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The Linux Kernel's Implementation

The Linux kernel has a unique approach to traversing linked lists. When traversing a linked list, unless ordering is important, it does not matter if you start at the head element; in fact, it doesn't matter where you start at all! All that matters is that you visit each and every node. Indeed, we do not even need the concept of a first and last node. If a circular linked list simply contains a collection of unordered data, any element can be the head element. To traverse the list, simply pick an element and follow the pointers until you get back to the original element. This removes the need for a special head pointer. Additionally, the routines for manipulating a linked list are simplified. Each routine simply needs a pointer to a single element in the listany element. The kernel hackers are particularly proud of this clever implementation.

Linked lists in the kernel, as with any complex program, are common. For example, the kernel uses a linked list to store the task list: Each process's task_struct is an element in the linked list.

The Linked-List Structure

In the old days, there were multiple implementations of linked lists in the kernel. A single, powerful linked list implementation was needed to remove duplicate code. During the 2.1 kernel development series, the official kernel linked-list implementation was introduced. All existing uses of linked lists now use the official implementation: All new users must use the existing interface, we are serious about this, do not reinvent the wheel.

The linked-list code is declared in <linux/list.h> and the data structure is simple:

struct list_head {
        struct list_head *next
        struct list_head *prev;

Note the curious name, list_head. The name takes a cue from the fact that there is no head node. Instead, because the list can be traversed starting with any given element, each element is in effect a head. Thus, the individual nodes are all called list heads.

The next pointer points to the next element in the list and the prev pointer points to the previous element. Thanks to the kernel's elegant list implementation with no concept of start or finish, you can ignore any concept of first and last element. Consider the list a big cycle with no start or finish.

A list_head by itself is worthless; it is normally embedded inside your own structure:

struct my_struct {
        struct list_head list;
        unsigned long dog;
        void *cat;

The list needs to be initialized before it can be used. Because most of the elements are created dynamically (probably why you need a linked list), the most common way of initializing the linked list is at runtime:

struct my_struct *p;
/* allocate my_struct .. */
p->dog = 0;
p->cat = NULL;

If the structure is statically created at compile time, and you have a direct reference to it, you can simply do this:

struct my_struct mine = {
  .list  = LIST_HEAD_INIT(mine.list),
  .dog  = 0,
  .cat  = NULL

To declare and initialize a static list directly, use

static LIST_HEAD(fox);

This declares and initializes a static list named fox.

You should never actually need to play with the internal members of the linked list. Instead, just embed the structure in your data, and you can make use of the linked list interface to easily manipulate and traverse your data.

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