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Posted 24 Sep 2010

A Simple Driver for Linux OS

, , 26 Sep 2010
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In this article, I am going to describe the process of writing and building of a simple driver-module for Linux OS

Table of Contents


In this article, I am going to describe the process of writing and building of a simple driver-module for Linux OS. Meanwhile, I will touch upon the following questions:

  • The system of the kernel logging
  • The work with character devices
  • The work with the “user level” memory from the kernel

The article concerns the Linux kernel version 2.6.32 because other kernel versions can have the modified API, which is used in examples or in the build system.

General Information

Linux is a monolithic kernel. That is why the driver for it should be compiled together with the kernel itself or should be implemented in the form of a kernel module to avoid the recompiling of the kernel when driver adding is needed. This article deals with the kernel modules exactly.  

A module is an object file prepared in a special way. The Linux kernel can load a module to its address space and link the module with itself. The Linux kernel is written in 2 languages: C and assembler (the architecture dependent parts). The development of drivers for Linux OS is possible only in C and assembler languages, but not in C++ language (as for the Microsoft Windows kernel). It is connected with the fact that the kernel source pieces of code, namely, header files, can contain C++ key words such as new, delete and the assembler pieces of code can contain the ‘::’ lexeme.

The module code is executed in the kernel context. It rests some additional responsibility in the developer: if there is an error in the user level program, the results of this error will affect mainly the user program; if an error occurs in the kernel module, it may affect the whole system. But one of the specifics of the Linux kernel is a rather high resistance to errors in the modules’ code. If there is a non-critical error in a module (such as the dereferencing of the null pointer), the oops message will be displayed (oops is a deviation from the normal work of Linux and in this case, the kernel creates a log record with the error description). Then, the module, in which the error appeared, is unloaded, while the kernel itself and the rest of modules continue working. However, after the oops message, the system kernel can often be in an inconsistent state and the further work may lead to the kernel panic.

The kernel and its modules are built into a practically single program module. That is why it is worth remembering that within one program module, one global name space is used. To clutter up the global name space minimally, one should monitor that the module exports only the necessary minimum of global characters and that all exported global characters have the unique names (the good practice is to add the name of the module, which exports the character, to the name of the character as a prefix).

Functions of Module Loading and Unloading

The piece of code that is required for the creation of the simplest module is very simple and laconic. It looks as follows:

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

static int my_init(void)
                       return  0;

static void my_exit(void)


This piece of code does not do anything but allowing loading and unloading the module. When loading the driver, the my_init function is called; when unloading the driver, the my_exit function is called. We inform the kernel about it with the help of the module_init and module_exit macros. These functions must have exactly the following signature:

int init(void);
void exit(void);

The linking of the linux/module.h header file is necessary for adding information about a kernel version, for which the module is built, to the module itself. Linux OS will not allow loading of the module that was built for another kernel version. It is because the kernel API changes intensively and the change of signature of one of the functions used in the module will lead to the damage of the stack when calling this function. The linux/init.h header file contains the declaration of the module_init and module_exit macros.

Registration of the Character Device

We will not dwell on such a simple module. I would like to demonstrate the work with the device files and with logging in the kernel. These are tools that will be useful for each driver and will somewhat expand the development in the kernel mode for Linux OS.

First, I would like to say a few words about the device file. The device file is a file that is usually located in hierarchy of the /dev/ folder. It is the easiest and the most accessible way of interaction of the user code and the kernel code. To make it shorter, I can say that everything that is written to such file is passed to the kernel, to the module that serves this file; everything that is read from such file comes from the module that serves the file. There are two types of device files: character (non-buffered) and block (buffered) files. The character file implies the possibility to read and write information to it by one character whereas the block file allows reading and writing only the data block as a whole. This article will touch upon only the character device files.

In Linux OS, device files are identified by two positive numbers: major device number and minor device number. The major device number usually identifies the module that serves the device file or a group of devices served by a module. The minor device number identifies a definite device in the range of the defined major device number. These two numbers can be either defined as constants in the driver code or received dynamically. In the first case, the system will try to use the defined numbers and if they are already used, it will return an error. Functions that allocate the device numbers dynamically also reserve the allocated device numbers so that the dynamically allocated device number cannot be used by another module when it is allocated or used.

