I'm interested in modifying the kernel internals, applying patches, handling device drivers and modules, for my own personal fun.

Is there a comprehensive resource for kernel hacking, intended for experienced programmers?


7 Answers 7

**TODO** +editPic: Linux Kernel Developer -> (Ring Layer 0)
         +addSection: Kernel Virtualization Engine

KERN_WARN_CODING_STYLE: Do not Loop unless you absolutely have to.

Recommended Books for the Uninitialized void *i

"Men do not understand books until they have a certain amount of life, or at any rate no man understands a deep book, until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents". –Ezra Pound

A journey of a thousand code-miles must begin with a single step. If you are in confusion about which of the following books to start with, don't worry, pick any one of your choice. Not all those who wander are lost. As all roads ultimately connect to highway, you will explore new things in your kernel journey as the pages progress without meeting any dead ends, and ultimately connect to the code-set. Read with alert mind and remember: Code is not Literature.

What is left is not a thing or an emotion or an image or a mental picture or a memory or even an idea. It is a function. A process of some sort. An aspect of Life that could be described as a function of something "larger". And therefore, it appears that it is not really "separate" from that something else. Like the function of a knife - cutting something - is not, in fact, separate from the knife itself. The function may or may not be in use at the moment, but it is potentially NEVER separate.

Solovay Strassen Derandomized Algorithm for Primality Test:

Solovay Strassen Derandomized Algorithm for Primality Test

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

static void tasklet_hi_action(struct softirq_action *a)
        struct tasklet_struct *list;

        list = __this_cpu_read(tasklet_hi_vec.head);
        __this_cpu_write(tasklet_hi_vec.head, NULL);
        __this_cpu_write(tasklet_hi_vec.tail, this_cpu_ptr(&tasklet_hi_vec.head));

        while (list) {
                struct tasklet_struct *t = list;

                list = list->next;

                if (tasklet_trylock(t)) {
                        if (!atomic_read(&t->count)) {
                                if (!test_and_clear_bit(TASKLET_STATE_SCHED,

                t->next = NULL;
                *__this_cpu_read(tasklet_hi_vec.tail) = t;
                __this_cpu_write(tasklet_hi_vec.tail, &(t->next));

Core Linux ( 5 -> 1 -> 3 -> 2 -> 7 -> 4 -> 6 )

“Nature has neither kernel nor shell; she is everything at once” -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Reader should be well versed with operating system concepts; a fair understanding of long running processes and its differences with processes with short bursts of execution; fault tolerance while meeting soft and hard real time constraints. While reading, it's important to understand and n/ack the design choices made by the linux kernel source in the core subsystems.

Threads [and] signals [are] a platform-dependent trail of misery, despair, horror and madness (~Anthony Baxte). That being said you should be a self-evaluating C expert, before diving into the kernel. You should also have good experience with Linked Lists, Stacks, Queues, Red Blacks Trees, Hash Functions, et al.

volatile int i;
int main(void)
    int c;
    for (i=0; i<3; i++) {
        c = i&&&i;
        printf("%d\n", c);    /* find c */
    return 0;

The beauty and art of the Linux Kernel source lies in the deliberate code obfuscation used along. This is often necessitated as to convey the computational meaning involving two or more operations in a clean and elegant way. This is especially true when writing code for multi-core architecture.

Video Lectures on Real-Time Systems, Task Scheduling, Memory Compression, Memory Barriers, SMP

#ifdef __compiler_offsetof
#define offsetof(TYPE,MEMBER) __compiler_offsetof(TYPE,MEMBER)
#define offsetof(TYPE, MEMBER) ((size_t) &((TYPE *)0)->MEMBER)
  1. Linux Kernel Development - Robert Love
  2. Understanding the Linux Kernel - Daniel P. Bovet, Marco Cesati
  3. The Art of Linux KerneL Design - Yang Lixiang
  4. Professional Linux Kernel Architecture - Wolfgang Mauerer
  5. Design of the UNIX Operating System - Maurice J. Bach
  6. Understanding the Linux Virtual Memory Manager - Mel Gorman
  7. Linux Kernel Internals - Tigran Aivazian
  8. Embedded Linux Primer - Christopher Hallinan

Linux Device Drivers ( 1 -> 2 -> 4 -> 3 -> 8 -> ... )

"Music does not carry you along. You have to carry it along strictly by your ability to really just focus on that little small kernel of emotion or story". -- Debbie Harry

Your task is basically to establish a high speed communication interface between the hardware device and the software kernel. You should read the hardware reference datasheet/manual to understand the behavior of the device and it's control and data states and provided physical channels. Knowledge of Assembly for your particular architecture and a fair knowledge of VLSI Hardware Description Languages like VHDL or Verilog will help you in the long run.

