For a very long time I’ve been keeping an eye on rump kernels. These are a fancy way of saying ordinary kernel code which has been ported or altered in some way so you can link it to userspace programs, usually as a library. There have been claims that rump kernels make libguestfs obsolete, which is a load of nonsense for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute. But rump kernels are interesting and finally I’ve been able to add a rump kernel library to libguestfs.
The first time I encountered rump kernels was in 2010 with Prof. Renzo Davoli’s virtualsquare View-OS project. The more recent rump kernel project was based on NetBSD. Since NetBSD doesn’t use Linux drivers, but reimplementations, it was never very interesting. We couldn’t have included it in RHEL, and it would be only a matter of time before someone found an important feature or data-corrupting difference between the real ext2/3 driver from Linux and the reimplementation in BSD. Last I looked, NetBSD didn’t even support ext4. The choice of NetBSD made it a non-starter for us.
libos arrived earlier this year and, being based on Linux, was a lot more interesting, but their aim was only the Linux network stack so it wasn’t directly relevant to libguestfs, which is only concerned with disk and filesystem access.
However last week Richard Weinberger (Linux UML maintainer) CC’d me on a much more interesting project. LKL (Linux Kernel Library) is a relatively small patchset on top of Linux that turns Linux into a library. Quite literally you just link your program with
-llkl and you can start a Linux kernel and make Linux system calls. A few example programs can be found here.
Today I wrote a work-in-progress LKL backend for libguestfs. [Note for those keen to jump in and use it, it doesn’t do very much at the moment. There is a small to-do list. But it’s only a few hours more work to have it as a useful backend for libguestfs.]
What could an LKL-enabled libguestfs do? Well it could open a raw disk image that contains only a Linux filesystem, or possibly a partitioned disk image with a Linux filesystem. And it can do that very quickly – in about 0.03 seconds in my tests (compared to 2.5 seconds for the qemu-based libguestfs).
There are a long list of things that LKL cannot do however. It cannot open anything containing LVM (because LVM requires userspace tools, that would all have to be modified to use liblkl, and there would be all kinds of synchronization problems between the LVM-linked liblkl kernel and the libguestfs-linked kernel). It cannot run anything that requires a userspace tool. That includes
ntfs-3g (FUSE based), some MD devices, encrypted disks, dm-thinp and Windows Dynamic Disks.
It cannot create new LVs or filesystems or any of the other disk structures that libguestfs can create.
It cannot open disk formats like
qcow2 code in particular is very specific to qemu, and cannot possibly be ported to the kernel.
It cannot open remote devices like Ceph, Gluster, https, ssh or ftp (although there is an nbd client in the kernel, so one day that may be possible).
It cannot run commands in the context of the guest.
It’s also less secure than libguestfs with the qemu backend, because it doesn’t isolate your host from exploits in the guest or filesystem using virtualization and sVirt.
All of those things can be done by libguestfs today, but may never be possible (or only in limited cases) with LKL.
But within the limits of what LKL can do, it should become an excellent choice (assuming it gets upstream). Adding an LKL backend to libguestfs brings to the table the large, but clean and well-tested libguestfs API and the language bindings and virt tools, so libguestfs gives you the best of both worlds: the performance of LKL by using that backend, or the massive feature set of libguestfs by switching over to the qemu or libvirt backend, which for most programs is a single line code change.