Chapter 5: Concurrency and Race Conditions

Thus far, we have paid little attention to the problem of concurrency -- i.e., what happens when the system tries to do more than one thing at once. The management of concurrency is, however, one of the core problems in operating systems programming. Concurrency-related bugs are some of the easiest to create and some of the hardest to find. Even expert Linux kernel programmers end up creating concurrency-related bugs on occasion.

In early Linux kernels, there were relatively few sources of concurrency. Symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) systems were not supported by the kernel, and the only cause of concurrent execution was the servicing of hardware interrupts. That approach offers simplicity, but it no longer works in a world that prizes performance on systems with more and more processors, and that insists that the system respond to events quickly. In response to the demands of modern hardware and applications, the Linux kernel has evolved to a point where many more things are going on simultaneously. This evolution has resulted in far greater performance and scalability. It has also, however, significantly complicated the task of kernel programming. Device driver programmers must now factor concurrency into their designs from the beginning, and they must have a strong understanding of the facilities provided by the kernel for concurrency management.

The purpose of this chapter is to begin the process of creating that understanding. To that end, we introduce facilities that are immediately applied to the scull driver from Chapter 3. Other facilities presented here are not put to use for some time yet. But first, we take a look at what could go wrong with our simple scull driver and how to avoid these potential problems.

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