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Date:   Mon, 15 Nov 2021 14:59:57 +0100
From:   Lukas Bulwahn <>
To:     Alexander Popov <>
Cc:     Linus Torvalds <>,
        Jonathan Corbet <>,
        Paul McKenney <>,
        Andrew Morton <>,
        Thomas Gleixner <>,
        Peter Zijlstra <>,
        Joerg Roedel <>,
        Maciej Rozycki <>,
        Muchun Song <>,
        Viresh Kumar <>,
        Robin Murphy <>,
        Randy Dunlap <>,
        Lu Baolu <>,
        Petr Mladek <>,
        Kees Cook <>,
        Luis Chamberlain <>, Wei Liu <>,
        John Ogness <>,
        Andy Shevchenko <>,
        Alexey Kardashevskiy <>,
        Christophe Leroy <>,
        Jann Horn <>,
        Greg Kroah-Hartman <>,
        Mark Rutland <>,
        Andy Lutomirski <>,
        Dave Hansen <>,
        Steven Rostedt <>,
        Will Deacon <>,
        Ard Biesheuvel <>,
        Laura Abbott <>,
        David S Miller <>,
        Borislav Petkov <>, Arnd Bergmann <>,
        Andrew Scull <>,
        Marc Zyngier <>, Jessica Yu <>,
        Iurii Zaikin <>,
        Rasmus Villemoes <>,
        Wang Qing <>, Mel Gorman <>,
        Mauro Carvalho Chehab <>,
        Andrew Klychkov <>,
        Mathieu Chouquet-Stringer <>,
        Daniel Borkmann <>,
        Stephen Kitt <>, Stephen Boyd <>,
        Thomas Bogendoerfer <>,
        Mike Rapoport <>,
        Bjorn Andersson <>,
        Kernel Hardening <>,,
        "open list:DOCUMENTATION" <>,
        linux-arch <>,
        Linux Kernel Mailing List <>,
        linux-fsdevel <>,,,,, Shuah Khan <>
Subject: Re: [PATCH v2 0/2] Introduce the pkill_on_warn parameter

On Sat, Nov 13, 2021 at 7:14 PM Alexander Popov <> wrote:
> On 13.11.2021 00:26, Linus Torvalds wrote:
> > On Fri, Nov 12, 2021 at 10:52 AM Alexander Popov <> wrote:
> >>
> >> Hello everyone!
> >> Friendly ping for your feedback.
> >
> > I still haven't heard a compelling _reason_ for this all, and why
> > anybody should ever use this or care?
> Ok, to sum up:
> Killing the process that hit a kernel warning complies with the Fail-Fast
> principle [1]. pkill_on_warn sysctl allows the kernel to stop the process when
> the **first signs** of wrong behavior are detected.
> By default, the Linux kernel ignores a warning and proceeds the execution from
> the flawed state. That is opposite to the Fail-Fast principle.
> A kernel warning may be followed by memory corruption or other negative effects,
> like in CVE-2019-18683 exploit [2] or many other cases detected by the SyzScope
> project [3]. pkill_on_warn would prevent the system from the errors going after
> a warning in the process context.
> At the same time, pkill_on_warn does not kill the entire system like
> panic_on_warn. That is the middle way of handling kernel warnings.
> Linus, it's similar to your BUG_ON() policy [4]. The process hitting BUG_ON() is
> killed, and the system proceeds to work. pkill_on_warn just brings a similar
> policy to WARN_ON() handling.
> I believe that many Linux distros (which don't hit WARN_ON() here and there)
> will enable pkill_on_warn because it's reasonable from the safety and security
> points of view.
> And I'm sure that the ELISA project by the Linux Foundation (Enabling Linux In
> Safety Applications [5]) would support the pkill_on_warn sysctl.
> [Adding people from this project to CC]
> I hope that I managed to show the rationale.

