Kernel debugging with Kprobes

Insert printk's into the Linux kernel on the fly


Kprobes is a simple and lightweight mechanism in Linux that allows you to insert breakpoints into a running kernel. Kprobes provides an interface to break into any kernel routine and collect information non-disruptively from the interrupt handler. Debugging information, such as processor registers and global data structures, can be easily collected using Kprobes. Developers can even use Kprobes to modify register values and global data structure values.

To accomplish this, Kprobes inserts a probe by dynamically writing breakpoint instructions at a given address in the running kernel. Execution of the probed instruction results in a breakpoint fault. Kprobes hooks in to the breakpoint handler and collects the debugging information. Kprobes can even single-step probed instructions.


To install Kprobes, download the latest patch from the Kprobes home page (see Related topics for a link). The tarred file will be named something along the lines of kprobes-2.6.8-rc1.tar.gz. Untar the patch and apply it to the Linux kernel:

$tar -xvzf kprobes-2.6.8-rc1.tar.gz
$cd /usr/src/linux-2.6.8-rc1
$patch -p1 < ../kprobes-2.6.8-rc1-base.patch

Kprobes makes use of the SysRq key, an artifact from the days of DOS that has found many new uses under Linux (see Related topics). You'll find the SysRq key to the left of the Scroll Lock key; it's often also labeled Print Screen. To enable the SysRq key for Kprobes, apply the kprobes-2.6.8-rc1-sysrq.patch patch:

$patch -p1 < ../kprobes-2.6.8-rc1-sysrq.patch

Configure the kernel with make xconfig/ make menuconfig/ make oldconfig and enable CONFIG_KPROBES and CONFIG_MAGIC_SYSRQ flags. Build and boot into the new kernel. You are now ready to insert printk's and collect debugging information dynamically and unobtrusively by writing simple Kprobes modules.

Writing Kprobes modules

For each probe, you will need to allocate the structure struct kprobe kp; (see include/linux/kprobes.h for more information on this).

Listing 1. Defining pre, post, and fault handlers
 /* pre_handler: this is called just before the probed instruction is
  *	executed.

int handler_pre(struct kprobe *p, struct pt_regs *regs) {
	printk("pre_handler: p->addr=0x%p, eflags=0x%lx\n",p->addr,
	return 0;

 /* post_handler: this is called after the probed instruction is executed
  * 	(provided no exception is generated).

void handler_post(struct kprobe *p, struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned long flags) {
	printk("post_handler: p->addr=0x%p, eflags=0x%lx \n", p->addr,

 /* fault_handler: this is called if an exception is generated for any
  *	instruction within the fault-handler, or when Kprobes
  *	single-steps the probed instruction.

int handler_fault(struct kprobe *p, struct pt_regs *regs, int trapnr) {
	printk("fault_handler:p->addr=0x%p, eflags=0x%lx\n", p->addr,
	return 0;

Getting the address of a kernel routine

You also need to specify the address of the kernel routine where you want to insert the probe during registration. Use any of these methods to get the kernel routine address:

  1. Get the address directly from the file.
    For example, to get the address of do_fork, execute $grep do_fork /usr/src/linux/ at the command line.
  2. Use the nm command.
    $nm vmlinuz |grep do_fork
  3. Obtain the address from the /proc/kallsyms file.
    $cat /proc/kallsyms |grep do_fork
  4. Use the kallsyms_lookup_name() routine.
    This routine is defined in the kernel/kallsyms.c file, and you must compile the kernel with CONFIG_KALLSYMS enabled in order to use it. kallsyms_lookup_name() takes a kernel routine name as a string and returns the address of that kernel routine. For example: kallsyms_lookup_name("do_fork");

Then register your probe in the init_module:

Listing 2. Registering a probe
 /* specify pre_handler address
 /* specify post_handler address
 /* specify fault_handler address
 /* specify the address/offset where you want to insert probe.
  * You can get the address using one of the methods described above.
	kp.addr = (kprobe_opcode_t *) kallsyms_lookup_name("do_fork");

 /* check if the kallsyms_lookup_name() returned the correct value.
	if (kp.add == NULL) {
		printk("kallsyms_lookup_name could not find address
					for the specified symbol name\n");
		return 1;

 /*	or specify address directly.
  * $grep "do_fork" /usr/src/linux/
  * or
  * $cat /proc/kallsyms |grep do_fork
  * or
  * $nm vmlinuz |grep do_fork
	kp.addr = (kprobe_opcode_t *) 0xc01441d0;

 /* All set to register with Kprobes

Once the probe is registered, running any shell command will result in a call to do_fork, and you will be able to see your printk's on the console, or by running dmesg. Remember to unregister the probe when you are done:


The following output shows kprobe's address, and the contents of the eflags registers:

$tail -5 /var/log/messages

Jun 14 18:21:18 llm05 kernel: pre_handler: p->addr=0xc01441d0, eflags=0x202
Jun 14 18:21:18 llm05 kernel: post_handler: p->addr=0xc01441d0, eflags=0x196

