fuchsia starnix

Starnix is the code name of a Fuchsia project which proposes to run unmodified Linux programs. This is my take to understand what is needed to do in order for Fuchsia to run Linux programs, and how Linux runs programs itself. The main reference is RFC 0082 from Fuchsia, from which you definitely will benefit more.

A Tale of Two Alternatives

So, you want to run unmodified Linux programs in Fuchsia. You have two choices.

  • Mimicking Linux only when crossing the system boundary and running other instructions unmodified on the host
  • Creating a virtual machine which is able to emulate instructions of the binary you want to run on Linux

Coincidentally, the first approach is what WSL 1 takes to run Linux programs, and the second approach is what WSL 2 takes. The first one is an easy choice if you don’t need tight system integration. You don’t need to differentiate the guest kernel and the applications running on the guest kernel. You know, virtualization is a mature field. All you need to do is port the virtual machine monitor (hypervisor). After that, The case is settled for good.

Although the second way is much lightweight (you don’t need a scheduler within another scheduler), it has more stringent requirements. First, you will need the same ISA for the Linux program and the host machine. Second, you need to implement a ton of system interfaces (system calls, or API through system libraries like win32 API). If the upstream syscall interface changed, you need to keep up to date. Third, not only there are many syscalls to port, but also there are many unnamed conventions the Linux binaries expect the running host to satisfy. To name a few, ELF loader, dynamic interpreter, System V interface for process initialization, POSIX API, stdin/stdout conventions.

To summarize, it is a great price to pay for tight integration. So why fuchsia choose to implement this? And how does fuchsia implement the POSIX interface. I am not able to answer the first question (fuchsia actually implemented a hypervisor called Machina). As for the second one, follow me patiently.

A Detour through How Debugger Works

Ever wonder how a debugger can stop the execution of a debuggee and inspect the running status of the debuggee, and even change its control flow?

Here is the pseudocode of a Windows debugger. It is copied from How Windows Debuggers Work.

// Main User-Mode Debugger Loop //
CreateProcess("target.exe",..., DEBUG_PROCESS, ...);
while (1)
    WaitForDebugEvent(&event, ...);
    switch (event)
        case ModuleLoad:
        case TerminateProcess:
        case Exception (code breakpoint, single step, etc...):

The debugger first creates a new process with the flag DEBUG_PROCESS. With this on, the operating system will track the running status of the spawned process, and the debugger process is given special privilege over its child process. Whenever there is some notable event, the OS returns necessary data to the debugger process from WaitForDebugEvent.

The debugger can then do whatever it needs to facilitate debugging. For instance, it can not only read the memory pages of the debuggee, but also change the control flow, e.g. jump to another address and execute the instruction there.

Syscalls and How to Emulate Them in Userspace

The moral of the above story is that the operating system normally provides a way for one process to trace and modify the running status of another process. If we can “arbitrarily” modify the control flow of sub processes, we may be able to run foreign binaries.

System Calls

Ultimately, the programs running on an OS interferes with the OS by syscalls (some through an indirection a system library, e.g. Fuchsia uses vDSO, openbsd uses system libc).

Take read a file as an example, this ultimately attributes to three syscalls,

  • Userspace program proposes to open a file in the specified path, the kernel returns a file handle in the form of file descriptor.
  • Userspace program continues on by reading the file descriptor. The kernel writes the data it reads from block devices, and then

writes the bytes to the location the userspace program specified.

  • When the userspace program is done, it proposes to close the file descriptor. The kernel releases the related resources.

All the hardware resources is managed and utilized this way (almost, the userspace program can bypass the kernel in some situation). The kernel provides a unified abstraction, the userspace programs utilize this abstraction through the convention of syscalls.

How to Make a Syscall Manually

See Anatomy of a system call, part 1, Anatomy of a system call, part 2 and The Definitive Guide to Linux System Calls for details.

The gist is that programs put the required arguments in the specified register. It then runs instruction int 0x80 to raise a soft interruption. The CPU automatically dispatches this interruption to a registered interruption handler, which is a kernel-space procedure. The kernel space procedure then checks the syscall number and dispatches the call to a specialized handler.

How to Intercept Syscalls in Linux

In Linux, we can easily trace the syscalls made by a program with strace. strace is able to print out all the syscalls a program has called and all the return codes of those syscalls.

You might have wondered how strace can have the ability to inspect syscalls. We need the blessing of Linux kernel to do such thing. In order to obtain such blessing, strace needs to, you might have guessed, make a syscall, ptrace(2). ptrace(2) instructs the kernel to stop the execution of the program upon initializing a syscall. The tracer is then notified to take some actions. In the strace case, strace prints out the syscall arguments, and tells the kernel to continue executing syscalls. Just after the kernel finishes the syscall logic and before returns the control to the tracee, the kernel tells the tracer the return code, thus you can see the syscall returning code with strace.