Q: But, why do I have to read the hardware specs?

A: Because, "There is a chasm of carbon and silicon the software can't bridge" - Rahul Sonnad

However, the above doesn't poses a problem for Computational Algorithms (Driver code - bottom-half processing), as it can be fully simulated on a Universal Turing Machine. If the computed result holds true in the mathematical domain, it's a certainty that it is also true in the physical domain.

Video Lectures on Linux Device Drivers (Lec. 17 & 18), Anatomy of an Embedded KMS Driver, Pin Control and GPIO Update, Common Clock Framework, Write a Real Linux Driver - Greg KH

static irqreturn_t phy_interrupt(int irq, void *phy_dat)
         struct phy_device *phydev = phy_dat;

         if (PHY_HALTED == phydev->state)
                 return IRQ_NONE;                /* It can't be ours.  */

         /* The MDIO bus is not allowed to be written in interrupt
          * context, so we need to disable the irq here.  A work
          * queue will write the PHY to disable and clear the
          * interrupt, and then reenable the irq line.

         queue_work(system_power_efficient_wq, &phydev->phy_queue);

         return IRQ_HANDLED;
  1. Linux Device Drivers - Jonathan Corbet, Alessandro Rubini, and Greg Kroah-Hartman
  2. Essential Linux Device Drivers - Sreekrishnan Venkateswaran
  3. Writing Linux Device Drivers - Jerry Cooperstein
  4. The Linux Kernel Module Programming Guide - Peter Jay Salzman, Michael Burian, Ori Pomerantz
  5. Linux PCMCIA Programmer's Guide - David Hinds
  6. Linux SCSI Programming Howto - Heiko Eibfeldt
  7. Serial Programming Guide for POSIX Operating Systems - Michael R. Sweet
  8. Linux Graphics Drivers: an Introduction - Stéphane Marchesin
  9. Programming Guide for Linux USB Device Drivers - Detlef Fliegl
  10. The Linux Kernel Device Model - Patrick Mochel

Kernel Networking ( 1 -> 2 -> 3 -> ... )

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” - Jane Howard

Understanding a packet walk-through in the kernel is a key to understanding kernel networking. Understanding it is a must if we want to understand Netfilter or IPSec internals, and more. The two most important structures of linux kernel network layer are: struct sk_buff and struct net_device

static inline int sk_hashed(const struct sock *sk)
        return !sk_unhashed(sk);
  1. Understanding Linux Network Internals - Christian Benvenuti
  2. Linux Kernel Networking: Implementation and Theory - Rami Rosen
  3. UNIX Network Programming - W. Richard Stevens
  4. The Definitive Guide to Linux Network Programming - Keir Davis, John W. Turner, Nathan Yocom
  5. The Linux TCP/IP Stack: Networking for Embedded Systems - Thomas F. Herbert
  6. Linux Socket Programming by Example - Warren W. Gay
  7. Linux Advanced Routing & Traffic Control HOWTO - Bert Hubert

Kernel Debugging ( 1 -> 4 -> 9 -> ... )

Unless in communicating with it one says exactly what one means, trouble is bound to result. ~Alan Turing, about computers

Brian W. Kernighan, in the paper Unix for Beginners (1979) said, "The most effective debugging tool is still careful thought, coupled with judiciously placed print statements". Knowing what to collect will help you to get the right data quickly for a fast diagnosis. The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once said that testing can demonstrate the presence of bugs but not their absence. Good investigation practices should balance the need to solve problems quickly, the need to build your skills, and the effective use of subject matter experts.

There are times when you hit rock-bottom, nothing seems to work and you run out of all your options. Its then that the real debugging begins. A bug may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.

