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RCU and dynticks-idle mode

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Note 1: RCU is an extremely complex topic and I make no claims of accuracy, correctness and don’t make any claims that this document is to be used as a defacto reference for any purpose. You have been warned! For more accurate and standard references, I will refer you to the kernel RCU documentation. Please consider this post as rough notes. That said, your corrections, and comments are welcomed.

Note 2: The article is a WIP and not fully finished (thought it is almost).

The kernel’s dynticks-idle mode is a mode of a CPU in which the CPU is idle and the scheduler clock tick has been turned off to save power and let the CPU to continue to be in lower power state for a long time. Also known as NO_HZ.

A CPU in this mode presents some challenges to RCU. This is because an RCU grace period completion depends on RCU knowing that a CPU has transitioned through a quiescent state. When the CPU is idle but the scheduling clock tick is not turned off, RCU on that idle-but-ticking-CPU can simply report from the tick path that the CPU is in a quiescent state. However in dynticks-idle mode this isn’t possible, so something more clever is needed. The same complications arise due to the turning off of the tick in user mode (adaptive-ticks support). This article goes through the design of RCU from this perspective.

For RCU’s purposes, the kernel maintains a per-cpu datastructure called rcu_dynticks which does this dynticks-idle state tracking.

Extended Quiescent State (EQS)

An extended quiescent state is defined as a processor state in which RCU considers the CPU as not something that is using RCU. This is also important for a more aggressive form of dynticks-idle code (CONFIG_NO_HZ_FULL) which not only turns off the tick in the idle path but also in userspace if there is no other need for the tick other than RCU (for example if only 1 task is running).

By defining certain contexts as an EQS, RCU will work no matter how aggressive the dynticks-idle implementation.

AFAICT, there are 2 EQS states: dynticks-idle and usermode. In both these states, the tick may be turned off and the CPU is considered to be in a quiescent state and RCU is considered “idle”.

Entry and exit into an EQS due to transition to/from non-idle kernel process context

The rdtp->dynticks_nesting counter tracks entry and exit into an EQS due to transition from idle to process context or from usermode to process context. A value of 0 indicates that the CPU in an EQS and a value of > 0 indicates that it is not. A non-zero value also means we transitioned into the kernel’s non-idle process context.

An EQS can also be exited due to interrupt or NMI entry, but this doesn’t really track that. We’ll talk about tracking those later.

A note about dynticks counters: In general the dynticks counters track the number of reasons why we’re not in an EQS (that is RCU is not “idle”). For example, a value of zero thus means we ARE in an EQS. The rdtp->dynticks_nesting counter tracks the number of process-level (non-idle kernel process context)-level reasons why RCU is non-idle.

When I traced rdtp->dynticks_nesting, I could only find its value to be either a 0 or a 1. However looking back at old kernel sources, it appears that these can be nested becaues of so called “half-interrupts”. I believe these are basically interrupts that cause a transition to usermode due to usermode upcalls (usermode helper subsystem). So a nesting situation could be something like: 1. Transition from idle to process context which makes dynticks_nesting == 1. Next, an interrupt comes in which makes a usermode upcall. This usermode call now makes a system call causing entry back into process context, which increments the dynticks_nesting counter to 2. Such a crazy situation is perhaps possible.

Another way some paths see if we are in an EQS or not

The rdtp->dynticks counter is used to track transitions to/from dyntick-idle mode. But it also can share light on whether we are in an EQS or not. If this counter is odd, it means we are NOT in an EQS and if its even, then we ARE.

Note: since an EQS entry can happen even because of transition into usermode, this counter is not only incremented due to entry into dyntick-idle mode, but also due to transition into usermode. This is observed by seeing that an increment of this counter can also happen due to rcu_user_enter->rcu_eqs_enter->rcu_dynticks_eqs_enter.