To register the character device, the following function can be used:

int register_chrdev (unsigned int   major,
                     const char *   name,
					 const struct   fops);
					 file_operations * 

It registers the device with the specified name and major device number (or it allocates the major device number if the major parameter is equal to zero) and links the file_operations structure with the device. If the function allocates the major device number, the returned value will be equal to the allocated number. In other case, the zero value means the successful completion and the negative value means an error. The registered device is associated with the defined major device number and minor device number is in the range of 0 to 255.

The string that is passed as the name parameter is the name of the device or the module if the last registers only one device and is used for the identification of the device in the /sys/devices file. The file_operations structure contains the pointers to the functions that must process the manipulations with the device file (such as open, read, write, etc.) and the pointer to the module structure that identifies the module, which implements these functions. The structure for the kernel version 2.6.32 looks as follows:

struct file_operations {
       struct module *owner;
       loff_t (*llseek) (struct file *, loff_t, int);
       ssize_t (*read) (struct file *, char *, size_t, loff_t *);
       ssize_t (*write) (struct file *, const char *, size_t, loff_t *);
       int (*readdir) (struct file *, void *, filldir_t);
       unsigned int (*poll) (struct file *, struct poll_table_struct *);
       int (*ioctl) (struct inode *, struct file *, unsigned int, unsigned long);
       int (*mmap) (struct file *, struct vm_area_struct *);
       int (*open) (struct inode *, struct file *);
       int (*flush) (struct file *);
       int (*release) (struct inode *, struct file *);
       int (*fsync) (struct file *, struct dentry *, int datasync);
       int (*fasync) (int, struct file *, int);
       int (*lock) (struct file *, int, struct file_lock *);
    ssize_t (*readv) (struct file *, const struct iovec *, unsigned long,
          loff_t *);
    ssize_t (*writev) (struct file *, const struct iovec *, unsigned long,
          loff_t *);

It is not necessary to implement all functions from the file_operations structure to use the file. If the function is not implemented, the corresponding pointer can be of zero value. In this case, the system will implement some default behavior for this function. It is enough to implement the read function for our example.

As our driver will provide the work of devices of one type, we can create the global static file_operations structure and fill it statically. It can look as follows:

static struct file_operations simple_driver_fops = 
	.owner   = THIS_MODULE,
	.read    = device_file_read,

Here, the THIS_MODULE macro (declared in linux/module.h) will be converted to the pointer to the module structure that corresponds to our module. The device_file_read is a pointer to the function with the prototype, whose body we will write later.

ssize_t device_file_read (struct  file *, char *, size_t, loff_t *);

So, when we have the file_operations structure, we can write a pair of functions for registration and unregistration of the device file:

static int device_file_major_number = 0;
static const char device_name[] = "Simple-driver";

static int register_device(void)
		int result = 0;

		printk( KERN_NOTICE "Simple-driver: register_device() is called." );

		result = register_chrdev( 0, device_name, &simple_driver_fops );
		if( result < 0 )
			printk( KERN_WARNING "Simple-driver:  can\'t register 
				character device with errorcode = %i", result );
			return result;

		device_file_major_number = result;
		printk( KERN_NOTICE "Simple-driver: registered character device 
			with major number = %i and minor numbers 0...255"
			 , device_file_major_number );

		return 0;

We store the major device number in the device_file_major_number global variable as we will need it for the device file unregistration in the end of the “driver life”.

In the listing above, the only function, which was not mentioned, is the printk() function. It is used for logging of messages from the kernel. The printk() function is declared in the linux/kernel.h file and works like the printf library function except one nuance. As you have already noticed, each format string of printk in this listing has the KERN_SOMETHING prefix. It is the message priority and it can be of eight levels, from the highest zero level (KERN_EMERG), which informs that the kernel is unstable, to the lowest seventh level (KERN_DEBUG).

The string that is formed by printk function is written to the circular buffer. From there, it is read by the klogd daemon and gets to the system log. The printk function is written in such a way that it can be called from any place in the kernel. The worst that can happen is circular buffer overflow when the oldest messages will not get to the system log.

Now, we need only to write the function for the device file unregistration. Its logic is simple: if we succeed in the device file registration, the device_file_major_number value will not be zero and we will be able to unregister it with the help of the unregister_chrdev function declared in linux/fs.h. The first parameter is the major device number and the second is the device name string. The unregister_chrdev function, by its action, is fully symmetric to the register_chrdev function.

