Module Loading, Hello World (Slideshow)

Kernel Driver Anatomy

  • Built-in vs. loadable module

    • Built-in driver is statically linked into the kernel (part of the kernel image itself)

    • Loadable module is much like a shared library in userspace

  • Initialization on module load

  • Deinitialization on module unload

  • Usually used to

    • (Un)register the module in its subsystem

    • Create/delete device nodes

    • Depends on subsystem initialization policy though: for example, PCI and USB have a probe() driver method.

Built-In vs. Loadable Module

  • Detail: huge difference, binary-code-wise

  • Conceptually:

    • Built-in drivers initialized at kernel boot (deinitialized at shutdown)

    • Loadable modules initialized at load time (deinitialized at unload)

Minimum Module Source

#include <linux/printk.h>
#include <linux/module.h>

static int hello_init(void)
    printk(KERN_DEBUG "hello init\n");
    return 0;
static void hello_exit(void)
    printk(KERN_DEBUG "hello exit\n");


Gotchas: init() and exit()

  • init() returns 0 on success

  • On error, returns negative value of userspace’s errno

    • E.g., return -EINVAL

    • EINVAL is the most unspecific, one for all, errors

  • Careful when init() fails in the middle

    • partial initialization

    • ⟶ before returning, init() must revert what is did so far

  • If init() succeeds, then exit() is supposed to revert everything that init() did

  • If init() fails, the module is not loaded (and thus exit() is not called)

Module Build

Fundamentally different ways to build a module:

  • In tree: part of the kernel source tree

    • Maintained as part of the kernel

    • Kernel’s internal API/ABI is by definition not stable ⟶ all drivers should ideally be part of the kernel

    • Not always possible: commercial, exotic, simply unwanted upstream, …

  • Out of tree: not part of the kernel tree

    • Maintained by third parties

    • The remainder assumes we are building an external module

  • Whole story here

Minimum Makefile, Building

obj-m += hello.o

How to build

  • Makefile and hello.c in the same directory

  • … which is the currect working directory

$ make -C /path/to/kernel/tree M=$(pwd) modules
make: Entering directory '/path/to/kernel/tree'
  CC [M]  /tmp/hello.o
  MODPOST /tmp/Module.symvers
WARNING: modpost: missing MODULE_LICENSE() in /tmp/hello.o
  CC [M]  /tmp/hello.mod.o
  LD [M]  /tmp/hello.ko
make: Leaving directory '/path/to/kernel/tree'

Modules: Load/Unload Commands


Lists all loaded modules

man page


Inserts module by file name (e.g. insmod ../path/to/hello.ko)

  • No path search

  • No dependency resolution (does fail if there are unresolved symbols)

  • No nothing

man page


Inserts module by module name (e.g. modprobe hello)

  • Searches for hello.ko in /lib/modules/$(uname -r)

  • Loads all dependencies

  • Variant: modprobe -r hello unloads including dependencies

man page


  • Removes/unloads module by module name (e.g. rmmod hello)

  • Leaves now-unused dependencies in place (use modprobe -r instead)

man page

Modules: Dependency (and other) Databases

Question: How does modprobe know?

$ ls -1 /lib/modules/$(uname -r)/modules.*
... many more omitted ...

⟶ Databases must be rebuilt after changes to /lib/modules/$(uname -r)

# depmod -a