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Virtual memory is an abstraction of physical memory. The purpose of virtual memory is generally to simplify application development and to let processes address more memory than what is actually physically present in the machine. We also don’t want applications messing with the kernel or other applications’ memory due to security.
In the x86 architecture, virtual memory can be accomplished in two ways: segmentation and paging. Paging is by far the most common and versatile technique, and we’ll implement it the next chapter. Some use of segmentation is still necessary to allow for code to execute under different privilege levels.
Virtual Memory Through Segmentation?
You could skip paging entirely and just use segmentation for virtual memory. Each user mode process would get its own segment, with base address and limit properly set up. This way no process can see the memory of another process. A problem with this is that the physical memory for a process needs to be contiguous (or at least it is very convenient if it is). Either we need to know in advance how much memory the program will require (unlikely), or we can move the memory segments to places where they can grow when the limit is reached (expensive, causes fragmentation — can result in “out of memory” even though enough memory is available). Paging solves both these problems.
It is interesting to note that in x86_64 (the 64-bit version of the x86 architecture), segmentation is almost completely removed.
Segmentation translates a logical address into a linear address. Paging translates these linear addresses onto the physical address space, and determines access rights and how the memory should be cached.
Paging is the most common technique used in x86 to enable virtual memory. Virtual memory through paging means that each process will get the impression that the available memory range is 0x00000000–0xFFFFFFFF even though the actual size of the memory might be much less. It also means that when a process addresses a byte of memory it will use a virtual (linear) address instead of physical one. The code in the user process won’t notice any difference (except for execution delays). The linear address gets translated to a physical address by the MMU and the page table. If the virtual address isn’t mapped to a physical address, the CPU will raise a page fault interrupt.
Paging is optional, and some operating systems do not make use of it. But if we want to mark certain areas of memory accessible only to code running at a certain privilege level (to be able to have processes running at different privilege levels), paging is the neatest way to do it
Paging in x86
Paging in x86 (chapter 4 in the Intel manual ) consists of a page directory (PDT) that can contain references to 1024 page tables (PT), each of which can point to 1024 sections of physical memory called page frames (PF). Each page frame is 4096 byte large. In a virtual (linear) address, the highest 10 bits specifies the offset of a page directory entry (PDE) in the current PDT, the next 10 bits the offset of a page table entry (PTE) within the page table pointed to by that PDE. The lowest 12 bits in the address is the offset within the page frame to be addressed.
All page directories, page tables and page frames need to be aligned on 4096 byte addresses. This makes it possible to address a PDT, PT or PF with just the highest 20 bits of a 32 bit address, since the lowest 12 need to be zero.
The PDE and PTE structure is very similar to each other: 32 bits (4 bytes), where the highest 20 bits points to a PTE or PF, and the lowest 12 bits control access rights and other configurations. 4 bytes times 1024 equals 4096 bytes, so a page directory and page table both fit in a page frame themselves.
The translation of linear addresses to physical addresses is described in the figure below.
While pages are normally 4096 bytes, it is also possible to use 4 MB pages. A PDE then points directly to a 4 MB page frame, which needs to be aligned on a 4 MB address boundary. The address translation is almost the same as in the figure, with just the page table step removed. It is possible to mix 4 MB and 4 KB pages.
Translating virtual addresses (linear addresses) to physical addresses.
The 20 bits pointing to the current PDT is stored in the register
cr3. The lower 12 bits of
cr3 are used for configuration.
For more details on the paging structures, see chapter 4 in the Intel manual . The most interesting bits are U/S, which determine what privilege levels can access this page (PL0 or PL3), and R/W, which makes the memory in the page read-write or read-only.
The simplest kind of paging is when we map each virtual address onto the same physical address, called identity paging. This can be done at compile time by creating a page directory where each entry points to its corresponding 4 MB frame. In NASM this can be done with macros and commands (
dd). It can of course also be done at run-time by using ordinary assembly code instructions.