We receive the following piece of code for the device registration:

void unregister_device(void)
	printk( KERN_NOTICE "Simple-driver: unregister_device() is called" );
	if(device_file_major_number != 0)
		unregister_chrdev(device_file_major_number, device_name);

The Usage of Memory Allocated in the User Mode

We need to write the function for reading characters from the device. It must have the signature that is appropriate for the signature from the file_operations structure:

ssize_t (*read) (struct file *,  char *, size_t, loff_t *);

The first parameter of this function is the pointer to the file structure from which we can find out the details: what file we work with, what private data is associated with it, etc. The second parameter is a buffer that is allocated in the user space for the read data. The third parameter is the number of bytes to be read. The fourth parameter is the offset (position) in the file, starting from which we should count bytes. After the performing of the function, the position in the file should be refreshed. Also the function should return the number of successfully read bytes.

One of the actions that our read function should perform is the copying of the information to the buffer allocated by the user in the address space of the user mode. We cannot just dereference the pointer from the address space of the user mode because the address, to which it refers, can have another value in the kernel address space. There is a special set of functions and macros (declared in asm/uaccess.h) for working with pointers from the user address space. The copy_to_user() function is the best for our task. As it can be seen from its name, it copies data from the buffer in the kernel to the buffer allocated by the user. Besides, the copy_to_user() function checks the pointer validity and the sufficiency of the size of the buffer allocated in the user space. It makes it easier to process errors in the driver. The copy_to_user prototype looks like the following:

long copy_to_user( void __user  *to, const void * from, unsigned long n );

The first parameter, which should be passed to the function, is the user pointer to the buffer. The second parameter should be the pointer to the data source, the third – the number of bytes to be copied. The function will return 0 in case of success and not 0 in case of error. The __user macro in the function prototype is used for documenting. It also allows analyzing the piece of code for the correctness of using the pointers from the user address space by means of the sparse static code analyzer. The pointers from the user address space should always be marked as __user.

We create only an example of the driver and we do not have the real device. So it will be sufficient if reading from our device file will always return some text string (e.g., Hello world from kernel mode!).

Now, we can start writing the piece of code of the read function:

static const char    g_s_Hello_World_string[] = "Hello world from kernel mode!\n\0";
static const ssize_t g_s_Hello_World_size = sizeof(g_s_Hello_World_string);

static ssize_t device_file_read(
						struct file *file_ptr
					   , char __user *user_buffer
					   , size_t count
					   , loff_t *position)
	printk( KERN_NOTICE "Simple-driver: 
		Device file is read at offset = %i, read bytes count = %u"
				, (int)*position
				, (unsigned int)count );

	/* If position is behind the end of a file we have nothing to read */
	if( *position >= g_s_Hello_World_size )
		return 0;

	/* If a user tries to read more than we have, read only 
	as many bytes as we have */
	if( *position + count > g_s_Hello_World_size )
		count = g_s_Hello_World_size - *position;

	if( copy_to_user(user_buffer, g_s_Hello_World_string + *position, count) != 0 )
		return -EFAULT;	

	/* Move reading position */
	*position += count;
	return count;

The Kernel Module Build System

Now, when the whole driver piece of code is written, we would like to build it and see how it will work. In the kernels of version 2.4, to build the module, the developer had to prepare the compilation environment himself and to compile the driver with the help of the GCC compiler. As a result of the compilation, the received .o file is the module loadable to the kernel. Since then, the order of the kernel modules build has changed. Now, the developer should only write a special makefile that will start the kernel build system and will inform the kernel what the module should be built of. To build a module from one source file, it is enough to write the one-string makefile and to start the kernel build system:

obj-m := source_file_name.o

The module name will correspond to the source file name and the module itself will have the .ko extension.

To build the module from several source files, we should add one string:

obj-m := module_name.o
module_name-objs := source_1.o  source_2.o … source_n.o

We can start the kernel build system with the help of the make command:


for the module build and


for the build folder cleanup.

