RFC-0085: Reducing the zx_status_t space

RFC-0085: Reducing the zx_status_t space
  • Kernel
  • System

Reduce the range of valid zx_status_t values, allowing the type to be more easily embedded in other types.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2020-10-09
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-04-08


This document proposes reducing the range of valid zx_status_t values from all 32-bit signed integers to the smaller range [-2^30, 0], and deprecating the use of application-defined error codes. This allows zx_status_t to be easily embedded as a subrange of other types.


zx_status_t is a simple error type used to communicate whether a particular action was successful or not. It is defined as being a signed 32-bit integer. The value ZX_OK (0) indicates an operation was successful. All other values indicate an error of some form, with both system-defined error codes (negative values) and application-defined error codes (positive values) being supported.

The zx_status_t type is used widely throughout Fuchsia. For example, it is used in the Zircon kernel (both internally and as the return value for syscalls); used in many FIDL protocols to indicate errors; used in several system libraries to report errors; and frequently used internally in pure application code as a convenient method of reporting errors between functions.

While the current definition of zx_status_t allows various different error conditions to be communicated, it is currently only able to communicate a single success value. Over time, Fuchsia developers have discovered several use-cases where it would be useful to communicate other non-error information back to the caller:

  • Non-error warnings: Some functions want to emit warnings, where a function was mostly successful, but with a potential problem. For example, a request to write to a buffer succeeded, but the buffer was smaller than the amount of data available.

  • Additional information about the state of an object: For example, kernel IPC primitives may wish to indicate that more data is pending after a read completes, or provide more fine grained threshold information on types like sockets.

  • Flow control: A common pattern in the kernel and system libraries is for callbacks to return either an error, the value ZX_ERR_STOP to indicate the callback should no longer be called, or ZX_ERR_NEXT to indicate the callback should continue to be called. These special values, despite not being errors per se, are currently assigned codes in the system-defined error space.

  • Communicating small payloads: Functions may wish to communicate small amounts of data as part of their result when the call is successful. For example, the current implementation of the zx_debuglog_read syscall naughtily uses the positive values of zx_status_t to return the number of bytes read into a buffer on success.

While all of these use-cases could theoretically be solved by using additional out parameters or more complex compound types, in certain performance-sensitive use cases, it would be more efficient if functions could have a simple integer/register return value that could handle the use cases above.

While in this document, we use the terms function and return code, the ideas apply similarly to FIDL calls, syscalls, and so on. Similarly, while this design gives examples in C++, the same ideas apply to other languages including C, Rust, and Go.


In this proposal, zx_status_t remains a signed 32-bit integer, and will continue to be defined as having a single success code ZX_OK (0). All other values should continue to be treated as errors.

However, we update the definition of zx_status_t so that:

  • The range of valid zx_status_t values is [-2^30, 0] (that is, -1073741824 to 0). All values in this range will be system-defined error codes or the single success code ZX_OK.

  • Application-defined error codes (currently defined as all positive zx_status_t values) are deprecated, as described below in "Backwards Compatibility".

By limiting the range of values a zx_status_t may take on, users are able to embed the range of zx_status_t values in another type without fear that error code values will overlap non-error return values. For example, a function may define a type result_or_count_t where negative values are defined to correspond to the zx_status_t error codes, while non-negative values correspond to a count of elements processed.

We require function implementers to define new types, and not just emit values in the unused parts of the zx_status_t space. This ensures that users of the function are clear what the function returns, and how it should be interpreted: if a function has the return type zx_status_t, users are guaranteed that ZX_OK is the only valid success value.


The following sections demonstrate how the different use cases above can be handled by assuming a limited range of zx_status_t.

