Mach Overview

The fundamental services and primitives of the OS X kernel are based on Mach 3.0. Apple has modified and extended Mach to better meet OS X functional and performance goals.

Mach 3.0 was originally conceived as a simple, extensible, communications microkernel. It is capable of running as a stand–alone kernel, with other traditional operating-system services such as I/O, file systems, and networking stacks running as user-mode servers.

However, in OS X, Mach is linked with other kernel components into a single kernel address space. This is primarily for performance; it is much faster to make a direct call between linked components than it is to send messages or do remote procedure calls (RPC) between separate tasks. This modular structure results in a more robust and extensible system than a monolithic kernel would allow, without the performance penalty of a pure microkernel.

Thus in OS X, Mach is not primarily a communication hub between clients and servers. Instead, its value consists of its abstractions, its extensibility, and its flexibility. In particular, Mach provides

Mach Kernel Abstractions

Mach provides a small set of abstractions that have been designed to be both simple and powerful. These are the main kernel abstractions:

At the trap level, the interface to most Mach abstractions consists of messages sent to and from kernel ports representing those objects. The trap-level interfaces (such as mach_msg_overwrite_trap) and message formats are themselves abstracted in normal usage by the Mach Interface Generator (MIG). MIG is used to compile procedural interfaces to the message-based APIs, based on descriptions of those APIs.

Tasks and Threads

OS X processes and POSIX threads (pthreads) are implemented on top of Mach tasks and threads, respectively. A thread is a point of control flow in a task. A task exists to provide resources for the threads it contains. This split is made to provide for parallelism and resource sharing.

A thread

A task

Note that a task has no life of its own—only threads execute instructions. When it is said that “task Y does X,” what is really meant is that “a thread contained within task Y does X.”

A task is a fairly expensive entity. It exists to be a collection of resources. All of the threads in a task share everything. Two tasks share nothing without an explicit action (although the action is often simple) and some resources (such as port receive rights) cannot be shared between two tasks at all.

A thread is a fairly lightweight entity. It is fairly cheap to create and has low overhead to operate. This is true because a thread has little state information (mostly its register state). Its owning task bears the burden of resource management. On a multiprocessor computer, it is possible for multiple threads in a task to execute in parallel. Even when parallelism is not the goal, multiple threads have an advantage in that each thread can use a synchronous programming style, instead of attempting asynchronous programming with a single thread attempting to provide multiple services.

A thread is the basic computational entity. A thread belongs to one and only one task that defines its virtual address space. To affect the structure of the address space or to reference any resource other than the address space, the thread must execute a special trap instruction that causes the kernel to perform operations on behalf of the thread or to send a message to some agent on behalf of the thread. In general, these traps manipulate resources associated with the task containing the thread. Requests can be made of the kernel to manipulate these entities: to create them, delete them, and affect their state.

Mach provides a flexible framework for thread–scheduling policies. Early versions of OS X support both time-sharing and fixed-priority policies. A time-sharing thread’s priority is raised and lowered to balance its resource consumption against other time-sharing threads.

Fixed-priority threads execute for a certain quantum of time, and then are put at the end of the queue of threads of equal priority. Setting a fixed priority thread’s quantum level to infinity allows the thread to run until it blocks, or until it is preempted by a thread of higher priority. High priority real-time threads are usually fixed priority.

OS X also provides time constraint scheduling for real-time performance. This scheduling allows you to specify that your thread must get a certain time quantum within a certain period of time.

Mach scheduling is described further in Mach Scheduling and Thread Interfaces.

Ports, Port Rights, Port Sets, and Port Namespaces

With the exception of the task’s virtual address space, all other Mach resources are accessed through a level of indirection known as a port. A port is an endpoint of a unidirectional communication channel between a client who requests a service and a server who provides the service. If a reply is to be provided to such a service request, a second port must be used. This is comparable to a (unidirectional) pipe in UNIX parlance.

In most cases, the resource that is accessed by the port (that is, named by it) is referred to as an object. Most objects named by a port have a single receiver and (potentially) multiple senders. That is, there is exactly one receive port, and at least one sending port, for a typical object such as a message queue.

The service to be provided by an object is determined by the manager that receives the request sent to the object. It follows that the kernel is the receiver for ports associated with kernel-provided objects and that the receiver for ports associated with task-provided objects is the task providing those objects.

For ports that name task-provided objects, it is possible to change the receiver of requests for that port to a different task, for example by passing the port to that task in a message. A single task may have multiple ports that refer to resources it supports. For that matter, any given entity can have multiple ports that represent it, each implying different sets of permissible operations. For example, many objects have a name port and a control port (sometimes called the privileged port). Access to the control port allows the object to be manipulated; access to the name port simply names the object so that you can obtain information about it or perform other non-privileged operations against it.

