Review Checklist for RCU Patches
This document contains a checklist for producing and reviewing patches
that make use of RCU. Violating any of the rules listed below will
result in the same sorts of problems that leaving out a locking primitive
would cause. This list is based on experiences reviewing such patches
over a rather long period of time, but improvements are always welcome!
0. Is RCU being applied to a read-mostly situation? If the data
structure is updated more than about 10% of the time, then
you should strongly consider some other approach, unless
detailed performance measurements show that RCU is nonetheless
the right tool for the job. Yes, you might think of RCU
as simply cutting overhead off of the readers and imposing it
on the writers. That is exactly why normal uses of RCU will
do much more reading than updating.
Another exception is where performance is not an issue, and RCU
provides a simpler implementation. An example of this situation
is the dynamic NMI code in the Linux 2.6 kernel, at least on
architectures where NMIs are rare.
Yet another exception is where the low real-time latency of RCU's
read-side primitives is critically important.
1. Does the update code have proper mutual exclusion?
RCU does allow -readers- to run (almost) naked, but -writers- must
still use some sort of mutual exclusion, such as:
b. atomic operations, or
c. restricting updates to a single task.
If you choose #b, be prepared to describe how you have handled
memory barriers on weakly ordered machines (pretty much all of
them -- even x86 allows reads to be reordered), and be prepared
to explain why this added complexity is worthwhile. If you
choose #c, be prepared to explain how this single task does not
become a major bottleneck on big multiprocessor machines (for
example, if the task is updating information relating to itself
that other tasks can read, there by definition can be no
2. Do the RCU read-side critical sections make proper use of
rcu_read_lock() and friends? These primitives are needed
to prevent grace periods from ending prematurely, which
could result in data being unceremoniously freed out from
under your read-side code, which can greatly increase the
actuarial risk of your kernel.
As a rough rule of thumb, any dereference of an RCU-protected
pointer must be covered by rcu_read_lock() or rcu_read_lock_bh()
or by the appropriate update-side lock.
3. Does the update code tolerate concurrent accesses?
The whole point of RCU is to permit readers to run without
any locks or atomic operations. This means that readers will
be running while updates are in progress. There are a number
of ways to handle this concurrency, depending on the situation:
a. Use the RCU variants of the list and hlist update
primitives to add, remove, and replace elements on an
RCU-protected list. Alternatively, use the RCU-protected
trees that have been added to the Linux kernel.
This is almost always the best approach.
b. Proceed as in (a) above, but also maintain per-element
locks (that are acquired by both readers and writers)
that guard per-element state. Of course, fields that
the readers refrain from accessing can be guarded by the
This works quite well, also.
c. Make updates appear atomic to readers. For example,
pointer updates to properly aligned fields will appear
atomic, as will individual atomic primitives. Operations
performed under a lock and sequences of multiple atomic
primitives will -not- appear to be atomic.
This can work, but is starting to get a bit tricky.
d. Carefully order the updates and the reads so that
readers see valid data at all phases of the update.
This is often more difficult than it sounds, especially
given modern CPUs' tendency to reorder memory references.
One must usually liberally sprinkle memory barriers
(smp_wmb(), smp_rmb(), smp_mb()) through the code,
making it difficult to understand and to test.
It is usually better to group the changing data into
a separate structure, so that the change may be made
to appear atomic by updating a pointer to reference
a new structure containing updated values.
4. Weakly ordered CPUs pose special challenges. Almost all CPUs
are weakly ordered -- even i386 CPUs allow reads to be reordered.
RCU code must take all of the following measures to prevent
a. Readers must maintain proper ordering of their memory
accesses. The rcu_dereference() primitive ensures that
the CPU picks up the pointer before it picks up the data
that the pointer points to. This really is necessary
on Alpha CPUs. If you don't believe me, see:
The rcu_dereference() primitive is also an excellent
documentation aid, letting the person reading the code
know exactly which pointers are protected by RCU.
