Hell Oh Entropy!

Life, Code and everything in between

Across the Charles Bridge - GNU Tools Cauldron 2017

Since I joined Linaro back in 2015 around this time, my travel has gone up 3x with 2 Linaro Connects a year added to the one GNU Tools Cauldron. This year I went to FOSSAsia too, so it’s been a busy traveling year. The special thing about Cauldron though is that it is one of those conferences where I ‘work’ as well as have a lot of fun. The fun bit is because I get to meet all of the people that I work with almost every day in person and a lot of them have become great friends over the years.

I still remember the first Cauldron I went to in 2013 at Mountain View where I felt dwarfed by all of the giants I was sitting with. It was exaggerated because it was the first time I met the likes of Jeff Law, Richard Henderson, etc. in personal meetings since I had joined the Red Hat toolchain team just months before; it was intimidating and exciting all at once. That was also the first time I met Roland McGrath (I still hadn’t met Carlos, he had just had a baby and couldn’t come), someone I was terrified of back then because his patch reviews would be quite sharp and incisive. I had imagined him to be a grim old man hammering out those words from a stern laptop, so it was a surprise to see him use the same kinds of words but with a sarcastic smile, completely changing the context and tone. That was the first time I truly realized how emails often lack context. Years later, I still try to visualize people when I read their emails.

Skip to 4 years later and I was at my 5th Cauldron last week and despite my assumptions on how it would go, it was a completely new experience. A lot of it had to do with my time at Linaro and very little to do with technical growth. I felt like an equal to Linaro folks all over the world and I seemed to carry that forward here, where I felt like an equal with all of the people present, I felt like I belonged. I did not feel insecure about my capabilities (I still am intimately aware of my limitations), nor did I feel the need to constantly prove that I belonged. I was out there seeking toolchain developers (we are hiring btw, email me if you’re a fit), comfortable with the idea of leading a team. The fact that I managed to not screw up the two glibc releases I managed may also have helped :)

Oh, and one wonderful surprise was that an old friend decided to drop in an Cauldron and spend a couple of days.

This year’s Cauldron had the most technical talks submitted in recent years. We had 5 talks in the glibc area, possibly also the highest for us; just as well because we went over time in almost all of them. I won’t say that it’s a surprise since that has happened in every single year that I attended. The first glibc talk was about tunables where I briefly recapped what we have done in tunables so far and talked about the future a bit more at length. Pedro Alves suggested putting pretty printers for tunables for introspection and maybe also for runtime tuning in the coming future. There was a significant amount of interest in the idea of auto-tuning, i.e. collecting profiling data about tunable use and coming up with optimal default values and possibly even eliminating such tunables in future if we find that we have a pretty good default. We also talked about tuning at runtime and the various kinds of support that would be required to make it happen. Finally there were discussions on tuning profiles and ideas around creating performance-enhanced routines for workloads instead of CPUs. The video recording of the talk will hopefully be out soon and I’ll link the video here when it is available.

Florian then talked about glibc 3.0, a notional concept (i.e. won’t be a soname bump) where we rewrite sections of code that have been rotting due to having to support some legacy platforms. The most prominent among them is libio, the module in glibc that implements stdio. When libio was written, it was designed to be compatible with libstdc++ so that FILE streams could be compatible with C++ stdio streams. The only version of gcc that really supports that is 2.95 since libstdc++ has since moved on. However because of the way we do things in glibc, we cannot get rid of them even if there is just one user that needs that ABI. We toyed with the concept of a separate compatibility library that becomes a graveyard for such legacy interfaces so that they don’t hold up progress in the library. It remains to be seen how this pans out, but I would definitely be happy to see this progress; libio was one of my backlog projects for years. I had to miss Raji’s talk on powerpc glibc improvements since I had to be in another meeting, so I’ll have to catch it when the video comes out.

The two BoFs for glibc dealt with a number of administrative and development issues, details of which Carlos will post on the mailing list soon. The highlights for me were the malloc instrumented benchmarks that Carlos wants to add to benchtests and build and review tools. Once I clear up my work backlog a bit, I’ll attempt to set up something like phabricator or gerrit and see how that works out or the community instead of patchwork. I am convinced that all of the issues that we want to solve like crediting reviewers, ensuring good git commit logs, running automated builds and tests, etc. can only be effectively solved with a proper review tool in place to review patches.

