2. Preliminaries

The best way to do kernel development is to have (at least) two separate computers. One of these would contain the development environment and sources, and the other would be used to test the newly written code by network-booting and network-mounting filesystems from the first one. This way if the new code contains bugs and crashes the machine, it will not mess up the sources (and other live data). The second system does not even require a proper display. Instead, it could be connected with a serial cable or KVM to the first one.

But, since not everybody has two or more computers handy, there are a few things that can be done to prepare an otherwise live system for developing kernel code. This setup is also applicable for developing in a VMWare or QEmu virtual machine (the next best thing after a dedicated development machine).

2.1. Modifying a System for Development

For any kernel programming a kernel with INVARIANTS enabled is a must-have. So enter these in your kernel configuration file:


For more debugging you should also include WITNESS support, which will alert you of mistakes in locking:

options WITNESS

For debugging crash dumps, a kernel with debug symbols is needed:

  makeoptions    DEBUG=-g

With the usual way of installing the kernel (make installkernel) the debug kernel will not be automatically installed. It is called kernel.debug and located in /usr/obj/usr/src/sys/KERNELNAME/. For convenience it should be copied to /boot/kernel/.

Another convenience is enabling the kernel debugger so you can examine a kernel panic when it happens. For this, enter the following lines in your kernel configuration file:

options KDB
options DDB
options KDB_TRACE

For this to work you might need to set a sysctl (if it is not on by default):


Kernel panics will happen, so care should be taken with the filesystem cache. In particular, having softupdates might mean the latest file version could be lost if a panic occurs before it is committed to storage. Disabling softupdates yields a great performance hit, and still does not guarantee data consistency. Mounting filesystem with the sync option is needed for that. For a compromise, the softupdates cache delays can be shortened. There are three sysctl's that are useful for this (best to be set in /etc/sysctl.conf):


The numbers represent seconds.

For debugging kernel panics, kernel core dumps are required. Since a kernel panic might make filesystems unusable, this crash dump is first written to a raw partition. Usually, this is the swap partition. This partition must be at least as large as the physical RAM in the machine. On the next boot, the dump is copied to a regular file. This happens after filesystems are checked and mounted, and before swap is enabled. This is controlled with two /etc/rc.conf variables:


The dumpdev variable specifies the swap partition and dumpdir tells the system where in the filesystem to relocate the core dump on reboot.

Writing kernel core dumps is slow and takes a long time so if you have lots of memory (>256M) and lots of panics it could be frustrating to sit and wait while it is done (twice — first to write it to swap, then to relocate it to filesystem). It is convenient then to limit the amount of RAM the system will use via a /boot/loader.conf tunable:


If the panics are frequent and filesystems large (or you simply do not trust softupdates+background fsck) it is advisable to turn background fsck off via /etc/rc.conf variable:


This way, the filesystems will always get checked when needed. Note that with background fsck, a new panic could happen while it is checking the disks. Again, the safest way is not to have many local filesystems by using another computer as an NFS server.

2.2. Starting the Project

For the purpose of creating a new GEOM class, an empty subdirectory has to be created under an arbitrary user-accessible directory. You do not have to create the module directory under /usr/src.

2.3. The Makefile

It is good practice to create Makefiles for every nontrivial coding project, which of course includes kernel modules.

Creating the Makefile is simple thanks to an extensive set of helper routines provided by the system. In short, here is how a minimal Makefile looks for a kernel module:


.include <bsd.kmod.mk>

This Makefile (with changed filenames) will do for any kernel module, and a GEOM class can reside in just one kernel module. If more than one file is required, list it in the SRCS variable, separated with whitespace from other filenames.

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