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Preemption and Context Switching

Context switching, the switching from one runnable task to another, is handled by the context_switch() function defined in kernel/sched.c. It is called by schedule() when a new process has been selected to run. It does two basic jobs:

  • Calls switch_mm(), which is defined in <asm/mmu_context.h>, to switch the virtual memory mapping from the previous process's to that of the new process.

  • Calls switch_to(), defined in <asm/system.h>, to switch the processor state from the previous process's to the current's. This involves saving and restoring stack information and the processor registers.

The kernel, however, must know when to call schedule(). If it called schedule() only when code explicitly did so, user-space programs could run indefinitely. Instead, the kernel provides the need_resched flag to signify whether a reschedule should be performed (see Table 4.2). This flag is set by scheduler_tick() when a process runs out of timeslice, and by TRy_to_wake_up() when a process that has a higher priority than the currently running process is awakened. The kernel checks the flag, sees that it is set, and calls schedule() to switch to a new process. The flag is a message to the kernel that the scheduler should be invoked as soon as possible because another process deserves to run. Upon returning to user-space or returning from an interrupt, the need_resched flag is checked. If it is set, the kernel invokes the scheduler before continuing.

Table 4.2. Functions for Accessing and Manipulating need_resched




Set the need_resched flag in the given process


Clear the need_resched flag in the given process


Test the value of the need_resched flag; return true if set and false otherwise

The flag is per-process, and not simply global, because it is faster to access a value in the process descriptor (because of the speed of current and high probability of it being in a cache line) than a global variable. Historically, the flag was global before the 2.2 kernel. In 2.2 and 2.4, the flag was an int inside the task_struct. In 2.6, it was moved into a single bit of a special flag variable inside the tHRead_info structure. As you can see, the kernel developers are never satisfied.

User Preemption

User preemption occurs when the kernel is about to return to user-space, need_resched is set, and therefore, the scheduler is invoked. If the kernel is returning to user-space, it knows it is in a safe quiescent state. In other words, if it is safe to continue executing the current task, it is also safe to pick a new task to execute. Consequently, whenever the kernel is preparing to return to user-space either on return from an interrupt or after a system call, the value of need_resched is checked. If it is set, the scheduler is invoked to select a new (more fit) process to execute. Both the return paths for return from interrupt and return from system call are architecture dependent and typically implemented in assembly in entry.S (which, aside from kernel entry code, also contains kernel exit code).

In short, user preemption can occur

  • When returning to user-space from a system call

  • When returning to user-space from an interrupt handler

Kernel Preemption

The Linux kernel, unlike most other Unix variants and many other operating systems, is a fully preemptive kernel. In non-preemptive kernels, kernel code runs until completion. That is, the scheduler is not capable of rescheduling a task while it is in the kernelkernel code is scheduled cooperatively, not preemptively. Kernel code runs until it finishes (returns to user-space) or explicitly blocks. In the 2.6 kernel, however, the Linux kernel became preemptive: It is now possible to preempt a task at any point, so long as the kernel is in a state in which it is safe to reschedule.

So when is it safe to reschedule? The kernel is capable of preempting a task running in the kernel so long as it does not hold a lock. That is, locks are used as markers of regions of non-preemptibility. Because the kernel is SMP-safe, if a lock is not held, the current code is reentrant and capable of being preempted.

The first change in supporting kernel preemption was the addition of a preemption counter, preempt_count, to each process's thread_info. This counter begins at zero and increments once for each lock that is acquired and decrements once for each lock that is released. When the counter is zero, the kernel is preemptible. Upon return from interrupt, if returning to kernel-space, the kernel checks the values of need_resched and preempt_count. If need_resched is set and preempt_count is zero, then a more important task is runnable and it is safe to preempt. Thus, the scheduler is invoked. If preempt_count is nonzero, a lock is held and it is unsafe to reschedule. In that case, the interrupt returns as usual to the currently executing task. When all the locks that the current task is holding are released, preempt_count returns to zero. At that time, the unlock code checks whether need_resched is set. If so, the scheduler is invoked. Enabling and disabling kernel preemption is sometimes required in kernel code and is discussed in Chapter 9.

Kernel preemption can also occur explicitly, when a task in the kernel blocks or explicitly calls schedule(). This form of kernel preemption has always been supported because no additional logic is required to ensure that the kernel is in a state that is safe to preempt. It is assumed that the code that explicitly calls schedule() knows it is safe to reschedule.

Kernel preemption can occur

  • When an interrupt handler exits, before returning to kernel-space

  • When kernel code becomes preemptible again

  • If a task in the kernel explicitly calls schedule()

  • If a task in the kernel blocks (which results in a call to schedule())

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