Zircon vDSO

The Zircon vDSO is the sole means of access to system calls in Zircon. vDSO stands for virtual Dynamic Shared Object. (Dynamic Shared Object is a term used for a shared library in the ELF format.) It‘s virtual because it’s not loaded from an ELF file that sits in a filesystem. Instead, the vDSO image is provided directly by the kernel.

Using the vDSO

System Call ABI

The vDSO is a shared library in the ELF format. It‘s used in the normal way that ELF shared libraries are used, which is to look up entry points by symbol name in the ELF dynamic symbol table (the .dynsym section, located via DT_SYMTAB). ELF defines a hash table format to optimize lookup by name in the symbol table (the .hash section, located via DT_HASH); GNU tools have defined an improved hash table format that makes lookups much more efficient (the .gnu_hash section, located via DT_GNU_HASH). Fuchsia ELF shared libraries, including the vDSO, use the DT_GNU_HASH format exclusively. (It’s also possible to use the symbol table directly via linear search, ignoring the hash table.)

The vDSO uses a simplified layout that has no writable segment and requires no dynamic relocations. This makes it easier to use the system call ABI without implementing a general-purpose ELF loader and full ELF dynamic linking semantics.

ELF symbol names are the same as C identifiers with external linkage. Each system call corresponds to an ELF symbol in the vDSO, and has the ABI of a C function. The vDSO functions use only the basic machine-specific C calling conventions governing the use of machine registers and the stack, which is common across many systems that use ELF, such as Linux and all the BSD variants. They do not rely on complex features such as ELF Thread-Local Storage, nor on Fuchsia-specific ABI elements such as the SafeStack unsafe stack pointer.

vDSO Unwind Information

The vDSO has an ELF program header of type PT_GNU_EH_FRAME. This points to unwind information in the GNU .eh_frame format, which is a close relative of the standard DWARF Call Frame Information format. This information makes it possible to recover the register values from call frames in the vDSO code, so that a complete stack trace can be reconstructed from any thread's register state with a PC value inside the vDSO code. These formats and their use are just the same in the vDSO as they are in any normal ELF shared library on Fuchsia or other systems using common GNU ELF extensions, such as Linux and all the BSD variants.

vDSO Build ID

The vDSO has an ELF Build ID, as other ELF shared libraries and executables built with common GNU extensions do. The Build ID is a unique bit string that identifies a specific build of that binary. This is stored in ELF note format, pointed to by an ELF program header of type PT_NOTE. The payload of the note with name "GNU" and type NT_GNU_BUILD_ID is a sequence of bytes that constitutes the Build ID.

One main use of Build IDs is to associate binaries with their debugging information and the source code they were built from. The vDSO binary is innately tied to (and embedded within) the kernel binary and includes information specific to each kernel build, so the Build ID of the vDSO distinguishes kernels as well.

process_start() argument

The process_start() system call is how a program loader tells the kernel to start a new process's first thread executing. The final argument (arg2 in the process_start() documentation) is a plain uintptr_t value passed to the new thread in a register.

By convention, the program loader maps the vDSO into each new process‘s address space (at a random location chosen by the system) and passes the base address of the image to the new process’s first thread in the arg2 register. This address is where the ELF file header can be found in memory, pointing to all the other ELF format elements necessary to look up symbol names and thus make system calls.

PA_VMO_VDSO handle

The vDSO image is embedded in the kernel at compile time. The kernel exposes it to userspace as a read-only VMO.

When a program loader sets up a new process, the only way to make it possible for that process to make system calls is for the program loader to map the vDSO into the new process's address space before its first thread starts running. Hence, each process that will launch other processes capable of making system calls must have access to the vDSO VMO.

By convention, a VMO handle for the vDSO is passed from process to process in the zx_proc_args_t bootstrap message sent to each new process (see <zircon/processargs.h>). The VMO handle's entry in the handle table is identified by the handle info entry PA_HND(PA_VMO_VDSO, 0).

vDSO Implementation Details

abigen tool

The abigen tool generates both C/C++ function declarations that form the public system call API, and some C++ and assembly code used in the implementation of the vDSO. Both the public API and the private interface between the kernel and the vDSO code are specified by <zircon/syscalls.abigen>, which is the input to abigen.

The syscall entries in syscalls.abigen fall into the following groups, distinguished by the presence of attributes after the system call name:

  • Entries with neither vdsocall nor internal are the simple cases (which are the majority of the system calls) where the public API and the private API are exactly the same. These are implemented entirely by generated code. The public API functions have names prefixed by _zx_ and zx_ (aliases).

  • vdsocall entries are simply declarations for the public API. These functions are implemented by normal, hand-written C++ code found in system/ulib/zircon/. Those source files #include "private.h" and then define the C++ function for the system call with its name prefixed by _zx_. Finally, they use the VDSO_INTERFACE_FUNCTION macro on the system call's name prefixed by zx_ (no leading underscore). This implementation code can call the C++ function for any other system call entry (whether a public generated call, a public hand-written vdsocall, or an internal generated call), but must use its private entry point alias, which has the VDSO_zx_ prefix. Otherwise the code is normal (minimal) C++, but must be stateless and reentrant (use only its stack and registers).

  • internal entries are declarations of a private API used only by the vDSO implementation code to enter the kernel (i.e., by other functions implementing vdsocall system calls). These produce functions in the vDSO implementation with the same C signature that would be declared in the public API given the signature of the system call entry. However, instead of being named with the _zx_ and zx_ prefixes, these are available only via #include "private.h" with VDSO_zx_ prefixes.

