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The kernel print function, printk(), behaves almost identically to the C library printf() function. Indeed, throughout this book we have not made use of any real differences. For most intentions, this is fine; printk() is simply the name of the kernel's formatted print function. It does have some differences, however.

The Robustness of printk()

One property of printk() quickly taken for granted is its robustness. The printk() function is callable from just about anywhere in the kernel at any time. It can be called from interrupt or process context. It can be called while a lock is held. It can be called simultaneously on multiple processors, yet it does not require the caller to hold a lock.

It is a resilient function. This is important because the usefulness of printk() rests on the fact that it is always there and always works.

The Nonrobustness of printk()

A chink in the armor of printk()'s robustness does exist. It is unusable before a certain point in the kernel boot process, prior to console initialization. Indeed, if the console is not initialized, where is the output supposed to go?

This is normally not an issue, unless you are debugging issues very early in the boot process (for example, in setup_arch(), which performs architecture-specific initialization). Such debugging is a challenge to begin with, and the absence of any sort of print method only compounds the problem.

There is some hope, but not a lot. Hardcore architecture hackers use the hardware that does work (say, a serial port) to communicate with the outside world. Trust methis is not fun for most people. Some supported architectures do implement a sane solution, howeverand others (i386 included) have patches available that also save the day.

The solution is a printk() variant that can output to the console very early in the boot process: early_printk(). The behavior is the same as printk(), only the name and its capability to work earlier are changed. This is not a portable solution, however, because not all supported architectures have such a method implemented. It might become your best friend, though, if it does.

Unless you need to write to the console very early in the boot process, you can rely on printk() to always work.


The major difference between printk() and printf() is the capability of the former to specify a loglevel. The kernel uses the loglevel to decide whether to print the message to the console. The kernel displays all messages with a loglevel below a specified value on the console.

You specify a loglevel like this:

printk(KERN_WARNING "This is a warning!\n");
printk(KERN_DEBUG "This is a debug notice!\n");
printk("I did not specify a loglevel!\n");

The KERN_WARNING and KERN_DEBUG strings are simple defines found in <linux/ kernel.h>. They expand to a string such as "<4>" or "<7>" that is concatenated onto the front of the printk() message. The kernel then decides which messages to print on the console based on this specified loglevel and the current console loglevel, console_loglevel. Table 18.1 is a full listing of the available loglevels.

Table 18.1. Available Loglevels




An emergency condition; the system is probably dead


A problem that requires immediate attention


A critical condition


An error


A warning


A normal, but perhaps noteworthy, condition


An informational message


A debug messagetypically superfluous

If you do not specify a loglevel, it defaults to DEFAULT_MESSAGE_LOGLEVEL, which is currently KERN_WARNING. Because this value might change, you should always specify a loglevel for your messages.

The kernel defines the most important loglevel, KERN_EMERG, as <0> and it defines KERN_DEBUG, the least critical loglevel, as <7>. For example, after the preprocessor is done, the previous examples resemble the following:

printk("<4>This is a warning!\n");
printk("<7>This is a debug notice!\n");
printk("<4>did not specify a loglevel!\n");

The avenue that you take with your printk() loglevels is up to you. Of course, normal messages that you intend to keep around should have the appropriate loglevel. But the debugging messages you sprinkle everywhere when trying to get a handle on a problemadmit it, we all do it and it workscan have any loglevel you want. One option is to leave your default console loglevel where it is, and make all your debugging messages KERN_CRIT or so. Conversely, you can make the debugging messages KERN_DEBUG and change your console loglevel. Each has pros and cons; you decide.

Loglevels are defined in <linux/kernel.h>.

The Log Buffer

Kernel messages are stored in a circular buffer of size LOG_BUF_LEN. This size is configurable at compile time via the CONFIG_LOG_BUF_SHIFT option. The default for a uniprocessor machine is 16KB. In other words, the kernel can simultaneously store 16KB of kernel messages. As messages are read in user-space, they are removed from the queue. If the message queue is at this maximum and another call to printk() is made, the new message overwrites the oldest one. The log buffer is called circular because the reading and writing occur in a circular pattern.

Using a circular buffer has multiple advantages. Because it is easy to simultaneously write to and read from a circular buffer, even interrupt context can easily use printk(). Furthermore, it makes log maintenance easy. If there are too many messages, new messages simply overwrite the older ones. If there is a problem that results in the generation of many messages, the log simply overwrites itself in lieu of uncontrollably consuming memory. The lone disadvantage of a circular bufferthe possibility of losing messagesis a small price to pay for the simplicity and robustness it affords.

syslogd and klogd

On a standard Linux system, the user-space klogd daemon retrieves the kernel messages from the log buffer and feeds them into the system log file via the syslogd daemon. To read the log, the klogd program can either read the /proc/kmsg file or call the syslog() system call. By default, it uses the /proc approach. In either case, klogd blocks until there are new kernel messages to read. It then wakes up, reads any new messages, and processes them. By default, it sends the messages to the syslogd daemon.

The syslogd daemon appends all the messages it receives to a file, which is by default /var/log/messages. It is configurable via /etc/syslog.conf.

You can have klogd change the console loglevel when it loads by specifying the -c flag when you start it.

A Note About printk() and Kernel Hacking

When you first start developing kernel code, you most likely will often transpose printf() for printk(). This transposition is only natural, as you cannot deny years of experience using printf() in user-space programs. With luck, this mistake will not last long because the repeated linker errors will eventually grow rather annoying.

Someday, you might find yourself accidentally using printk() instead of printf() in your user-space code. When that day comes, you can say you are a true kernel hacker.

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