asciicast

Introduction

Android Binder is an inter-process communication (IPC) mechanism. It is heavily used in all Android devices. The binder kernel driver has been present in the upstream Linux kernel for quite a while now.

Binder has been a controversial patchset (see this lwn article as an example). Its design was considered wrong and to violate certain core kernel design principles (e.g. a task should never touch another tasks file descriptor table). Most kernel developers were not a fan of binder.

Recently, the upstream binder code has fortunately been reworked significantly (e.g. it does not touch another tasks file descriptor table anymore, the locking is very fine-grained now, etc.).

With Android being one of the major operating systems (OS) for a vast number of devices there is simply no way around binder.

The Android Service Manager

The binder IPC mechanism is accessible from userspace through device nodes located at /dev. A modern Android system will allocate three device nodes:

  • /dev/binder
  • /dev/hwbinder
  • /dev/vndbinder

serving different purposes. However, the logic is the same for all three of them. A process can call open(2) on those device nodes to receive an fd which it can then use to issue requests via ioctl(2)s. Android has a service manager which is used to translate addresses to bus names and only the address of the service manager itself is well-known. The service manager is registered through an ioctl(2) and there can only be a single service manager. This means once a service manager has grabbed hold of binder devices they cannot be (easily) reused by a second service manager.

Running Android in Containers

This matters as soon as multiple instances of Android are supposed to be run. Since they will all need their own private binder devices. This is a use-case that arises pretty naturally when running Android in system containers. People have been doing this for a long time with LXC. A project that has set out to make running Android in LXC containers very easy is Anbox. Anbox makes it possible to run hundreds of Android containers.

To properly run Android in a container it is necessary that each container has a set of private binder devices.

Statically Allocating binder Devices

Binder devices are currently statically allocated at compile time. Before compiling a kernel the CONFIG_ANDROID_BINDER_DEVICES option needs to bet set in the kernel config (Kconfig) containing the names of the binder devices to allocate at boot. By default it is set as:

CONFIG_ANDROID_BINDER_DEVICES="binder,hwbinder,vndbinder"

To allocate additional binder devices the user needs to specify them with this Kconfig option. This is problematic since users need to know how many containers they will run at maximum and then to calculate the number of devices they need so they can specify them in the Kconfig. When the maximum number of needed binder devices changes after kernel compilation the only way to get additional devices is to recompile the kernel.

Problem 1: Using the misc major Device Number

This situation is aggravated by the fact that binder devices use the misc major number in the kernel. Each device node in the Linux kernel is identified by a major and minor number. A device can request its own major number. If it does it will have an exclusive range of minor numbers it doesn’t share with anything else and is free to hand out. Or it can use the misc major number. The misc major number is shared amongst different devices. However, that also means the number of minor devices that can be handed out is limited by all users of misc major. So if a user requests a very large number of binder devices in their Kconfig they might make it impossible for anyone else to allocate minor numbers. Or there simply might not be enough to allocate for itself.

Problem 2: Containers and IPC namespaces

All of those binder devices requested in the Kconfig via CONFIG_ANDROID_BINDER_DEVICES will be allocated at boot and be placed in the hosts devtmpfs mount usually located at /dev or - depending on the udev(7) implementation - will be created via mknod(2) - by udev(7) at boot. That means all of those devices initially belong to the host IPC namespace. However, containers usually run in their own IPC namespace separate from the host’s. But when binder devices located in /dev are handed to containers (e.g. with a bind-mount) the kernel driver will not know that these devices are now used in a different IPC namespace since the driver is not IPC namespace aware. This is not a serious technical issue but a serious conceptual one. There should be a way to have per-IPC namespace binder devices.

Enter binderfs

To solve both problems we came up with a solution that I presented at the Linux Plumbers Conference in Vancouver this year. There’s a video of that presentation available on Youtube:

Android binderfs is a tiny filesystem that allows users to dynamically allocate binder devices, i.e. it allows to add and remove binder devices at runtime. Which means it solves problem 1. Additionally, binder devices located in a new binderfs instance are independent of binder devices located in another binderfs instance. All binder devices in binderfs instances are also independent of the binder devices allocated during boot specified in CONFIG_ANDROID_BINDER_DEVICES. This means, binderfs solves problem 2.

Android binderfs can be mounted via:

mount -t binder binder /dev/binderfs

at which point a new instance of binderfs will show up at /dev/binderfs. In a fresh instance of binderfs no binder devices will be present. There will only be a binder-control device which serves as the request handler for binderfs:

root@edfu:~# ls -al /dev/binderfs/
total 0
drwxr-xr-x  2 root root      0 Jan 10 15:07 .
drwxr-xr-x 20 root root   4260 Jan 10 15:07 ..
crw-------  1 root root 242, 6 Jan 10 15:07 binder-control

binderfs: Dynamically Allocating a New binder Device

To allocate a new binder device in a binderfs instance a request needs to be sent through the binder-control device node. A request is sent in the form of an ioctl(2). Here’s an example program:

