User Space Drivers

Controlling Hardware From User Space

Much of the documentation for SPDK talks about user space drivers, so it's important to understand what that means at a technical level. First and foremost, a driver is software that directly controls a particular device attached to a computer. Second, operating systems segregate the system's virtual memory into two categories of addresses based on privilege level - kernel space and user space. This separation is aided by features on the CPU itself that enforce memory separation called protection rings. Typically, drivers run in kernel space (i.e. ring 0 on x86). SPDK contains drivers that instead are designed to run in user space, but they still interface directly with the hardware device that they are controlling.

In order for SPDK to take control of a device, it must first instruct the operating system to relinquish control. This is often referred to as unbinding the kernel driver from the device and on Linux is done by writing to a file in sysfs. SPDK then rebinds the driver to one of two special device drivers that come bundled with Linux - uio or vfio. These two drivers are "dummy" drivers in the sense that they mostly indicate to the operating system that the device has a driver bound to it so it won't automatically try to re-bind the default driver. They don't actually initialize the hardware in any way, nor do they even understand what type of device it is. The primary difference between uio and vfio is that vfio is capable of programming the platform's IOMMU, which is a critical piece of hardware for ensuring memory safety in user space drivers. See Direct Memory Access (DMA) From User Space for full details.

Once the device is unbound from the operating system kernel, the operating system can't use it anymore. For example, if you unbind an NVMe device on Linux, the devices corresponding to it such as /dev/nvme0n1 will disappear. It further means that filesystems mounted on the device will also be removed and kernel filesystems can no longer interact with the device. In fact, the entire kernel block storage stack is no longer involved. Instead, SPDK provides re-imagined implementations of most of the layers in a typical operating system storage stack all as C libraries that can be directly embedded into your application. This includes a block device abstraction layer primarily, but also block allocators and filesystem-like components.

User space drivers utilize features in uio or vfio to map the PCI BAR for the device into the current process, which allows the driver to perform MMIO directly. The SPDK NVMe Driver, for instance, maps the BAR for the NVMe device and then follows along with the NVMe Specification to initialize the device, create queue pairs, and ultimately send I/O.


SPDK polls devices for completions instead of waiting for interrupts. There are a number of reasons for doing this: 1) practically speaking, routing an interrupt to a handler in a user space process just isn't feasible for most hardware designs, 2) interrupts introduce software jitter and have significant overhead due to forced context switches. Operations in SPDK are almost universally asynchronous and allow the user to provide a callback on completion. The callback is called in response to the user calling a function to poll for completions. Polling an NVMe device is fast because only host memory needs to be read (no MMIO) to check a queue pair for a bit flip and technologies such as Intel's DDIO will ensure that the host memory being checked is present in the CPU cache after an update by the device.


NVMe devices expose multiple queues for submitting requests to the hardware. Separate queues can be accessed without coordination, so software can send requests to the device from multiple threads of execution in parallel without locks. Unfortunately, kernel drivers must be designed to handle I/O coming from lots of different places either in the operating system or in various processes on the system, and the thread topology of those processes changes over time. Most kernel drivers elect to map hardware queues to cores (as close to 1:1 as possible), and then when a request is submitted they look up the correct hardware queue for whatever core the current thread happens to be running on. Often, they'll need to either acquire a lock around the queue or temporarily disable interrupts to guard against preemption from threads running on the same core, which can be expensive. This is a large improvement from older hardware interfaces that only had a single queue or no queue at all, but still isn't always optimal.

A user space driver, on the other hand, is embedded into a single application. This application knows exactly how many threads (or processes) exist because the application created them. Therefore, the SPDK drivers choose to expose the hardware queues directly to the application with the requirement that a hardware queue is only ever accessed from one thread at a time. In practice, applications assign one hardware queue to each thread (as opposed to one hardware queue per core in kernel drivers). This guarantees that the thread can submit requests without having to perform any sort of coordination (i.e. locking) with the other threads in the system.