Comparing IPC and capability invocation

Jonathan S. Shapiro shap at
Thu Dec 4 20:27:42 CET 2003

[I apologize in advance for both the length and the depth of this note.]

One of the long-term design differences between L4 and EROS is something
I think of as the "threads vs. objects" distinction. In L4, all
invocations are IPC invocations performed on thread ids. In EROS, all
invocations are capability invocations performed on capability indexes.
In the current EROS implementation, the capability indexes are an offset
into a per-process capability table.

In my opinion, the original "name by thread-id" design in L3/L4 had two
architectural issues:

  1. It exposed the location of the target thread within the thread
     table. Because of the tight relationship between threads and tasks,
     this had the side effect of exposing potentially significant
     information about the internal structure of the recipient. It
     also made relocating a thread within the table challenging,
     because the thread's "address" was sitting in data space in
     every client, where one could not update it.

     My opinion was that the thread-id was effectively an absolute
     address, and that it should have been a virtual address that
     was decoded w.r.t. a sender-defined name space.

  2. Because the thread id's and task ids were inter-related, there
     seemed to be a number of awkward restrictions on allocation of task
     structures. In particular, it was necessary to know in advance
     how many threads (max) were going to be required, and it was
     possible for fragmentation to prevent successful allocation even
     when the necessary number of thread entries was available.

     This seemed unnecessary. In addition, I thought it would be better
     if an address space could exist without any threads at all, and
     conversely if a thread could exist (though not execute) without
     any address space. From the EROS experience, I felt that
     non-process address spaces were useful. I'm not sure that threads
     without address spaces are useful, but I do believe that
     threads and address spaces are separable abstractions, and
     that it is good to keep them so.

>From various conversations, I believe that the L4 team has addressed the
second issue, and is considering a number of solutions to the first,
most notably "thread address spaces". In this approach, the current
thread id is replaced by an offset (or address) into the thread address
space, and an application supplies this thread address instead of the
thread id of the previous design. If I understand matters correctly,
this idea has not yet been incorporated into the current L4
implementation but there seems to be agreement that someday it should

I may have misunderstood, but I also believe that the power of two
restriction on task allocation has been removed, and that any thread can
now be associated with any task.

As long as there is no operation allowing a sender to *read* the real
thread id out of the thread address space, then the current plan for
L4+thread-spaces would implement something very close to the future EROS
design. There are two differences:

1. The current EROS design is currently expressed in terms of capability
registers. We have decided that this should be replaced with a
capability address space. Conceptually, this capability address space
serves the same role in our architecture that the thread address space
serves in Ln.

2. The elements indexed by this address space are capabilities in EROS,
but thread-ids in L4. This is the heart of why I think of this as the
"threads vs. objects" distinction.

One way to think about this [the motivation will become clear in a
moment] is that the L4 thread address space is actually a descriptor
address space, but that all of the descriptors in this space are
restricted to be thread descriptors. Since this appears to be the *only*
remaining difference in this area of the Ln and EROS designs, I'ld like
to make a case based on the EROS experience for why descriptors should
be considered seriously in a future system.

First, switching to descriptors should not significantly change IPC
performance. A descriptor is probably a larger data structure than a
thread id, but in both cases there is a load instruction at the end to
place the target thread address into a register. This is true in both a
thread-id design and a descriptor design. The difference would be only
that the thread structure pointer might live at a different offset.

Second -- and here I must draw for a moment from the EROS experience --
unifying all invocations behind a single descriptor abstraction has been
incredibly useful in the EROS system. As with L4, we have a generalized
invocation mechanism, but we can apply this mechanism to arbitrary

Introducing a generalized descriptor notion into the architecture does
NOT necessarily imply a large increase in kernel size. When Leendert van
Dorn and I were considering kernel design at IBM, we concluded that most
of the resulting kernel descriptor types can be served by well-known
user mode servers if desired. The decision about whether or not to put
support in the kernel for these object types becomes purely an
engineering decision. The EROS implementation chose to place these
implementations in the kernel, and in one or two cases this is probably
essential, but in general it is NOT necessary.

The difference between a thread-id and a descriptor is that a descriptor
takes the form

	(resource-type-code, resource-name, type-specific-data-word)

where a resource-type-code is assigned for each kernel resource that is
exported by means of a descriptor. Borrowing from EROS, the descriptor
types that seem likely to be useful are:

    void -- descriptor that responds with "unknown" to all requests
    flexpage -- name of a flexpage
    thread -- a thread-id (interface to the process abstraction)
    object -- a particular object served by some thread

In flexpages, the type-specific field holds permissions. In objects, it
holds an object id. In threads, it might be unused.

The EROS implementation also includes linked list pointers so that
outstanding descriptors can be efficiently revoked when a resource is
destroyed, but this is a detail of implementation -- other
representations are possible. On revocation, outstanding descriptors
become void, but we have sometimes thought that it would be better to
mark change them from "type X descriptor" to "type INVALID X
descriptor". This would facilitate debugging.

An added word about the 'object' type may be useful, since it reflects a
significant philosophical difference between L4 and EROS.

In EROS, a client invokes an object. This object may be an entire server
(a process) or it may be a particular object that is served by that
server. In L4, the "particular object" case is customarily handled by
passing an object id as an argument to the IPC operation. One problem
with this is that the object id can be forged by the client.

It is not entirely clear to me whether forged object ids are a serious
problem in the absence of persistence, but my instinct is that they are
*sometimes* a problem, and that including them is therefore desirable.

The "IPC indirection" design proposed by Trent Jaeger et al. many years
ago included a similar uninterpreted word.

Jonathan S. Shapiro <shap at>

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