Video Lectures on Kernel Debug and Profiling, Core Dump Analysis, Multicore Debugging with GDB, Controlling Multi-Core Race Conditions, Debugging Electronics

/* Buggy Code -- Stack frame problem
 * If you require information, do not free memory containing the information
char *initialize() {
  char string[80];
  char* ptr = string;
  return ptr;

int main() {
  char *myval = initialize();
/*  “When debugging, novices insert corrective code; experts remove defective code.”
 *     – Richard Pattis
 printk("The above can be considered as Development and Review in Industrial Practises");
  1. Linux Debugging and Performance Tuning - Steve Best
  2. Linux Applications Debugging Techniques - Aurelian Melinte
  3. Debugging with GDB: The GNU Source-Level Debugger - Roland H. Pesch
  4. Debugging Embedded Linux - Christopher Hallinan
  5. The Art of Debugging with GDB, DDD, and Eclipse - Norman S. Matloff
  6. Why Programs Fail: A Guide to Systematic Debugging - Andreas Zeller
  7. Software Exorcism: A Handbook for Debugging and Optimizing Legacy Code - Bill Blunden
  8. Debugging: Finding most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems - David J. Agans
  9. Debugging by Thinking: A Multidisciplinary Approach - Robert Charles Metzger
  10. Find the Bug: A Book of Incorrect Programs - Adam Barr

File Systems ( 1 -> 2 -> 6 -> ... )

"I wanted to have virtual memory, at least as it's coupled with file systems". -- Ken Thompson

On a UNIX system, everything is a file; if something is not a file, it is a process, except for named pipes and sockets. In a file system, a file is represented by an inode, a kind of serial number containing information about the actual data that makes up the file. The Linux Virtual File System VFS caches information in memory from each file system as it is mounted and used. A lot of care must be taken to update the file system correctly as data within these caches is modified as files and directories are created, written to and deleted. The most important of these caches is the Buffer Cache, which is integrated into the way that the individual file systems access their underlying block storage devices.

Video Lectures on Storage Systems, Flash Friendly File System

long do_sys_open(int dfd, const char __user *filename, int flags, umode_t mode)
        struct open_flags op;
        int fd = build_open_flags(flags, mode, &op);
        struct filename *tmp;

        if (fd)
                return fd;

        tmp = getname(filename);
        if (IS_ERR(tmp))
                return PTR_ERR(tmp);

        fd = get_unused_fd_flags(flags);
        if (fd >= 0) {
                struct file *f = do_filp_open(dfd, tmp, &op);
                if (IS_ERR(f)) {
                        fd = PTR_ERR(f);
                } else {
                        fd_install(fd, f);
        return fd;

SYSCALL_DEFINE3(open, const char __user *, filename, int, flags, umode_t, mode)
        if (force_o_largefile())
                flags |= O_LARGEFILE;

        return do_sys_open(AT_FDCWD, filename, flags, mode);
  1. Linux File Systems - Moshe Bar
  2. Linux Filesystems - William Von Hagen
  3. UNIX Filesystems: Evolution, Design, and Implementation - Steve D. Pate
  4. Practical File System Design - Dominic Giampaolo
  5. File System Forensic Analysis - Brian Carrier
  6. Linux Filesystem Hierarchy - Binh Nguyen
  7. BTRFS: The Linux B-tree Filesystem - Ohad Rodeh
  8. StegFS: A Steganographic File System for Linux - Andrew D. McDonald, Markus G. Kuhn

Security ( 1 -> 2 -> 8 -> 4 -> 3 -> ... )

"UNIX was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things". — Doug Gwyn

No technique works if it isn't used. Ethics change with technology.

"F × S = k" the product of freedom and security is a constant. - Niven's Laws

Cryptography forms the basis of trust online. Hacking is exploiting security controls either in a technical, physical or a human-based element. Protecting the kernel from other running programs is a first step toward a secure and stable system, but this is obviously not enough: some degree of protection must exist between different user-land applications as well. Exploits can target local or remote services.

