How device file in Linux works

A device file in Linux is an interface for various devices in the form of files. Although we can read and write a device file just the same as a normal file, read and write requests to device control requests by device file mechanism.

This article explains how Linux kernel and kernel modules convert read and write requests to device control requests. Because a device file depends on both a device driver and file system, I start this article with a chapter on a device driver and then file system. Finally, I show how the file system connects a device file with a device driver.

I wrote this article mainly using Understanding the Linux Kernel, 3rd Edition and

Table of contents

Device driver

A device driver is a collection of kernel routines. Each routine corresponds to one Virtual File System (VFS) operation, which I will explain later.

Example of device driver

I show a small but complete example of device driver below. This example is composed of read_write.c and Makefile. These two files are from Johannes4Linux/Linux_Driver_Tutorial/03_read_write.

/ *read_write.c * /
#include <linux/cdev.h>
#include <linux/fs.h>
#include <linux/init.h>
#include <linux/module.h>
#include <linux/uaccess.h>


#define DRIVER_MAJOR 333
#define DRIVER_NAME "read_write_driver"

static ssize_t driver_read(struct file *File, char *user_buffer, size_t count,
                           loff_t *offs) {
  user_buffer[0] = 'A';
  return 1;

static ssize_t driver_write(struct file *File, const char *user_buffer,
                            size_t count, loff_t *offs) {
  return 1;

static int driver_open(struct inode *device_file, struct file *instance) {
  printk("read_write_driver - open was called!\n");
  return 0;

static int driver_close(struct inode *device_file, struct file *instance) {
  printk("read_write_driver - close was called!\n");
  return 0;

static struct file_operations fops = {.open = driver_open,
                                      .release = driver_close,
                                      .read = driver_read,
                                      .write = driver_write};

static int __init ModuleInit(void) {
  printk("read_write_driver - ModuleInit was called!\n");
  register_chrdev(DRIVER_MAJOR, DRIVER_NAME, &fops);
  return 0;

static void __exit ModuleExit(void) {
  printk("read_write_driver - ModuleExit was called!\n");
  unregister_chrdev(DRIVER_MAJOR, DRIVER_NAME);

# Makefile
obj-m += read_write.o

    make -C /lib/modules/$(shell uname -r)/build M=$(PWD) modules

    make -C /lib/modules/$(shell uname -r)/build M=$(PWD) clean

Use the below commands to build and install this example device driver example to your Linux. Then, you can read infinite A from the device file.

$ make
$ sudo insmod read_write.ko
$ sudo mknod /dev/read_write c 333 1
$ cat /dev/read_write

What we can see in read_write.c

We can see in ``read_write.c`:

Because cat /dev/read_write calls driver_read of this device driver, infinite As are read from it.


insmod(8) is a command to load a kernel module into the Linux kernel. In this section, I explain how sudo insmod read_write.ko load read_write.ko into the kernel.

insmod in user space

strace(1) shows insmod(8) calls finit_module(2) system call.

# strace insmod read_write.ko
openat(AT_FDCWD, "/home/akira/misc/linux-device-file/driver_for_article/read_write.ko", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
read(3, "\177ELF\2\1", 6)               = 6
lseek(3, 0, SEEK_SET)                   = 0
newfstatat(3, "", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0664, st_size=6936, ...}, AT_EMPTY_PATH) = 0
mmap(NULL, 6936, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE, 3, 0) = 0x7fc8aae77000
finit_module(3, "", 0)                  = 0
munmap(0x7fc8aae77000, 6936)            = 0
close(3)                                = 0
exit_group(0)                           = ?
+++ exited with 0 +++

insmod in kernel space

finit_module(2) is defined in Linux kernel at kernel/module/main.c#29l6.

SYSCALL_DEFINE3(finit_module, int, fd, const char __user *, uargs, int, flags)

finit_module(2) calls do_init_module which initialise the kernel module.

 * This is where the real work happens.
 * Keep it uninlined to provide a reliable breakpoint target, e.g. for the gdb
 * helper command 'lx-symbols'.
static noinline int do_init_module(struct module *mod)

do_init_module calls ModuleInit in the device driver through ret = do_one_initcall(mod->init);.

    /* Start the module */
    if (mod->init != NULL)
        ret = do_one_initcall(mod->init);
    if (ret < 0) {
        goto fail_free_freeinit;

__apply_relocate_add set mod->init. This function process relocation information in the kernel module as we can infer from its name. Although I tried to understand the relationship between relocation information in the kernel module and mod->init by inserting many printk, I failed. Please tell me if you know it.

static int __apply_relocate_add(Elf64_Shdr *sechdrs,
           const char *strtab,
           unsigned int symindex,
           unsigned int relsec,
           struct module *me,
           void *(*write)(void *dest, const void *src, size_t len))

ModuleInit, called through mod->init, calls __register_chrdev and kobj_map. kobj_map register the kernel module device to cdev_map. This is the end of loading process of the kernel module.

int kobj_map(struct kobj_map *domain, dev_t dev, unsigned long range,
         struct module *module, kobj_probe_t *probe,
         int (*lock)(dev_t, void *), void *data)
    for (i = 0, p -= n; i < n; i++, p++, index++) {
        struct probe **s = &domain->probes[index % 255];
        while (*s && (*s)->range < range)
            s = &(*s)->next;
        p->next = *s;
        *s = p;


This section explains “file” of “device file”.

