Monthly Archives: October 2013

I/O Control in Linux

This ninth article, which is part of the series on Linux device drivers, talks about the typical ioctl() implementation and usage in Linux.

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“Get me a laptop and tell me about the experiments on the x86-specific hardware interfacing conducted in yesterday’s Linux device drivers’ laboratory session, and also about what’s planned for the next session”, cried Shweta, exasperated at being confined to bed and not being able to attend the classes. “Calm down!!! Don’t worry about that. We’ll help you make up for your classes. But first tell us what happened to you, so suddenly”, asked one of her friends, who had come to visit her in the hospital. “It’s all the fault of those chaats, I had in Rohan’s birthday party. I had such a painful food poisoning that led me here”, blamed Shweta. “How are you feeling now?”, asked Rohan sheepishly. “I’ll be all fine – just tell me all about the fun with hardware, you guys had. I had been waiting to attend that session and all this had to happen, right then”.

Rohan sat down besides Shweta and summarized the session to her, hoping to soothe her. That excited her more and she starting forcing them to tell her about the upcoming sessions, as well. They knew that those would be to do something with hardware, but were unaware of the details. Meanwhile, the doctor comes in and requests everybody to wait outside. That was an opportunity to plan and prepare. And they decided to talk about the most common hardware controlling operation: the ioctl(). Here is how it went.

Introducing an ioctl()

Input-output control (ioctl, in short) is a common operation or system call available with most of the driver categories. It is a “one bill fits all” kind of system call. If there is no other system call, which meets the requirement, then definitely ioctl() is the one to use. Practical examples include volume control for an audio device, display configuration for a video device, reading device registers, … – basically anything to do with any device input / output, or for that matter any device specific operations. In fact, it is even more versatile – need not be tied to any device specific things but any kind of operation. An example includes debugging a driver, say by querying of driver data structures.

Question is – how could all these variety be achieved by a single function prototype. The trick is using its two key parameters: the command and the command’s argument. The command is just some number, representing some operation, defined as per the requirement. The argument is the corresponding parameter for the operation. And then the ioctl() function implementation does a “switch … case” over the command implementing the corresponding functionalities. The following had been its prototype in Linux kernel, for quite some time:

int ioctl(struct inode *i, struct file *f, unsigned int cmd, unsigned long arg);

Though, recently from kernel 2.6.35, it has changed to the following:

long ioctl(struct file *f, unsigned int cmd, unsigned long arg);

If there is a need for more arguments, all of them are put in a structure and a pointer to the structure becomes the ‘one’ command argument. Whether integer or pointer, the argument is taken up as a long integer in kernel space and accordingly type cast and processed.

ioctl() is typically implemented as part of the corresponding driver and then an appropriate function pointer initialized with it, exactly as with other system calls open(), read(), … For example, in character drivers, it is the ioctl or unlocked_ioctl (since kernel 2.6.35) function pointer field in the struct file_operations, which is to be initialized.

Again like other system calls, it can be equivalently invoked from the user space using the ioctl() system call, prototyped in <sys/ioctl.h> as:

int ioctl(int fd, int cmd, ...);

Here, cmd is the same as implemented in the driver’s ioctl() and the variable argument construct (…) is a hack to be able to pass any type of argument (though only one) to the driver’s ioctl(). Other parameters will be ignored.

Note that both the command and command argument type definitions need to be shared across the driver (in kernel space) and the application (in user space). So, these definitions are commonly put into header files for each space.

Querying the driver internal variables

To better understand the boring theory explained above, here’s the code set for the “debugging a driver” example mentioned above. This driver has 3 static global variables status, dignity, ego, which need to be queried and possibly operated from an application. query_ioctl.h defines the corresponding commands and command argument type. Listing follows:



#include <linux/ioctl.h>

typedef struct
	int status, dignity, ego;
} query_arg_t;

#define QUERY_GET_VARIABLES _IOR('q', 1, query_arg_t *)
#define QUERY_CLR_VARIABLES _IO('q', 2)


Using these, the driver’s ioctl() implementation in query_ioctl.c would be:

static int status = 1, dignity = 3, ego = 5;

static int my_ioctl(struct inode *i, struct file *f, unsigned int cmd,
	unsigned long arg)
static long my_ioctl(struct file *f, unsigned int cmd, unsigned long arg)
	query_arg_t q;

	switch (cmd)
			q.status = status;
			q.dignity = dignity;
			q.ego = ego;
			if (copy_to_user((query_arg_t *)arg, &q,
				return -EACCES;
			status = 0;
			dignity = 0;
			ego = 0;
			return -EINVAL;

	return 0;