The rcu_dereference() primitive is used by the various
"_rcu()" list-traversal primitives, such as the
list_for_each_entry_rcu(). Note that it is perfectly
legal (if redundant) for update-side code to use
rcu_dereference() and the "_rcu()" list-traversal
primitives. This is particularly useful in code
that is common to readers and updaters.
b. If the list macros are being used, the list_add_tail_rcu()
and list_add_rcu() primitives must be used in order
to prevent weakly ordered machines from misordering
structure initialization and pointer planting.
Similarly, if the hlist macros are being used, the
hlist_add_head_rcu() primitive is required.
c. If the list macros are being used, the list_del_rcu()
primitive must be used to keep list_del()'s pointer
poisoning from inflicting toxic effects on concurrent
readers. Similarly, if the hlist macros are being used,
the hlist_del_rcu() primitive is required.
The list_replace_rcu() primitive may be used to
replace an old structure with a new one in an
d. Updates must ensure that initialization of a given
structure happens before pointers to that structure are
publicized. Use the rcu_assign_pointer() primitive
when publicizing a pointer to a structure that can
be traversed by an RCU read-side critical section.
5. If call_rcu(), or a related primitive such as call_rcu_bh() or
call_rcu_sched(), is used, the callback function must be
written to be called from softirq context. In particular,
it cannot block.
6. Since synchronize_rcu() can block, it cannot be called from
any sort of irq context. Ditto for synchronize_sched() and
7. If the updater uses call_rcu(), then the corresponding readers
must use rcu_read_lock() and rcu_read_unlock(). If the updater
uses call_rcu_bh(), then the corresponding readers must use
rcu_read_lock_bh() and rcu_read_unlock_bh(). If the updater
uses call_rcu_sched(), then the corresponding readers must
disable preemption. Mixing things up will result in confusion
and broken kernels.
One exception to this rule: rcu_read_lock() and rcu_read_unlock()
may be substituted for rcu_read_lock_bh() and rcu_read_unlock_bh()
in cases where local bottom halves are already known to be
disabled, for example, in irq or softirq context. Commenting
such cases is a must, of course! And the jury is still out on
whether the increased speed is worth it.
8. Although synchronize_rcu() is slower than is call_rcu(), it
usually results in simpler code. So, unless update performance
is critically important or the updaters cannot block,
synchronize_rcu() should be used in preference to call_rcu().
An especially important property of the synchronize_rcu()
primitive is that it automatically self-limits: if grace periods
are delayed for whatever reason, then the synchronize_rcu()
primitive will correspondingly delay updates. In contrast,
code using call_rcu() should explicitly limit update rate in
cases where grace periods are delayed, as failing to do so can
result in excessive realtime latencies or even OOM conditions.
Ways of gaining this self-limiting property when using call_rcu()
a. Keeping a count of the number of data-structure elements
used by the RCU-protected data structure, including those
waiting for a grace period to elapse. Enforce a limit
on this number, stalling updates as needed to allow
previously deferred frees to complete.
Alternatively, limit only the number awaiting deferred
free rather than the total number of elements.
b. Limiting update rate. For example, if updates occur only
once per hour, then no explicit rate limiting is required,
unless your system is already badly broken. The dcache
subsystem takes this approach -- updates are guarded
by a global lock, limiting their rate.
c. Trusted update -- if updates can only be done manually by
superuser or some other trusted user, then it might not
be necessary to automatically limit them. The theory
here is that superuser already has lots of ways to crash
d. Use call_rcu_bh() rather than call_rcu(), in order to take
advantage of call_rcu_bh()'s faster grace periods.
e. Periodically invoke synchronize_rcu(), permitting a limited
number of updates per grace period.
9. All RCU list-traversal primitives, which include
list_for_each_continue_rcu(), and list_for_each_safe_rcu(),
must be either within an RCU read-side critical section or
must be protected by appropriate update-side locks. RCU
read-side critical sections are delimited by rcu_read_lock()
and rcu_read_unlock(), or by similar primitives such as
rcu_read_lock_bh() and rcu_read_unlock_bh().
The reason that it is permissible to use RCU list-traversal
primitives when the update-side lock is held is that doing so
can be quite helpful in reducing code bloat when common code is
shared between readers and updaters.
