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/dev/hello_world: A Simple Introduction to Device Drivers under Linux

by Valerie Henson

Since the misty days of yore, the first step in learning a new programming language has been writing a program that prints "Hello, world!" (See the Hello World Collection for a list of more than 300 "Hello, world!" examples.) In this article, we will use the same approach to learn how to write simple Linux kernel modules and device drivers. We will learn how to print "Hello, world!" from a kernel module three different ways: printk(), a /proc file, and a device in /dev.

Preparation: Installing Kernel Module Compilation Requirements

For the purposes of this article, a kernel module is a piece of kernel code that can be dynamically loaded and unloaded from the running kernel. Because it runs as part of the kernel and needs to interact closely with it, a kernel module cannot be compiled in a vacuum. It needs, at minimum, the kernel headers and configuration for the kernel it will be loaded into. Compiling a module also requires a set of development tools, such as a compiler. For simplicity, we will briefly describe how to install the requirements to build a kernel module using Debian, Fedora, and the "vanilla" Linux kernel in tarball form. In all cases, you must compile your module against the source for the running kernel (the kernel executing on your system when you load the module into your kernel).

A note on kernel source location, permissions, and privileges: the kernel source customarily used to be located in /usr/src/linux and owned by root. Nowadays, it is recommended that the kernel source be located in a home directory and owned by a non-root user. The commands in this article are all run as a non-root user, using sudo to temporarily gain root privileges only when necessary. To setup sudo, see the sudo(8), visudo(8), and sudoers(5) main pages. Alternatively, become root, and run all the commands as root if desired. Either way, you will need root access to follow the instructions in this article.

Preparation for Compiling Kernel Modules Under Debian

The module-assistant package for Debian installs packages and configures the system to build out-of-kernel modules. Install it with:

$ sudo apt-get install module-assistant

That's it; you can now compile kernel modules. For further reading, the Debian Linux Kernel Handbook has an in-depth discussion on kernel-related tasks in Debian.

Fedora Kernel Source and Configuration

The kernel-devel package for Fedora has a package that includes all the necessary kernel headers and tools to build an out-of-kernel module for a Fedora-shipped kernel. Install it with:

$ sudo yum install kernel-devel

Again, that's all it takes; you can now compile kernel modules. Related documentation can be found in the Fedora release notes.

Vanilla Kernel Source and Configuration

If you choose to use the vanilla Linux kernel source, you must configure, compile, install, and reboot into your new vanilla kernel. This is definitely not the easy route and this article will only cover the very basics of working with vanilla kernel source.

The canonical Linux source code is hosted at The most recent stable release is linked to from the front page. Download the full source release, not the patch. For example, the current stable release is located at For faster download, find the closest mirror from the list at, and download from there. The easiest way to get the source is using wget in continue mode. HTTP is rarely blocked, and if your download is interrupted, it will continue where it left off.

$ wget -c "<version>.tar.bz2"

Unpack the kernel source:

$ tar xjvf linux-<version>.tar.bz2

Now your kernel is located in linux-<version>/. Change directory into your kernel and configure it:

$ cd linux-<version>
$ make menuconfig

A number of really nice make targets exist to automatically build and install a kernel in many forms: Debian package, RPM package, gzipped tar, etc. Ask the make system for help to list them all:

$ make help

A target that will work on almost every distro is:

$ make tar-pkg

When finished building, install your new kernel with:

$ sudo tar -C / -xvf linux-<version>.tar

Then create a symbolic link to the source tree in the standard location:

$ sudo ln -s <location of top-level source directory> /lib/modules/'uname -r'/build

Now the kernel source is ready for compiling external modules. Reboot into your new kernel before loading modules compiled against this source tree.

"Hello, World!" Using printk()

For our first module, we'll start with a module that uses the kernel message facility, printk(), to print "Hello, world!". printk() is basically printf() for the kernel. The output of printk() is printed to the kernel message buffer and copied to /var/log/messages (with minor variations depending on how syslogd is configured).

Download the hello_printk module tarball and extract it:

$ tar xzvf hello_printk.tar.gz

This contains two files: Makefile, which contains instructions for building the module, and hello_printk.c, the module source file. First, we'll briefly review the Makefile.

obj-m := hello_printk.o

obj-m is a list of what kernel modules to build. The .o and other objects will be automatically built from the corresponding .c file (no need to list the source files explicitly).

KDIR  := /lib/modules/$(shell uname -r)/build

KDIR is the location of the kernel source. The current standard is to link to the associated source tree from the directory containing the compiled modules.

PWD := $(shell pwd)

PWD is the current working directory and the location of our module source files.

    $(MAKE) -C $(KDIR) M=$(PWD) modules

default is the default make target; that is, make will execute the rules for this target unless it is told to build another target instead. The rule here says to run make with a working directory of the directory containing the kernel source and compile only the modules in the $(PWD) (local) directory. This allows us to use all the rules for compiling modules defined in the main kernel source tree.

Now, let's run through the code in hello_printk.c.

#include <linux/init.h>
#include <linux/module.h>

This includes the header files provided by the kernel that are required for all modules. They include things like the definition of the module_init() macro, which we will see later on.

static int __init
        printk("Hello, world!\n");
        return 0;

This is the module initialization function, which is run when the module is first loaded. The __init keyword tells the kernel that this code will only be run once, when the module is loaded. The printk() line writes the string "Hello, world!" to the kernel message buffer. The format of printk() arguments is, in most cases, identical to that of printf(3).


The module_init() macro tells the kernel which function to run when the module first starts up. Everything else that happens inside a kernel module is a consequence of what is set up in the module initialization function.

static void __exit
        printk("Goodbye, world!\n");


Similarly, the exit function is run once, upon module unloading, and the module_exit() macro identifies the exit function. The __exit keyword tells the kernel that this code will only be executed once, on module unloading.

MODULE_AUTHOR("Valerie Henson <>");
MODULE_DESCRIPTION("\"Hello, world!\" minimal module");

MODULE_LICENSE() informs the kernel what license the module source code is under, which affects which symbols (functions, variables, etc.) it may access in the main kernel. A GPLv2 licensed module (like this one) can access all the symbols. Certain module licenses will taint the kernel, indicating that non-open or untrusted code has been loaded. Modules without a MODULE_LICENSE() tag are assumed to be non-GPLv2 and will result in tainting the kernel. Most kernel developers will ignore bug reports from tainted kernels because they do not have access to all the source code, which makes debugging much more difficult. The rest of the MODULE_*() macros provide useful identifying information about the module in a standard format.

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