ARG_MAX and the Linux Kernel

July 15, 2011

For some reason, whenever I open up the Wikipedia, I end up with tons of tabs in my web browser, and usually the tabs are completely unrelated to each other. :P

Yesterday, I ended up looking the xargs Wikipedia article, and there I found an interesting note:

Under the Linux kernel before version 2.6.23, arbitrarily long lists of parameters could not be passed to a command,[1] so xargs breaks the list of arguments into sublists small enough to be acceptable.

Along with a link to the GNU coreutils FAQ.

And from there a link to the Linux Kernel mainline git repository.

After a bit of googling, I found a very nice article describing in great detail the ARG_MAX variable, which defines the maximum length of the arguments passed to execve.

Traditionally Linux used a hardcoded:

#define MAX_ARG_PAGES 32

to limit the total size of the arguments passed to the execve() (including the size of the ‘environment’). That limited the maxlen of the arguments passed to about 128KB (minus the size of the ‘environment’).

(Note: actually, very early Linux kernels did not have support for ARG_MAX and didn’t use MAX_ARG_PAGES, but back then I was probably 2-3 years old, so it’s ancient history for me :P)

With Linux-2.6.33, this hardcoded limit was removed. Actually it was replaced by a more ‘flexible’ limit. The maximum length of the arguments can now be as big as the 1/4th of the user-space stack. For example, in my desktop, using ulimit -s I get a stack size of 8192KB, which means 2097152 maxlength for the arguments passed. The same value you can obtain by using getconf. Now, if I increase the soft limit on the stack size, the maxlength allowed will also increase, although with a 8192KB soft limit, the ‘ARGS_MAX’ is already big enough. Two new limits where also introduced, one on the maxlength of each argument (equal to PAGE_SIZE * 32), and the total number of arguments, equal to 0x7FFFFFFF, or as big as a signed integer can be.

Linux headers however use the MAX_ARG_STRLEN, I think, as the ARG_MAX limit, which forces libc to #undef it in its own header files. I’m not sure, since I haven’t looked into code yet, but at least for Linux, ARG_MAX is not statically defined anymore by libc (ie in a header file), but libc computes its value from the userspace stack size.
(edit: that’s indeed how it works for >=linux-2.6.33 — code in sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/sysconf.c:

    case _SC_ARG_MAX:
  #if __LINUX_KERNEL_VERSION < 0x020617
        /* Determine whether this is a kernel 2.6.23 or later.  Only
           then do we have an argument limit determined by the stack
           size.  */
        if (GLRO(dl_discover_osversion) () >= 0x020617)
  #endif
          {
            /* Use getrlimit to get the stack limit.  */
            struct rlimit rlimit;
            if (__getrlimit (RLIMIT_STACK, &rlimit) == 0)
              return MAX (legacy_ARG_MAX, rlimit.rlim_cur / 4);
          }
  
        return legacy_ARG_MAX;

).

And the kernel code that enforces that limit:

               struct rlimit *rlim = current->signal->rlim;
               unsigned long size = bprm->vma->vm_end - bprm->vma->vm_start;

               /*
                * Limit to 1/4-th the stack size for the argv+env strings.
                * This ensures that:
                *  - the remaining binfmt code will not run out of stack space,
                *  - the program will have a reasonable amount of stack left
                *    to work from.
                */
               if (size > rlim[RLIMIT_STACK].rlim_cur / 4) {
                       put_page(page);
                       return NULL;
               }

The whole kernel patch is a bit complicated for me to understand, since I don’t have digged much into kernel mm code, but from what I understand, instead of copying the arguments into pages, and then mapping those pages into the new process address space, it setups a new mm_struct, and populates it with a stack VMA. It then copies the arguments into this VMA (expanding it as needed), and then takes care to ‘position’ it correctly into the new process. But since I’m not very familiar with the Linux Kernel mm API, it’s very likely that what I said is totally wrong (I really have to read the mm chapters from “Understanding the Linux Kernel” :P).

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3 Responses to “ARG_MAX and the Linux Kernel”


  1. […] ciekawskich jeszcze LINK, gdzie można poczytać o zagadnieniu trochę […]

  2. pramod Says:

    Nice read! Could you explain how you arrived at 2097152 from 8192kb of stack size?


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