How to Hijack Syscalls in Linux

As we have mentioned, the kernel is able to let userspace programs hook into syscalls. In order to fully emulate syscalls, the userspace program needs a few more privileges. For example, some syscalls need to write the result to the memory of the caller, an operation strictly forbidden in normal situation. The kernel needs to grant memory read and write permission to the tracing program. Fortunately, this is also doable with ptrace(2). Well, theoretically this is fantastic. Do we have any real world usage of user space syscalls dispatch? Yes.

User-mode Linux

User-mode Linux is an ancient poor man’s virtualization on Linux. It use ptrace(2) to implement a Linux on Linux. See User-mode Linux paper and kernel documentation for details.


A modern application is gVisor. According to its official website documentation,

gVisor is an application kernel, written in Go, that implements a substantial portion of the Linux system call interface. It provides an additional layer of isolation between running applications and the host operating system.

Quite mouthful, isn’t it? In gVisor-managed environments, safe syscalls from the applications are passed to the underlying kernel, while dangerous ones are censored by a mediator component called Sentry. Sentry passes the syscalls to the Platform, which emulates real syscalls. gVisor currently supports two platforms, ptrace and kvm. When the emulation is done, the results are delivered to user applications. In this way, gVisor provides greater isolation between applications, which is quite useful in container environment. Google cloud functions use gVisor to harden the system.

A New Mechanism to Dispatch Syscalls

Syscall user dispatch.

The Starnix Runner

Fuchsia already has the ability to run unmodified Linux binaries. See initial implementation here. The basic idea is already presented. We need a hook mechanism in the kernel to run specific handler when some exceptional events happened. Those kinds of exceptional events are called exceptions in Fuchsia.

When a thread encounters a fault condition, for example a segfault, execution is paused and the thread enters exception handling. Handlers that have registered to receive these exceptions are notified and given a chance to inspect or correct the condition.

We now dive into the details.

Hooks in the Kernel

As a matter of fact, fuchsia (more precisely, zircon, fuchsia’s kernel) provides system APIs through vDSO (which is great for binary compatibility and updatability, see P20 of these slides). When you invoke normal Linux syscalls in Fuchsia, exceptions are raised. Here is how zircon handles syscalls.

// Stamped out syscall veneer routine for every syscall. Try to maximize shared code by forcing
// most of the setup and teardown code into non-inlined preamble and postamble code.
template <typename T>
inline syscall_result do_syscall(uint64_t syscall_num, uint64_t pc, bool (*valid_pc)(uintptr_t),
                                 T make_call) {
  // Call the shared preamble code
  auto pre_ret = do_syscall_pre(syscall_num, pc);
  const uintptr_t vdso_code_address = pre_ret.vdso_code_address;
  ProcessDispatcher* current_process = pre_ret.current_process;

  // Validate the user space program counter originated from the vdso at the proper location,
  // otherwise call through to the invalid syscall handler
  uint64_t ret;
  if (unlikely(!valid_pc(pc - vdso_code_address))) {
    ret = sys_invalid_syscall(syscall_num, pc, vdso_code_address);
  } else {
    // Per syscall inlined routine to marshall args appropriately
    ret = make_call(current_process);

  // Call through to the shared postamble code
  return do_syscall_post(ret, syscall_num);

The line ret = sys_invalid_syscall(syscall_num, pc, vdso_code_address) saves the original syscall number, raises an exception. Then the kernel would suspend current thread and notify the registered exception handler.

Handlers in the Userspace

Here is the code snippet copied from fuchsia’s starnix runner.

/// Runs the given task.
/// The task is expected to already have been started. This function listens to
/// the exception channel for the process (`exceptions`) and handles each
///  exception by:
///   - verifying that the exception represents a `ZX_EXCP_POLICY_CODE_BAD_SYSCALL`
///   - reading the thread's registers
///   - executing the appropriate syscall
///   - setting the thread's registers to their post-syscall values
///   - setting the exception state to `ZX_EXCEPTION_STATE_HANDLED`
/// Once this function has completed, the process' exit code (if one is available) can be read from
/// `process_context.exit_code`.
fn run_task(mut current_task: CurrentTask, exceptions: zx::Channel) -> Result<i32, Error> {
    let mut buffer = zx::MessageBuf::new();
    loop {
        read_channel_sync(&exceptions, &mut buffer)?;

        let info = as_exception_info(&buffer);
        assert!(buffer.n_handles() == 1);
        let exception = zx::Exception::from(buffer.take_handle(0).unwrap());

        if info.type_ != ZX_EXCP_POLICY_ERROR {
            info!("exception type: 0x{:x}", info.type_);

        let thread = exception.get_thread()?;
            thread.get_koid() == current_task.thread.get_koid(),
            "Exception thread did not match task thread."

