RFC-0010: zx_channel_iovec_t support for zx_channel_write and zx_channel_call

RFC-0010: zx_channel_iovec_t support for zx_channel_write and zx_channel_call
  • Kernel

This RFC introduces a new mode to zx_channel_write and zx_channel_call which copies input data from multiple memory regions rather than from a single contiguous buffer.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2020-09-25
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2020-10-06


This RFC introduces a new mode to zx_channel_write, zx_channel_write_etc, zx_channel_call and zx_channel_call_etc that copies input data from multiple memory regions rather than from a single contiguous buffer. This improves performance for certain users / clients by allowing message data to be directly copied from multiple userspace objects without an intermediate allocation, copy and layout step. This is accomplished by updating existing syscalls to take an array of zx_channel_iovec_t memory region descriptors when an option is specified.


The main motivation for this proposal is performance.

For non-linearized domain objects, FIDL bindings currently need to (1) allocate a buffer and (2) copy objects into the buffer in a standard layout. After these steps, the buffer is again copied into the kernel. zx_channel_iovec_t allows the objects to be directly copied into the kernel. In addition FIDL message data no longer needs to be laid out in a standard order -- only the zx_channel_iovec_t array must reflect the needed order.


zx_channel_write currently has the following signature:

zx_status_t zx_channel_write(zx_handle_t handle,
                             uint32_t options,
                             const void* bytes,
                             uint32_t num_bytes,
                             const zx_handle_t* handles,
                             uint32_t num_handles);

The input data is a contiguous byte array pointed to by bytes. In zx_channel_write_etc, zx_channel_call and zx_channel_call_etc, there are analogous arrays. The fact that these arrays must be contiguous leads to overhead. In particular, for FIDL messages with out-of-line components, the FIDL encoder must allocate a buffer and relocate data into it which can be expensive.

zx_channel_iovec_t provides an alternative path. zx_channel_write, zx_channel_write_etc, zx_channel_call and zx_channel_call_etc instead receive a list of locations and sizes of objects and copying happens within the kernel, avoiding additional duplication and allocation.

zx_channel_iovec_t is defined in C++ as the following:

typedef struct zx_channel_iovec {
  void* buffer;            // User-space bytes.
  uint32_t capacity;       // Number of bytes.
  uint32_t reserved;       // Reserved.
} zx_channel_iovec_t;

Each zx_channel_iovec_t points to the next capacity bytes to be copied from buffer to the kernel message buffer. reserved must be assigned to zero. The buffer field may be NULL only if the capacity is 0. buffer pointers may be repeated in multiple zx_channel_iovec_t.

The signatures of zx_channel_write, zx_channel_write_etc, zx_channel_call or zx_channel_call_etc are unchanged. However, when the user specifies the ZX_CHANNEL_WRITE_USE_IOVEC option to these syscalls, the void* bytes argument will be interpreted as a zx_channel_iovec_t*. Similarly, the num_bytes argument will be interpreted as the number of zx_channel_iovec_t in the array.

Note that the type of the handle array (zx_handle_t or zx_handle_disposition_t) is irrelevant as only the bytes array is changed.

The message described by the zx_channel_iovec_t array with either be sent with all parts of the message included, or the message will not be sent at all. Handles provided to the syscall are no longer available to the caller on both success and failure.

Error conditions

These are the error conditions of zx_channel_write, zx_channel_write_etc, zx_channel_call and zx_channel_call_etc with updates due to the introduction of iovecs.

ZX_ERR_OUT_OF_RANGE num_bytes or num_handles are larger than ZX_CHANNEL_MAX_MSG_BYTES or ZX_CHANNEL_MAX_MSG_HANDLES respectively. If the ZX_CHANNEL_WRITE_USE_IOVEC option is specified, ZX_ERR_OUT_OF_RANGE will be produced if num_bytes is larger than ZX_CHANNEL_MAX_MSG_IOVEC or the sum of the iovec capacities exceeds ZX_CHANNEL_MAX_MSG_BYTES.

