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Implementation of Interrupt Handling

Perhaps not surprising, the implementation of the interrupt handling system in Linux is very architecture dependent. The implementation depends on the processor, the type of interrupt controller used, and the design of the architecture and machine itself.

Figure 6.1 is a diagram of the path an interrupt takes through hardware and the kernel.

Figure 6.1. The path that an interrupt takes from hardware and on through the kernel.

A device issues an interrupt by sending an electric signal over its bus to the interrupt controller. If the interrupt line is enabled (they can be masked out), the interrupt controller sends the interrupt to the processor. In most architectures, this is accomplished by an electrical signal that is sent over a special pin to the processor. Unless interrupts are disabled in the processor (which can also happen), the processor immediately stops what it is doing, disables the interrupt system, and jumps to a predefined location in memory and executes the code located there. This predefined point is set up by the kernel and is the entry point for interrupt handlers.

The interrupt's journey in the kernel begins at this predefined entry point, just as system calls enter the kernel through a predefined exception handler. For each interrupt line, the processor jumps to a unique location in memory and executes the code located there. In this manner, the kernel knows the IRQ number of the incoming interrupt. The initial entry point simply saves this value and stores the current register values (which belong to the interrupted task) on the stack; then the kernel calls do_IRQ(). From here onward, most of the interrupt handling code is written in Chowever, it is still architecture dependent.

The do_IRQ() function is declared as

unsigned int do_IRQ(struct pt_regs regs)

Because the C calling convention places function arguments at the top of the stack, the pt_regs structure contains the initial register values that were previously saved in the assembly entry routine. Because the interrupt value was also saved, do_IRQ() can extract it. The x86 code is

int irq = regs.orig_eax & 0xff;

After the interrupt line is calculated, do_IRQ() acknowledges the receipt of the interrupt and disables interrupt delivery on the line. On normal PC machines, these operations are handled by mask_and_ack_8259A(), which do_IRQ() calls.

Next, do_IRQ() ensures that a valid handler is registered on the line, and that it is enabled and not currently executing. If so, it calls handle_IRQ_event() to run the installed interrupt handlers for the line. On x86, handle_IRQ_event() is

asmlinkage int handle_IRQ_event(unsigned int irq, struct pt_regs *regs,
                                struct irqaction *action)
        int status = 1;
        int retval = 0;

        if (!(action->flags & SA_INTERRUPT))

        do {
                status |= action->flags;
                retval |= action->handler(irq, action->dev_id, regs);
                action = action->next;
        } while (action);

        if (status & SA_SAMPLE_RANDOM)


        return retval;

First, because the processor disabled interrupts, they are turned back on unless SA_INTERRUPT was specified during the handler's registration. Recall that SA_INTERRUPT specifies that the handler must be run with interrupts disabled. Next, each potential handler is executed in a loop. If this line is not shared, the loop terminates after the first iteration. Otherwise, all handlers are executed. After that, add_interrupt_randomness() is called if SA_SAMPLE_RANDOM was specified during registration. This function uses the timing of the interrupt to generate entropy for the random number generator. Appendix B, "Kernel Random Number Generator," has more information on the kernel's random number generator. Finally, interrupts are again disabled (do_IRQ() expects them still to be off) and the function returns. Back in do_IRQ(), the function cleans up and returns to the initial entry point, which then jumps to ret_from_intr().

The routine ret_from_intr() is, as with the initial entry code, written in assembly. This routine checks whether a reschedule is pending (recall from Chapter 4, "Process Scheduling," that this implies that need_resched is set). If a reschedule is pending, and the kernel is returning to user-space (that is, the interrupt interrupted a user process), schedule() is called. If the kernel is returning to kernel-space (that is, the interrupt interrupted the kernel itself), schedule() is called only if the preempt_count is zero (otherwise it is not safe to preempt the kernel). After schedule() returns, or if there is no work pending, the initial registers are restored and the kernel resumes whatever was interrupted.

On x86, the initial assembly routines are located in arch/i386/kernel/entry.S and the C methods are located in arch/i386/kernel/irq.c. Other supported architectures are similar.


Procfs is a virtual filesystem that exists only in kernel memory and is typically mounted at /proc. Reading or writing files in procfs invokes kernel functions that simulate reading or writing from a real file. A relevant example is the /proc/interrupts file, which is populated with statistics related to interrupts on the system. Here is sample output from a uniprocessor PC:

 0:   3602371   XT-PIC   timer
 1:   3048      XT-PIC   i8042
 2:   0         XT-PIC   cascade
 4:   2689466   XT-PIC   uhci-hcd, eth0
 5:   0         XT-PIC   EMU10K1
 12:  85077     XT-PIC   uhci-hcd
 15:  24571     XT-PIC   aic7xxx
NMI:  0 
LOC:  3602236 
ERR:  0

The first column is the interrupt line. On this system, interrupts numbered 02, 4, 5, 12, and 15 are present. Handlers are not installed on lines not displayed. The second column is a counter of the number of interrupts received. A column is present for each processor on the system, but this machine has only one processor. As you can see, the timer interrupt has received 3,602,371 interrupts[2], whereas the sound card (EMU10K1) has received none (which is an indication that it has not been used since the machine booted). The third column is the interrupt controller handling this interrupt. XT-PIC corresponds to the standard PC programmable interrupt controller. On systems with an I/O APIC, most interrupts would list IO-APIC-level or IO-APIC-edge as their interrupt controller. Finally, the last column is the device associated with this interrupt. This name is supplied by the devname parameter to request_irq(), as discussed previously. If the interrupt is shared, as is the case with interrupt number four in this example, all the devices registered on the interrupt line are listed.

[2] As an exercise, after reading Chapter 10, "Timers and Time Management," can you tell how long the system has been up (in terms of HZ), knowing the number of timer interrupts that have occurred?

For the curious, procfs code is located primarily in fs/proc. The function that provides /proc/interrupts is, not surprisingly, architecture dependent and named show_interrupts().

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