Paging is enabled by first writing the address of a page directory to
cr3 and then setting bit 31 (the PG “paging-enable” bit) of
1. To use 4 MB pages, set the PSE bit (Page Size Extensions, bit 4) of
cr4. The following assembly code shows an example:
; eax has the address of the page directory
mov cr3, eax
mov ebx, cr4 ; read current cr4
or ebx, 0x00000010 ; set PSE
mov cr4, ebx ; update cr4
mov ebx, cr0 ; read current cr0
or ebx, 0x80000000 ; set PG
mov cr0, ebx ; update cr0
; now paging is enabled
A Few Details
It is important to note that all addresses within the page directory, page tables and in
cr3 need to be physical addresses to the structures, never virtual. This will be more relevant in later sections where we dynamically update the paging structures (see the chapter “User Mode”).
An instruction that is useful when an updating a PDT or PT is
invlpg. It invalidates the Translation Lookaside Buffer (TLB) entry for a virtual address. The TLB is a cache for translated addresses, mapping physical addresses corresponding to virtual addresses. This is only required when changing a PDE or PTE that was previously mapped to something else. If the PDE or PTE had previously been marked as not present (bit 0 was set to 0), executing
invlpg is unnecessary. Changing the value of
cr3 will cause all entries in the TLB to be invalidated.
An example of invalidating a TLB entry is shown below:
; invalidate any TLB references to virtual address 0
Paging and the Kernel
This section will describe how paging affects the OS kernel. We encourage you to run your OS using identity paging before trying to implement a more advanced paging setup, since it can be hard to debug a malfunctioning page table that is set up via assembly code.
Reasons to Not Identity Map the Kernel
If the kernel is placed at the beginning of the virtual address space — that is, the virtual address space (
"size of kernel") maps to the location of the kernel in memory - there will be issues when linking the user mode process code. Normally, during linking, the linker assumes that the code will be loaded into the memory position
0x00000000. Therefore, when resolving absolute references,
0x00000000 will be the base address for calculating the exact position. But if the kernel is mapped onto the virtual address space (
"size of kernel"), the user mode process cannot be loaded at virtual address
0x00000000 - it must be placed somewhere else. Therefore, the assumption from the linker that the user mode process is loaded into memory at position
0x00000000 is wrong. This can be corrected by using a linker script which tells the linker to assume a different starting address, but that is a very cumbersome solution for the users of the operating system.
This also assumes that we want the kernel to be part of the user mode process’ address space. As we will see later, this is a nice feature, since during system calls we don’t have to change any paging structures to get access to the kernel’s code and data. The kernel pages will of course require privilege level 0 for access, to prevent a user process from reading or writing kernel memory.
The Virtual Address for the Kernel
Preferably, the kernel should be placed at a very high virtual memory address, for example
0xC0000000 (3 GB). The user mode process is not likely to be 3 GB large, which is now the only way that it can conflict with the kernel. When the kernel uses virtual addresses at 3 GB and above it is called a higher-half kernel.
0xC0000000 is just an example, the kernel can be placed at any address higher than 0 to get the same benefits. Choosing the correct address depends on how much virtual memory should be available for the kernel (it is easiest if all memory above the kernel virtual address should belong to the kernel) and how much virtual memory should be available for the process.
If the user mode process is larger than 3 GB, some pages will need to be swapped out by the kernel. Swapping pages is not part of this book.
Placing the Kernel at
To start with, it is better to place the kernel at
0xC0000000, since this makes it possible to map (
0x00100000) to (
0xC0100000). This way, the entire range (
"size of kernel") of memory is mapped to the range (
0xC0000000 + "size of kernel").
Placing the kernel at
0xC0100000 isn’t hard, but it does require some thought. This is once again a linking problem. When the linker resolves all absolute references in the kernel, it will assume that our kernel is loaded at physical memory location
0x00000000, since relocation is used in the linker script (see the section “Linking the kernel”). However, we want the jumps to be resolved using
0xC0100000 as base address, since otherwise a kernel jump will jump straight into the user mode process code (remember that the user mode process is loaded at virtual memory
However, we can’t simply tell the linker to assume that the kernel starts (is loaded) at
0xC01000000, since we want it to be loaded at the physical address
0x00100000. The reason for having the kernel loaded at 1 MB is because it can’t be loaded at
0x00000000, since there is BIOS and GRUB code loaded below 1 MB. Furthermore, we cannot assume that we can load the kernel at
0xC0100000, since the machine might not have 3 GB of physical memory.
