Rapidly detecting Linux kernel source features for driver deployment

A while back I wrote about, a technique for auto-detecting Linux kernel features, in order to improve portability of an open source, out-of-tree filesystem driver I developed as part of ElectricAccelerator. has enabled me to maintain compatibility across a wide range of Linux kernels with relative ease, but recently I noticed that the script was unacceptably slow. On the virtual machines in our test lab, required nearly 65 seconds to execute. For my 11-person team, a conservative estimate of time wasted waiting for is nearly an entire person-month per year. With a little effort, I was able to reduce execution time to about 7 seconds, nearly 10x faster! Here’s how I did it.

A brief review of is a technique for detecting the source code features of a Linux kernel. Like autoconf configure scripts, uses a series of trivial C source files to probe for various kernel source features, like the presence or absence of the big kernel lock. For example, here’s the code used to determine whether the kernel has the set_nlink() helper function:

#include <linux/fs.h>
void dummy(struct inode *i)
set_nlink(i, 0);

If a particular test file compiles successfully, the feature is present; if the compile fails, the feature is absent. The test results are used to set a series of C preprocessor #define directives, which in turn are used to conditionally compile driver code suitable for the host kernel.

Reaching the breaking point

When I first implemented in 2009 we only supported a few versions of the Linux kernel. Since then our support matrix has swollen to include every variant from 2.6.9 through 3.5.0, including quirky “enterprise” distributions that habitually backport advanced features without changing the reported kernel version. But platform support tends to be a mostly one-way street: once something is in the matrix, it’s very hard to pull it out. As a consequence, the number of feature tests in has grown too, from about a dozen in the original implementation to over 50 in the latest version. Here’s a real-time recording of a recent version of on one of the virtual machines in our test lab: executing on a test system; click for full size

Accelerator actually has two instances of, one for each of the two kernel drivers we bundle, which means every time we install Accelerator we burn about 2 minutes waiting for — 25% of the 8 minutes total it takes to run the install. All told I think a conservative estimate is that this costs my team nearly one full person-month of time per year, between time waiting for CI builds (which do automated installs), time waiting for manual installs (for testing and verification) and my own time spent waiting when I’m making updates to support new kernel versions. The Next Generation

I had a hunch about the source of the performance problem: the Linux kernel build system. Remember, the pattern repeated for each feature test in the original is as follows:

  1. Emit a simple C source file, called test.c.
  2. Invoke the kernel build system, using make and a trivial kernel module makefile:
    conftest-objs := test.o
    obj-m := conftest.o
    EXTRA_CFLAGS += -Werror
  3. Check the exit status from make to decide whether the test succeeded or failed.

The C sources used to probe for features are trivial, so it seemed unlikely that the compilation itself would take so long. But we don’t have to speculate — if we use Electric Make instead of GNU make to run the test, we can use the annotated build log and ElectricInsight to see exactly what’s going on:

ElectricInsight visualization of Linux kernel module build, click for full size.

Overall, using the kernel build system to compile this single file takes nearly 2 seconds — not a big deal with only a few tests, but it adds up quickly. To be clear, the only part we actually care about is the box labeled /root/__conftest__/test.o, which is about 1/4 second. The remaining 1 1/2 seconds? Pure overhead. Perhaps most surprising is the amount of time burned just parsing the kernel makefiles — the huge bright cyan box on the left edge, as well as the smaller bright cyan boxes in the middle. Nearly 50% of the total time is just spent parsing!

At this point an idea struck me: there’s no particular reason must invoke the kernel build system separately for each probe. Why not write out all the probe files upfront and invoke the kernel build system just once to compile them all in a single pass? In fact, with this strategy you can even use parallel make (eg, make -j 4) to eke out a little bit more speed.

Of course, you can’t use the exit status from make with this approach, since there’s only one invocation for many tests. Instead, can give each test file a descriptive name, and then check for the existence of the corresponding .o file after make finishes. If the file is present, the feature is present; otherwise the feature is absent. Here’s the revised algorithm:

  1. Emit a distinct C source file for each kernel feature test. For example, the sample shown above might be created as set_nlink.c. Another might be write_begin.c.
  2. Invoke the kernel build system, using make -j 4 and a slightly less trivial kernel module makefile:
    conftest-objs := set_nlink.o write_begin.o ...
    obj-m := conftest.o
    EXTRA_CFLAGS += -Werror
  3. Check for the existence of each .o file, using something like if [ -f set_nlink.o ] ; then … ; fi to decide whether the test succeeded or failed.

The net result? After an afternoon of refactoring, now completes in about 7 seconds, nearly 10x faster than the original:

Updated executing on a test system, click for full size.

The only drawback I can see is that the script no longer has that satisfying step-by-step output, instead dumping everything out at once after a brief pause. I’m perfectly happy to trade that for the improved performance!

Future Work and Availability

This new strategy has significantly improved the usability of After I finished the conversion, I wondered if the same technique could be applied to autoconf configure scripts. Unfortunately I find autoconf nearly impossible to work with, so I didn’t make much progress exploring that idea. Perhaps one of my more daring (or stubborn) readers will take the ball and run with it there. If you do, please comment below to let us know the results!

The new version of is used in ElectricAccelerator 6.2, and can also be seen in the open source Loopback File System (lofs) on my Github repo.


  1. […] themselves not finalized at the time Accelerator 6.2 was released. This release also incorporates enhancements to the Linux installer which make the installation process about 25% faster compared to previous […]

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