Code checking tools

For now, at least, the writing of error-free code remains an ideal that few of us can reach. What we can hope to do, though, is to catch and fix as many of those errors as possible before our code goes into the mainline kernel. To that end, the kernel developers have put together an impressive array of tools which can catch a wide variety of obscure problems in an automated way. Any problem caught by the computer is a problem which will not afflict a user later on, so it stands to reason that the automated tools should be used whenever possible.

The first step is simply to heed the warnings produced by the compiler. Contemporary versions of gcc can detect (and warn about) a large number of potential errors. Quite often, these warnings point to real problems. Code submitted for review should, as a rule, not produce any compiler warnings. When silencing warnings, take care to understand the real cause and try to avoid „fixes“ which make the warning go away without addressing its cause.

Note that not all compiler warnings are enabled by default. Build the kernel with „make EXTRA_CFLAGS=-W“ to get the full set.

The kernel provides several configuration options which turn on debugging features; most of these are found in the „kernel hacking“ submenu. Several of these options should be turned on for any kernel used for development or testing purposes. In particular, you should turn on: 

  • ENABLE_WARN_DEPRECATED, ENABLE_MUST_CHECK, and FRAME_WARN to get an extra set of warnings for problems like the use of deprecated interfaces or ignoring an important return value from a function. The output generated by these warnings can be verbose, but one need not worry about warnings from other parts of the kernel.
  • DEBUG_OBJECTS will add code to track the lifetime of various objects created by the kernel and warn when things are done out of order. If you are adding a subsystem which creates (and exports) complex objects of its own, consider adding support for the object debugging infrastructure.
  • DEBUG_SLAB can find a variety of memory allocation and use errors; it should be used on most development kernels.
  • DEBUG_SPINLOCK, DEBUG_SPINLOCK_SLEEP, and DEBUG_MUTEXES will find a number of common locking errors.

There are quite a few other debugging options, some of which will be discussed below. Some of them have a significant performance impact and should not be used all of the time. But some time spent learning the available options will likely be paid back many times over in short order.

One of the heavier debugging tools is the locking checker, or „lockdep.“ This tool will track the acquisition and release of every lock (spinlock or mutex) in the system, the order in which locks are acquired relative to each other, the current interrupt environment, and more. It can then ensure that locks are always acquired in the same order, that the same interrupt assumptions apply in all situations, and so on. In other words, lockdep can find a number of scenarios in which the system could, on rare occasion, deadlock. This kind of problem can be painful (for both developers and users) in a deployed system; lockdep allows them to be found in an automated manner ahead of time. Code with any sort of non-trivial locking should be run with lockdep enabled before being submitted for inclusion.

As a diligent kernel programmer, you will, beyond doubt, check the return status of any operation (such as a memory allocation) which can fail. The fact of the matter, though, is that the resulting failure recovery paths are, probably, completely untested. Untested code tends to be broken code; you could be much more confident of your code if all those error-handling paths had been exercised a few times.

The kernel provides a fault injection framework which can do exactly that, especially where memory allocations are involved. With fault injection enabled, a configurable percentage of memory allocations will be made to fail; these failures can be restricted to a specific range of code. Running with fault injection enabled allows the programmer to see how the code responds when things go badly. See Documentation/fault-injection/fault-injection.text for more information on how to use this facility.

Other kinds of errors can be found with the „sparse“ static analysis tool. With sparse, the programmer can be warned about confusion between user-space and kernel-space addresses, mixture of big-endian and small-endian quantities, the passing of integer values where a set of bit flags is expected, and so on. Sparse must be installed separately (it can be found at if your distributor does not package it); it can then be run on the code by adding „C=1“ to your make command.

Other kinds of portability errors are best found by compiling your code for other architectures. If you do not happen to have an S/390 system or a Blackfin development board handy, you can still perform the compilation step. A large set of cross compilers for x86 systems can be found at

Some time spent installing and using these compilers will help avoid embarrassment later.