There was also a discussion on redoing the makefiles in glibc so that it doesn’t spend so much time doing dependecy resolution, but I am going to pretend that it didn’t happen because it is an ugly ugly task :/

I’m back home now, recovering from the cold that worsened while I was in Prague before I head out again in a couple of weeks to SFO for Linaro Connect. I’ve booked tickets for whale watching tours there, so hopefully I’ll be posting some pictures again after a long break.


Tunables story continued - glibc 2.26

Those of you tuned in to the wonderful world of system programming may have noticed that glibc 2.26 was released last night (or daytime if you live west of me or middle of the night/dawn if you live east of me, well you get the drift) and it came out with a host of new improvements, including the much awaited thread cache for malloc. The thread cache for malloc is truly a great step forward - it brings down latency of a bulk of allocations from hundreds of cycles to tens of cycles. The other major improvement that a bulk of users and developers will notice is the fact that glibc now detects when resolv.conf has changed and reloads the lookup configuration. Yes, this was long overdue but hey, it’s not like we were refusing patches for the past half a decade, so thank the nice soul (Florian Weimer) who actually got it done in the end.

We are not here to talk about the improvements mentioned in the NEWS. We are here to talk about an improvement that will likely have a long term impact on how optimizations are implemented in libraries. We are here to talk about…


Yes, I’m back with tunables, but this time I am not the one who did the work, it’s the wonderful people from Cavium and Intel who have started using tunables for a use case I had alluded to in my talk at Linaro Connect BKK 2016 and also in my previous blog post on tunables, which was the ability to influence IFUNCs.

IFUNCs? International functions? Intricate Functions? Impossibly ridiculous Functions?

There is a short introduction of the GNU Indirect Functions on the glibc wiki that should help you get started on this very powerful yet very complicated concept. In short, ifuncs extend the GOT/PLT mechanism of loading functions from dynamic libraries to loading different implementations of the same function depending on some simple selection criteria. Traditionally this has been based on querying the CPU for features that it supports and as a result we have had multiple variants of some very common functions such as memcpy_sse2 and memcpy_ssse3 for x86 processors that get executed based on the support declared by the processor the program is running on.

Tunables allow you to take this idea further because there are two ways to get performance benefits, (1) by utilizing all of the CPU features that help and (2) by catering to the workload. For example, you could have a workload that performs better with a supposedly sub-optimal memcpy variant for the CPU purely because of the way your data is structured or laid out. Tunables allow you to select that routine by pretending that the CPU has a different set of capabilities than it actually reports, by setting the glibc.tune.hwcaps tunable on x86 processors. Not only that, you can even tune cache sizes and non-temporal thresholds (i.e. threshold beyond which some routines use non-temporal instructions for loads and stores to optimize cache usage) to suit your workload. I won’t be surprised if some years down the line we see specialized implementations of these routines that cater to specific workloads, like memcpy_db for databases or memset_paranoid for a time invariant (or mostly invariant) implementation of memset.

Beyond x86

Here’s where another very important feature landed in glibc 2.26: multiarch support in aarch64. The ARMv8 spec is pretty standard and as a result the high level instruction set and feature set of vendor chips is pretty much the same with some minor trivial differences. However, even though the spec is standard, the underlying microarchitecture implementation could be very different and that meant that selection of instructions and scheduling differences could lead to sometimes very significant differences in performance and vendors obviously would like to take advantage of that.

The only way they could reliably (well, kind of, there should be a whole blog post for this) identify their processor variant (and hence deploy routines for their processors) was by reading the machine identification register or MIDR_EL1. If you’re familiar with aarch64 registers, you’ll notice that this register cannot be read by userspace, it can only be read by the kernel. The kernel thus had to trap and emulate this instruction, support for which is now available since Linux 4.11. In glibc 2.26, we now use MIDR_EL1 to identify which vendor processor the program is running on and deploy an optimal routine (in this case for the Cavium thunderxt88) for the processor.

