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July 13th-16th, 2010
Ottawa Westin
Ottawa, Canada

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Transactional system calls on Linux

Donald Porter (

Have you ever had to manually back out an unsuccessful software install? Has a machine ever crashed on you while adding a user, leaving the group, password and shadow files inconsistent? Have you struggled to eliminated time-of-check-to-time-of-use (TOCTTOU) race conditions from an application? All of these problems have a single underlying cause: programmers cannot group multiple system calls into a single, consistent operation. If users (and kernel developers) had this power, there are a variety of innovative services they could build and problems they could eliminate. This talk describes system transactions and a variety of problems they could eliminate. We add system calls to begin, end, and abort a transaction. A system call that executes within a transaction is isolated from the rest of the system. The effects of a system transaction are undone if the transaction fails.

This talk describes a research project that developed transactional semantics for 150 Linux system calls and abstractions including signals, process creation, files, and pipes. This work eliminates many problems with historical systems that provided operating system transaction support, such as deadlock in the operating system. The talk also describes the practical challenges and trade-offs in implementing transactions in Linux. The code changes needed to support transactions are substantial, but so are the benefits. With no modifications to dpkg itself, we were able to wrap an installation of OpenSSH in a system transaction. The operating system rolls back failed installations automatically, preventing applications from observing inconsistent files during the installation, and preserving unrelated, concurrent updates to the file system. Overheads for using transactions in an application like software installation typically range from 10-70%

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