And finally the corresponding invocation functions from the application query_app.c would be as follows:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <sys/ioctl.h>

#include "query_ioctl.h"

void get_vars(int fd)
	query_arg_t q;

	if (ioctl(fd, QUERY_GET_VARIABLES, &q) == -1)
		perror("query_apps ioctl get");
		printf("Status : %d\n", q.status);
		printf("Dignity: %d\n", q.dignity);
		printf("Ego	: %d\n", q.ego);
void clr_vars(int fd)
	if (ioctl(fd, QUERY_CLR_VARIABLES) == -1)
		perror("query_apps ioctl clr");

Complete code of the above mentioned three files is included in the folder QueryIoctl, where the required Makefile is also present. You may download its tar-bzipped file as query_ioctl_code.tar.bz2, untar it and then, do the following to try out:

  • Build the ‘query_ioctl’ driver (query_ioctl.ko file) and the application (query_app file) by running make using the provided Makefile.
  • Load the driver using insmod query_ioctl.ko.
  • With appropriate privileges and command-line arguments, run the application query_app:
    • ./query_app # To display the driver variables
    • ./query_app -c # To clear the driver variables
    • ./query_app -g # To display the driver variables
    • ./query_app -s # To set the driver variables (Not mentioned above)
  • Unload the driver using rmmod query_ioctl.

Defining the ioctl() commands

“Visiting time is over”, came calling the security guard. And all of Shweta’s visitors packed up to leave. Stopping them, Shweta said, “Hey!! Thanks a lot for all this help. I could understand most of this code, including the need for copy_to_user(), as we have learnt earlier. But just a question, what are these _IOR, _IO, etc used in defining the commands in query_ioctl.h. You said we could just use numbers for the same. But you are using all these weird things”. Actually, they are usual numbers only. Just that, now additionally, some useful command related information is also encoded as part of these numbers using these various macros, as per the Portable Operating System Interface (POSIX) standard for ioctl. The standard talks about the 32-bit command numbers being formed of four components embedded into the [31:0] bits:

  1. Direction of command operation [bits 31:30] – read, write, both, or none – filled by the corresponding macro (_IOR, _IOW, _IOWR, _IO)
  2. Size of the command argument [bits 29:16] – computed using sizeof() with the command argument’s type – the third argument to these macros
  3. 8-bit magic number [bits 15:8] – to render the commands unique enough – typically an ASCII character (the first argument to these macros)
  4. Original command number [bits 7:0] – the actual command number (1, 2, 3, …), defined as per our requirement – the second argument to these macros

“Check out the header <asm-generic/ioctl.h> for implementation details”, concluded Rohan while hurrying out of the room with a sigh of relief.

Tenth Article >>


  1. The intention behind the POSIX standard of encoding the command is to be able to verify the parameters, direction, etc related to the command, even before it is passed to the driver, say by VFS. It is just that Linux has not yet implemented the verification part.
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Get Set with Polynomials in Octave

This ninth article of the mathematical journey through open source, deals with polynomial mathematics in octave.

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Let’s first solve the earlier puzzles. And then we shall discuss the polynomial power of octave.

Number Puzzle

Find three numbers, product of which is 60; sum of their squares is 50; and their sum is 12. Let the X vector elements X(1), X(2), X(3) be the three numbers. Then, here goes the solution:

$ octave -qf
octave:1> function Y = F(X)
> Y(1) = X(1) * X(2) * X(3) - 60; 
> Y(2) = X(1)^2 + X(2)^2 + X(3)^2 - 50; 
> Y(3) = X(1) + X(2) + X(3) - 12; 
> endfunction
octave:2> [Y, Fval, info] = fsolve(@F, [3; 3; 3]) 
warning: matrix singular to machine precision, rcond = 4.32582e-35
warning: attempting to find minimum norm solution
warning: dgelsd: rank deficient 3x3 matrix, rank = 1 
Y =


Fval =

  -3.2345e-07   1.0351e-07   0.0000e+00

info = 1 

So, the 3 numbers are 5, 3, 4.

