Libvirt: abort() when seeing ENOMEM errors

Posted: January 29th, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | 2 Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Detecting and reporting OOM

Libvirt has always taken the view that ANY error from a function / system call must be propagated back to the caller. The out of memory condition (ENOMEM / OOM) is just one of many errors that might be seen when calling APIs, and thus libvirt attempted to report this in the normal manner. OOM is not like most other errors though.

The first challenge with OOM is that checking for a NULL return from malloc() is error prone because the return value overloads the error indicator with the normal returned pointer. To address this libvirt coding style banned direct use of malloc() and created a wrapper API that returned the allocated pointer in an output parameter, leaving the return value solely as the error indicator leading to a code pattern like:

  char *varname;

  if (VIR_ALLOC(varname) < 0) {

  ....handle OOM...


This enabled use of the ‘return_check‘ function attribute to get compile time validation that allocation errors were checked. Checking for OOM is only half the problem. Handling OOM is the much more difficult issue. Libvirt uses a ‘goto error‘ design pattern for error cleanup code paths. A surprisingly large number of these goto jumps only exist to handle OOM cleanup. Testing these code paths is non-trivial, if not impossible, in the real world. Libvirt integrated a way to force OOM on arbitrary allocations in its unit test suite. This was very successful at finding crashes and memory leaks in OOM handling code paths, but this only validates code that actually has unit test coverage. The number of bugs found in code that was tested for OOM, gives very low confidence that other non-tested code would correctly handle OOM. The OOM testing is also incredibly slow to execute since it needs to repeatedly re-run the unit tests failing a different malloc() each time. The time required grows exponentially as the number of allocations increases.

Assuming the OOM condition is detected and a jump to the error handling path is taken, there is now the problem of getting the error report back to the user. Many of the libvirt drivers run inside the libvirtd daemon, with an RPC system used to send results back to the client application. Reporting the error via RPC messages is quite likely to need memory allocation which may well fail in an OOM scenario.

Is OOM reporting useful?

The paragraphs above describe why reporting OOM scenarios is impractical, verging on impossible, in the real world. Assuming it was possible to report reliably though, would it actually benefit any application using libvirt ?

Linux systems generally default to having memory overcommit enabled, and when they run out of memory, the OOM killer will reap some unlucky process. IOW, on Linux, it is very rare for an application to ever see OOM reported from an allocation attempt. Libvirt is ported to non-Linux platforms which may manage memory differently and thus genuinely report OOM from malloc() calls. Those non-Linux users will be taking code paths that are never tested by the majority of libvirt users or developers. This gives low confidence for success.

Although libvirt provides a C library API as its core deliverable, few applications are written in C, most consume libvirt via a language binding with Perl and Go believed to be the most commonly used. Handling OOM in non-C languages is even less practical/common than in C. Many libvirt applications are also already using libraries (GTK, GLib) that will abort on OOM. Overall there is little sign that any libvirt client application attempts to handle OOM in its own code, let alone care if libvirt can report it.

One important application process using the libvirt API though is the libvirtd daemon. In the very early days, if libvirtd stopped it would take down all running QEMU VMs, but this limitation was fixed over 10 years ago. To enable software upgrades on hosts with running VMs, libvirtd needs to be able to restart itself. As a result libvirtd maintains a record of important state on disk enabling it to carry on where it left off when starting up. Recovering from OOM by aborting and allowing the libvirtd to be restarted by systemd, would align with a code path that already needs to be well tested and supported for software upgrades.

Give up on OOM handling

With all the above in mind, the decision shouldn’t be a surprise. Libvirt has decided to stop attempting to handle ENOMEM from malloc() and related APIs and will instead immediately abort. The libvirtd daemon will automatically restart and carry on where it left off. The result is that the libvirt code can be dramatically simplified by removing many goto jump and cleanup code blocks, which reduces the maint burden on libvirt contributors, allowing more time to be spent on coding features which matter to users.


2 Responses to “Libvirt: abort() when seeing ENOMEM errors”

  1. I don’t disagree, OOM handling just isn’t practical. However have you looked at cleanup attributes in gcc/clang? They get rid of all those kinds of goto out hacks. Check out the flatpak code for some examples (all g_autoptr use).

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