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Epoll is fundamentally broken 2/2

I/O multiplexing part #4

20 March 2017

Previous articles in this series:

  1. The history of the Select(2) syscall
  2. Select(2) is fundamentally broken
  3. Epoll(2) is fundamentally broken

In this post we'll discuss the second argument on why the epoll() is broken. The problem is best described in an LWN comment by Foom:

And epoll certainly has a HUGE misdesign in it, that anyone who actually understood what a file descriptor is should've seen coming. But if you look back in the history of epoll, you'll see that it looks like the implementors apparently didn't understand the difference between file descriptors and file descriptions. :(

epoll is broken because it mistakes the "file descriptor" with the underlying kernel object (the "file description"). The issue shows up when relying on the close() semantics to clean up the epoll subscriptions.

epoll_ctl(EPOLL_CTL_ADD) doesn't actually register a file descriptor. Instead it registers a tuple1 of a file descriptor and a pointer to underlying kernel object. Most confusingly the lifetime of an epoll subscription is not tied to the lifetime of a file descriptor. It's tied to the life of the kernel object.

Due to this implementation quirk calling close() on a file descriptor might or might not trigger epoll unsubscription. If the close call removes the last pointer to kernel object and causes the object to be freed, then it will cause epoll subscription cleanup. But if there are more pointers to kernel object, more file descriptors, in any process on the system, then close will not cause the epoll subscription cleanup. It is totally possible to receive events on previously closed file descriptors.

dup() as example

The simplest way to show the problem is with dup(). Here's the code:

rfd, wfd = pipe()
write(wfd, "a")             # Make the "rfd" readable

epfd = epoll_create()
epoll_ctl(efpd, EPOLL_CTL_ADD, rfd, (EPOLLIN, rfd))

rfd2 = dup(rfd)

r = epoll_wait(epfd, -1ms)  # What will happen?

You may think: the epoll_wait will block forever, since the only registered file descriptor "rfd" was closed. But that's not what will happen. By calling dup, we kept the reference to the underlying "rfd" kernel object, we prevented it from being cleaned up. The thing is still subscribed to the epoll. epoll_wait will in fact terminate reporting an event on a dead handle "rfd".

To make matters worse, you need a valid file descriptor handle to manage subscriptions on "epfd". After we called close(rfd), there is no way to unregister it from epfd!

Neither of these will work:

epoll_ctl(efpd, EPOLL_CTL_DEL, rfd)
epoll_ctl(efpd, EPOLL_CTL_DEL, rfd2)

Marc Lehmann phrased it well:

Thus it is possible to close an fd, and afterwards forever receive events for it, and you can't do anything about that.

You can't rely on close to clean up epoll subscriptions. If you ever called close in such bad corner case, you can't fix the "epfd". The only way froward is to trash the old "epfd", create new one and recreate all the valid subscriptions.

Remember this advice:

You always must always explicitly call epoll_ctl(EPOLL_CTL_DEL) before calling close().


Explicitly deregistering file descriptors before close is nescesary and works well if you control all the code. In some cases though it may not be possible - for example when writing an epoll wrapper library. Sometimes it's impossible to forbid users from calling close themselves. For this reason it's hard to build correct thin abstraction layers on top of epoll.

Hopefully this and the previous blog posts on epoll() had shedded some light on the dark corners of the Linux epoll implementation. I can only wonder how closely Microsoft recreated these quirks in the Windows Subsystem for Linux.

Update: Illumos has a custom epoll implementation as well. In the man page they explicitly mention the close weirdness and refuse to support Linux's broken semantics.

  1. This was mentioned in this email by Davide Libenzi

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