Alex, officially and formally, I cannot talk for the ELISA project
(Enabling Linux In Safety Applications) by the Linux Foundation and I
do not think there is anyone that can confidently do so on such a
detailed technical aspect that you are raising here, and as the
various participants in the ELISA Project have not really agreed on
such a technical aspect being one way or the other and I would not see
that happening quickly. However, I have spent quite some years on the
topic on "what is the right and important topics for using Linux in
safety applications"; so here are my five cents:

One of the general assumptions about safety applications and safety
systems is that the malfunction of a function within a system is more
critical, i.e., more likely to cause harm to people, directly or
indirectly, than the unavailability of the system. So, before
"something potentially unexpected happens"---which can have arbitrary
effects and hence effects difficult to foresee and control---, it is
better to just shutdown/silence the system, i.e., design a fail-safe
or fail-silent system, as the effect of shutdown is pretty easily
foreseeable during the overall system design and you could think about
what the overall system does, when the kernel crashes the usual way.

So, that brings us to what a user would expect from the kernel in a
safety-critical system: Shutdown on any event that is unexpected.

Here, I currently see panic_on_warn as the closest existing feature to
indicate any event that is unexpected and to shutdown the system. That
requires two things for the kernel development:

1. Allow a reasonably configured kernel to boot and run with
panic_on_warn set. Warnings should only be raised when something is
not configured as the developers expect it or the kernel is put into a
state that generally is _unexpected_ and has been exposed little to
the critical thought of the developer, to testing efforts and use in
other systems in the wild. Warnings should not be used for something
informative, which still allows the kernel to continue running in a
proper way in a generally expected environment. Up to my knowledge,
there are some kernels in production that run with panic_on_warn; so,
IMHO, this requirement is generally accepted (we might of course
discuss the one or other use of warn) and is not too much to ask for.

2. Really ensure that the system shuts down when it hits warn and
panic. That requires that the execution path for warn() and panic() is
not overly complicated (stuffed with various bells and whistles).
Otherwise, warn() and panic() could fail in various complex ways and
potentially keep the system running, although it should be shut down.
Some people in the ELISA Project looked a bit into why they believe
panic() shuts down a system but I have not seen a good system analysis
and argument why any third person could be convinced that panic()
works under all circumstances where it is invoked or that at least,
the circumstances under which panic really works is properly
documented. That is a central aspect for using Linux in a
reasonably-designed safety-critical system. That is possibly also
relevant for security, as you might see an attacker obtain information
because it was possible to "block" the kernel shutting down after
invoking panic() and hence, the attacker could obtain certain
information that was only possible because 1. the system got into an
inconsistent state, 2. it was detected by some check leading to warn()
or panic(), and 3. the system's security engineers assumed that the
system must have been shutting down at that point, as panic() was
invoked, and hence, this would be disallowing a lot of further
operations or some specific operations that the attacker would need to
trigger in that inconsistent state to obtain information.

To your feature, Alex, I do not see the need to have any refined
handling of killing a specific process when the kernel warns; stopping
the whole system is the better and more predictable thing to do. I
would prefer if systems, which have those high-integrity requirements,
e.g., in a highly secure---where stopping any unintended information
flow matters more than availability---or in fail-silent environments
in safety systems, can use panic_on_warn. That should address your
concern above of handling certain CVEs as well.

In summary, I am not supporting pkill_on_warn. I would support the
other points I mentioned above, i.e., a good enforced policy for use
of warn() and any investigation to understand the complexity of
panic() and reducing its complexity if triggered by such an

Of course, the listeners and participants in the ELISA Project are
very, very diverse and still on a steep learning curve, i.e., what
does the kernel do, how complex are certain aspects in the kernel, and
what are reasonable system designs that are in reach for
certification. So, there might be some stakeholders in the ELISA
Project that consider availability of a Linux system safety-critical,
i.e., if the system with a Linux kernel is not available, something
really bad (harmful to people) happens. I personally do not know how
these stakeholders could (ever) argue the availability of a complex
system with a Linux kernel, with the availability criteria and the
needed confidence (evidence and required methods) for exposing anyone
to such system under our current societal expectations on technical
systems (you would to need show sufficient investigation of the
kernel's availability for a certification), but that does not stop
anyone looking into it... Those stakeholders should really speak for
themselves, if they see any need for such a refined control of
"something unexpected happens" (an invocation of warn) and more
generally what features from the kernel are needed for such systems.


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