The module build system is usually located in the /lib/modules/`uname -r`/build folder. We should prepare the module build system for building to build the first module. To do this, we should go to the build system folder and execute the following:

#> make modules_prepare

Let’s unite this knowledge into a single makefile:


# If we are running by kernel building system
	$(TARGET_MODULE)-objs := main.o device_file.o
	obj-m := $(TARGET_MODULE).o

# If we running without kernel build system
	BUILDSYSTEM_DIR:=/lib/modules/$(shell uname -r)/build
	PWD:=$(shell pwd)

all : 
# run kernel build system to make module
	$(MAKE) -C $(BUILDSYSTEM_DIR) M=$(PWD) modules

# run kernel build system to cleanup in current directory

	insmod ./$(TARGET_MODULE).ko

	rmmod ./$(TARGET_MODULE).ko


The load and unload targets are for loading of the built module and for deleting it from the kernel.

In our example, the driver is compiled from two files with the main.c and device_file.c source pieces of code and has the simple-module.ko name.

Module Loading and Its Usage

When our module is built, we can load it by executing the following command in the folder with the source files:

#> make load

After that, a string with the name of our driver appears in the special /proc/modules file. And a string with the device, registered by our module, appears in the special /proc/devices file. It will look as follows:

Character devices:
1 mem
4 tty
4 ttyS
250 Simple-driver

The number before the device name is a major number associated with it. We know the range of minor numbers for our device (0...255) and that is why we can create the device file in the /dev virtual file system:

#> mknod /dev/simple-driver c  250 0

When the device file is created, we will check if everything works correctly and will display its contents with the help of the cat command:

$> cat /dev/simple-driver
Hello world from kernel mode!

Bibliography List


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Authors

Apriorit Inc
Apriorit Inc.
Hungary Hungary
ApriorIT is a Software Research and Development company that works in advanced knowledge-intensive scopes.

Company offers integrated research&development services for the software projects in such directions as Corporate Security, Remote Control, Mobile Development, Embedded Systems, Virtualization, Drivers and others.

Official site
Group type: Organisation

32 members

Danil Ishkov
Ukraine Ukraine
No Biography provided

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionWell done. Pin
msmith183-May-15 12:29
membermsmith183-May-15 12:29 
QuestionGreat article Pin
Marcin Tomczak30-Dec-13 13:46
memberMarcin Tomczak30-Dec-13 13:46 
QuestionLicense Pin
angelo moscati5-Dec-13 5:42
memberangelo moscati5-Dec-13 5:42 
Questionthankssssssssssss Pin
Member 999976519-May-13 23:39
memberMember 999976519-May-13 23:39 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Nickolay Karnaukhov29-Jan-13 1:48
memberNickolay Karnaukhov29-Jan-13 1:48 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
gndnet10-Sep-12 18:42
membergndnet10-Sep-12 18:42 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Pranit Kothari20-Jul-12 1:01
memberPranit Kothari20-Jul-12 1:01 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
manoj kumar choubey15-Apr-12 23:03
membermanoj kumar choubey15-Apr-12 23:03 
Questionthnx Pin
Mohammad Masood Ashrafi18-Sep-11 5:40
memberMohammad Masood Ashrafi18-Sep-11 5:40 
GeneralAuto Loadable Module Pin
dalchandc2-May-11 22:20
memberdalchandc2-May-11 22:20 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
HimanshuJoshi15-Oct-10 9:40
memberHimanshuJoshi15-Oct-10 9:40 
GeneralC++ in the kernel Pin
Nemanja Trifunovic30-Sep-10 3:00
memberNemanja Trifunovic30-Sep-10 3:00 
A nice article.

Just one remerk from my side. It is definitelly possible to write device drivers in C++ and in fact it has been done more than once with success (for instance, see this thread:[^] ) on both Linux and Windows. The fact is that the use of C++ is not recommended/supported on either system, but it can be done as long as you know which features to use and which ones to avoid. For instance, using C++ as a "better C" (no C++ specific language constructs, but taking advantage of the stronger type system) is safe.

GeneralRe: C++ in the kernel Pin
Danil Ishkov30-Sep-10 3:52
memberDanil Ishkov30-Sep-10 3:52 
GeneralExcelent article. Pin
Silvio Reis Jr27-Sep-10 3:26
memberSilvio Reis Jr27-Sep-10 3:26 
Generalcant download the sample project Pin
wshcdr25-Sep-10 14:31
memberwshcdr25-Sep-10 14:31 
GeneralRe: cant download the sample project Pin
Apriorit Inc26-Sep-10 20:50
mvpApriorit Inc26-Sep-10 20:50 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Member 463761924-Sep-10 4:17
memberMember 463761924-Sep-10 4:17 

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