The following function checks this:

 * Is the current CPU in an extended quiescent state?
 * No ordering, as we are sampling CPU-local information.
bool rcu_dynticks_curr_cpu_in_eqs(void)
        struct rcu_dynticks *rdtp = this_cpu_ptr(&rcu_dynticks);

        return !(atomic_read(&rdtp->dynticks) & RCU_DYNTICK_CTRL_CTR);

Any time the rdtp->dynticks counter’s second-lowest most bit is not set, we are in an EQS, and if its set, then we are not (second lowest because lowest is reserved for something else as of v4.18-rc1). This function is not useful to check if we’re in an EQS from a timer tick though, because its possible the timer tick interrupt entry caused an EQS exit which updated the counter. IOW, the ‘dynticks’ counter is not capable of checking if we had already exited the EQS before. To check if we were in an EQS or not from the timer tick, we instead must use dynticks_nesting counter. More on that later. The above function is probably just useful to make sure that interrupt entry/exit is properly updating the dynticks counter, and also to make sure from non-interrupt context that RCU is in an EQS (see rcu_gp_fqs function).

Entry and exit into an EQS due to interrupts

Other than the entry/exit into usermode or idle, interrupts and NMIs can cause the CPU to enter/exit a QS. Naturally, RCU needs to be “watching” as RCU read-side critical sections are permitted in interrupt handlers so an exit from an EQS for this purpose is a must. This is done by calls to rcu_eqs_enter/exit from rcu_irq_exit/enter respectively.

The interrupt nesting level is also carefully tracked in rdtp->dynticks_nmi_nesting as of v4.18-rc1, and we’ll see later why this is needed (reporting of a QS from the timer tick) and complications due to nested NMIs (yes NMIs can nest!) that need to be handled. Both IRQ-nesting and NMI-nesting use the same dynticks_nmi_nesting counter. More on this in the “Nested Interrupt Handling” section.

With this knowledge in mind, lets discuss how a QS is reported from the tick path when the tick is infact not turned off.

How are QS reported from the timer tick

As for 4.18-rc1, the tick call graph which checks for QS is as follows:


There are 3 variants of RCU (sched, bh and preempt). All these variants have different ways of detecting a QS. Lets only talk about the checks for the reporting of the sched RCU variant which is sufficient for the purposes of this article.

For the sched RCU variant, we are in a QS if the CPU is either idle, or in usermode. This awfully sounds like the definition of an EQS. However, we can’t use dynticks eqs detection (rcu_dynticks_curr_cpu_in_eqs mentioned earlier in the article) because rdtp->dynticks is just a simple counter. Its has evenness when we’re in an EQS and oddity when we’re not. It tells us nothing about interrupt nesting. More on this in the below note.

Note: The timer tick path is itself triggered through an interrupt, so we can’t rely on the rcu_dynticks_curr_cpu_in_eqs detection to tell us if we’re in a QS or not. Instead we rely on other methods. First of all rcu_check_callbacks is passed a user boolean parameter, which tells us if the callback checking (tick) happened during usermode execution. So if that’s the case, its easy, we simply report the CPU to in a QS for rcu-sched. But what are the other ways we could be in a QS? Just one more: If we were in the idle-loop at the time of the rcu_check_callbacks getting called, AND we’re a 1st level interrupt that caused a call to rcu_check_callbacks. This first level is infact most likely the timer tick interrupt. The “first level nesting check” is important, because only the outer most interrupt that interrupted the idle loop should report the sched-QS. Any nested interrupts in the idle loop that cause rcu_check_callbacks to be called (I don’t know of any) should not report the QS again. This interrupt nesting level is determined by dynticks_nmi_nesting mentioned in earlier sections!

Turns out that these above checks (user or interrupt-from-idle) are also worthwhile causes to report a bh and tasks RCU qs so we report them as such.

Nested Interrupt and NMI Handling

During handling of nested interrupts, the rcu->dynticks counter which counts CPU transitions through dynticks-idle or user mode should correctly maintain the invariant: If its even, we’re in an EQS and if its odd, we’re not.

A (naive) algorithm may do something like:

void rcu_nmi_enter(void)


void rcu_nmi_exit(void)
	if (dynticks_nmi_nesting != 1) {

	dynticks_nmi_nesting = 0;

The problem with this algorithm is if you have an NMI come in while rcu_nmi_enter is running, bad things can happen. Specifically, the inner rcu_nmi_enter/exit pair, can result in premature exit from an EQS state.

