Bootstrap Contexts

In OS X kernel programming, the term context has several meanings that appear similar on the surface, but differ subtly.

First, the term context can refer to a BSD process or Mach task. Switching from one process to another is often referred to as a context switch.

Second, context can refer to the part of the operating system in which your code resides. Examples of this include thread contexts, the interrupt context, the kernel context, an application’s context, a Carbon File Manager context, and so on. Even for this use of the term, the exact meaning depends, ironically, on the context in which the term is used.

Finally, context can refer to a bootstrap context. In Mach, the bootstrap task is assigned responsibility for looking up requests for Mach ports. As part of this effort, each Mach task is registered in one of two groups—either in the startup context or a user’s login context. (In theory, Mach can support any number of independent contexts, however the use of additional contexts is beyond the scope of this document.)

For the purposes of this chapter, the term context refers to a bootstrap context.

When OS X first boots, there is only the top-level context, which is generally referred to as the startup context. All other contexts are subsets of this context. Basic system services that rely on Mach ports must be started in this context in order to work properly.

When a user logs in, the bootstrap task creates a new context called the login context. Programs run by the user are started in the login context. This allows the user to run a program that provides an alternate port lookup mechanism if desired, causing that user’s tasks to get a different port when the tasks look up a basic service. This has the effect of replacing that service with a user-defined version in a way that changes what the user’s tasks see, but does not affect any of the rest of the system.

To avoid wasting memory, currently the login context is destroyed when the user logs out (or shortly thereafter). This behavior may change in the future, however. In the current implementation, programs started by the user will no longer be able to look up Mach ports after logout. If a program does not need to do any port lookup, it will not be affected. Other programs will terminate, hang, or behave erratically.

For example, in Mac OS 10.1 and earlier, sshd continues to function when started from a user context. However, since it is unable to communicate with lookupd or netinfo, it stops accepting passwords. This is not a particularly useful behavior.

Other programs such as esound, however, continue to work correctly after logout when started from a user context. Other programs behave correctly in their default configuration but fail in other configurations—for example, when authentication support is enabled.

There are no hard and fast rules for which programs will continue to operate after their bootstrap context is destroyed. Only thorough testing can tell you whether any given program will misbehave if started from a user context, since even programs that do not appear to directly use Mach communication may still do so indirectly.

In OS X v10.2, a great deal of effort has gone into making sure that programs that use only standard BSD services and functions do not use Mach lookups in a way that would fail if started from a user context. If you find an application that breaks when started from a window, please file a bug report.

How Contexts Affect Users

From the perspective of a user, contexts are generally unimportant as long as they do not want a program to survive past the end of their login session.

Contexts do become a problem for the administrator, however. For example, if the administrator upgrades sshd by killing the old version, starting the new one, and logging out, strange things could happen since the context in which sshd was running no longer exists.

Contexts also pose an issue for users running background jobs with nohup or users detaching terminal sessions using screen. There are times when it is perfectly reasonable for a program to survive past logout, but by default, this does not occur.

There are three basic ways that a user can get around this. In the case of daemons, they can modify the startup scripts to start the application. On restart, the application will be started in the startup context. This is not very practical if the computer in question is in heavy use, however. Fortunately, there are other ways to start services in a startup context.

The second way to run a service in the startup context is to use ssh to connect to the computer. Since sshd is running in the startup context, programs started from an ssh session also register themselves in the startup context. (Note that a user can safely kill the main sshd process without being logged out. The user just needs to be careful to kill the right one.)

The third way is to log in as the console user (>console), which causes LoginWindow to exit and causes init to spawn a getty process on the console. Since init spawns getty, which spawns login, which spawns the user’s shell, any programs started from the text console will be in the startup context.

More generally, any process that is the child of a process in the startup context (other than those inherited by init because their parent process exited) is automatically in the startup context. Any process that is the child of a process in the login context is, itself, in the login context. This means that daemons can safely fork children at any time and those children will be in the startup context, as will programs started from the console (not the Console application). This also means that any program started by a user in a terminal window, from Finder, from the Dock, and so on, will be in the currently logged in user’s login context, even if that user runs the application using su or sudo.

How Contexts Affect Developers

If you are writing only kernel code, contexts are largely irrelevant (unless you are creating a new context, of course). However, kernel developers frequently need to write a program that registers itself in the startup context in order to provide some level of driver communication. For example, you could write a user-space daemon that brokers configuration information for a sound driver based on which user is logged in at the time.

In the most general case, the problem of starting an application in the startup context can be solved by creating a startup script for your daemon, which causes it to be run in the startup context after the next reboot. However, users generally do not appreciate having to reboot their computers to install a new driver. Asking the user to connect to their own computer with ssh to execute a script is probably not reasonable, either.

The biggest problem with forcing a reboot, of course, is that users often install several programs at once. Rebooting between each install inconveniences the end user, and has no other benefit. For that reason, you should not force the user to restart. Instead, you should offer the user the option, noting that the software may not work correctly until the user restarts. While this does not solve the fundamental problem, it does at least minimize the most common source of complaints.

There are a number of ways to force a program to start in the startup context without rebooting or using ssh. However, these are not robust solutions, and are not recommended. A standard API for starting daemons is under consideration. When an official API becomes available, this chapter will be updated to discuss it.