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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Some Generic Kernel Techniques

The discussion of operating system internals presents many challenges and opportunities to an author. Our approach is to discuss each area of the kernel, consider the challenges faced by kernel designers, and then explore the path taken toward the final solution implemented in the HP-UX code.

Before we talk about HP-UX specifics, let's discuss some generic challenges faced by kernel designers. As with any programming assignment, there are frequently many different ways to approach and solve a problem. Sometimes the decision is based on the programmer's past experience, and sometimes it is dictated by the specific requirements of each kernel design feature. As an operating system matures, these individual point solutions are often modified or "tweaked" in order to tune a kernel's operating parameters and bring them into alignment with performance objectives or system benchmark metrics. The HP-UX operating system is the product of a continuous improvement process that has enabled the refinement of core features and introduced many enhancements and services over the years.

Kernel Data Structures

Programmers often use algorithms or borrow coding techniques from a "bag-of-tricks" that belongs to the software development community at large. This common knowledge base contains many elements of special interest to those who craft operating system code. Let's explore some of the challenges that kernel programmers face and try to develop a basic understanding of a few of the common programmatic solutions they employ.

Static Lists (Static Tables)

The kernel often needs to maintain an extensive list of parameters related to some data structure or managed resource. The simplest way to store this type of data is to create an ordered, static list of the attributes of each member of the list.

Each data structure is defined according to the individual pieces of data assigned to each element. Once each parameter is typed, the size (in bytes) of the structure is known. These structures are then stored in contiguous kernel space (as an array of structures) and may be easily indexed for fast access.

As a general observation, and by no means a hard and fast rule, the naming convention of these lists may resemble the following pattern (see Figure 3-3). If the name of the data structure for a single member of the list is defined as data_t, then the kernel pointer to the start of the list would be data*. The list could also be referenced by an array named data[x], and the number of elements would be stored in ndata. Many examples in the kernel follow this convention, but by no means all of them.

03fig03.gifFigure 3-3. Tables and Lists



The space needed for a static list must be allocated during system initialization and is often controlled by a kernel-tunable parameter, which is set prior to the building of the kernel image. The first entry in a static data table has the index value of 0, which facilitates easy calculation of the starting address of each element within the table (assuming a fixed size for each member element).

  • Example

    Assume that each data structure contains exactly 64 bytes of data and that the beginning of the static list is defined by the kernel symbol mylist. If you wanted to access the data for the list member with an index number of 14, you could simply take the address stored in the kernel pointer mylist* and add 14 × 64 to it to arrive at the byte address corresponding to the beginning of the 15th element in the list (don't forget that the list index starts with 0). If the structure is defined as an array, you could simplify the access by referencing mylist[14] in your code.


The main drawback to this approach is that the kernel must provide enough list elements for all potential scenarios that it may encounter. Many system administrators are considered godlike, but very few are truly clairvoyant! In the case of a static list, the only way for it to grow is for the kernel to be rebuilt and the system rebooted.

Another consideration is that the resource being managed must have an index number associated with it wherever it needs to be referenced within the kernel. While this may seem simple at first, think about the scenarios of initial assignment, index number reuse, resource sharing and locking, and so on.


While this type of structure is historically one of the most common, its lack of dynamic sizing and requirement to plan for the worst case has put it on the hit list for many kernel improvement projects.

Dynamic Linked Lists (Dynamic Tables)

The individual elements of a list must be maintained in a manner that allows the kernel to monitor and manage them. Unlike the elements in a static list, all the elements of a dynamic list are not neatly grouped together in a contiguous memory space. Their individual locations and relative order are not known or predictable to the kernel (as the name "dynamic" indicates).

It is a relatively simple task to add elements to a list as they are requested (providing the kernel has an efficient kernel memory-management algorithm, which is discussed later). Once a data structure has been allocated, it must be linked with other structures of the same list. Linkage methods vary in complexity and convenience.

Once a structure has been allocated and the correct data stored, the challenge is in accessing the data in a timely manner. A simple index will not suffice due to the noncontiguous nature of the individual list elements. The choice is to "walk" the list by following forward pointers inserted into each list element as a means of building a continuous path through the list or to implement some other type of index data structure or hash function. While a hash greatly reduces the access/search time, it is a calculated overhead and must be used each time an item in the list is needed.