Additional status information

Today, users of zx_channel_read can only determine there are no messages waiting by performing a failing read on a channel. Using this proposal, zx_channel_read could introduce a new return type that provides this "more messages are waiting" state as part of the return value, avoiding the extra syscall:

/// Keep reading messages until none remain on the channel.
do {
  // Read from the channel.
  zx_channel_read_result_t result =
      zx_channel_read(channel, buffer, /*options=*/ZX_GET_CHANNEL_STATE);

  // `zx_channel_read_result_t` defines negative values to correspond
  // to `zx_status_t` error codes.
  if (result < 0) {
    return static_cast<zx_status_t>(result);

  // Otherwise, the result is defined to be a bitmap indicating
  // the state of the channel.
} while ((result & ZX_CHANNEL_MORE_MESSAGES_WAITING) != 0);

Flow control

Instead of relying on the error codes ZX_ERR_NEXT and ZX_ERR_STOP (and relying on documentation to inform callers what codes need to be handled), a new type can be introduced that uses the non-negative space to indicate flow control:

// Negative values are zx_status_t error codes, while non-negative
// values must be one of the constants below.
using zx_iteration_status_t = int32_t;
constexpr int32_t ZX_ITERATION_CONTINUE = 0;
constexpr int32_t ZX_ITERATION_DONE = 1;

// ...

while (true) {
  zx_iteration_status_t result = Next(thing);
  if (result < 0) {
    return result;  // error
  if (result == ZX_ITERATION_DONE) {
  // ...

Mixing a payload into the response

zx_debuglog_read already uses the non-negative space to return a small payload (the number of bytes read), which currently violates the strict definition of zx_status_t. This proposal would allow zx_debuglog_read to define a new type that makes explicit how return values should be interpreted:

// Read the debug log. Returns a negative value on error, otherwise
// the number of bytes read from the debug log.
zx_debuglog_read_result_t result = zx_debuglog_read(buffer);
if (result < 0) {
  return result;  // error
print_log(/*buffer=*/buffer, /*size=*/result);

Application-defined error codes

Applications that wish to define their own error codes can continue to do so, but should define a type making it clear how the values should be interpreted:

enum ApplicationError {
  // ...

// Zero indicates success. Negative values map to `zx_status_t` error
// codes. Positive values map to `ApplicationError` error codes.
using app_status_t = int32_t;

Because zx_status_t only occupies the range [-2^30, 0], applications have the ability to use the range [-2^31, -2^30) for application-defined error codes if they so wish, freeing the positive space for other return codes if so desired.

Backwards compatibility

This proposal updates the valid range of zx_status_t to the values [-2^30, 0], all of which are system-defined. There are, however, a small set of applications currently using the positive space for application-specific codes.

As part of the implementation in this RFC, we will migrate in-tree users of positive status code to a new (non-zx_status_t) type.


Steps required to implement this RFC are as follows:

  • Update documentation (both Markdown docs and source comments) describing the semantics zx_status_t to match what is proposed in this spec.

  • Update the zx_debuglog_read syscall to use a custom (non-zx_status_t) type.

  • Update current users of the positive zx_status_t status range to use a new type that better describes what other errors are being produced.


First are the performance mechanisms of this encoding scheme per se. For most cases, the performance change should be small and marginal compared to other schemes for encoding this information. For system calls, which have either expensive or scarce parameters, there may be a mild positive performance improvement.

Second are the performance changes of system APIs changing to use the success-with-more-information scheme. Part of the motivation of this change is to communicate more information to userspace to allow it to make more sophisticated decisions, allowing for greater performance.

Overall, we expect the performance gains unlocked by the capability for system calls to communicate additional information will outweigh slightly more complex code evaluating status values.

Besides performance, this change and future changes using this capability may change code size in a number of binaries, especially in generated FIDL bindings.

Security considerations

Embedding the zx_status_t range into other types has the potential to cause confusion, and hence risks introducing software bugs. Functions or protocols that perform such an embedding should carefully evaluate if the benefits outweigh the risk of confusion.

Migrating functions with out-of-spec uses of zx_status_t and application-specific error codes to have more explicit types should reduce the chance of confusion.

Privacy considerations

This proposal does not interact with user data in a meaningful way and there should be no impact on privacy.