Flower Puzzle

A sage came to a temple with some flowers and dipped them into the first pond of the temple to get them squared. Then, he offered some flowers in the temple and dipped the remaining flowers into the second pond to get them doubled. Then, he again offered same number of flowers, as earlier, and dipped the remaining flowers into the third pond to get them tripled and take back with him as prasadam, which was the same number as in each one of his offerings. Now, if he took back thrice the number of flowers he brought. How many did he bring in with him?
Let the x vector elements x(1) and x(2) be respectively, the number of flowers the sage came with and the number of flowers the sage offered each time. So, here goes the solution:

octave:1> function y = f(x)
> y(1) = ((x(1) * x(1) - x(2)) * 2 - x(2)) * 3 - x(2);
> y(2) = x(2) - 3 * x(1);
> endfunction 
octave:2> [x fval info] = fsolve(@f, [10; 10])
x =


fval =

  -2.8791e-06  -1.7764e-15

info =  1

So, the number of flowers the sage came with is 5 and his each offering is of 15 flowers.

Note that in all these solutions the trick is to choose the initial solution close to the original solution, through some approximation work. At times that might be tricky. So, in case we just have polynomial equations and that also in one variable, it can be solved in an easier way, using the polynomial features of octave. In contrast to the earlier method, here we also get all of the multiple solutions for the polynomial.

Playing with Polynomials

Let’s consider the polynomial equation 2x3 + 3x2 + 2x + 1 = 0. Then its octave representation and computation of its solutions aka roots would be as follows:

octave:1> P = [2; 3; 2; 1];
octave:2> roots(P)
ans =

  -1.00000 + 0.00000i
  -0.25000 + 0.66144i
  -0.25000 - 0.66144i


So, it being a cubic equation, it has three roots as expected. First one is the real number -1, and the other two are complex conjugates (-1 + sqrt(-7))/4 & (-1 – sqrt(-7))/4. And you may verify the solutions using the function polyval() as follows:

octave:1> P = [2; 3; 2; 1];
octave:2> sols = [-1; (-1 + sqrt(-7)) / 4; (-1 + sqrt(-7)) / 4]
sols =

  -1.00000 + 0.00000i
  -0.25000 + 0.66144i
  -0.25000 + 0.66144i

octave:3> polyval(P, sols)
ans =



This shows that the value of the polynomial P evaluated at each of the 3 solutions is 0. Hence, confirming that they indeed are the solutions.

All set with polynomial basics in octave, let’s solve some puzzles.

Geometry Solving

Last time we found an intersection point of a straight line and a circle. Yes, we just calculated one point – though typically there would be two. It would be one only in case of the straight line being tangent or just touching the circle. And yes it would be zero, if the straight line is not even intersecting it. So now, let’s try these different cases, with the one variable polynomial power.

Let us have the following circle C with radius 5 and centered at origin (0, 0), defined in the Cartesian coordinate system, i.e. the x-y system: x2 + y2 = 25

And, let us consider the following 3 lines for intersection with the above circle, one by one:

  • L1: 4x + 3y = 24
  • L2: x + y = 5√2
  • L3: 6x + y = 36

To be able to solve for the intersection points of each of these 3 lines with the circle C using roots, the first step is to get polynomials in one variable. For that, we can substitute the value of y in the equation of the circle, in terms of x from each of the line equations, as follows:
For L1
x2 + y2 = 25 ⇒ 9x2 + 9y2 = 9*25 ⇒ 9x2 + (24 – 4x)2 = 225 ⇒ 25x2 – 192x + 351 = 0
For L2
x2 + y2 = 25 ⇒ x2 + (5√2 – x)2 = 25 ⇒ 2x2 – 10√2x + 25 = 0
For L3
x2 + y2 = 25 ⇒ x2 + (36 – 6x)2 = 25 ⇒ 37x2 – 432x + 1271 = 0

Now, we get the roots of each to get the x co-ordinate of the intersection point.

octave:1> C1 = [25; -192; 351];
octave:2> C2 = [2; -10*sqrt(2); 25];
octave:3> C3 = [37; -432; 1271];
octave:4> roots(C1)
ans =


octave:5> roots(C2)
ans =


octave:6> roots(C3)
ans =

   5.8378 + 0.5206i
   5.8378 - 0.5206i


And the corresponding y co-ordinate could be obtained by substituting the value of x into the corresponding line equations.

For L1, there are 2 different roots 4.68 and 3, implying two intersecting points (4.68, 1.76) and (3, 4).
For L2, there are 2 identical roots of 3.5355 i.e 5/√2, implying just one intersecting point (5/√2, 5/√2).
For L3, the roots are complex, implying that there is no intersecting point in the real world.

Solve it

And finally, here’s one for your brain. Find out the two square roots and the three cube roots of the imaginary number i.

If you think, you have got the octave code for solving the above, post your solution in the comments below. And as we move on, we would have more fun with the polynomials.

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