An additional challenge comes when it is time for the kernel to clean up a structure that is no longer needed. If the individual elements of the list have been simply linked by a single forward-linkage pointer, then the task of removing a single element from the list can be time consuming. The list element, which points to the element to be removed, must be identified in order to repair the break in the chain that the removal will cause. These requirements lead to the development of bidirectional linkage schemes, which allow for quicker deletion but require additional overhead during setup and maintenance.


The main attraction to the dynamic list is that the resources consumed by the list are only allocated as they are needed. If the need arises for additional list elements, they are simply allocated on the fly, and a kernel rebuild and reboot are not needed. In addition, when a list element is no longer needed, its space may be returned to the kernel pool of available memory. This could reduce the overall size of the kernel, which may positively affect performance on a system with tight memory size constraints.


Nothing is free when it comes to programming code! The convenience of dynamic lists comes with several associated costs. The kernel must have an efficient way to allocate and reclaim memory resources of varying sizes (different list structures have different element size requirements).

The challenge of how to link individual list elements together increases the complexity and size of each data structure in the list (more choices to be evaluated by the kernel designer!). The dynamic list creates additional challenges in the realm of searching algorithms and indexing.


The current movement is clearly toward a totally dynamic kernel, which necessitates incorporation of an ever-increasing number and variety of dynamic lists. The challenge for the modern kernel designer is to help perfect the use and maintenance of dynamic lists. There is ample opportunity here to think outside the box and create unique solutions to the indexing and linkage challenges.

Resource Allocation

An early challenge for a kernel designer is to track the usage of a system resource. The resource may be memory, disk space, or available kernel data structures themselves. Any item that may be used and reused throughout the operational life cycle of the system must to be tracked by the kernel.

Bit Allocation Maps

A bitmap is perhaps one of the simplest means of keeping track of resource usage. In a bitmap, each bit represents a fixed unit of the managed resource, and the state of the bit tracks its current availability.

A resource must be quantified as a fixed unit size, and the logic of the bitmap must be defined (does a 0 bit indicate an available resource or a used resource?). Once these ground rules have been determined, the map may be populated and maintained.

  • Example

    In practices a resource bit map requires relatively low maintenance overhead. The actual size of the map will vary according to the number of resource units being mapped. As the unit size of the resource increases, the map becomes proportionally smaller, and vice versa. The size of the map comes into play when it is being searched: the larger the map, the longer the search may take. Let's assume that we have reserved a contiguous 32-KB block of kernel memory and we want to store data there in 32-byte structures. It becomes a fairly simple issue to allocate a 1024-bit bitmap structure (128 bytes) to track our resource's utilization. When you need to find an available storage location, you perform a sequential search of the bitmap until you find an available bit, set the bit to indicate that the space is now used, and translate its relative position to indicate the available 32-byte area in the memory block.


The relative simplicity of the of the bitmap approach makes it an attractive first-pass solution in many instances. A small map may be used to track a relatively large resource. Most processors feature assembly language–level bit-test, bit-set, and bit-clear functions that facilitate the manipulation of bitmaps.


As the size of the bitmap increases, the time spent locating an available resource also increases. If there is a need for sequential units from the mapped space, the allocation algorithms become much more complex. A resource map is a programmatic agreement and is not a resource lock by any means. A renegade section of kernel code, which ignores the bitmapping protocol, could easily compromise the integrity of the bitmap and the resource it manages.


If a system resource is of a static size and always utilized as a fixed-sized unit, then a bitmap may prove to be the most cost-effective management method.

Resource Maps

Another type of fixed resource mapping involves the utilization of a structure known as a resource map (see Figure 3-4). The following is a generic explanation of the approach as there are many differing applications of this technique. In the case of a resource map, you have a resource of a fixed size against which individual allocations of varying sizes need to be made.