Read-Only Dynamic Shared Object Layout

The vDSO is a normal ELF shared library and can be treated like any other. But it's intentionally kept to a small subset of what an ELF shared library in general is allowed to do. This has several benefits:

  • Mapping the ELF image into a process is straightforward and does not involve any complex corner cases of general support for ELF PT_LOAD program headers. The vDSO's layout can be handled by special-case code with no loops that reads only a few values from ELF headers.
  • Using the vDSO does not require full-featured ELF dynamic linking. In particular, the vDSO has no dynamic relocations. Mapping in the ELF PT_LOAD segments is the only setup that needs to be done.
  • The vDSO code is stateless and reentrant. It refers only to the registers and stack with which it's called. This makes it usable in a wide variety of contexts with minimal constraints on how user code organizes itself, which is appropriate for the mandatory ABI of an operating system. It also makes the code easier to reason about and audit for robustness and security.

The layout is simply two consecutive segments, each containing aligned whole pages:

  1. The first segment is read-only, and includes the ELF headers and metadata for dynamic linking along with constant data private to the vDSO's implementation.
  2. The second segment is executable, containing the vDSO code.

The whole vDSO image consists of just these two segments' pages, present in the ELF image just as they should appear in memory. To map in the vDSO requires only two values gleaned from the vDSO's ELF headers: the number of pages in each segment.

Boot-time Read-Only Data

Some system calls simply return values that are constant throughout the runtime of the whole system, though the ABI of the system is that their values must be queried at runtime and cannot be compiled into user code. These values either are fixed in the kernel at compile time or are determined by the kernel at boot time from hardware or boot parameters. Examples include system_get_version(), system_get_num_cpus(), and ticks_per_second(). The last example is influenced by a kernel command line option.

Because these values are constant, there is no need to pay the overhead of entering the kernel to read them. Instead, the vDSO implementations of these are simple C++ functions that just return constants read from the vDSO's read-only data segment. Values fixed at compile time (such as the system version string) are simply compiled into the vDSO.

For the values determined at boot time, the kernel must modify the contents of the vDSO. This is accomplished by the boot-time code that sets up the vDSO VMO, before it starts the first userspace process and gives it the VMO handle. At compile time, the offset into the vDSO image of the vdso_constants data structure is extracted from the vDSO ELF file that will be embedded in the kernel. At boot time, the kernel temporarily maps the pages of the VMO covering vdso_constants into its own address space long enough to initialize the structure with the right values for the current run of the system.


The vDSO entry points are the only means to enter the kernel for system calls. The machine-specific instructions used to enter the kernel (e.g. syscall on x86) are not part of the system ABI and it's invalid for user code to execute such instructions directly. The interface between the kernel and the vDSO code is a private implementation detail.

Because the vDSO is itself normal code that executes in userspace, the kernel must robustly handle all possible entries into kernel mode from userspace. However, potential kernel bugs can be mitigated somewhat by enforcing that each kernel entry be made only from the proper vDSO code. This enforcement also avoids developers of userspace code circumventing the ABI rules (because of ignorance, malice, or misguided intent to work around some perceived limitation of the official ABI), which could lead to the private kernel-vDSO interface becoming a de facto ABI for application code.

The kernel enforces correct use of the vDSO in two ways:

  1. It constrains how the vDSO VMO can be mapped into a process.

    When a vmar_map() call is made using the vDSO VMO and requesting ZX_VM_PERM_EXECUTE, the kernel requires that the offset and size of the mapping exactly match the vDSO‘s executable segment. It also allows only one such mapping. Once the valid vDSO mapping has been established in a process, it cannot be removed. Attempts to map the vDSO a second time into the same process, to unmap the vDSO code from a process, or to make an executable mapping of the vDSO that don’t use the correct offset and size, fail with ZX_ERR_ACCESS_DENIED.

    At compile time, the offset and size of the vDSO‘s code segment are extracted from the vDSO ELF file and used as constants in the kernel’s mapping enforcement code.

    When the one valid vDSO mapping is established in a process, the kernel records the address for that process so it can be checked quickly.

  2. It constrains what PC locations can be used to enter the kernel.

    When a user thread enters the kernel for a system call, a register indicates which low-level system call is being invoked. The low-level system calls are the private interface between the kernel and the vDSO; many correspond directly the system calls in the public ABI, but others do not.

    For each low-level system call, there is a fixed set of PC locations in the vDSO code that invoke that call. The source code for the vDSO defines internal symbols identifying each such location. At compile time, these locations are extracted from the vDSO's symbol table and used to generate kernel code that defines a PC validity predicate for each low-level system call. Since there is only one definition of the vDSO code used by all user processes in the system, these predicates simply check for known, valid, constant offsets from the beginning of the vDSO code segment.

    On entry to the kernel for a system call, the kernel examines the PC location of the syscall instruction on x86 (or equivalent instruction on other machines). It subtracts the base address of the vDSO code recorded for the process at vmar_map() time from the PC, and passes the resulting offset to the validity predicate for the system call being invoked. If the predicate rules the PC invalid, the calling thread is not allowed to proceed with the system call and instead takes a synthetic exception similar to the machine exception that would result from invoking an undefined or privileged machine instruction.


TODO(mcgrathr): vDSO variants are an experimental feature that is not yet in real use. There is a proof-of-concept implementation and simple tests, but more work is required to implement the concept robustly and determine what variants will be made available. The concept is to provide variants of the vDSO image that export only a subset of the full vDSO system call interface. For example, system calls intended only for use by device drivers might be elided from the vDSO variant used for normal application code.