Tasks have permissions to access ports in certain ways (send, receive, send-once); these are called port rights. A port can be accessed only via a right. Ports are often used to grant clients access to objects within Mach. Having the right to send to the object’s IPC port denotes the right to manipulate the object in prescribed ways. As such, port right ownership is the fundamental security mechanism within Mach. Having a right to an object is to have a capability to access or manipulate that object.

Port rights can be copied and moved between tasks via IPC. Doing so, in effect, passes capabilities to some object or server.

One type of object referred to by a port is a port set. As the name suggests, a port set is a set of port rights that can be treated as a single unit when receiving a message or event from any of the members of the set. Port sets permit one thread to wait on a number of message and event sources, for example in work loops.

Traditionally in Mach, the communication channel denoted by a port was always a queue of messages. However, OS X supports additional types of communication channels, and these new types of IPC object are also represented by ports and port rights. See the section Interprocess Communication (IPC), for more details about messages and other IPC types.

Ports and port rights do not have systemwide names that allow arbitrary ports or rights to be manipulated directly. Ports can be manipulated by a task only if the task has a port right in its port namespace. A port right is specified by a port name, an integer index into a 32-bit port namespace. Each task has associated with it a single port namespace.

Tasks acquire port rights when another task explicitly inserts them into its namespace, when they receive rights in messages, by creating objects that return a right to the object, and via Mach calls for certain special ports (mach_thread_self, mach_task_self, and mach_reply_port.)

Memory Management

As with most modern operating systems, Mach provides addressing to large, sparse, virtual address spaces. Runtime access is made via virtual addresses that may not correspond to locations in physical memory at the initial time of the attempted access. Mach is responsible for taking a requested virtual address and assigning it a corresponding location in physical memory. It does so through demand paging.

A range of a virtual address space is populated with data when a memory object is mapped into that range. All data in an address space is ultimately provided through memory objects. Mach asks the owner of a memory object (a pager) for the contents of a page when establishing it in physical memory and returns the possibly modified data to the pager before reclaiming the page. OS X includes two built-in pagers—the default pager and the vnode pager.

The default pager handles nonpersistent memory, known as anonymous memory. Anonymous memory is zero-initialized, and it exists only during the life of a task. The vnode pager maps files into memory objects. Mach exports an interface to memory objects to allow their contents to be contributed by user-mode tasks. This interface is known as the External Memory Management Interface, or EMMI.

The memory management subsystem exports virtual memory handles known as named entries or named memory entries. Like most kernel resources, these are denoted by ports. Having a named memory entry handle allows the owner to map the underlying virtual memory object or to pass the right to map the underlying object to others. Mapping a named entry in two different tasks results in a shared memory window between the two tasks, thus providing a flexible method for establishing shared memory.

Beginning in OS X v10.1, the EMMI system was enhanced to support “portless” EMMI. In traditional EMMI, two Mach ports were created for each memory region, and likewise two ports for each cached vnode. Portless EMMI, in its initial implementation, replaces this with direct memory references (basically pointers). In a future release, ports will be used for communication with pagers outside the kernel, while using direct references for communication with pagers that reside in kernel space. The net result of these changes is that early versions of portless EMMI do not support pagers running outside of kernel space. This support is expected to be reinstated in a future release.

Address ranges of virtual memory space may also be populated through direct allocation (using vm_allocate). The underlying virtual memory object is anonymous and backed by the default pager. Shared ranges of an address space may also be set up via inheritance. When new tasks are created, they are cloned from a parent. This cloning pertains to the underlying memory address space as well. Mapped portions of objects may be inherited as a copy, or as shared, or not at all, based on attributes associated with the mappings. Mach practices a form of delayed copy known as copy-on-write to optimize the performance of inherited copies on task creation.

Rather than directly copying the range, a copy-on-write optimization is accomplished by protected sharing. The two tasks share the memory to be copied, but with read-only access. When either task attempts to modify a portion of the range, that portion is copied at that time. This lazy evaluation of memory copies is an important optimization that permits simplifications in several areas, notably the messaging APIs.

One other form of sharing is provided by Mach, through the export of named regions. A named region is a form of a named entry, but instead of being backed by a virtual memory object, it is backed by a virtual map fragment. This fragment may hold mappings to numerous virtual memory objects. It is mappable into other virtual maps, providing a way of inheriting not only a group of virtual memory objects but also their existing mapping relationships. This feature offers significant optimization in task setup, for example when sharing a complex region of the address space used for shared libraries.