  • Example

    For our example, let's consider a simple message board. The message board has 20 available lines for message display; each line has room for 20 characters. The total resource has room for 400 characters, but individual messages must be displayed on sequential lines. Consider posting the two following messages:

    • House broken

    • Beagle puppy

    • Free to good home

    • 12-year-old boy

    • Seeks lawns to mow

      If the lines of each message were not assigned sequential space on the message board, you could end up with the following mess!

    • Beagle puppy

    • Seeks lawns to mow

    • House broken

    • 12-year-old boy

    • Free to good home

03fig04.gifFigure 3-4. Resource Maps

To avoid such a situation, a resource map could be employed to allocate sequential lines. Each entry in the resource map would point to the next block of available line(s) on the board.

  • If the message board were blank, then there would be only one entry in our resource map pointing to the first line and stating that 20 lines were sequentially available. To list the first message, we would allocate the first three lines from the board, adjust our resource map entry to point to the fourth line, and adjust the count to 17. To add the second message to the board, we would allocate two more lines and adjust the first entry in the map to point to the sixth line, with the count adjusted to 15.

In effect a resource map points to the unused "holes" in the resource. The size of the resource block tracked by each map entry varies according to usage patterns.


A resource map requires relatively few actual entries to manage a large number of resources. If the allocation block size varies and needs to be contiguously assigned, then this may be your best bet.


Map entries are constantly being inserted and deleted from the maps. This requires constant shifting of the individual map entries (the saving grace here is that there are relatively few entries). Another concern is the size of the resource map itself: if you run out of entries, then freed resources may not be accounted for and in effect will be lost (a type of memory leak) to system usage until a reboot.


Resource maps have long been utilized by System V Interprocess communication kernel services, and if care is taken in their sizing, they are very efficient.

Searching Lists and Arrays

Where there are arrays and lists of data structures, there is always a need to search for specific elements. In many cases, one data structure may have a simple pointer to related structures, but there are times when all you know is an attribute or attributes of a desired structure and not an actual address.

Hashtables: An Alternative to Linear Searches

Searching a long list item by item (often called a sequential or linear search) can be very time consuming. To reduce the latency of such searches, hash lists are created. Hashes are a type of indexing and may be used with either static arrays or linked lists to speed up the location of a specific element in the list.

To use a hash, a known attribute of the item being searched for is used to calculate an offset into the hashtable (hash arrays are frequently sized to a power of two to assist in the calculation and truncation of the hashed value to match the array size). The hashtable will contain a pointer to a member of the list that matches the hashed attribute. This entry may or may not be the actual entry you are looking for. If it is the item you seek, then your search is over; if not, then there may be a forward hash-chain pointer to another member of the list that shares the same hash attribute (if one exists). In this manner, you will have to follow the hash-chain pointers until you find the correct entry. While you will still have to perform a search of one or more linked items, the length of your search will be abbreviated.

The efficiency depends on how evenly distributed the attribute used for the hash algorithm is within the members of the list. Another key factor is the overall size of the hashtable.

  • Example

    Suppose you have a list of your friends' names and phone numbers. As you add names and numbers to the list, they are simply placed in an available storage slot and not stored in any particular order. Traditionally, you might sort the list alphabetically each time an entry is made, but this would require "reordering the deck." Consider instead using a hashtable.

    As each entry is made, the number of letters in each name is counted; if there are more than nine, then only the last digit of the count is kept. A separate hashtable array with 10 entries is also maintained with a pointer to a name in the list with that hash count. As each name is added to the list, it is linked to all the other list members with the same hash count. See Figure 3-5.

    03fig05.gifFigure 3-5. Hashtables and Chains

If your list had 100 names in it and your were looking for Fred Flintstone, the system would first total the character count (Fred has 4 and Flintstone has 10, a total of 15 counting the space between the names), which would send us to hash[5]. This entry would point to a name whose hash count is 5; if this were not the Fred Flintstone entry, you would simply follow the embedded hash-chain pointer until you found Fred's entry (or reached the end of the list and failed the search).

If there were 100 entries in the table and 10 entries in the hashtable, using a standard distribution, then each hash chain would have 10 entries. On average, you would have to follow an individual chain for half of its length to get the data you wanted. That would be a five-linkage pointer search in our example. If we had to perform a sequential search on the unordered data, the average search length would have been 50 elements! Even considering the time required to perform the hash calculation, this could result in considerable savings.