VFS(Virtual File System)

VFS is a software layer in the Linux kernel that handles all standard UNIX filesystem system calls. It offers open(2), close(2), write(2) and etc. Owing to this software layer, users can use the same software for different file systems such as ext4, NFS, proc. For example, cat(1) can do both cat /proc/self/maps and cat ./ However, cat /proc/self/maps shows memory map, and cat ./ shows a part of the disk.

VFS is implemented in an objected-oriented way using struct and function pointers.


inode object in VFS is an object that represents “normal files”. It is defined in include/linux/fs.h.

struct inode {
    umode_t         i_mode;
    unsigned short      i_opflags;
    kuid_t          i_uid;
    kgid_t          i_gid;
    unsigned int        i_flags;
  union {
        struct pipe_inode_info  *i_pipe;
        struct cdev     *i_cdev;
        char            *i_link;
        unsigned        i_dir_seq;

Other objects in VFS are superblock object which holds information of the filesystem itself, file objects which have information of opened file and process, d entry objects which have information on directories.

inode of normal files

stat(1) shows the inode information of the file, which corresponds to struct inode.

> stat
  Size: 20              Blocks: 8          IO Block: 4096   regular file
Device: fd01h/64769d    Inode: 49676330    Links: 1
Access: (0664/-rw-rw-r--)  Uid: ( 1000/   akira)   Gid: ( 1000/   akira)
Access: 2023-01-28 11:19:15.104727788 +0900
Modify: 2023-01-28 11:19:13.748734093 +0900
Change: 2023-01-28 11:19:13.748734093 +0900
 Birth: 2023-01-28 11:19:13.748734093 +0900

inode of device files

Because a device file is just a file, it has inode also. To find device files on your computer, you can use ls -il. Character device files start with c, and block device files starts with b.

> ls -il /dev/nvme0*
201 crw------- 1 root root 240, 0  1月 29 19:02 /dev/nvme0
319 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 259, 0  1月 29 19:02 /dev/nvme0n1
320 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 259, 1  1月 29 19:02 /dev/nvme0n1p1
321 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 259, 2  1月 29 19:02 /dev/nvme0n1p2
322 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 259, 3  1月 29 19:02 /dev/nvme0n1p3
> stat /dev/nvme0n1
  File: /dev/nvme0n1
  Size: 0               Blocks: 0          IO Block: 4096   block special file
Device: 5h/5d   Inode: 319         Links: 1     Device type: 103,0
Access: (0660/brw-rw----)  Uid: (    0/    root)   Gid: (    6/    disk)
Access: 2023-01-28 10:03:26.964000726 +0900
Modify: 2023-01-28 10:03:26.960000726 +0900
Change: 2023-01-28 10:03:26.960000726 +0900
 Birth: -

Connect device driver and device file


mknod(1) is a command to make a special file such as a character device file or a block device file. I made /dev/read_write using sudo mknod /dev/read_write c 333 1 in Example of device driver. mknod(2) is a system call used in mknod(1) and used to make a node on filesystems.

mknod in user space

Let’s check how mknod(2) are called using strace(1). I show the output of strace mknod /dev/read_write c 333 1 below. Because 0x14d is 333 in decimal,mknod(2) make an inode with 333 major number and 1 minor number.

As a side note, mknod(2) and mknodat(2) are almost the same. The only difference is mknod(2) takes a relative path, although mknodat(2) takes an absolute path.

# strace mknod /dev/read_write c 333 1
close(3)                                = 0
mknodat(AT_FDCWD, "/dev/read_write", S_IFCHR|0666, makedev(0x14d, 0x1)) = 0
close(1)                                = 0
close(2)                                = 0
exit_group(0)                           = ?
+++ exited with 0 +++

mknod in kernel space

mknodat(2) in kernel space starts from do_mknodat. From now, I follow all code relating to the connection between a device file and a device driver. From now, the device is a character device, and the filesystem is ext4 for simplicity.

static int do_mknodat(int dfd, struct filename *name, umode_t mode,
        unsigned int dev)

do_mknodat calls vfs_mknod in fs/namei.c#L3970-L3972 to make a character device or a block device.

        case S_IFCHR: case S_IFBLK:
            error = vfs_mknod(mnt_userns, path.dentry->d_inode,
                      dentry, mode, new_decode_dev(dev));

vfs_mknod is defined at fs/namei.c#L3874-L3891.

