VMO Registration Pattern


When transferring bulk data between applications and peripheral hardware, it becomes important to minimize the number of copies the data goes through. For example, let us say an application would like to read a file from component persistent storage. In order to do so, the application makes a request to read the file to a filesystem, which in turn may need to send a request to a block device. Depending on the block partition topology, there may be several layers of drivers the request passes through before ultimately hitting a driver which can perform a read operation.

A naive approach to the above may result in sending FIDL messages over Zircon channels across every layer between the application and the hardware, resulting in many copies of the data. As this is inefficient, we don’t do this. Following a well established pattern found throughout the industry, we split our messages into two planes: a control plane and a data plane. Messages sent over the control plane are small and cheap to send, whereas messages in the data plane contain the bulk data which would be expensive to copy. Messages sent over the control plane generally use FIDL protocols built on top of Zircon channels. Messages in the data plane are sent via a shared memory primitive, Zircon VMOs.

With this in mind, a naive implementation may choose to create a new VMO for each transaction which gets transferred via the control plane until it reaches the driver issuing DMA, achieving the desired goal of zero copies between the application which placed the data in the VMO and the final driver. This however may not be sufficiently performant for the following two reasons:

  • In order to issue a DMA request, the memory must first be pinned, which requires calling into the kernel and optionally setting up page mappings in an IOMMU.
  • If the final driver needs to copy the request into a special buffer (as not all hardware supports DMA), it must either map the VMO into its process or call into the kernel in order to copy the memory.

Since both of these are costly we need a better approach: using pre-registered VMOs. This works by having the application send a one-time control message in order to register a VMO with the final driver in the stack. The response to this message returns an identifier which may be used to refer to the VMO in the future. Control messages should simply refer to this identifier rather than attaching a VMO handle. Upon registration, the final driver in the stack can perform the costly pinning or mapping operations once, and cache the results.

Notes on VMO Identifier

In order to ensure that we do not fall prey to confused deputy attacks, we must uphold the same invariants with respect to the VMO identifier as the kernel does with handles. In order to do this, the VMO identifier must be unique to the client at each layer, and each layer must validate that the identifier is valid. More specifically, using a koid as an identifier still requires that the server checks that a VMO with that koid was registered by the client.

In order to lower the number of round trips, it is possible to allow the client to name the VMO identifier as part of the registration API, allowing one-shot VMO usage to be efficient. Alternatively, the protocol can state that the VMO’s koid will always be used as the identifier.

Zircon FIFOs

In order to additionally improve performance, some protocols may also opt to use FIFOs for their control plane. FIFOs have reduced complexity allowing for lower overhead. One of their limitations is that they may not transfer handles. As a result, using the VMO registration pattern is a necessity in order to use FIFOs. (Note that a channel must still be used to perform the registration.)


This pattern potentially adds a lot of complexity to the driver which maintains the mappings between VMO and the identifier. A library has been created to aid the implementation, and lives under //src/lib/vmo_store. See //src/connectivity/network/drivers/network-device/device for example usage.

Downsides of the Pattern

For low-throughput situations, this pattern is unnecessarily complex and should likely be avoided.

VMO registration causes a one-shot operation to become 2 round trips. If one-shots are common, FIDL protocols should be sure to continue to allow for one-shot VMOs to be used in addition to pre-registered VMOs. This can also be mitigated by allowing the client to provide the identifier for the VMO during registration.

VMOs which are pre-registered may lead to “leaked” memory situations where a client keeps registering VMOs and forgets to unregister them. Additionally, if the server is not careful with managing its clients, it may forget to clean up registered VMOs belonging to a client which may have disconnected from the server.

VMOs which are pre-registered with a driver which pins the VMOs cause the pages backing the VMO to no longer be pageable.

Driver-Specific Considerations

Since some drivers reside in the same driver host process and we have a mini-driver pattern whereby we hoist common logic into a “core” driver, it might seem like the obvious thing to do would be to perform the VMO registration in the core driver rather than the device-specific driver. This however is not a good idea for the following reasons:

  • The core driver needs to be informed whether to perform pinning or mapping operations by the device-specific driver.
  • Pinning requires access to the bus transaction initiator (BTI) handle provided by the platform-bus or pci drivers. Passing a BTI handle up the driver stack is an anti-pattern.
  • In the case mapping is necessary, this means that raw buffers are passed over FIDL. This is an anti-pattern as it may no longer be possible without a copy in future iterations of in-process inter-driver communication.
  • In either case if the operation is asynchronous (which most are), then the core driver becomes responsible for ensuring that it doesn’t unpin/unmap the VMO while it’s still in use. This is particularly problematic in situations such as shutdown and suspend which aren’t as well tested.
  • In cases such as the block stack, the core driver is bound multiple times recursively in the same driver host. The core driver would need to be aware of whether it is bound directly to the driver which talks to hardware or a filter layer.