Unit tests will be developed for the few new functions described above.


In tree markdown documentation and in-code comments will be updated to reflect the new definition of zx_status_t.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

Drawback: zx_status_t values from untrusted sources and FIDL bindings

Currently we have no way to prevent out-of-range zx_status_t values from being transmitted over channels. Applications that receive zx_status_t values from untrusted sources and require them to be in range will need to manually validate them. Long term, it may be desirable to update the FIDL binding generators to check for and reject out-of-range zx_status_t values, though this will be work independent of this RFC.

Alternative: Kernel out parameters

Another design space for the kernel would be to use additional out arguments. This approach has several drawbacks:

Changing the type of these system calls is a much more invasive change, and would require a longer migration.

Either all of these system calls would need to have a variant with the out parameter, or have callers uninterested in the extra information pass in null. Both are ergonomic downgrades.

Using an out argument to convey a handful of bits of information is an inefficient use of a scarce and expensive resource, as it would consume one of a small number of registers (especially on x86_64), or be a quite expensive user_copy through a pointer.

Alternative: Leaving non-negative values of zx_status_t free to use

This proposal proposes limiting the range of valid zx_status_t values to assist with embedding the range in other types, but doesn't permit applications to use the unused range directly.

A previous proposal split the zx_status_t space, reserving negative values for errors and allowing functions to use non-negative values as desired. Allowing the reuse of the zx_status_t type for function-specific purposes has the benefit that it is easy for developers to start returning additional payloads from functions (no additional types need to be created), and also proved convenient for allowing kernel syscalls to start returning additional data to certain callers without breaking the ABI of existing callers.

The down side of this is that it becomes unclear what ranges of values a function may return by looking at their type alone. Additionally, widely-used idioms such as the following:

zx_status status = CallFunction();
if (status != ZX_OK) {
  return status;

would no longer be guaranteed correct if CallFunction uses the positive space of return codes.

The risk of confusion (and hence bugs) due to zx_status_t having many different possible interpretations led us to reject this alternative.

Alternative: Partitioning into error and success codes

Previous proposals have suggested partitioning zx_status_t into ranges of error codes and success codes, with each of those ranges further split into system-defined and application-defined ranges.

This split has a few downsides:

  • The utility of system-defined success codes is not clear: while error codes are frequently propagated up the call stack, success codes will tend to be either handled immediately or simply discarded. There is less need for a set of success codes with globally understood semantics.

  • Limiting positive values to simply success codes prevents other, more efficient uses of the value, such as returning a bitfield about the current state of an object, or returning small payloads such as the number of bytes.

  • Re-purposing the positive space for success codes requires migration of existing code that is currently using it for application-specific error codes.

Allowing the entire non-negative space to be used by each individual function reduces migration burden and offers developers more flexibility.

Prior art and references

  • The Linux kernel internally uses the negative range for errors, keeping the positive range for function-specific purposes. Most syscalls split this single value into a return code and thread-local errno variable at the syscall boundary.

  • The UEFI spec partitions its status space into negative values (errors), zero (success), and positive values (warnings). Both the error and warning ranges are further split into an "EFI reserved" range and an OEM range, using the second-most significant bit.

Version History

  • 2021-03-12: Removed part of the proposal suggesting a new error code indicating that an out-of-range zx_status_t value was received. Instead, in-tree code will be audited to remove such usages, and FIDL binding generators will be updated to avoid out-of-range values from propagating across process boundaries.

  • 2021-03-09: Modified the proposal to redefine the range of valid zx_status_t values to be [-2^30, 0]. This reduced range allows zx_status_t to more easily be embedded as a subrange of other types.

  • 2021-02-10: Modified the proposal to split negative values in zx_status_t between application errors and system errors, but to keep all non-negative values available for applications without further interpretation.

  • 2020-10-09: Initial proposal to split the zx_status_t error space into four partitions: application errors and system errors as negative values; while system success codes and application success codes would be the positive values. 0 would remain ZX_OK.