode. A process usually executes in user mode, but can switch to kernel mode by making system calls. When a process makes a system call, the kernel takes control and does the requested service on behalf of the process. The process is said to be running in kernel mode during this time. When a process is running in user mode, it is said to be "in userland" and when it is running in kernel mode it is said to be "in kernel space". We will first have a look at how the process segments are dealt with in userland and then take a look at the bookkeeping on process segments done in kernel space.

2. Userland's view of the segments

The code segment consists of the code - the actual executable program. The code of all the functions we write in the program resides in this segment. The addresses of the functions will give us an idea where the code segment is. If we have a function foo() and let x be the address of foo (x = &foo;). we know that x will point within the code segment.

The Data segment consists of the initialized global variables of a program. The Operating system needs to know what values are used to initialize the global variables. The initialized variables are kept in the data segment. To get the address of the data segment we declare a global variable and then print out its address. This address must be inside the data segment.

The BSS consists of the uninitialized global variables of a process. To get an address which occurs inside the BSS, we declare an uninitialized global variable, then print its address.

The automatic variables (or local variables) will be allocated on the stack, so printing out the addresses of local variables will provide us with the addresses within the stack segment.

3. A C program

Let's have a look at the following C program:

 1 #include <stdio.h>
 2 #include <stdlib.h>
 3 #include <sys/types.h>
 4 #include <unistd.h>
 6 int our_init_data = 30;
 7 int our_noinit_data;
 9 void our_prints(void)
10 {
11         int our_local_data = 1;
12         printf("\nPid of the process is = %d", getpid());
13         printf("\nAddresses which fall into:");
14         printf("\n 1) Data  segment = %p",
15                 &our_init_data);
16         printf("\n 2) BSS   segment = %p",
17                 &our_noinit_data);
18         printf("\n 3) Code  segment = %p",
19                 &our_prints);
20         printf("\n 4) Stack segment = %p\n",
21                 &our_local_data);
23         while(1);
24 }
26 int main()
27 {
28         our_prints();
29         return 0;
30 }
We can see that lines 6 and 7 declare two global variables. One is initialized and one is uninitialized. Per the previous discussion, the initialized variable will fall into the data segment and the uninitialized variable will fall into the BSS segment. Lines 14-17 print the addresses of the variables.

We also know that the address of the function our_prints will fall into the code segment, so that if we print the address of this function, we will get a value which falls into the code segment. This is done in lines 18-19.

Finally we print the address of a local variable. This automatic variable's address will be within the stack segment.

4. Execution of a userland program

When we execute a userland program, similar to the one given above, what happens is that the shell will fork() and exec() the new program. The exec() code inside the kernel will figure out what format the binary is in (ELF, a.out, etc.) and will call the corresponding handler for that format. For example when an ELF format file is loaded, the function load_elf_binary() from fs/binfmt_elf.c takes care of initializing the kernel data structures for the particular process. Details of this portion of loading will not be dealt with here, as that in itself is a topic for another article :-) The point here is that the code which loads the executable into the kernel fills in the kernel data structures.

5. Memory-related data structures in the kernel

In the Linux kernel, every process has an associated struct task_struct. The definition of this struct is in the header file include/linux/sched.h. The following snippet is from the 2.6.10 Linux kernel source code (only the needed fields and a few nearby fields are shown):

struct task_struct {
        volatile long state;    /* -1 unrunnable, 0 runnable, >0 stopped */
        struct thread_info *thread_info;
        atomic_t usage;
        struct mm_struct *mm, *active_mm;
        pid_t pid;
        char comm[16];
Three members of the data structure are relevant to us:
  1. pid contains the Process ID of the process.
  2. comm holds the name of the process.
  3. The mm_struct within the task_struct is the key to all memory management activities related to the process.
The mm_struct is defined in include/linux/sched.h as:
struct mm_struct {
        struct vm_area_struct * mmap;           /* list of VMAs */
        struct rb_root mm_rb;
        struct vm_area_struct * mmap_cache;     /* last find_vma result */
        unsigned long start_code, end_code, start_data, end_data;
        unsigned long start_brk, brk, start_stack;
Here the first member of importance is the mmap. The mmap contains the pointer to the list of VMAs (Virtual Memory Areas) related to this process. Full usage of the process address space occurs very rarely. The sparse regions used are denoted by VMAs. So each VMA will contain information about a single region. The VMAs are stored in struct vm_area_struct defined in linux/mm.h:
struct vm_area_struct {
        struct mm_struct * vm_mm;       /* The address space we belong to. */
        unsigned long vm_start;         /* Our start address within vm_mm. */
        unsigned long vm_end;           /* The first byte after our end address
                                           within vm_mm. */
        /* linked list of VM areas per task, sorted by address */
        struct vm_area_struct *vm_next;

6. Kernel's view of the segments

The kernel keeps track of the segments which have been allocated to a particular process using the above structures. For each segment, the kernel allocates a VMA. It keeps track of these segments in the mm_struct structures.

The kernel tracks the data segment using two variables: start_data and end_data. The code segment boundaries are in the start_code and end_code variables. The stack segment is covered by the single variable start_stack. There is no special variable to keep track of the BSS segment — the VMA corresponding to the BSS accounts for it.