ZX_ERR_INVALID_ARGS bytes is an invalid pointer, handles is an invalid pointer, or options contains an invalid option bit. If the ZX_CHANNEL_WRITE_USE_IOVEC option is specified, ZX_ERR_INVALID_ARGS if the buffer field contains an invalid pointer.


There are no alignment restrictions on the bytes specified in a zx_channel_iovec_t. Each zx_channel_iovec_t will be copied without padding.


The existing limits on the number of bytes (65536) and handles (64) per message are unchanged. Note that these limits apply to messages and not zx_channel_iovec_t entries.

The number of zx_channel_iovec_t will be limited to 8192 per syscall. This number comes from the number of 8-byte aligned inline + out of line objects that can fit in a 65536 byte message, with each inline + out of line object potentially using a zx_channel_iovec_t entry.



  • Introduce the zx_channel_iovec_t type, as defined in the design section.
  • No changes to the visible syscall interface, the zx_channel_iovec_t array is passed in to the existing bytes parameter.


After receiving the ZX_CHANNEL_WRITE_USE_IOVEC option, the kernel will:

  • Copy the data pointed to by the zx_channel_iovec_t objects to the message buffer. While the copy operations will typically also be performed in order of the zx_channel_iovec_t inputs, it is not mandatory. However, the final message must be laid out in the order of the zx_channel_iovec_t entries.
  • Write the message to the channel.


This is a proposal for a system call change for which the implementation takes place within the kernel and the specifics of FIDL binding changes are out of scope. That said, for the sake of evaluating this proposal it is important to understand the effect on FIDL encoding.

FIDL bindings can optionally take advantage of zx_channel_iovec_t support by adding support for encoding FIDL objects into an array of zx_channel_iovec_t.

A key difference betweeen this encode path and existing encode paths is that the zx_channel_iovec_t allow the kernel to copy objects in-place. The main complication with this is with pointers. FIDL-encoded messages need to be sent to the kernel, with pointers replaced with PRESENT or ABSENT marker values. However, in many cases the objects continue to need to have the original pointer values after the system call so that destructors can be called.

This means that bindings taking advantage of zx_channel_iovec_t will sometimes need to do extra bookkeeping work to make sure the objects are cleaned up correctly.


Since this feature is implemented as an option that is default-disabled, it shouldn't have an immediate effect on existing users. Call-sites can migrate to use the option as needed.

Practically speaking, the intention is to migrate FIDL bindings that can benefit from zx_channel_iovec_t to use it. This is expected to have minimal effects on FIDL users.


A prototype was implemented and benchmarked.

This prototype implemented the zx_channel_write option on the kernel side and limited FIDL support (inline objects and vectors only). The message header, along with each inline and out-of-line object each had a zx_channel_iovec_t entry. An array of 64 entries was used to store the zx_channel_iovec_t in both the kernel and FIDL encode.

These measurements are from a machine with a Intel Core i5-7300U CPU @ 2.60GHz.

Byte vector event benchmarks (zx_channel_write, zx_channel_wait_async and zx_channel_read) showed a significant improvement:

  • 4096 byte vector: 9398 ns -> 4495 ns
  • 256 byte vector: 8788 ns -> 3794 ns

FIDL encode also showed performance improvements.

Encode time of the byte vector examples:

  • 4096 byte vector: 345 ns -> 88 ns
  • 256 byte vector: 251 ns -> 86 ns

Inline objects also show small encode improvement:

  • Struct with 256 uint8 fields: 67 ns -> 49 ns

Security considerations

Given that this is a significant change to an existing system call, a security review is needed before the implementation lands.

Privacy considerations

There should be no impact to privacy.


Unit and integration tests will be added for each layer that is changed.

No device or system-wide end-to-end tests are intended to be added, though existing test coverage will help ensure no unexpected bug has been introduced after a migration has taken place.