Getting the offset

You can insert printk's at the beginning of a routine or at any offset in the function (the offset must be at the instruction boundary). The following code samples show how to calculate the offset. First, disassemble the machine instructions from the object file and save them as a file:

$objdump -D /usr/src/linux/kernel/fork.o > fork.dis

Which produces:

Listing 3. Disassembled fork
000022b0 <do_fork>:
    22b0:       55                      push   %ebp
    22b1:       89 e5                   mov    %esp,%ebp
    22b3:       57                      push   %edi
    22b4:       89 c7                   mov    %eax,%edi
    22b6:       56                      push   %esi
    22b7:       89 d6                   mov    %edx,%esi
    22b9:       53                      push   %ebx
    22ba:       83 ec 38                sub    $0x38,%esp
    22bd:       c7 45 d0 00 00 00 00    movl   $0x0,0xffffffd0(%ebp)
    22c4:       89 cb                   mov    %ecx,%ebx
    22c6:       89 44 24 04             mov    %eax,0x4(%esp)
    22ca:       c7 04 24 0a 00 00 00    movl   $0xa,(%esp)
    22d1:       e8 fc ff ff ff          call   22d2 <do_fork+0x22>
    22d6:       b8 00 e0 ff ff          mov    $0xffffe000,%eax
    22db:       21 e0                   and    %esp,%eax
    22dd:       8b 00                   mov    (%eax),%eax

To insert the probe at offset 0x22c4, get the relative offset from the beginning of the routine 0x22c4 - 0x22b0 = 0x14 and then add the offset to the address of do_fork 0xc01441d0 + 0x14. (To ascertain the address of do_fork, run $cat /proc/kallsyms | grep do_fork.)

You can also add the relative offset of do_fork 0x22c4 - 0x22b0 = 0x14 to the output of kallsyms_lookup_name("do_fork"); Thus: 0x14 + kallsyms_lookup_name("do_fork");

Dumping kernel data structures

Now, let's dump some elements of all of the jobs that are running on the system with a Kprobe post_handler that we've modified to dump data structures:

Listing 4. Modified Kprope post_handler to dump data structures
void handler_post(struct kprobe *p, struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned long flags) {
	struct task_struct *task;
	for_each_process(task) {
		printk("pid =%x task-info_ptr=%lx\n", task->pid,
		printk("thread-info element status=%lx,flags=%lx, cpu=%lx\n",
			task->thread_info->status, task->thread_info->flags,

This module should be inserted at the offset of do_fork.

Listing 5. Output of struct thread_info for pids 1508 and 1509
$tail -10 /var/log/messages

Jun 22 18:14:25 llm05 kernel: thread-info element status=0,flags=0, cpu=1
Jun 22 18:14:25 llm05 kernel: pid =5e4 task-info_ptr=f5948000
Jun 22 18:14:25 llm05 kernel: thread-info element status=0,flags=8, cpu=0
Jun 22 18:14:25 llm05 kernel: pid =5e5 task-info_ptr=f5eca000

Enabling the magic SysRq key

We already compiled in support for the SysRq key. Enable it with:

$echo 1 > /proc/sys/kernel/sysrq

Now you can use Alt+SysRq+W to view all inserted kernel probes on the console, or in /var/log/messages.

Listing 6. /var/log/messages shows a Kprobe inserted at do_fork
Jun 23 10:24:48 linux-udp4749545uds kernel: SysRq : Show kprobes
Jun 23 10:24:48 linux-udp4749545uds kernel:
Jun 23 10:24:48 linux-udp4749545uds kernel: [<c011ea60>] do_fork+0x0/0x1de

Better debugging with Kprobes

Because probe event handlers run as extensions to the system breakpoint interrupt handler, they have little or no dependence on system facilities -- and so are able to be implanted in the most hostile environments, from interrupt-time, and task-time, to disabled, inter-context switch, and SMP-enabled code paths -- all without adversely skewing system performance.

The benefits of using Kprobes are many. printk's can be inserted without rebuilding and rebooting the kernel. Processor registers can be logged and even modified for debugging -- without disruption to the system. Similarly, Linux kernel data structures can also be logged and even modified non-disruptively, as well. You can even debug race conditions on SMP systems with Kprobes -- and save yourself the trouble of all that rebuilding and rebooting. You'll find kernel debugging is faster and easier than ever.

Downloadable resources

Related topics

  • Support for Kprobes was merged into the kernel at v.2.5.26; see Support for kernel probes (Kernel Traffic, July 25 2002) for the announcement and a brief write-up.
  • Kprobes makes use of the BIOS interrupt SysRq key. This can be made into a Magic SysRq key to defeat spyware, uncleanly reboot, show memory information, kill processes, and more (much more). It's good for debugging; less good for production machines, where it can pose a security threat.
  • objdump displays information about one or more object files. For more information, see the objdump man page Linux 2.6 kernel modules.
Zone=Linux, Open source
ArticleTitle=Kernel debugging with Kprobes