        let report = thread.get_exception_report()?;
        if report.context.synth_code != ZX_EXCP_POLICY_CODE_BAD_SYSCALL {
            info!("exception synth_code: {}", report.context.synth_code);

        let syscall_number = report.context.synth_data as u64;
        current_task.registers = thread.read_state_general_regs()?;

        let regs = &current_task.registers;
        let args = (regs.rdi, regs.rsi, regs.rdx, regs.r10, regs.r8, regs.r9);
            "{}({:#x}, {:#x}, {:#x}, {:#x}, {:#x}, {:#x})",
        match dispatch_syscall(&mut current_task, syscall_number, args) {
            Ok(SyscallResult::Exit(error_code)) => {
                strace!(current_task, "-> exit {:#x}", error_code);
                return Ok(error_code);
            Ok(SyscallResult::Success(return_value)) => {
                strace!(current_task, "-> {:#x}", return_value);
                current_task.registers.rax = return_value;
            Ok(SyscallResult::SigReturn) => {
                // Do not modify the register state of the thread. The sigreturn syscall has
                // restored the proper register state for the thread to continue with.
                strace!(current_task, "-> sigreturn");
            Err(errno) => {
                strace!(current_task, "!-> {}", errno);
                current_task.registers.rax = (-errno.value()) as u64;

        dequeue_signal(&mut current_task);

Sans a few setup work (see ELF loader, dynamic interpreter and process initialization below) and the actual dispatch logic, this is how starnix runs unmodified Linux binaries. The starnix runner first sets up an exception channel. and then runs a loop in which it waits for any message from the exception channel. When the data arrive at this channel, the runner first checks if this message is actually bad syscall exception. If so, the runner acquires the current registers state, then dispatches the original syscall number and its arguments to the user-defined functions. The actually implementations are scattered among different files named As an example, here is the link to sendto.

For a Few Dollars More

Although I have mentioned how starnix intercepts and hijacks normal Linux syscalls. There are still quite a few things omitted for Linux programs running normally.

More Syscalls

There are quite a few syscalls to reimplement. Linux offers many syscalls, most of which require a reimplementation. Some syscalls like gettimeofday need only stateless shims, while some require starnix to save state internally. For example, you may not want other process to access your file descriptor. When starnix opens a file on the Linux binaries’ behave, it needs to keep track of the ownership of handles. Some syscalls are performance critical. Any implementation needs careful measurement. Memory access is an example.

ELF Loader and Dynamic Interpreter

Programs do not automagically run on a platform. The platform needs to do a few setup work. The first thing it needs to do is load the program from disk to memory. This is what the ELF loader does. The ELF loader for fuchsia is implemented here. To complicate things further, not all programs are self-contained. Some of them require a symbol resolution at runtime. After the program is loaded into memory. Depending on whether the program has a PT_INTERP segment, the runner may run the dynamic interpreter first. The interpreter resolves symbols in the dynamically linked binaries and then jumps to the entry point address (which is available from the auxiliary vector AT_ENTRY, see below) of this program.

Process Initialization

On Linux, the kernel does a few setup works for the programs which is quite different from the process initialization logic of Fuchsia. For example, the Linux kernel set up the stack for the binaries, and then push some auxiliary vector, environment variables, argv and argc onto the stack (See System V x86 psABIs, How programs get run and How programs get run: ELF binaries for details), while on Fuchsia leverages processargs protocol to pass initial environmental information to the binary. The environmental information may be in a quite different format. Here is the shim to this.

let stack = stack_base + (stack_size - 8);

let creds =;
let auxv = vec![
    (AT_UID, creds.uid as u64),
    (AT_EUID, creds.euid as u64),
    (AT_GID, creds.gid as u64),
    (AT_EGID, creds.egid as u64),
    (AT_BASE, interp_elf.map_or(0, |interp| interp.file_base as u64)),
    (AT_PHDR, main_elf.file_base.wrapping_add(main_elf.headers.file_header().phoff) as u64),
    (AT_PHNUM, main_elf.headers.file_header().phnum as u64),
    (AT_ENTRY, main_elf.vaddr_bias.wrapping_add(main_elf.headers.file_header().entry) as u64),
    (AT_SECURE, 0),
let stack = populate_initial_stack(&stack_vmo, argv, environ, auxv, stack_base, stack)?;

It is immediately clear that what is populated to the initial stack from the parameter names.

Other Conventions

There are many other implicit conventions Linux programs rely on. For example, if you can’t open stdout/stderr on your system, I expect more than 50% of the programs will crash immediately.

  • Posix Compatibility

    • Many libraries
    • system(3)
    • Posix threads

Alien Interfaces

Some Interfaces are alien to Fuchsia (there are not any counterparts in fuchsia). These are the things which requires more consideration.

  • kill
  • Async Signal
  • Linux Futex


Run Rabbit Run


Given all those hints on Android apex and Android’s effort to modularize its system components, I wonder how long it will be till we have Android system components on Fuchsia and when the ART runner will be ready.