The system call documentation needs to be updated to indicate support for this feature.

No architecture-wide documentation changes are needed.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

The main drawback of this proposal is added complexity from needing to support the option in the kernel and the practical added complexity for FIDL bindings that use the ZX_CHANNEL_WRITE_USE_IOVEC option that need to ensure that objects are properly cleaned up after they have been mutated for in-place copy.


There is an argument for a lower limit on the number of zx_channel_iovec_t, potentially closer to 16 than 8192. This would allow the zx_channel_iovec_t array to be copied onto the kernel's stack. However, this would prevent the implementation strategy of assigning one zx_channel_iovec_t entry per out-of-line FIDL object.

In practice, it might be more performant to linearize in userspace when there are a large number of zx_channel_iovec_t, or at least avoid shifting work to the kernel. However, the 8192 limit is suggested for simplicity until it is known if further refinement is needed.

An implementation-level consequence of the higher limit is that the zx_channel_iovec_t array cannot entirely fit on the kernel stack. A stack buffer can be used for the common case, but it will need to be copied into a larger (and slower) buffer when there are sufficiently many entries.

Vectorized handles

It would be possible to have an equivalent of zx_channel_iovec_t for handles, or include them alongside bytes in the existing zx_channel_iovec_t. However, the benefits are more limited for handles because the handle array tends to be small. For simplicity, handles remain in a dedicated array.

Support for multiple messages in single write

A previous version of this RFC included a proposal for support for multiple messages in a single zx_channel_write call.

Three proposals were considered:

  • Flat representation: repurpose the reserved field on the zx_channel_iovec_t with two uint16_t fields: message_seq (which message the zx_channel_iovec_t is part of) and handle_count (the number of handles consumed by the bytes in buffer). The sequence numbers are constrained to be monotonic and have no gaps. This constraint enables a more performant kernel implementation, but can be weakened in the future if needed. This approach aligns with this RFC and multi-message support can be added to the existing structure.
  • Array-of-array representation: there is an outer array of messages, each with pointers into an inner array of iovecs per message. This is similar to the structure used in the Linux syscall sendmmsg and might be more familiar to users. While the performance of the array-of-array representation wasnt't measured, there is evidence that there could be a 5-25% overhead due to indirection (see CL).
  • Header-prefixed representation: the buffer begins with a header and is followed by the iovec array. The header consists of 16 message descriptors, each of which contains only the a uint16_t message_size field. This field determines the number of zx_channel_iovec_t entries associated with the message. This representation provides a hierarchical structure but eliminates the need for additional redirection and copying.

In design discussions, the flat representation was favored due to its performance properties and simplicity. While a full proposal for multi-message support is out of scope of this RFC, please note that this RFC is compatible with the flat representation.

Dedicated syscall for iovec

Instead of adding a new option to existing syscalls, zx_channel_write_iovec, zx_channel_write_etc_iovec, zx_channel_call_iovec and zx_channel_call_etc_iovec syscall could be created. However, an option is preferred to avoid an explosion in the number of syscalls and cognitive load on users.

zx_channel_iovec_t support in zx_channel_read

This RFC proposes support for zx_channel_iovec_t for channel writes, but not channel reads. The reason for this is that there is a clear motivation for iovecs on the write side - avoiding a FIDL linearization step - but there isn't a clear and immediate benefit on read side.

The Rust bindings could potentially benefit from read-side iovec support by partitioning the buffer into multiple smaller buffers each with its own ownership. This would facilitate a variant of the bindings similar to LLCPP that essentially casts buffers into output objects. However, there is no short-term plan to change the Rust bindings to work this way and there doesn't appear to be much cost to deferring adding support for read-path iovec until it is needed.

Prior art and references

Fuchsia has existing zx_stream_readv and zx_stream_writev system calls that use vectorized io. Linux also provides similar readv and writev system calls that respectively read and write to a file descriptor.