But wait, what about earlier kernels, how do they take advantage of this? There’s a tunable for it! There’s glibc.tune.cpu for aarch64 that allows you to select the CPU variant you want to emulate. For some workloads you’ll find the generic memcpy actually works better and the tunable allows you to select that as well.

Finally due to tunables, the much needed cleanup of LD_HWCAP_MASK happened, giving rise to the tunable glibc.tune.hwcap_mask. Tunables also eliminated a lot of the inconsistency in environment variable behaviour due to the way static and dynamic executables are initialized, so you’ll see much less differences in the way your applications behave when they’re built dynamically vs when they’re built statically.

Wow, that sounds good, where do I sign up for your newsletter?

The full list of hardware capability tunables are documented in the glibc manual so take a look and feel free to hop on to the libc-help mailing list to discuss these tunables and suggest more ways in which you would like to tune the library for your workload. Remember that tunables don’t have any ABI/API guarantees for now, so they can be added or removed between releases as we deem fit. Also, your distribution may end up adding their own tunables too in future, so look out for those as well. Finally, system level tunables coming up real soon to allow system administrators to control how users use these tunables.

Happy hacking!


The story of tunables

This is long overdue and I have finally got around to writing this. Apologies to everyone who asked me to write about it and I responded with "Oh yeah, right away!" If you are not interested in the story bits, start with So what are tunables anyway below.

The story of tunables began in 2013 when I was a relatively fresh glibc engineer in the Red Hat toolchain team. We wanted to add an environment variable to allow users to set the default stack sizes for thread stacks and Carlos took that idea to the next level with the question: How do we make this more extensible so that we have full control over the kind of tuning parameters we accept in glibc but at the same time, allow distributions to add their own tuning parameters without affecting upstream code? He asked this question in the 2013 Cauldron in Mountain View, where the famous glibc BoF happened in a tiny meeting room which overflowed into an adjacent room, which also filled up quickly, and then the BoF overran its 45 minute slot by roughly a couple of hours! Carlos joined the BoF over Hangout (I think it was called Google Talk then) because he couldn’t make it and we had a lengthy back and forth about the pros and cons of having such tuning parameters. In principle, everybody agreed that such a thing would be desirable from a maintenance perspective. However the approach for doing it was something nobody seemed to agree on.

Thus the idea of tunables was born 4 years ago, except that Carlos wrote the first wiki page and called it ‘tunnables’. He consistently spelled it tunnables and I tunables. I won in the end because I wrote the patches ;)

Jokes aside, we were happy about the reception of the idea and we went about documenting it at length. However given that we were a two man army manning the glibc bunkers in Red Hat and the fact that upstream was still reviving itself from the post-Uli era meant that we would never come back to it for a while.

Then 2015 happened and it came with a memorable Cauldron in Prague. It was memorable because by then I had come up with a first draft of an API for the tunables framework. It was also memorable because it was my last month at Red Hat, something I never imagined would ever happen. I was leaving my dream team and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be as happy again. Those uncertainties were unfounded as I know now, but that’s a story for another post.

The struggle to write code

The first draft I presented at Cauldron in 2015 was really just a naive attempt at storing and initializing public values accessed across libraries in glibc and we had not even thought through everything we would end up fixing with tunables. It kinda worked, but it was never going to make the cut. A new employer meant that tunables will become a weekend project and as a result it missed the release deadline. And another, and then another. Towards the closing of every release I would whip out a patchset that would be poked holes into and then the change would be considered too risky to include.

Finally we set a deadline of 2.25 for tunables because by then quite a few devs had started maintaining their own list of tunables on top of my tree, frustratingly rebasing every time I completely changed my approach. We made it in the end, with Florian and I working through the year end holidays to get the whole patchset in before freeze.

So as of 2.25, tunables is firmly entrenched into glibc and as we speak, there are more tunables to come, especially to override IFUNC selections and to tune the processor capability mask.

So what are tunables anyway?

This is where you start if you want the technical description and are not interested in the story bits.