While this example is greatly simplified, it does demonstrate the basics of hash-headers and hash chains to speed up the location of the "right" data structure in a randomly allocated data table.


Hashing algorithms offer a versatile indexing method that is not tied to basics such as numerical sequence or alphabetic order. Relevant attributes are used to calculate an offset into the hash-chain header array. The header points to a linked list of all items sharing the same hash attribute, thus reducing the overall search time required to locate a specific item in the list.


The specific attributes used for the hash may be somewhat abstract in concept and must be carefully considered to assure that they are not artificially influenced and do not result in uneven distributions to the individual chains. If the size of the resource pool being hashed grows, the length of the individual chains may become excessively long and the payback may be diminished.

While the basic concept of hashing is very simple, each implementation is based on specific attributes, some numeric, some character-based, and so on. This requires the programmer to carefully study the data sets and identify which attribute to use as a key for the hash. Frequently, the most obvious one may not be the most efficient one.


Hashing is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future). Make your peace with the concept, as you will see various implementations throughout all areas of kernel code.

Binary Searches

When it comes to searching a fixed list for a value, there are many approaches. The brute-force method is to simply start with the first element and proceed in a linear manner through the entire list. In theory, if there were 1024 entries in the list, the average search time would be 512 tests (sometimes the item you are looking for would be at the front of the list and sometimes toward the end, so the average would be 1024/2 or 512).

Another method involves the use of a binary search algorithm. The decision branch employed by the algorithm is based on a binary-conditional test: the item being tested is either too high or too low. In order for a binary search to work, the data in the list must be ordered in an increasing or decreasing order. If the data is randomly distributed, another type of search algorithm should be used.

Consider a 1024-element list. We would start the search by testing the element in the middle of the list (element 512). Depending on the outcome of this test, we would then check either element 256 or 768. We would keep halving the remaining list index offset until we found the desired element.


Following this method, the worst-case search length for our theoretical 1024-element list would be 10! Compare this to 1024 for the brute-force linear search method.


While the reduction in the number of individual comparisons is impressive, the basic list elements must be ordered. The impact of this on list maintenance (adding items to or removing them from the list) should not be underestimated. An unordered list may be easily managed through the use of a simple free-list pointer and an embedded linkage pointer between all the unused elements of a list. If the list is ordered, then many of its members may need to be moved each time an item is added or removed from the list.


We have considered only a very basic form of binary search. Kernels employ many variations on this theme, each tuned to match the needs of a specific structure.

Partitioned Tables

Modern architectures present kernel designers with many challenges; one is the mapping of resources (both contiguous and noncontiguous). Consider the task of tracking the page-frames of physical memory on a system. If physical memory is contiguous, then a simple usage map may be created, one entry per pageframe, the page number would be the same as the index into the array.

On modern cell-oriented systems, there may be multiple memory controllers on separate busses. Often, the hardware design dictates that each bus be assigned a portion of the memory address space. This type of address allocation may result in "holes" in the physical memory map. The use of partitioned tables offers a method to efficiently map around these holes.

  • Example

    Consider the greatly simplified example in Figure 3-6. In order to manage a resource of 16, items we could use a simple 16-element array (as shown on the left side of the figure). In this example, there is a hole in the resource allotment; physically, the 5th through 14th elements are missing. If we use the simple array method, 16 elements will still be needed in the array if we want to preserve the relationship between the array index and the corresponding address of the resource.

    03fig06.gifFigure 3-6. Partitioned Tables

    By switching to a two-tier partitioned table, we can map the resources on both sides of the hole and reduce the amount of table space needed. The first tier is a simple array of four elements, each either a valid pointer to a block of data structures or a null pointer signifying that the associated block of resources does not exist.

    In addition to the pointer, an offset value is stored in each element. This is used in the case where the hole extends partially into a block's range (as does the last pointer in our example). The offset allows us to skip to the element containing the first valid data structure.

    Let's compare the effort required to locate a data structure. If you needed the information related to the 15th resource and were using the simple array approach, you would only have to index into the 15th element of the array (data[14]).