7. A kernel module

Let's have a look at the code for a kernel module:

 1 #include <linux/init.h>
 2 #include <linux/kernel.h>
 3 #include <linux/module.h>
 4 #include <linux/sched.h>
 5 #include <linux/mm.h>
 7 static int pid_mem = 1;
 9 static void print_mem(struct task_struct *task)
10 {
11         struct mm_struct *mm;
12         struct vm_area_struct *vma;
13         int count = 0;
14         mm = task->mm;
15         printk("\nThis mm_struct has %d vmas.\n", mm->map_count);
16         for (vma = mm->mmap ; vma ; vma = vma->vm_next) {
17                 printk ("\nVma number %d: \n", ++count);
18                 printk("  Starts at 0x%lx, Ends at 0x%lx\n",
19                           vma->vm_start, vma->vm_end);
20         }
21         printk("\nCode  Segment start = 0x%lx, end = 0x%lx \n"
22                  "Data  Segment start = 0x%lx, end = 0x%lx\n"
23                  "Stack Segment start = 0x%lx\n",
24                  mm->start_code, mm->end_code,
25                  mm->start_data, mm->end_data,
26                  mm->start_stack);
27 }
29 static int mm_exp_load(void){
30         struct task_struct *task;
31         printk("\nGot the process id to look up as %d.\n", pid_mem);
32         for_each_process(task) {
33                 if ( task->pid == pid_mem) {
34                         printk("%s[%d]\n", task->comm, task->pid);
35                         print_mem(task);
36                 }
37         }
38         return 0;
39 }
41 static void mm_exp_unload(void)
42 {
43         printk("\nPrint segment information module exiting.\n");
44 }
46 module_init(mm_exp_load);
47 module_exit(mm_exp_unload);
48 module_param(pid_mem, int, 0);
50 MODULE_AUTHOR ("Krishnakumar. R, rkrishnakumar@gmail.com");
51 MODULE_DESCRIPTION ("Print segment information");

The module accepts the pid of the process, which it should dissect, as its parameter (line 48). The module will go through the list of processes in the kernel (32-37), and when it finds the required pid, it will call the function 'print_mem' function which will print the details from the memory management related data structures of the kernel.

8. Let us get into execution mode

I ran the C program given in the earlier section and, while it was still running, loaded the kernel module with the pid of the process. Please note that the program was compiledstatically (-static) rather than dynamically, to avoid the unnecessary complication of shared libraries. Here is what I got:

# ./print_segments &
Pid of the process is = 3283
Addresses which fall into:
 1) Data  segment = 0x80a000c
 2) BSS   segment = 0x80a1a10
 3) Code  segment = 0x80481f4
 4) Stack segment = 0xbffff8e4

# /sbin/insmod print_kern_ds.ko pid_mem=3283

Got the process id to look up as 3283.

This mm_struct has 5 vmas.

Vma number 1:
  Starts at 0x8048000, Ends at 0x80a0000

Vma number 2:
  Starts at 0x80a0000, Ends at 0x80a1000

Vma number 3:
  Starts at 0x80a1000, Ends at 0x80c3000

Vma number 4:
  Starts at 0xb7fff000, Ends at 0xb8000000

Vma number 5:
  Starts at 0xbffff000, Ends at 0xc0000000

Code  Segment start = 0x8048000, end = 0x809fc38
Data  Segment start = 0x80a0000, end = 0x80a0ec4
Stack Segment start = 0xbffffb30
Let's analyze the output. According to the userland program the address 0x80a000c should fall into the data segment. This can be verified by looking into the information we got from the kernel module, on printing the Data segment starting address and VMA number 2. For the code segment, it is starting at 0x8048000 as per the kernel data structures. Also according to the userland program the address 0x80481f4 should fall into the code segment. Hence userland and kernel tallies.

Now, lets look at the Stack segment: the userland program says that the address 0xbffff8e4 should fall into it and kernel data structures states that stack will start from 0xbffffb30. In a 386-based architecture the stack grows downwards. The BSS is not stored in any particular variable of the kernel, but there is a VMA allocated for the corresponding location - from the userland program, the address 0x80a1a10 should come inside the BSS, and a look at VMA 3 makes it clear that this is the corresponding VMA for the BSS.

9. Gathering Information from /proc

We have been using custom programs to explore the contents of the data structures inside the kernel, but the kernel provides a standard interface for us to access such information. The memory maps of a particular process can be obtained by doing a 'cat /proc/<pid>/maps' where <pid> should be the pid of the process of which we need to get the details about. When I ran it, the program used pid 3283; here is the memory map, trimmed to fit:

# cat /proc/3283/maps | cut -f1 -d' '
A close look at the output shows that the first region corresponds to the code segment, the second region matches the data segment, the third is the BSS segment and the 5th region corresponds to the stack segment.

10. Conclusion

We have looked at the userland perspective of how the segments are treated for a program. Then we examined the data structures in the kernel which keep track of the segments. We verified that our assumptions are correct using userland and kernel programs. Finally we used the standard kernel interface to obtain information regarding the memory regions of a specific process.


[BIO] Krishnakumar loves to hack the Linux kernel. He works for Hewlett-Packard and is a BTech from Govt. Engg. College Thrissur.

Copyright © 2005, R. Krishnakumar. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 112 of Linux Gazette, March 2005

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