To see this let us take the case where an NMI comes in before dynticks is incremented in the outer rcu_nmi_enter. In this case nothing bad will happen. But say the NMI comes in after dynticks is incremented in the outer rcu_nmi_enter but before dynticks_nmi_nesting is incremented. Then what will happen is:

The steps would look like:

  1. The outer rcu_nmi_enter will update dynticks to be odd.
  2. An NMI comes in after dynticks is made odd by dynticks++, but before dynticks_nmi_nesting is updated.
  3. The second rcu_nmi_enter comes in and it will leave dynticks alone but increase dynticks_nmi_nesting to 1.
  4. Now on the corresponding inner rcu_nmi_exit, it will notice dynticks_nmi_nesting is 1 so it will set it to 0.
  5. Next it will wrongly increment dynticks messing it up completely. The inner rcu_nmi_exit is never supposed to exit EQS. Only the outer one is.

The problem here is the inner rcu_nmi_exit increments the dynticks counter (thus marking the dynticks-idle mode as exited even though we’re still in the inner nested interrupt!) but there’s no way of knowing not to do that because the outer rcu_nmi_enter hasn’t incremented dynticks_nmi_nesting yet!

The desired behavior is, because the outer rcu_nmi_enter exited dynticks-idle mode (incremented dynticks to odd), only the outer rcu_nmi_exit should make it even (and mark an entry back into dynticks-idle mode).

The fix is an algorithm like the following proposed by Andy Luto and formally written and verified by Paul:

void rcu_nmi_enter(void)
	int incby = 2;

	if(dynticks_is_even()) {
		incby = 1;

	dynticks_nmi_nesting += incby;

void rcu_nmi_exit(void)
	if (dynticks_nmi_nesting != 1) {
		dynticks_nmi_nesting -= 2;

	dynticks_nmi_nesting = 0;

The GOOD steps would now be:

  1. The outer rcu_nmi_enter will update dynticks to be odd and set local variable incby to 1.
  2. An NMI comes in after dynticks is made odd by dynticks++, but before dynticks_nmi_nesting is increased by incby.
  3. The second rcu_nmi_enter comes in and it will leave dynticks alone but increase dynticks_nmi_nesting to 2 (incby is 2 if dynticks was left alone).
  4. Now on the corresponding inner rcu_nmi_exit, it will notice dynticks_nmi_nesting is not 1, so it will set it decrease nmi_nesting to 0 and return WITHOUT messing up the dynticks counter.
  5. The outer rcu_nmi_enter now finally does increase dynticks_nmi_nesting by 1.
  6. The outer rcu_nmi_exit will now set dynticks_nmi_nesting to 0 and do the dynticks++ causing an entry back into dynticks-idle mode.

Handling of usermode upcalls from interrupts

RCU’s design tries to handle conditions where a usermode upcall was made from IRQ context, with the IRQ entry never being matched with an IRQ exit! These are so called “half interrupts”. Due to this, the rcu_nmi_nesting counter can go out sync because an rcu_irq_enter will not be paired properly with an rcu_irq_exit.

This is the reason for a separate dynticks_nmi_nesting counter and a dynticks_nesting counter. Special “fixing up” of the dynticks_nmi_nesting is done to make sure this counter is sane. See next paragraphs on the fixup info.

When dynticks_nesting is decremented to 0 (the outermost process-context nesting level exit causes an eqs-entry), the dynticks_nmi_nesting is reset to

  1. This makes sense because we’re no longer in an NMI at this point.

Similarly, when the dynticks_nesting is set to 1, we have entered a process-context and dynticks_nmi_nesting is set to a high value. This is also Ok because the dynticks_nmi_nesting serves no purpose (RCU has already exited the EQS state).


RCU has to watch over what’s happening in the system carefully. This makes the subsystem complex and requires it to handle various weird usages such as half-interrupts and nested NMIs. The need to save power via dynticks-idle and adaptive-ticks modes further complicates RCU. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the foundation blocks of this dynticks RCU tracking which is the basis of things happening in other areas such as forcing of quiescent states (fqs).