    If the partitioned approach were being used, you would first divide the element address by the size of the second-tier structures. For our example that would be 14/4, which would yield 3 with a remainder of 2. You would then index into the first-tier array to the fourth element (index = 3), follow the pointer found there, and use the remainder to offset into the partitioned table to the third element (index = 2).

In our simplified example, the single array approach required room for 16 data structures even though there were only six resources being mapped. The partitioned approach required room for only eight data structures (in two partitioned tables of four elements each) plus the very simple four-element first-tier structure.

At first glance, it may not seem that the payback is worth the extra effort of navigating two tables, but this is a very simple example. As we mentioned earlier, the approach is used to manage tables large enough to map all the physical page-frames of a modern enterprise server! There can be millions of potential pages needing their own data structures (and large holes may exist). We will see partition tables in use when we discuss memory management.


The value of partitioned tables is in the reduction of kernel memory usage. The less memory used by the kernel, the more available for user programs!


The method actually has very few drawbacks; the referencing of a map element is now a two-step process. The map element number must be divided by the number of elements in each partitioned table structure (second-tier structure) to yield an index into the first-tier structure. The remainder from this operation is the offset into the second-tier structure for the desired element. In practice, the partitioned tables are often sized to a power of two, which reduces the calculation of the offsets to simple bit-shifting operations.


Partitioned tables are dictated by the architecture and are a necessary tool in the kernel designer's bag of tricks.

The B-Tree Algorithm

The b-tree is a somewhat advanced binary search mechanism that involves making a series of index structures arranged in a type of relational tree. Each structure is known as bnode; the number of bnodes depends on the number of elements being managed. The first bnode is pointed to by a broot structure, which defines the width and depth of the overall tree.

One of the interesting and powerful aspects of the b-tree is that it may be expanded on the fly to accommodate a change in the number of items being managed. B-trees may be used to map a small number of items or hundreds of thousands by simply adjusting the depth of the structure.

The simple bnode consists of an array of key-value pairs. The key data must be ordered in an ascending or descending manner. To locate a needed value, a linear search is performed on the keys. This may seem to be an old-fashioned approach, but let's consider what happens as the data set grows.

The first issue is the size of the bnode. A b-tree is said to be of a particular order. The order is the number of keys in the array structure (minus 1—we will explain this as we discuss a simple example). If we have a third-order b-tree, then at most we would have three keys to check for each search. Of course, we could only reference three values with this simple structure!

In order to grow the scope of our b-tree's usefulness, we have to grow the depth of the tree. Once a b-tree expands beyond its order, additional bnodes are created and the depth of the tree is increased.

Only bnodes at the lowest level of the tree contain key-value data. The bnodes at all other levels contain key-pointer data. This means that in order to find a specific value, we must conduct a search of a bnode at each level of the tree. Each search, on average, requires half as many compare operations as there are keys in the bnode (the order). This means that the average search length is defined as (order/2) × depth. Optimization is achieved by adjusting both the order and the depth of the b-tree.

  • Example: Growing the b-tree

    From Figure 3-7, consider a very simple example of a third-order b-tree. The original bnode has keys: 1, 2, 3. Everything fits in a single bnode, so the depth is simply 1.

    03fig07.gifFigure 3-7. B-Trees

    When we add a fourth key, 4, to the tree, it fills the bnode to capacity and causes the growth of the tree. If the number of keys in a bnode exceeds the order, then it is time to split the node and grow the tree.

    To grow this simple tree, we create two new bnode structures and move half of the existing key–value pairs to each. Notice that the data is packed into the first two entries of each of the new bnodes, which allows for room to grow.

    Next, we must adjust the depth value in the broot data structure that defines the tree. The original bnode must also be reconfigured. First, it is cleared, and a single key is created.

    Let's take a closer look at the bnode structure. Notice that there are actually more value slots than there are key slots. This allows for two pointers to be created in relation to each key entry. The pointer down and to the left is used if you are seeking a key of a lower value. The pointer down and to the right is used if you are looking for one that is greater than or equal to the key.

    Let's try locating a value given a key = 2:

    • Follow the broot pointer to the first-level bnode.