Tunables is an internal implementation detail in glibc. It is a way to manage ways in which we allow behaviour in glibc to be modified. As of now the only way to manage glibc is via environment variables and the way to do that was strewn all over the place in the source code. Tunables provide one place to add the tunable parameter with all of the characteristics it would have and then the framework will handle everything from there. The user of that tunable (e.g. malloc for MALLOC_MMAP_THRESHOLD_ or malloc.mmap.threshold in tunables parlance) would then simply access the tunable from the list and do what it wants to do, without bothering about where it came from.

The framework is implemented in elf/dl-tunables.c and all of the supporting code is named as elf/dl-tunable*. As is evident, tunables is linked into the dynamic linker, where it is initialized very early. In static binaries, the initialization is done in libc-start.c, again early enough to influence almost everything in the program. The list is initialized just once and is modifiable only in the dynamic linker before it relocates itself.

The main list of tunables is maintained in elf/dl-tunables.list. Architectures may define their own tunables in sysdeps/…/dl-tunables.list. There is a README.tunables that lists out the gory details of using tunables within glibc to access its values and if necessary, update it.

This gives us a number of advantages, some of them being the following:

Single Initialization

All environment variables used by glibc would be read in by a single double-nested loop which initializes all tunables. Accesses are then just a GOT away, so no more getenv loops in glibc code. This is not achieved yet since all of the environment variables are not yet ported to tunables (Hint: here’s a nice project for you, you aspiring glibc developer!)

All tunables are listed in a single file

The file elf/dl-tunables.list has a full list of tunables along with its properties such as type, value range, default value and its behaviour with setuid binaries. This caused us to introspect on each environment variable we ported into tunables and we ended up fixing a few bugs as well.

Very Early Initialization

Yes, very early, earlier than you would imagine, earlier than IFUNCs! *gasp*

Tunables get initialized very early so that they can influence almost every behaviour in glibc. The unreleased 2.26 makes this even earlier (or rather, delays CPU features initialization enough) so that tunables can impact selection of routines using IFUNCs. This fixes an important inconsistency in glibc, where LD_HWCAP_MASK was read in dynamically linked binaries but not in static binaries because it was not read in early enough.


The tunable list is read-only, so glibc reads from a list that cannot be tampered by malicious code that gets loaded after relocation.

What changes for me as a user?

The change in 2.25 is minimal enough that you won’t notice. In this release, only the malloc tuning environment variables have been ported to tunables and if you’ve been using those environment variables before, they will continue to work even now. In addition, you get to tune these parameters in a fancy way that doesn’t require the stupid trailing underscore, using the GLIBC_TUNABLES environment variable. The manual describes it extensively so I won’t go into details.

The major change is about to happen now. Intel is starting to push a number of tunables to allow you to tune your library to your liking, changing things like string routines that get selected for your program, cache parameters, etc. I believe PowerPC and S390 will see something simila too in the lock elision space and aarch64 multiarch will be tunable as well. All of this will hopefully come in 2.26 or latest by 2.27.

One thing to note though is that for now tunables are not covered by any ABI or API guarantees. That is to say, if you like a tunable that is in 2.26, we may well remove the tunable in 2.27 if we find that it either does not make sense to have that tunable exposed or exposing that tunable is somehow detrimental to user programs.

The big difference will likely come in when distributions start adding their own tunables into the mix. since it will allow them to add customizations to the library without having to maintain huge ugly patchsets.

The Road Ahead

The big advantage of collecting all tuning parameters under a single framework is the ability to then add new ways to influence those tuning parameters. We have environment variables now, but we could add other methods to tune the library. Some ideas discussed are as follows:

  • Have a systemwide configuration file (e.g. /etc/sysctl.user.conf) that sets different defaults for some tunables and limits the degree to which specific tunables are altered. This allows systems administrators to have more fine grained control over the processes on their system
  • Have user-specific configuration files (e.g. $HOME/.sysctl.user.conf) that does something similar but at a user level
  • Have some tunables modified during execution via some shared memory mechanism

All of this is still evolving, so if you have an idea or would like to work on any of these ideas, feel free to get in touch with me and we can find a way to get you contributing to one of the most critical parts of the operating system!