#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <errno.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <sys/ioctl.h>
#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <linux/android/binder.h>
#include <linux/android/binderfs.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
        int fd, ret, saved_errno;
        size_t len;
        struct binderfs_device device = { 0 };

        if (argc != 3)
                exit(EXIT_FAILURE);

        len = strlen(argv[2]);
        if (len > BINDERFS_MAX_NAME)
                exit(EXIT_FAILURE);

        memcpy(device.name, argv[2], len);

        fd = open(argv[1], O_RDONLY | O_CLOEXEC);
        if (fd < 0) {
                printf("%s - Failed to open binder-control device\n",
                       strerror(errno));
                exit(EXIT_FAILURE);
        }

        ret = ioctl(fd, BINDER_CTL_ADD, &device);
        saved_errno = errno;
        close(fd);
        errno = saved_errno;
        if (ret < 0) {
                printf("%s - Failed to allocate new binder device\n",
                       strerror(errno));
                exit(EXIT_FAILURE);
        }

        printf("Allocated new binder device with major %d, minor %d, and "
               "name %s\n", device.major, device.minor,
               device.name);

        exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}

What this program simply does is to open the binder-control device node and sending a BINDER_CTL_ADD request to the kernel. Users of binderfs need to tell the kernel which name the new binder device should get. By default a name can only contain up to 256 chars including the terminating zero byte. The struct which is used is:

/**
 * struct binderfs_device - retrieve information about a new binder device
 * @name:   the name to use for the new binderfs binder device
 * @major:  major number allocated for binderfs binder devices
 * @minor:  minor number allocated for the new binderfs binder device
 *
 */
struct binderfs_device {
       char name[BINDERFS_MAX_NAME + 1];
       __u8 major;
       __u8 minor;
};

and is defined in linux/android/binder_ctl.h. Once the request is made via an ioctl(2) passing a struct binder_device with the name to the kernel it will allocate a new binder device and return the major and minor number of the new device in the struct (This is necessary because binderfs allocated a major device number dynamically at boot.). After the ioctl(2) returns there will be a new binder device located under /dev/binderfs with the chosen name:

root@edfu:~# ls -al /dev/binderfs/
total 0
drwxr-xr-x  2 root root      0 Jan 10 15:19 .
drwxr-xr-x 20 root root   4260 Jan 10 15:07 ..
crw-------  1 root root 242, 0 Jan 10 15:19 binder-control
crw-------  1 root root 242, 1 Jan 10 15:19 my-binder
crw-------  1 root root 242, 2 Jan 10 15:19 my-binder1

binderfs: Deleting a binder Device

Deleting binder devices does not involve issuing another ioctl(2) request through binder-control. They can be deleted via unlink(2). This means that the rm(1) tool can be used to delete them:

root@edfu:~# rm /dev/binderfs/my-binder1
root@edfu:~# ls -al /dev/binderfs/
total 0
drwxr-xr-x  2 root root      0 Jan 10 15:19 .
drwxr-xr-x 20 root root   4260 Jan 10 15:07 ..
crw-------  1 root root 242, 0 Jan 10 15:19 binder-control
crw-------  1 root root 242, 1 Jan 10 15:19 my-binder

Note that the binder-control device cannot be deleted since this would make the binderfs instance unuseable. The binder-control device will be deleted when the binderfs instance is unmounted and all references to it have been dropped.

binderfs: Mounting Multiple Instances

Mounting another binderfs instance at a different location will create a new and separate instance from all other binderfs mounts. This is identical to the behavior of devpts, tmpfs, and also - even though never merged in the kernel - kdbusfs:

root@edfu:~# mkdir binderfs1
root@edfu:~# mount -t binder binder binderfs1
root@edfu:~# ls -al binderfs1/
total 4
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root        0 Jan 10 15:23 .
drwxr-xr-x 72 ubuntu ubuntu   4096 Jan 10 15:23 ..
crw-------  1 root   root   242, 2 Jan 10 15:23 binder-control

There is no my-binder device in this new binderfs instance since its devices are not related to those in the binderfs instance at /dev/binderfs. This means users can easily get their private set of binder devices.

binderfs: Mounting binderfs in User Namespaces

The Android binderfs filesystem can be mounted and used to allocate new binder devices in user namespaces. This has the advantage that binderfs can be used in unprivileged containers or any user-namespace-based sandboxing solution:

ubuntu@edfu:~$ unshare --user --map-root --mount
root@edfu:~# mkdir binderfs-userns
root@edfu:~# mount -t binder binder binderfs-userns/
root@edfu:~# The "bfs" binary used here is the compiled program from above
root@edfu:~# ./bfs binderfs-userns/binder-control my-user-binder
Allocated new binder device with major 242, minor 4, and name my-user-binder
root@edfu:~# ls -al binderfs-userns/
total 4
drwxr-xr-x  2 root root      0 Jan 10 15:34 .
drwxr-xr-x 73 root root   4096 Jan 10 15:32 ..
crw-------  1 root root 242, 3 Jan 10 15:34 binder-control
crw-------  1 root root 242, 4 Jan 10 15:36 my-user-binder

Kernel Patchsets

The binderfs patchset is merged upstream and will be available when Linux 5.0 gets released. There are a few outstanding patches that are currently waiting in Greg’s tree (cf. binderfs: remove wrong kern_mount() call and binderfs: make each binderfs mount a new instancechar-misc-linus) and some others are queued for the 5.1 merge window. But overall it seems to be in decent shape.