This can be solved by using both relocation (
.=0xC0100000) and the
AT instruction in the linker script. Relocation specifies that non-relative memory-references should should use the relocation address as base in address calculations.
AT specifies where the kernel should be loaded into memory. Relocation is done at link time by GNU ld , the load address specified by
AT is handled by GRUB when loading the kernel, and is part of the ELF format .
Higher-half Linker Script
We can modify the first linker script to implement this:
ENTRY(loader) /* the name of the entry symbol */
. = 0xC0100000 /* the code should be relocated to 3GB + 1MB */
/* align at 4 KB and load at 1 MB */
.text ALIGN (0x1000) : AT(ADDR(.text)-0xC0000000)
*(.text) /* all text sections from all files */
/* align at 4 KB and load at 1 MB + . */
.rodata ALIGN (0x1000) : AT(ADDR(.text)-0xC0000000)
*(.rodata*) /* all read-only data sections from all files */
/* align at 4 KB and load at 1 MB + . */
.data ALIGN (0x1000) : AT(ADDR(.text)-0xC0000000)
*(.data) /* all data sections from all files */
/* align at 4 KB and load at 1 MB + . */
.bss ALIGN (0x1000) : AT(ADDR(.text)-0xC0000000)
*(COMMON) /* all COMMON sections from all files */
*(.bss) /* all bss sections from all files */
Entering the Higher Half
When GRUB jumps to the kernel code, there is no paging table. Therefore, all references to
0xC0100000 + X won’t be mapped to the correct physical address, and will therefore cause a general protection exception (GPE) at the very best, otherwise (if the computer has more than 3 GB of memory) the computer will just crash.
Therefore, assembly code that doesn’t use relative jumps or relative memory addressing must be used to do the following:
- Set up a page table.
- Add identity mapping for the first 4 MB of the virtual address space.
- Add an entry for
0xC0100000that maps to
If we skip the identity mapping for the first 4 MB, the CPU would generate a page fault immediately after paging was enabled when trying to fetch the next instruction from memory. After the table has been created, an jump can be done to a label to make
eip point to a virtual address in the higher half:
; assembly code executing at around 0x00100000
; enable paging for both actual location of kernel
; and its higher-half virtual location
lea ebx, [higher_half] ; load the address of the label in ebx
jmp ebx ; jump to the label
; code here executes in the higher half kernel
; eip is larger than 0xC0000000
; can continue kernel initialisation, calling C code, etc.
eip will now point to a memory location somewhere right after
0xC0100000 - all the code can now execute as if it were located at
0xC0100000, the higher-half. The entry mapping of the first 4 MB of virtual memory to the first 4 MB of physical memory can now be removed from the page table and its corresponding entry in the TLB invalidated with
Running in the Higher Half
There are a few more details we must deal with when using a higher-half kernel. We must be careful when using memory-mapped I/O that uses specific memory locations. For example, the frame buffer is located at
0x000B8000, but since there is no entry in the page table for the address
0x000B8000 any longer, the address
0xC00B8000 must be used, since the virtual address
0xC0000000 maps to the physical address
Any explicit references to addresses within the multiboot structure needs to be changed to reflect the new virtual addresses as well.
Mapping 4 MB pages for the kernel is simple, but wastes memory (unless you have a really big kernel). Creating a higher-half kernel mapped in as 4 KB pages saves memory but is harder to set up. Memory for the page directory and one page table can be reserved in the
.data section, but one needs to configure the mappings from virtual to physical addresses at run-time. The size of the kernel can be determined by exporting labels from the linker script , which we’ll need to do later anyway when writing the page frame allocator (see the chapter “Page Frame Allocation).
Virtual Memory Through Paging
Paging enables two things that are good for virtual memory. First, it allows for fine-grained access control to memory. You can mark pages as read-only, read-write, only for PL0 etc. Second, it creates the illusion of contiguous memory. User mode processes, and the kernel, can access memory as if it were contiguous, and the contiguous memory can be extended without the need to move data around in memory. We can also allow the user mode programs access to all memory below 3 GB, but unless they actually use it, we don’t have to assign page frames to the pages. This allows processes to have code located near
0x00000000 and the stack at just below
0xC0000000, and still not require more than two actual pages.
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