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x86 Ring Switch Overhead (Page Fault version)

Version History
Date Description
Feb 2, 2020 Move github content to here
Aug 7, 2019 Initial draft


This page describes the mechanisms to measure the pure x86 ring switch overhead, i.e., from ring 3 to ring 0 and back.

It is not straightforward to measure this in Linux kernel. Because when a user program traps from user space to kernel space, kernel will first run some assembly instructions to save the registers and load some new ones for kernel usage (i.e., syscall, common IDT, and some directly registered). And only then, the kernel will run the C code. Thus if we place the measurement code in the first C function that will run (e.g., do_syscall_64), it will be much larger than the actual ring switch overhead.

My proposed solutions hacks the entry_64.S and tries to save a timestamp as soon as possible. The first version centers around page fault handler, whose trapping mechanism is different from syscalls. However, I think it could be easily ported. The code is here.


  • It ain’t cheap! It usually take ~400 cycles to trap from user to kernel space.
  • User-to-kernel crossing is more expansive than kernel-to-user crossing!
  • Virtilization adds more overhead

The following content is adopted from the Github repo.


The numbers reported by this repo are slightly larger than the real crossing overhead because some instructions are needed in between to do bookkeeping. Check below for details.

Some preliminary numbers measured on top of Intel Xeon E5-v3 2.4GHz

Platform User to Kernel (Cycles) Kernel to User (Cycles)
VM ~600 ~370
Bare-metal ~440 ~270


Files changed

The whole patch is xperf.patch

  • arch/x86/entry/entry_64.S
  • arch/x86/mm/fault.c: save u2k_k to user stack
  • xperf/xperf.c: userspace test code

User to kernel (u2k)

At a high-level, the flow is:

  • User save TSC into stack
  • User pgfault
  • Cross to kernel, get TSC, and save to user stack

But devil is in the details, especially this low-level assembly code. There are several difficulties:

  • Once in kernel, we need to save TSC without corrupting any other registers and memory content. Any corruption leads to panic etc. The challenge is to find somewhere to save stuff. Options are: kernel stack, user stack, per-cpu. Using user stack is dangerous, because we can’t use safe probe in this assembly (i.e., copy_from/to_user()). Using kernel stack is not flexible because we need to manually find a spot above pt_regs, and this subject to number of call invoked.
  • We need to ensure the measuring only applied to measure program, but not all user program. We let user save a MAGIC on user stack.

The approach:

  • entry_64.S: Save rax/rdx into kernel stack, because they are known to be good if the exceptions came from user space.
  • entry_64.S: Save TSC into a per-cpu area. With swapgs surrounded.
  • entry_64.S: Restore rax/rdx
  • fault.c: use copy_to_user to save u2k_k in user stack.


  • entry_64.S: Change xperf_idtentry back to idtentry for both page_fault and async_page_fault.

Note: u2k hack is safe because we don’t probe user virtual address directly in assembly. Userspace accessing is done via copy_from_user().

Kernel to user (k2u)

At a high-level, the flow is:

  • Kernel save TSC into user stack
  • Kernel IRET
  • Cross to user, get TSC, and calculate latency

This is relatively simpiler than measuring u2k because we can safely use kernel stack. The approach:

  • Save scratch %rax, %rdx, %rcx into kernel stack
  • Check if MAGIC match
  • rdtsc
  • save to user stack
  • restore scratch registers


  • entry_64.S: There is a xperf_return_kernel_tsc code block.

Note: k2u hack is NOT SAFE because we probe user virtual address directly in assembly, i.e., movq %rax, (%rcx) in our hack. During my experiments, sometimes it will crash, but not always.


This user program will report both u2k and k2u crossing numbers. After compilation, use objdump xperf.o -d to check assembly,

  rdtsc                 <- u2k_u

  shl    $0x20,%rdx
  or     %rdx,%rax
  mov    %rax,(%rdi)            <- save to user stack

  movl   $0x12345678,(%rsi)     <- pgfault

  rdtsc                 <- k2u_u

The user stack layout upon pgfault is:

  | ..       |
  | 8B magic | (filled by user)   +24
  | 8B u2k_u | (filled by user)   +16
  | 8B u2k_k | (filled by kernel) +8
  | 8B k2u_k | (filled by kernel) <-- %rsp

TSC Measurement

TSC will be reodered if no actions are taken. We use mfence to mimize runtime errors.

Ideally, we want a test sequence like this:

 * User to Kernel 
 *          mfence
 *          rdtsc   <- u2k_u
 * (user)
 * -------  pgfault  --------
 * (kernel)
 *          rdtsc   <- u2k_k
 *          mfence

 * Kernel to User
 *          mfence
 *          rdtsc   <- k2u_k
 * (kernel)
 * -------  IRET --------
 * (user)
 *          rdtsc   <- k2u_k
 *          mfence

But we need some instructions in between to do essential setup. So the real instruction flow is:


    rdtsc                   <- u2k_u

    shl    $0x20,%rdx
    or     %rdx,%rax
    mov    %rax,(%rdi)

    movl   $0x12345678,(%rsi)
       --------------------------------         Crossing
    testb   $3, CS-ORIG_RAX(%rsp)
    jz  1f

    movq    %rax, -8(%rsp)
    movq    %rdx, -16(%rsp)

    rdtsc                   <- u2k_k


    rdtsc                   <- k2u_k

    shl $32, %rdx
    or  %rdx, %rax

    movq    %rax, (%rcx)
    popq    %rcx
    popq    %rdx
    popq    %rax

       --------------------------------         Crossing
    rdtsc                   <- k2u_u


  • For VM scenario, the page fault entry point is async_page_fault, not the page_fault.



  • Enabling k2u code might bring crash
  • It’s not safe to disable KPTI
  • Switch back to normal kernel after testing
  • Make sure if you have a way to reboot your machine!


  • Copy your current kernel’s .config into this repo
  • make oldconfig
  • Compile kernel and install.
  • Reboot into new kernel
  • Disable hugepage
  • echo never > /sys/kernel/mm/transparent_hugepage/enabled
  • Run xperf/xperf.c, you will get a report.

Last update: February 5, 2020


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