tracing in linux

Tracing in Linux is robust, flexible and has many options. So what mechanisms exist both in kernel and user space for instrumenting the kernel? In addition what is available in which kernel version, and what requirements does each technology require? Here we’ll mostly focus on syscall tracing.


A great overview on Linux tracing systems can be found here. Overall thinking about tracing systems as data sources (in kernel), and frontends help explain why there are so many tools. Some data sources are ’tracepoints’ while other are ‘probes’. Tracepoints are low-overhead and can be activated or deactivated, they are compiled into the kernel so they cannot be dynamically instrumented. Probes are very flexible, but require larger overhead as you are replacing a ’nop’ instruction with a branch in order to redirect execution of probed function. In addition you must know the function name and can only instrument ‘real’ (non-inlined) functions. Some good slides describing this are here. Other overviews of tracing technologies can be found here.


Linux kernel tracepoints allow for a tracepoint to be embedded in various critical kernel functions. A tracepoint can even be instrumented by a new kernel module to execute custom code on hitting a tracepoint. This point makes it very extensible.

An advantage of tracepoints is they are defined in the code rather than hooking into a function name. This is important because function names change between kernel versions as well as parameters.

Tracepoints are defined in the Linux kernel like this:


	TP_PROTO(struct rq *rq, struct task_struct *prev,
		 struct task_struct *next),

	TP_ARGS(rq, prev, next),

		__array(	char,	prev_comm,	TASK_COMM_LEN	)
		__field(	pid_t,	prev_pid			)
		__field(	int,	prev_prio			)
		__field(	long,	prev_state			)
		__array(	char,	next_comm,	TASK_COMM_LEN	)
		__field(	pid_t,	next_pid			)
		__field(	int,	next_prio			)

		memcpy(__entry->next_comm, next->comm, TASK_COMM_LEN);
		__entry->prev_pid	= prev->pid;
		__entry->prev_prio	= prev->prio;
		__entry->prev_state	= prev->state;
		memcpy(__entry->prev_comm, prev->comm, TASK_COMM_LEN);
		__entry->next_pid	= next->pid;
		__entry->next_prio	= next->prio;

	TP_printk("prev_comm=%s prev_pid=%d prev_prio=%d prev_state=%s ==> next_comm=%s next_pid=%d next_prio=%d",
		__entry->prev_comm, __entry->prev_pid, __entry->prev_prio,
		__entry->prev_state ?
		  __print_flags(__entry->prev_state, "|",
				{ 1, "S"} , { 2, "D" }, { 4, "T" }, { 8, "t" },
				{ 16, "Z" }, { 32, "X" }, { 64, "x" },
				{ 128, "W" }) : "R",
		__entry->next_comm, __entry->next_pid, __entry->next_prio)

The name sched_switch is the name of the tracepoint, and this macro creates a function called trace_sched_switch which needs to be added into the desired Linux function to be traced. More info can be found here.

This interface has been in the kernel a long time and new tracepoints are being added with every release. More fundamental tracepoints have been added in much older kernels. For example, the trace_sched_switch function was added the kernel by 0a16b60758433 which was released in v2.6.28. The trace_syscall_enter and trace_syscall_exit functions were added by a871bd33a6c which was released in v2.6.32.

These tracepoints can be accessed via ftrace tracefs filesystem, for example:

# echo 1 > /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/events/syscalls/sys_enter_open
# cat /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/trace_pipe
 systemd-journal-365   [000] .... 88393.862127: sys_open(filename: 55f45105d8a0, flags: 80042, mode: 1a0)
 systemd-journal-365   [000] .... 88393.862597: sys_open(filename: 7fffdddb2cf0, flags: 90800, mode: 7fffdddb2d21)
 systemd-journal-365   [000] .... 88393.862665: sys_open(filename: 7fffdddb2f40, flags: 90800, mode: 0)
            bash-18684 [000] .... 88393.864513: sys_open(filename: 1158488, flags: 90800, mode: 118d4c0)
            bash-18199 [000] .... 88393.864996: sys_open(filename: 119b008, flags: 2c1, mode: 180)
            bash-18199 [000] .... 88393.865052: sys_open(filename: 119b008, flags: 0, mode: 180)
            bash-18685 [000] .... 88393.866117: sys_open(filename: 1158488, flags: 90800, mode: 118d4c0)

If you prefer a front-end tool you can use perf to capture specific syscalls for a command:

# perf trace --no-syscalls --event 'syscalls:sys_enter_connect' ping -c 1
     1.704 syscalls:sys_enter_connect:fd: 0x00000004, uservaddr: 0x7ffd0bf83e50, addrlen: 0x00000010)
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=120 time=19.6 ms

--- ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 1 received, 0% packet loss, time 0ms
rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 19.616/19.616/19.616/0.000 ms

To trace all syscalls on a system use the following:

# cd /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/
# echo 1 > events/syscalls/enable
# cat trace_pipe
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885591: sys_rt_sigaction -> 0x0
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885595: sys_rt_sigaction(sig: 2, act: 7ffd9fa6d780, oact: 7ffd9fa6d820, sigsetsize: 8)
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885596: sys_rt_sigaction -> 0x0
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885682: sys_open(filename: 1125148, flags: 241, mode: 1b6)
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885705: sys_open -> 0x3
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885709: sys_fcntl(fd: 1, cmd: 1, arg: 0)
bash-18199 [000] .... 84627.885720: sys_fcntl -> 0x0


To see tracepoints we used the tracefs filesystem which is also called ftrace. See the ftrace document for more exhaustive use of ftrace in userspace.

