Ideas for getting started in the Linux kernel

| categories: fedora

Getting new people into OSS projects is always a challenge. The Linux kernel is no different and has it's own set of challenges. This is a follow up and expansion of some of what I talked about at Flock about contributing to the kernel.

When I tell people I do kernel work I tend to get a lot of "Wow that's really hard, you must be smart" and "I always wanted to contribute to the kernel but I don't know how to get started". The former thought process tends to lead to the latter, moreso than other projects. I would like to dispel this notion once and for all: you do not have to have a special talent to work on the kernel unless you count dogged persistence and patience as a talent. Working in low level C has its own quriks the same way working in other languages does. C++ templates terrify me, javascript's type system (or lack there of) confuses me. You can learn the skills necessary to work in the kernel.

The answer to the question "So how do I get started in the kernel?" really varies and depends on your motivation. Are you interested in knowing how operating systems work in general? Do you want to know how parts of Linux specifically work? Is your hardware broken? Is some part of Linux ruining your day? Do you just want to make an Open Source contribution? Do you want a high five 1? Different tasks are going to be better suited for different motivations.

The classic way first timers get started with the kernel is by fixing checkpatch errors in staging. Kernel Newbies has a great introduction to get started2. This task hits some important milestones: it ensures you can grab a copy of the kernel, build it successfully, make a patch with git, send it out and respond to feedback. If you are just looking for a quick open source contribution, checkpatch fixes in staging are great. The task starts to lose its value the more you do it though. There are a large number of people fixing up checkpatch issues so getting them fixed up is very easy. Fixing up checkpatch issues outside the staging directory tends to have mixed results, some maintainers will accept them others will ignore them. checkpatch is just a perl script so it can generate false positives. Always remember to compile test and boot if possible.

Figuring out what to do after/instead of checkpatch issues is a mostly open problem. There is no one right path to take. I gave this some thought and came up with a list that might be helpful. Note many of these aren't immediate patches or things you can do but more 'meta tasks' that may help you figure out other contributions you can make. I make no guarantee anything here will actually turn you into a kernel developer (but if it does I'd love to know!) Please also use your best judgment when sending patches and think about what you are doing:

  • If you don't have much of an operating systems background, read up on some of the fundamentals. This will give you a much better idea about the types of errors and crashes you can run into.

  • There are some books out out there about kernel development. Many of the details are now out of date but high level concepts can be useful.

  • Run on 'unusual' hardware. Debug your unusual hardware.

  • The Eudyptula Challenge is a more structured introduction to the kernel. It's a set of small challenges.

  • Checkers like Coccinelle and smatch are a nice step up from checkpatch. These tools require a bit more thought. Like checkpatch, please use your judgment and always make sure the code compiles. If making a tree wide change, please only submit a few (5 at most) as a sample. Make sure to give patches appropriate subjects and Cc the appropriate maintainers.

  • Learn to read a kernel oops and warning. Learn how to use addr2line to match up addresses with code. Learn how to run decodecode

  • Learn what some of the more common warnings (e.g. sleeping while atomic) mean and what are common ways they can be fixed.

  • Learn how to read a lockdep report.

  • Run linux-next. Report problems you find (after searching the mailing list to see if they have been reported already of course)

  • Find a patch set on the mailing list, figure out how to test it and report back. Ideally this would be about a subsystem you are interested in learning more about and something with an existing set of test cases.

  • Test something on a non-x86 architecture. The kernel has gotten significantly better in recent years about being less x86-centric but most developers still run on x86. It's easy to build on QEMU for arm and arm64 if you don't have hardware.

  • Learn about PCI ids and how they match up to hardware. More generically, learn about quirks for various subsystems. What does a subsystem use to determine if a quirk should be applied?

  • New format options for print strings have been added (e.g. %pa for physical addresses). Some drivers are still using non-portable casts and could be converted.

  • Read the documentation. Read the corresponding code. If there is a mismatch, try submitting a patch to the documentation.

  • Learn how to run ftrace and perf. These are valuable debugging tools.

  • Run kmemleak, kasan and other debugging features. Report bugs after searching the mailing list to see if anyone has reported it as a false positive.

  • Security is fun! Learn how to write a simple kernel exploit. Read CVEs, learn why they are considered security bugs. Android is a great source of kernel bugs to learn from.

  • Learn how to do a bisection. When you inevitably hit a problem, provide a bisect log along with your report.

  • Read your dmesg logs. Investigate interesting messages.

  • Take a USB drive, insert it into your computer. Trace how it gets enumerated. Learn how the bad usb attack works.

  • Learn how to capture usbmon output. Trace the USB protocol.

  • Take a syscall (open, mmap), put in arguments that give an error code. Trace the syscall to identify the line which is generating the error code. Look at the checks which are generating this error.

  • Figure out how your firmware (BIOS/EFI/Devicetree whatever) specifies which regions of memory the kernel can use. Trace how those regions get set up in the early memblock allocator and later the buddy allocator.

  • Draw a picture of how the buddy allocator works. Give all the memory blocks happy faces when they get merged together with a buddy. (I have wanted to do this for years).

  • Draw a picture of how the SLUB allocator works. How does it change when SLUB_DEBUG options are used?

  • Write a BPF filter

  • Trace how you walk the page tables. How does this compare with functions that modify the page tables?


  1. If that's your motivation I will give you a high five the next time I see you at a conference. 

  2. I recommend this tutorial to everyone for getting their git environment setup regardless of if you want to send checkpatch clean ups.