Interprocess Communication (IPC)

Communication between tasks is an important element of the Mach philosophy. Mach supports a client/server system structure in which tasks (clients) access services by making requests of other tasks (servers) via messages sent over a communication channel.

The endpoints of these communication channels in Mach are called ports, while port rights denote permission to use the channel. The forms of IPC provided by Mach include

The type of IPC object denoted by the port determines the operations permissible on that port, and how (and whether) data transfer occurs.

There are two fundamentally different Mach APIs for raw manipulation of ports—the mach_ipc family and the mach_msg family. Within reason, both families may be used with any IPC object; however, the mach_ipc calls are preferred in new code. The mach_ipc calls maintain state information where appropriate in order to support the notion of a transaction. The mach_msg calls are supported for legacy code but deprecated; they are stateless.

IPC Transactions and Event Dispatching

When a thread calls mach_ipc_dispatch, it repeatedly processes events coming in on the registered port set. These events could be an argument block from an RPC object (as the results of a client’s call), a lock object being taken (as a result of some other thread’s releasing the lock), a notification or semaphore being posted, or a message coming in from a traditional message queue.

These events are handled via callouts from mach_msg_dispatch. Some events imply a transaction during the lifetime of the callout. In the case of a lock, the state is the ownership of the lock. When the callout returns, the lock is released. In the case of remote procedure calls, the state is the client’s identity, the argument block, and the reply port. When the callout returns, the reply is sent.

When the callout returns, the transaction (if any) is completed, and the thread waits for the next event. The mach_ipc_dispatch facility is intended to support work loops.

Message Queues

Originally, the sole style of interprocess communication in Mach was the message queue. Only one task can hold the receive right for a port denoting a message queue. This one task is allowed to receive (read) messages from the port queue. Multiple tasks can hold rights to the port that allow them to send (write) messages into the queue.

A task communicates with another task by building a data structure that contains a set of data elements and then performing a message-send operation on a port for which it holds send rights. At some later time, the task with receive rights to that port will perform a message-receive operation.

A message may consist of some or all of the following:

  • pure data

  • copies of memory ranges

  • port rights

  • kernel implicit attributes, such as the sender’s security token

The message transfer is an asynchronous operation. The message is logically copied into the receiving task, possibly with copy-on-write optimizations. Multiple threads within the receiving task can be attempting to receive messages from a given port, but only one thread can receive any given message.


Semaphore IPC objects support wait, post, and post all operations. These are counting semaphores, in that posts are saved (counted) if there are no threads currently waiting in that semaphore’s wait queue. A post all operation wakes up all currently waiting threads.


Like semaphores, notification objects also support post and wait operations, but with the addition of a state field. The state is a fixed-size, fixed-format field that is defined when the notification object is created. Each post updates the state field; there is a single state that is overwritten by each post.


A lock is an object that provides mutually exclusive access to a critical section. The primary interfaces to locks are transaction oriented (see IPC Transactions and Event Dispatching). During the transaction, the thread holds the lock. When it returns from the transaction, the lock is released.

Remote Procedure Call (RPC) Objects

As the name implies, an RPC object is designed to facilitate and optimize remote procedure calls. The primary interfaces to RPC objects are transaction oriented (see IPC Transactions and Event Dispatching)

When an RPC object is created, a set of argument block formats is defined. When an RPC (a send on the object) is made by a client, it causes a message in one of the predefined formats to be created and queued on the object, then eventually passed to the server (the receiver). When the server returns from the transaction, the reply is returned to the sender. Mach tries to optimize the transaction by executing the server using the client’s resources; this is called thread migration.

Time Management

The traditional abstraction of time in Mach is the clock, which provides a set of asynchronous alarm services based on mach_timespec_t. There are one or more clock objects, each defining a monotonically increasing time value expressed in nanoseconds. The real-time clock is built in, and is the most important, but there may be other clocks for other notions of time in the system. Clocks support operations to get the current time, sleep for a given period, set an alarm (a notification that is sent at a given time), and so forth.

The mach_timespec_t API is deprecated in OS X. The newer and preferred API is based on timer objects that in turn use AbsoluteTime as the basic data type. AbsoluteTime is a machine-dependent type, typically based on the platform-native time base. Routines are provided to convert AbsoluteTime values to and from other data types, such as nanoseconds. Timer objects support asynchronous, drift-free notification, cancellation, and premature alarms. They are more efficient and permit higher resolution than clocks.