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IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 5
Reverse Engineering Threading

by Emmanuel Dreyfus
12/19/2002

Welcome back to our series on IRIX binary compatibility. In this part, we will study IRIX and NetBSD threading models. We will also examine how it is possible to emulate IRIX native threads on NetBSD, though NetBSD does not support a similar feature for its native binaries.

Introduction to Multithreading

Traditional UNIX systems implement multitasking by using multiple processes. A process is the unit of execution. It has an execution context and a virtual memory space, both private and specific to the process.

This scheme has some drawbacks. Consider the need for efficient interprocess communication. Traditionally, the programmer needs to arrange for an area of memory to be shared between processes. This makes the program more complex. Another problem is that switching virtual memory spaces on process switches can be expensive.

The solution to these problems is multithreading. In UNIX terminology, multithreading is the ability to run multiple execution contexts within the same virtual address space. Each execution context is known as a thread. The set of threads sharing the same address space is usually known as the process. Since memory is shared among the different threads of a process, communication between threads is transparent and efficient.

There are two popular ways of implementing threads on a UNIX system: kernel assisted threads and user threads.

With user threads, the kernel is not aware that there are multiple execution contexts in the process. Everything is done in userland, by timely switching between the threads. The advantage of this method is that there is no need for kernel support, which means that it is easy to implement user threads on any UNIX system. Additionally, there is an existing standard for the programming interface: POSIX.1c. Because of these two advantages, user threads are often referred as portable threads or POSIX threads.

In This Series

IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 6
With IRIX threads emulated, it's time to emulate share groups, a building block of parallel processing. Emmanuel Dreyfus digs deep into his bag of reverse engineering tricks to demonstrate how headers, documentation, a debugger, and a lot of luck are helping NetBSD build a binary compatibility layer for IRIX.

IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 4
Emmanuel Dreyfus tackles the chore of emulating IRIX signal handling on NetBSD.

IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 3
Emmanuel Dreyfus shows us some of the IRIX oddities, the system calls that you will not see anywhere else.

IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 2
Emmanual Dreyfus shows us how he implemented the things necessary to start an IRIX binary. These things include the program's arguments, environment, and for dynamic binaries, the ELF auxiliary table, which is used by the dynamic linker to learn how to link the program.

IRIX Binary Compatibility, Part 1
This article details the IRIX binary compatibility implementation for the NetBSD operating system. It covers creating a new emulation subsystem inside the NetBSD kernel as well as some reverse engineering to understand and reproduce how IRIX internals work.

The big disadvantage of user threads is that because the kernel has no knowledge of the existence of the threads, when one thread makes a blocking system call, the process, and therefore all of the threads in that process, are blocked. Also, because the kernel only sees one process, user threads cannot take advantage of multiple processors.

Kernel assisted threads are designed to address these two drawbacks. With this scheme, the kernel is responsible for scheduling the different threads within a process. Because it is aware of their existence, the kernel can schedule other threads of a process when a thread makes a blocking system call. The kernel is also able to balance multiple threads of a single process among multiple processors. One big disadvantage of kernel assisted threads is that it requires kernel support, which means that some UNIX kernels will not support them. Kernel assisted threads are not easily portable. This is why kernel assisted threads are also known as native threads.

Another big drawback is that there is no standardized programming interface for handling native threads, and each OS has its own set of system calls syntax and semantics. For instance, Linux creates native threads using Linux uses clone(2) and IRIX uses sproc(2).

One side note about kernel processes. Kernel processes are UNIX processes running entirely in kernel mode and never executing in user mode. Examples of kernel processes are the pagedaemon(8) on NetBSD, whose job is to swap out pages that have been unused for some time. Because it only manipulates kernel structures, pagedaemon does not need to run in user mode, therefore it is named as a kernel process. The problem is that kernel processes are sometimes referred as kernel threads because they are different execution contexts all sharing the kernel virtual memory space. This creates confusion with native threads, which do exactly the same thing though they share a user virtual memory space. In order to avoid confusion, we will try to speak about kernel processes and kernel assisted threads (or native threads) using these names in this document.

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