Compiler considerations

Creating livepatch modules may seem as straightforward as updating a few functions in source code and registering them with the livepatch API. This idealized method may produce functional livepatch modules in some cases.


A safe and accurate livepatch must take into account compiler optimizations and their effect on the binary code that is executed and ultimately livepatched.


Interprocedural optimization (IPA)

Function inlining is probably the most common compiler optimization that affects livepatching. In a simple example, inlining transforms the original code:

foo() { ... [ foo implementation ] ... }

bar() { ...  foo() ...  }


bar() { ...  [ foo implementation ] ...  }

Inlining is comparable to macro expansion, however the compiler may inline cases which it determines worthwhile (while preserving original call/return semantics in others) or even partially inline pieces of functions (see cold functions in “GCC function suffixes” section below).

To safely livepatch foo() from the previous example, all of its callers need to be taken into consideration. For those callers that the compiler had inlined foo(), a livepatch should include a new version of the calling function such that it:

  1. Calls a new, patched version of the inlined function, or
  2. Provides an updated version of the caller that contains its own inlined and updated version of the inlined function

Other interesting IPA examples include:

  • IPA-SRA: removal of unused parameters, replace parameters passed by referenced by parameters passed by value. This optimization basically violates ABI.


    GCC changes the name of function. See GCC function suffixes section below.

  • IPA-CP: find values passed to functions are constants and then optimizes accordingly Several clones of a function are possible if a set is limited.


    GCC changes the name of function. See GCC function suffixes section below.

  • IPA-PURE-CONST: discover which functions are pure or constant. GCC can eliminate calls to such functions, memory accesses can be removed etc.

  • IPA-ICF: perform identical code folding for functions and read-only variables. Replaces a function with an equivalent one.

  • IPA-RA: optimize saving and restoring registers if the compiler considers it safe.

  • Dead code elimination: omit unused code paths from the resulting binary.

GCC function suffixes

GCC may rename original, copied, and cloned functions depending upon the optimizations applied. Here is a partial list of name suffixes that the compiler may apply to kernel functions:

  • Cold subfunctions : .code or .cold.<N> : parts of functions (subfunctions) determined by attribute or optimization to be unlikely executed.

    For example, the unlikely bits of irq_do_set_affinity() may be moved out to subfunction irq_do_set_affinity.cold.49(). Starting with GCC 9, the numbered suffix has been removed. So in the previous example, the cold subfunction is simply irq_do_set_affinity.cold().

  • Partial inlining : .part.<N> : parts of functions when split from their original function body, improves overall inlining decisions.

    The cdev_put() function provides an interesting example of a partial clone. GCC builds the source function:

    void cdev_put(struct cdev *p)
            if (p) {
                    struct module *owner = p->owner;

    into two functions, the conditional test in cdev_put() and the kobject_put() and module_put() calls in cdev_put.part.0():

           e8 bb 60 73 00          callq  ffffffff81a01a10 <__fentry__>
           48 85 ff                test   %rdi,%rdi
           74 05                   je     ffffffff812cb95f <cdev_put+0xf>
           e9 a1 fc ff ff          jmpq   ffffffff812cb600 <cdev_put.part.0>
           c3                      retq
           e8 0b 64 73 00          callq  ffffffff81a01a10 <__fentry__>
           53                      push   %rbx
           48 8b 5f 60             mov    0x60(%rdi),%rbx
           e8 a1 54 5a 00          callq  ffffffff81870ab0 <kobject_put>
           48 89 df                mov    %rbx,%rdi
           5b                      pop    %rbx
           e9 b8 5c e8 ff          jmpq   ffffffff811512d0 <module_put>
           0f 1f 84 00 00 00 00    nopl   0x0(%rax,%rax,1)

    Some cdev_put() callers may take advantage of this function splitting to inline one part or another. Others may also directly call the partial clone.

  • Constant propagation : .constprop.<N> : function copies to enable constant propagation when conflicting arguments exist.

    For example, consider cpumask_weight() and its copies for cpumask_weight(cpu_possible_mask) and cpumask_weight(__cpu_online_mask). Note how the .constprop copies implicitly assign the function parameter:

           8b 35 1e 7d 3e 01       mov    0x13e7d1e(%rip),%esi
           e9 55 6e 3f 00          jmpq   ffffffff8141d2b0 <__bitmap_weight>
           8b 35 79 cf 1c 01       mov    0x11ccf79(%rip),%esi
           48 c7 c7 80 db 40 82    mov    $0xffffffff8240db80,%rdi
                             R_X86_64_32S  __cpu_possible_mask
           e9 a9 c0 1d 00          jmpq   ffffffff8141d2b0 <__bitmap_weight>
           8b 35 de 69 32 01       mov    0x13269de(%rip),%esi
           48 c7 c7 80 d7 40 82    mov    $0xffffffff8240d780,%rdi
                             R_X86_64_32S  __cpu_online_mask
           e9 0e 5b 33 00          jmpq   ffffffff8141d2b0 <__bitmap_weight>
  • IPA-SRA : .isra.0 : TODO

Coping with optimizations

A livepatch author must take care to consider the consequences of interprocedural optimizations that create function clones, ABI changes, splitting, etc. A small change to one function may cascade through the function call-chain, updating dozens more. A safe livepatch needs to be fully compatible with all callers.


Given an input .patch file, kpatch-build performs a binary comparison of unpatched and patched kernel trees. This automates the detection of changes in compiler-generated code, optimizations included. It is still important, however, for a kpatch developer to learn about compiler transformations in order to understand and control the set of modified functions.


With the -fdump-ipa-clones flag, GCC will dump IPA clones that were created by all inter-procedural optimizations in <source>.000i.ipa-clones files.

kgraft-analysis-tool pretty-prints those IPA cloning decisions. The full list of affected functions provides additional updates that the source-based livepatch author may need to consider. For example, for the function scatterwalk_unmap():

$ ./ --symbol=scatterwalk_unmap aesni-intel_glue.i.000i.ipa-clones
Function: scatterwalk_unmap/2930 (include/crypto/scatterwalk.h:81:60)
  isra: scatterwalk_unmap.isra.2/3142 (include/crypto/scatterwalk.h:81:60)
    inlining to: helper_rfc4106_decrypt/3007 (arch/x86/crypto/aesni-intel_glue.c:1016:12)
    inlining to: helper_rfc4106_decrypt/3007 (arch/x86/crypto/aesni-intel_glue.c:1016:12)
    inlining to: helper_rfc4106_encrypt/3006 (arch/x86/crypto/aesni-intel_glue.c:939:12)

  Affected functions: 3
    scatterwalk_unmap.isra.2/3142 (include/crypto/scatterwalk.h:81:60)
    helper_rfc4106_decrypt/3007 (arch/x86/crypto/aesni-intel_glue.c:1016:12)
    helper_rfc4106_encrypt/3006 (arch/x86/crypto/aesni-intel_glue.c:939:12)

kgraft-ipa-analysis notes that it was inlined into function helper_rfc4106_decrypt() and was renamed with a .isra.<N> IPA optimization suffix. A safe livepatch that updates scatterwalk_unmap() will of course need to consider updating these functions as well.


[1] GCC optimizations and their impact on livepatch
Miroslav Benes, 2016 Linux Plumbers Conferences
[2] kpatch-build
[3] kgraft-analysis-tool