    Search for a key = 2. Because there is no perfect match, we look for a key that is > 2 and follow the pointer down and to the left of that key to the next bnode.

    Search for a key = 2. A match here will yield the appropriate value. We know that this is a value and not another pointer, since the broot structure told us we had a depth of two!

Note that the key values do not have to be sequential and may be sparse as long as they are ordered. Searches on the lowest level of the tree return either a value or a "no match" message.

The search for a key always attempts to find a perfect match yielding either a value or a pointer to the next lower level. If no match is found and we are not on the lowest level, the following logic is used. If your search key lays between two adjacent key entries, the pointer to the next level lies below and between them. A search key less than the first key entry uses the first pointer in the bnode. If your search key is larger than the last valid key in the bnode, then the last valid pointer is used.


B-trees may be grown dynamically, while their table maintenance is modest. This makes them ideal for managing kernel structures that vary in size. Key values may be packed or sparse and added to the table at any time, providing for a flexible scope.


Another benefit is that given a sufficiently sized order, a b-tree may grow to manage a large number of items while maintaining a fairly consistent search time. Consider a 15th-order b-tree: the first depth would map 16 items, the second depth would map 256 items, and the third depth would yield a scope of 4096 while only requiring the search of three bnodes! This type of exponential growth makes it very popular for management of small to large resources.

The b-tree, binary-tree, and balanced-tree belong to a family of related search structures. While the b-tree has a modest maintenance overhead due to its simple top-down pointer logic, its growth algorithm may result in sparsely populated bnodes. This increases the number of nodes required to map a given number of data values. As with most approaches, we trade table size for maintenance cost.

Another issue is that while the b-tree may grow its depth to keep up with demand, it may not change its order (without basically cutting it down to the ground and rebuilding it from scratch). This means that designers need to pay attention to its potential usage when sizing the order in their implementations.


The b-tree requires a bit of study prior to its implementation but offers an effective method for the mapping of ordered dynamic lists ranging in size from slight to huge. We will see a practical application of the b-tree when we examine kernel management of virtual memory region structures.

Sparse Tables

We discussed the use of a hash to speed access to members of a static, unordered array. What would happen if the hash size were aggressively increased (even to the size of the array it referenced or larger)? At first you might think this would be a great solution: simply create a hashing algorithm with enough scope, and lookups become a single-step process. The problem is that the kernel data array and its corresponding hash could become prohibitively large in order to guarantee a unique reference.

A compromise is to size the data structure large enough to hold your worst-case element count and hope that the hashing algorithm is fully distributive in its nature. In an ideal situation, no two active elements would share the same hash.

In the less-than-ideal real world, there will be cases where two data elements do share a common hash. We may solve the problem by dynamically allocating an additional data structure outside the fixed array and creating a forward hash-chain link to it.

Usually, this step is not necessary if the hash formula is sufficiently distributive. In practice, a forward pointer may only be needed in a very small percentage of the cases (less than 1% or 2%). In the very rare case where a third element must share the same hash, an additional structure would be chained to the second, one and so on (reference Figure 3-8).

03fig08.gifFigure 3-8. Sparse Tables


Sparse lists greatly reduce the average search time to locate items in unordered tables or lists.


Sparse lists require the kernel to manage the available sparse data-element locations as yet another kernel resource. As there is a possibility that the data element first pointed to may not be the actual one you are searching for, the target structure must contain enough data to validate that it is or is not the one you want. If it isn't, a routine needs to be developed to "walk the chain."


Spare lists work best when there is some known attribute(s) of the desired data set that may be used to generate a sufficiently large and distributive hash value. The odds of needing to create a forward chain pointer decrease greatly as the scope of the hash increases. We will see an example of this approach in the HP-UX kernel's virtual-to-physical page-frame mapping. In actual use, it is a one-in-a-million chance to find a hash-chain with more than three linked elements!

The Skip List

In the world of search algorithms, the skip list is a new kid on the block. Its use was first outlined in the 1990s in a paper prepared for the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (CACM) by William Pugh of the University of Maryland. For additional information, visit ftp://ftp.cs.umd.edu/pub/skipLists/skiplists.ps.Z.