Ftrace itself can use various data sources such as tracepoints and even function trampolines. The function trampolines are instrumented and configured via the kernel and utilize gcc’s -pg flag for function profiling. This is very powerful and the basis of kernel livepatching.

Kernel requirements depend on what information you want to get, for syscalls HAVE_SYSCALL_TRACEPOINTS (formerly HAVE_FTRACE_SYSCALLS) needs to be implemented for tracing to work with ftrace. This is architecture dependent, and for x86 was implemented in v2.6.30. More details can be found in the design document. In addition much of the code for handling syscall tracing for ftrace is in kernel/trace/trace_syscalls.c.


Another interface that can be used via tracefs.

Example usage:

# echo 1 > /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/tracing_on
# echo 'p:myprobe do_sys_open dfd=%ax filename=%dx flags=%cx mode=+4($stack)' >> /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/kprobe_events
# echo 1 > /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/events/kprobes/myprobe/enable
# cat /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/trace
# tracer: nop
# entries-in-buffer/entries-written: 4/951007   #P:1
#                              _-----=> irqs-off
#                             / _----=> need-resched
#                            | / _---=> hardirq/softirq
#                            || / _--=> preempt-depth
#                            ||| /     delay
#           TASK-PID   CPU#  ||||    TIMESTAMP  FUNCTION
#              | |       |   ||||       |         |
             cat-18934 [000] d... 92669.062797: myprobe: (do_sys_open+0x0/0x2a0) dfd=0xffffffff81216050 filename=0x88000 flags=0x1 m
             cat-18934 [000] d... 92669.062846: myprobe: (do_sys_open+0x0/0x2a0) dfd=0xffffffff81216050 filename=0x88000 flags=0x316
8 mode=0x18f0c660ffffffff
             cat-18934 [000] d... 92669.063316: myprobe: (do_sys_open+0x0/0x2a0) dfd=0xffffffff81216050 filename=0x88000 flags=0x0 m
             cat-18934 [000] d... 92669.063423: myprobe: (do_sys_open+0x0/0x2a0) dfd=0xffffffff81216050 filename=0x8000 flags=0x0 mo

The nice thing here is you can print custom parameters, and potentially use even more sophisticated parsing of said parameters.


Extended Berkley Packet Filter has been usable for tracing since v4.1, but many improvements are still ongoing. To use eBPF you write a C program that gets loaded into the kernel via the BPF syscall. The program has to use specific functions and cannot have loops. The kernel verifies this before allowing the code to be executed in kernel. The advantage here is that writing a custom kernel module is not required and one can attach to tracepoints and do advanced filtering and instrumentation.

An example of tracing open syscalls is here.

More information can be found here.


SystemTap, LTTng, and sysdig are all other tracing tools that utilize kernel functionality ranging from tracepoints to kprobes.

SystemTap makes it easy to write kprobes for various functions and has its own high level syntax that can be compiled down into something usable by the kernel.

LTTng ships its own kernel module which instruments tracepoints (among many other things). The webpage has very extensive documentation. Very cool discussion on their ring buffer design.

# lttng create my-kernel-session --output=/tmp/my-kernel-trace
# lttng list --kernel
# lttng enable-event --kernel --syscall open,close
# lttng start
# lttng stop
# lttng destroy
# babeltrace /tmp/my-kernel-trace
[18:38:35.107903286] (+0.000003918) test syscall_exit_open: { cpu_id = 0 }, { ret = 3 }
[18:38:35.107920793] (+0.000017507) test syscall_entry_close: { cpu_id = 0 }, { fd = 3 }
[18:38:35.107921474] (+0.000000681) test syscall_exit_close: { cpu_id = 0 }, { ret = 0 }
[18:38:35.108280899] (+0.000359425) test syscall_entry_open: { cpu_id = 0 }, { filename = "/usr/lib/python3.5/__pycache__/struct.cpy
thon-35.pyc", flags = 524288, mode = 438 }
[18:38:35.108284573] (+0.000003674) test syscall_exit_open: { cpu_id = 0 }, { ret = 3 }
[18:38:35.108299173] (+0.000014600) test syscall_entry_close: { cpu_id = 0 }, { fd = 3 }

Sysdig is a commercial product that also has an open-source component which is the kernel module and some user-space tooling. The module registers functions on various kernel tracepoints, looks up additional information in the kernel, and injects this into a ring buffer exposed into userspace.