“You can't hack your destiny, brute force...you need a back door, a side channel into Life." ― Clyde Dsouza

Computers do not solve problems, they execute solutions. Behind every non-deterministic algorithmic code, there is a determined mind. -- /var/log/dmesg

Video Lectures on Cryptography and Network Security, Namespaces for Security, Protection Against Remote Attacks, Secure Embedded Linux

env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c "echo this is a test for Shellsock"
  1. Hacking: The Art of Exploitation - Jon Erickson
  2. The Rootkit Arsenal: Escape and Evasion in the Dark Corners of the System - Bill Blunden
  3. Hacking Exposed: Network Security Secrets - Stuart McClure, Joel Scambray, George Kurtz
  4. A Guide to Kernel Exploitation: Attacking the Core - Enrico Perla, Massimiliano Oldani
  5. The Art of Memory Forensics - Michael Hale Ligh, Andrew Case, Jamie Levy, AAron Walters
  6. Practical Reverse Engineering - Bruce Dang, Alexandre Gazet, Elias Bachaalany
  7. Practical Malware Analysis - Michael Sikorski, Andrew Honig
  8. Maximum Linux Security: A Hacker's Guide to Protecting Your Linux Server - Anonymous
  9. Linux Security - Craig Hunt
  10. Real World Linux Security - Bob Toxen

Kernel Source ( 0.11 -> 2.4 -> 2.6 -> 3.18 )

"Like wine, the mastery of kernel programming matures with time. But, unlike wine, it gets sweeter in the process". --Lawrence Mucheka

You might not think that programmers are artists, but programming is an extremely creative profession. It's logic-based creativity. Computer science education cannot make anybody an expert programmer any more than studying brushes and pigment can make somebody an expert painter. As you already know, there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path; it is of utmost importance to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty with kernel source code. Finally, with your thus gained kernel knowledge, wherever you go, you will shine.

Immature coders imitate; mature coders steal; bad coders deface what they take, and good coders make it into something better, or at least something different. The good coder welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.

Video Lectures on Kernel Recipes

├── boot
│   ├── bootsect.s      head.s      setup.s
├── fs
│   ├── bitmap.c    block_dev.c buffer.c        char_dev.c  exec.c
│   ├── fcntl.c     file_dev.c  file_table.c    inode.c     ioctl.c
│   ├── namei.c     open.c      pipe.c          read_write.c
│   ├── stat.c      super.c     truncate.c
├── include
│   ├── a.out.h     const.h     ctype.h     errno.h     fcntl.h
│   ├── signal.h    stdarg.h    stddef.h    string.h    termios.h
│   ├── time.h      unistd.h    utime.h
│   ├── asm
│   │   ├── io.h    memory.h    segment.h   system.h
│   ├── linux
│   │   ├── config.h    fdreg.h fs.h    hdreg.h     head.h
│   │   ├── kernel.h    mm.h    sched.h sys.h       tty.h
│   ├── sys
│   │   ├── stat.h      times.h types.h utsname.h   wait.h
├── init
│   └── main.c
├── kernel
│   ├── asm.s       exit.c      fork.c      mktime.c    panic.c
│   ├── printk.c    sched.c     signal.c    sys.c       system_calls.s
│   ├── traps.c     vsprintf.c
│   ├── blk_drv
│   │   ├── blk.h   floppy.c    hd.c    ll_rw_blk.c     ramdisk.c
│   ├── chr_drv
│   │   ├── console.c   keyboard.S  rs_io.s
│   │   ├── serial.c    tty_io.c    tty_ioctl.c
│   ├── math
│   │   ├── math_emulate.c
├── lib
│   ├── close.c  ctype.c  dup.c     errno.c  execve.c  _exit.c
│   ├── malloc.c open.c   setsid.c  string.c wait.c    write.c
├── Makefile
├── mm
│   ├── memory.c page.s
└── tools
    └── build.c
  1. Beginner's start with Linux 0.11 source (less than 20,000 lines of source code). After 20 years of development, compared with Linux 0.11, Linux has become very huge, complex, and difficult to learn. But the design concept and main structure have no fundamental changes. Learning Linux 0.11 still has important practical significance.
  2. Mandatory Reading for Kernel Hackers => Linux_source_dir/Documentation/*
  3. You should be subscribed and active on at-least one kernel mailing list. Start with kernel newbies.
  4. You do not need to read the full source code. Once you are familiar with the kernel API's and its usage, directly start with the source code of the sub-system you are interested in. You can also start with writing your own plug-n-play modules to experiment with the kernel.
  5. Device Driver writers would benefit by having their own dedicated hardware. Start with Raspberry Pi.
  • 2
    Thanks! that's a pretty comprehensive answer. Will take a look
    – Adam Matan
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 14:35
  • 1
    This answer is amazing
    – Mia
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 4:54
  • Amazing answer! I've also created a tutorial that might me of interest: github.com/cirosantilli/linux-kernel-module-cheat It contains a highly automated setup that builds Linux kernel, QEMU and root filesystem for you. GDB Linux kernel step debug setup included. Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 11:55

Linux Kernel Newbies is a great resource.