The algorithm may be employed to reduce search times for dynamic linked lists. The individual list elements must be assigned to the list according to some ordered attribute. This approach works well for linked lists with only a dozen or so members and equally as well for lists of several hundred members.

At first glance, skip lists appear to be simply a series of forward- and reverse-linkage pointers. Upon closer examination, we see that some point directly to a neighbor, while others skip several in-between structures. The surprising part is that the number of elements skipped is the result of random assignment of the pointer structures to each list member as it is linked into the list.

List maintenance is fairly simple. To add a new member element, we simply skip through the list until we find its neighboring members. We then simply link the new structure between them. The removal of a member follows the same logic in reverse.

When a new member is added, we must decide at which levels it will be linked. The implementation used in the HP-UX pregion lists uses a skip pointer array with four elements. All members have a first-level forward pointer. The odds are one in four that it will have a second-level pointer, one in four of these will have a third-level pointer, and one in four of these will have a fourth-level pointer. As elements may be added or removed from the list at any time, the actual distribution of the pointers takes on a pseudorandom nature.

To facilitate the method, a symbolic first element is created, which always contains a forward pointer at each of the skip levels. It also stores a pointer to the highest active level for the list. See Figure 3-9.

  • Example

    From Figure 3-9, let's assume that we need to locate the structure with the attribute 9678. In the list nexus structure, we see that the highest level active pointer is at next[2], so we follow it. This structure has an attribute value of 5255, so we need to continue our search at this level.

    We arrive back at the starting point structure, so we backtrack to the 5255 structure, drop down a level to next[1], and continue.

    We now arrive at the structure with the 9678 attribute—it's a match! Our search is over.

    In the example, it took only three searches. A simple binary search would have taken four searches.

03fig09.gifFigure 3-9. Skip List


The skip list offers an interesting approach for searching that often results in a reduction of search times when compared to a simple binary method. Adding and removing members to and from the list is reasonably quick.


It requires the creation of a multielement array for the forward linkages. The random nature of the pointer assignment does not take into account the relative size or frequency of use of the various list elements. A frequently referenced structure might be inefficiently mapped by the luck-of-the-draw (in our example we beat the binary method, but other members of our list would not: try searching for the 5015 structure).


Despite the random nature of this beast, the overall effect may be a net-sum gain if the ratio between the number of items and the number of levels is carefully tuned.

Operations Arrays

Modern kernels are often required to adapt to a variety of different subsystems that may provide competing or alternate approaches to the same management task. A case in point is that of a kernel that needs to support multiple file system implementations at the same time.

To accomplish this goal, specific file systems may be represented in the kernel by a virtual object. Virtual representation masks all references to the actual object. This is all well and good, but what if kernel routines needed to interact with the real object required code and supporting data dependent upon type-specific attributes? An operations array, or vectored jump table, may be of service here.

  • Example

    Consider Figure 3-10. Here we see a simple kernel table with four elements, each representing a member of a virtual list. Each list member has its actual v_type registered, a type-specific v_data[] array, and a pointer to a v_ops[] operational array.

    03fig10.gifFigure 3-10. Operations Arrays: A Vectored Jump Table

    For this model to work, the number of entries in the operational array and the functions they point to must be matched for each type the kernel is expected to handle. In our example, there are four operational target functions: open(), close(), read(), and write(). Currently, our system has only two variations labeled type: X and Y.

    When a routine is called through a vectored jump referenced through v_ops[x], it is passed the address of the virtual objects v_data[] array. This allows the final type-specific function to work with a data set type that it understands.

    The end result is that all other kernel objects need only to request a call to v_ops[0] to instigate an open() of the virtual object without concern or knowledge of whether it is of type X or Y. The operations array will handle the redirection of the call. In practice, we will see many examples of this type of structure in the kernel.


The cost of redirecting a procedure call through a vector jump table is very low and for the most part transparent to all that use it.


In debugging, this is yet one more level of indirection to contend with.


The vectored jump table, or operational array, provides a very effective abstraction layer between type-specific, kernel-resident functions, and other kernel subsystems.

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