 * vfs_mknod - create device node or file
 * @mnt_userns: user namespace of the mount the inode was found from
 * @dir:    inode of @dentry
 * @dentry: pointer to dentry of the base directory
 * @mode:   mode of the new device node or file
 * @dev:    device number of device to create
 * Create a device node or file.
 * If the inode has been found through an idmapped mount the user namespace of
 * the vfsmount must be passed through @mnt_userns. This function will then take
 * care to map the inode according to @mnt_userns before checking permissions.
 * On non-idmapped mounts or if permission checking is to be performed on the
 * raw inode simply passs init_user_ns.
int vfs_mknod(struct user_namespace *mnt_userns, struct inode *dir,
          struct dentry *dentry, umode_t mode, dev_t dev)

vfs_mknod calls mknod of dentry. Although implementation of mknod are different depending on filesystems, we follow mknod of ext4 in this article. vfs_mknod calls mknod at fs/namei.c#L3915.

    error = dir->i_op->mknod(mnt_userns, dir, dentry, mode, dev);

mknod of ext4 is defined at fs/ext4/namei.c#L4191.

const struct inode_operations ext4_dir_inode_operations = {
    .mknod      = ext4_mknod,

ext4_mknod is defined at fs/ext4/namei.c#L2830-L2862. init_special_inode may have something to do with device initilization.

static int ext4_mknod(struct user_namespace *mnt_userns, struct inode *dir,
              struct dentry *dentry, umode_t mode, dev_t rdev)
        init_special_inode(inode, inode->i_mode, rdev);

For character devices, def_chr_fops is set at fs/inode.c#L2291-L2309.

void init_special_inode(struct inode *inode, umode_t mode, dev_t rdev)
    inode->i_mode = mode;
    if (S_ISCHR(mode)) {
        inode->i_fop = &def_chr_fops;
        inode->i_rdev = rdev;
    } else if (S_ISBLK(mode)) {

def_chr_fops is defined at fs/char_dev.c#L447-L455.

 * Dummy default file-operations: the only thing this does
 * is contain the open that then fills in the correct operations
 * depending on the special file...
const struct file_operations def_chr_fops = {
    .open = chrdev_open,
    .llseek = noop_llseek,

chrdev_open searches device driver in kobj_lookup defined at fs/char_dev.c#L370-L424.

 * Called every time a character special file is opened
static int chrdev_open(struct inode *inode, struct file *filp)
        kobj = kobj_lookup(cdev_map, inode->i_rdev, &idx);

Finally, we reached kobj_map which we have seen in insmod. drivers/base/map.c#L95-L133 connects a device driver to a device file.

struct kobject *kobj_lookup(struct kobj_map *domain, dev_t dev, int *index)
    struct kobject *kobj;
    struct probe *p;
    unsigned long best = ~0UL;

    for (p = domain->probes[MAJOR(dev) % 255]; p; p = p->next) {
        struct kobject *(*probe)(dev_t, int *, void *);
        struct module *owner;
        void *data;

        if (p->dev > dev || p->dev + p->range - 1 < dev)
        if (p->range - 1 >= best)
        if (!try_module_get(p->owner))
        owner = p->owner;
        data = p->data;
        probe = p->get;
        best = p->range - 1;
        *index = dev - p->dev;
        if (p->lock && p->lock(dev, data) < 0) {
        kobj = probe(dev, index, data);
        /* Currently ->owner protects _only_ ->probe() itself. */
        if (kobj)
            return kobj;
        goto retry;
    return NULL;

At last, I confirm my understanding by patching the Linux kernel. I added a printk at drivers/base/map.c#L114-L115, installed custom kernel and made a device driver just same as Example of device driver.

> git diff --patch "device-file-experiment~1"
diff --git a/drivers/base/map.c b/drivers/base/map.c
index 83aeb09ca161..57037223932e 100644
--- a/drivers/base/map.c
+++ b/drivers/base/map.c
@@ -111,6 +111,8 @@ struct kobject *kobj_lookup(struct kobj_map *domain, dev_t dev, int *index)
                if (!try_module_get(p->owner))
+               printk("%s:%d MAJOR(dev)=%u MINOR(dev)=%u\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, MAJOR(dev), MINOR(dev));
                owner = p->owner;
                data = p->data;
                probe = p->get;

I show the dmesg -wH result when cat /dev/read_write. You can see that read_write_driver is called when cat(2) open /dev/read_write.

# dmesg -wH
[ +18.898110] drivers/base/map.c:115 MAJOR(dev)=136 MINOR(dev)=2
[ +10.920752] drivers/base/map.c:115 MAJOR(dev)=136 MINOR(dev)=3
[  +9.170364] loop0: detected capacity change from 0 to 8
[  +1.212845] drivers/base/map.c:115 MAJOR(dev)=333 MINOR(dev)=1
[  +0.000010] read_write_driver - open was called!
[  +2.141643] read_write_driver - close was called!



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