Thursday, 25 March 2010


So why are we developing KBUS, rather than using some other messaging system?

(I'm going to assume you've seen the previous blog items on KBUS, and/or read the KBUS documentation on its Google code page.)

Our background

We work primarily in the embedded world, specifically on Set-Top Boxes (STBs). As such, typical software elements include video and audio decoders (or the interfaces to them, if this is done by hardware), user interface via remote control or keyboard, and some form of GUI, typically a web browser.

Clearly, some mechanism is required to provide communication between all of these elements.

We have had experience of bad solutions in the past - their flaws include such things as race conditions (for instance, when a browser crashes, it cannot reliably resume communication with the other processes it needs to liaise with), unreliable implementations (frustrating when one is not allowed to fix them) and poor documentation (well, some of that was fixable).


We thus set out with the following aims for our solution:

  • Simple models to "think with", so that we can have a well understood system.
  • Predictable delivery.
  • Always get a reply to a request.
  • Messages (on a particular bus) are in the same order for all recipients.
  • Small implementation size.
  • Base code available in C (C++, for instance, is not always available on the platforms we work with).
  • Good usability from Python (well, that was my requirement)
  • We'd really prefer an open source package, and we definitely want one that is actively maintained.

and that didn't really seem to leave us with an option other than writing it ourselves.

Simple models

Names for things

We've striven for simple names for things:

  • KBUS devices are the buses over which communication happens.

  • Ksocks are the connections to those buses. The name is meant to suggest they are a bit like sockets, but not quite.

    (I'm not actually terribly happy with "Ksock", but it's difficult to come up with good names for things, and it's better than the working name of "Elephant" that I was using for a short while in early development.)

  • The basic messaging entities are Senders, Listeners and Repliers - one should already be able to guess what they do.

  • The basic types of messages are Announcements, Requests, Replies - again, these should be fairly obvious.

  • Message names are defined fairly simply, with (we hope) just enough flexibility, and the parts of a message (to and from, in_reply_to, etc.) are hopefully not too hard to understand from their names.

  • I'm sorry about Limpets.


There are three levels of interface provided:

  1. The "bare Unix" level.

    We use a kernel module to provide our devices, which are named as /dev/kbus0 (for bus 0), /dev/kbus1 (for bus 1), and so on.

    Ksocks are then implemented with file operations - open, read, write, close and IOCTLs), with which experienced Unix programmers should already be familiar,

  2. The Python API. This was written as the primary testing API, and works with classes that match the main named things. I believe this to be fairly easy to use. I also use it as the main way of illustrating how KBUS works.

  3. The C library. This hides the details of the "bare Unix" level, and also removes the worry about handling such things as ernno when using IOTCLs. It is intended to be the normal means of using KBUS from C, and should also be useful when writing interfaces in other languages (which can typically call C).

The KBUS kernel module

Using a kernel module means that:

  • We can have a file interface, which makes KBUS easier to use.
  • We can have a real expectation of our "daemon" not crashing (it is much easier to write a kernel module that is reliable, partly because there are so many constraints on how one does it, partly because one is executing in a different context, and partly because kernel mechanisms mediate the modules interaction with user space).
  • We get to use relatively sophisticated and proven datastructures. Kernel modules are expected to use the provided mechanisms for handling lists and other datatypes. This avoids a lot of reinventing the wheel, or dependency on other libraries which might not be present.
  • The kernel hides a lot of the complicated stuff (both at the top and bottom level) from us, so we can't do it wrong (well, it's much harder). For instance, read and write at the user level get filtered down into more predictable calls at the kernel module level.
  • We stand to gain from the kernel handling such issues as multiple CPUs, threading and so on.


In order to keep KBUS itself simple, KBUS does not say anything about the message content. It restricts itself to defining the message header and the mechanisms for managing messages.

(We do have a nearly finished ASN.1 library for message data, and are looking at XMPP support, but these will be extras, not core KBUS. And, of course, one can use other mechanisms as one wishes.)

As indicated in the section on naming, the fields in the header aim to be easy to understand, and we try to define just the fields we need.

Predictable delivery

It is acceptable for a Listener to miss messages (although there are ways around that), but a Replier shall never miss the Requests sent to it.

We also want to guarantee that each Request shall produce a Reply (even if it is a Reply indicating failure to deliver the Request).


  • If a sender attempts to send a Request, but does not have room on its message queue for the (corresponding) Reply, then the message will not be sent, and the send will fail. At the "bare Unix" level, this means that the send IOCTL returns an error - the failure is immediate.

  • If a replier cannot receive a particular message, because its queue is full, then the message will not be sent, and the send will fail with an error. Again, this failure is immediate.

  • If a message has the ALL_OR_FAIL flag set, then a send will only succeed if the message could be added to all the (intended) recipient’s message queues (listeners as well). Otherwise, send returns -EBUSY.

  • If a message has the ALL_OR_WAIT flag set, then a send will only succeed if the message could be added to all the (intended) recipient’s message queues (listeners as well). Otherwise send returns -EAGAIN.

    (The sender then needs to discard the message, or play the poll/select game to wait for the send to finish).

Note that we believe these last two mechanisms are primarily of use when debugging systems.


"""KBUS guarantees that each Request will (eventually) be matched by a consequent Reply (or Status) message, and only one such."""

If the replier can't give a Reply, KBUS will generate one (e.g., "$.KBUS.Replier.Unbound" or "$.KBUS.ReplierGoneAway").

Message order is the same for all

It is important that if sender A sends message M(a), and sender B sends message M(b), then all recipients of both messages will see them in the same order.

(Imagine sending instructions to a video decoder and a video recorder. Clearly both may need to receive the same instructions, and it is important to receive the instructions in the appropriate order.

Similarly, consider a logging Listener. This too clearly wants to receive messages in the same order as the other Listeners. It especially wants to see Requests and Replies in the appropriate order.)

Since KBUS (the kernel module) has control over both ends of the transactions, this is fairly simple to guarantee.

Why not use?

What else could we have used?

There appear to be two main things we could have considered, DBUS and zeromq.


I've not spent an awful lot of time looking at DBUS, but my initial thoughts are that:

  • I don't understand it. Its documentation seems to show an over complex model, with no quick way in to understanding it, and a wish to split things into as many levels as possible.
  • It is socket oriented (not a kernel module), which is probably the best approach for a user-space daemon, but
  • it is in user-space, with the problems that can entail.
  • I am told it is not all reliable...
  • ...or even all implemented
  • Perhaps most importantly, it doesn't preserve message ordering.
  • It is large.

But it is widely used (hmm) and has been around quite a while.

zeromq / 0mq

zeromq (or 0mq) looks rather nice. It has good introductions, and seems to have a clear idea of what its aims are, in particular aiming for speed and scalability.

Its messages are minimalistic in strucure (a name and then content), which is really rather nice. It is also very cross platform, both in the "implemented on" sense, and in the "available for language X" sense.

It doesn't appear to b e aiming for the sort of "predicability" we're after (or so I deduce from a scan of the documentation). And it is written in C++, which rules it out for some prospective platforms.

However, this looks like one it would be fun to play with, and I definitely need to learn more about it.

(It's very tempting to think about it as a potential means of moving KBUS messages over networks, for instance.)

What else?

I must have missed systems that I really should know about.

(Although note I'm ignoring many "enterprise space" systems, which often do seek guarantees of delivery, but at the cost of being an enterprise system.)

1 comment:

Kim SJ said...

The LinuxMCE project seems to have some sort of related mechanism, see I've not worked out exactly how similar their functionality is, if at all!

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