I suggest you read "Linux Kernel in a Nutshell", by Greg Kroah-Hartman and "Understanding the Linux Kernel", by Robert Love. Must reads :)

  • 2
    kroah.com/lkn - Free Online Commented Oct 3, 2010 at 21:41
  • @Josh These books were written 5-6 years ago, are they still topical? Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 21:00
  • I can't answer that with any reasonable credibility :( Other responsibilities consumed my time, and I never got around to reading it. Hopefully wzzrd sees these comments and can comment. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 21:40
  • 1
    Yes, the books are still relevant. Many, many details have changed beyond recognition. Look at the kernel newbies page mentioned above (or lwn.net's kernel page for in-depth discussion and breaking news).
    – vonbrand
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 23:15

Linux Device Drivers is another good resource. It would give you another way to get into the inner workings. From the preface:

This is, on the surface, a book about writing device drivers for the Linux system. That is a worthy goal, of course; the flow of new hardware products is not likely to slow down anytime soon, and somebody is going to have to make all those new gadgets work with Linux. But this book is also about how the Linux kernel works and how to adapt its workings to your needs or interests. Linux is an open system; with this book, we hope, it is more open and accessible to a larger community of developers.

  • I always find goal oriented learning more productive than abstract learning for me. The LDD book gave me a chance to bite off a small enough chunk to make progress. Commented Aug 23, 2010 at 16:12

See The Linux Documentation Project. Particularly the "Linux Kernel module guide".


Linux Kernel 2.4 Internals is another online resource to look at. It appears to take a pretty 'ground up' approach, starting with booting. Here the the TOC:

  1. Booting
    • 1.1 Building the Linux Kernel Image
    • 1.2 Booting: Overview
    • 1.3 Booting: BIOS POST
    • 1.4 Booting: bootsector and setup
    • 1.5 Using LILO as a bootloader
    • 1.6 High level initialisation
    • 1.7 SMP Bootup on x86
    • 1.8 Freeing initialisation data and code
    • 1.9 Processing kernel command line
  2. Process and Interrupt Management
    • 2.1 Task Structure and Process Table
    • 2.2 Creation and termination of tasks and kernel threads
    • 2.3 Linux Scheduler
    • 2.4 Linux linked list implementation
    • 2.5 Wait Queues
    • 2.6 Kernel Timers
    • 2.7 Bottom Halves
    • 2.8 Task Queues
    • 2.9 Tasklets
    • 2.10 Softirqs
    • 2.11 How System Calls Are Implemented on i386 Architecture?
    • 2.12 Atomic Operations
    • 2.13 Spinlocks, Read-write Spinlocks and Big-Reader Spinlocks
    • 2.14 Semaphores and read/write Semaphores
    • 2.15 Kernel Support for Loading Modules
  3. Virtual Filesystem (VFS)
    • 3.1 Inode Caches and Interaction with Dcache
    • 3.2 Filesystem Registration/Unregistration
    • 3.3 File Descriptor Management
    • 3.4 File Structure Management
    • 3.5 Superblock and Mountpoint Management
    • 3.6 Example Virtual Filesystem: pipefs
    • 3.7 Example Disk Filesystem: BFS
    • 3.8 Execution Domains and Binary Formats
  4. Linux Page Cache
  5. IPC mechanisms
    • 5.1 Semaphores
    • 5.2 Message queues
    • 5.3 Shared Memory
    • 5.4 Linux IPC Primitives

And, to make it even sweeter, there is a new Linux Kernel Development Third Edition by Robert Love out and Slashdot has a review.


Start with Linux Kernel Primer by Claudia Salzberg et al. Good one to start with for beginners. Robert Love's book is definitely not the book that beginners should start with. Latter book is above intermediate level.

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