10. Conversely, if you are in an RCU read-side critical section,
and you don't hold the appropriate update-side lock, you -must-
use the "_rcu()" variants of the list macros. Failing to do so
will break Alpha and confuse people reading your code.
11. Note that synchronize_rcu() -only- guarantees to wait until
all currently executing rcu_read_lock()-protected RCU read-side
critical sections complete. It does -not- necessarily guarantee
that all currently running interrupts, NMIs, preempt_disable()
code, or idle loops will complete. Therefore, if you do not have
rcu_read_lock()-protected read-side critical sections, do -not-
If you want to wait for some of these other things, you might
instead need to use synchronize_irq() or synchronize_sched().
12. Any lock acquired by an RCU callback must be acquired elsewhere
with softirq disabled, e.g., via spin_lock_irqsave(),
spin_lock_bh(), etc. Failing to disable irq on a given
acquisition of that lock will result in deadlock as soon as the
RCU callback happens to interrupt that acquisition's critical
13. RCU callbacks can be and are executed in parallel. In many cases,
the callback code simply wrappers around kfree(), so that this
is not an issue (or, more accurately, to the extent that it is
an issue, the memory-allocator locking handles it). However,
if the callbacks do manipulate a shared data structure, they
must use whatever locking or other synchronization is required
to safely access and/or modify that data structure.
RCU callbacks are -usually- executed on the same CPU that executed
the corresponding call_rcu(), call_rcu_bh(), or call_rcu_sched(),
but are by -no- means guaranteed to be. For example, if a given
CPU goes offline while having an RCU callback pending, then that
RCU callback will execute on some surviving CPU. (If this was
not the case, a self-spawning RCU callback would prevent the
victim CPU from ever going offline.)
14. SRCU (srcu_read_lock(), srcu_read_unlock(), and synchronize_srcu())
may only be invoked from process context. Unlike other forms of
RCU, it -is- permissible to block in an SRCU read-side critical
section (demarked by srcu_read_lock() and srcu_read_unlock()),
hence the "SRCU": "sleepable RCU". Please note that if you
don't need to sleep in read-side critical sections, you should
be using RCU rather than SRCU, because RCU is almost always
faster and easier to use than is SRCU.
Also unlike other forms of RCU, explicit initialization
and cleanup is required via init_srcu_struct() and
cleanup_srcu_struct(). These are passed a "struct srcu_struct"
that defines the scope of a given SRCU domain. Once initialized,
the srcu_struct is passed to srcu_read_lock(), srcu_read_unlock()
and synchronize_srcu(). A given synchronize_srcu() waits only
for SRCU read-side critical sections governed by srcu_read_lock()
and srcu_read_unlock() calls that have been passd the same
srcu_struct. This property is what makes sleeping read-side
critical sections tolerable -- a given subsystem delays only
its own updates, not those of other subsystems using SRCU.
Therefore, SRCU is less prone to OOM the system than RCU would
be if RCU's read-side critical sections were permitted to
The ability to sleep in read-side critical sections does not
come for free. First, corresponding srcu_read_lock() and
srcu_read_unlock() calls must be passed the same srcu_struct.
Second, grace-period-detection overhead is amortized only
over those updates sharing a given srcu_struct, rather than
being globally amortized as they are for other forms of RCU.
Therefore, SRCU should be used in preference to rw_semaphore
only in extremely read-intensive situations, or in situations
requiring SRCU's read-side deadlock immunity or low read-side
Note that, rcu_assign_pointer() and rcu_dereference() relate to
SRCU just as they do to other forms of RCU.
15. The whole point of call_rcu(), synchronize_rcu(), and friends
is to wait until all pre-existing readers have finished before
carrying out some otherwise-destructive operation. It is
therefore critically important to -first- remove any path
that readers can follow that could be affected by the
destructive operation, and -only- -then- invoke call_rcu(),
synchronize_rcu(), or friends.
Because these primitives only wait for pre-existing readers,
it is the caller's responsibility to guarantee safety to
any subsequent readers.
16. The various RCU read-side primitives do -not- contain memory
barriers. The CPU (and in some cases, the compiler) is free
to reorder code into and out of RCU read-side critical sections.
It is the responsibility of the RCU update-side primitives to
deal with this.