Process Architecture

FRR is a suite of daemons that serve different functions. This document describes internal architecture of daemons, focusing their general design patterns, and especially how threads are used in the daemons that use them.


The fundamental pattern used in FRR daemons is an event loop. Some daemons use kernel threads. In these daemons, each kernel thread runs its own event loop. The event loop implementation is constructed to be thread safe and to allow threads other than its owning thread to schedule events on it. The rest of this document describes these two designs in detail.


Because this document describes the architecture for kernel threads as well as the event system, a digression on terminology is in order here.

Historically Quagga’s loop system was viewed as an implementation of userspace threading. Because of this design choice, the names for various datastructures within the event system are variations on the term “thread”. The primary datastructure that holds the state of an event loop in this system is called a “threadmaster”. Events scheduled on the event loop - what would today be called an ‘event’ or ‘task’ in systems such as libevent - are called “threads” and the datastructure for them is struct event. To add to the confusion, these “threads” have various types, one of which is “event”. To hopefully avoid some of this confusion, this document refers to these “threads” as a ‘task’ except where the datastructures are explicitly named. When they are explicitly named, they will be formatted like this to differentiate from the conceptual names. When speaking of kernel threads, the term used will be “pthread” since FRR’s kernel threading implementation uses the POSIX threads API.

Event Architecture

This section presents a brief overview of the event model as currently implemented in FRR. This doc should be expanded and broken off into its own section. For now it provides basic information necessary to understand the interplay between the event system and kernel threads.

The core event system is implemented in lib/event.c and lib/frrevent.h. The primary structure is struct event_loop, hereafter referred to as a threadmaster. A threadmaster is a global state object, or context, that holds all the tasks currently pending execution as well as statistics on tasks that have already executed. The event system is driven by adding tasks to this data structure and then calling a function to retrieve the next task to execute. At initialization, a daemon will typically create one threadmaster, add a small set of initial tasks, and then run a loop to fetch each task and execute it.

These tasks have various types corresponding to their general action. The types are given by integer macros in frrevent.h and are:


Task which waits for a file descriptor to become ready for reading and then executes.


Task which waits for a file descriptor to become ready for writing and then executes.


Task which executes after a certain amount of time has passed since it was scheduled.


Generic task that executes with high priority and carries an arbitrary integer indicating the event type to its handler. These are commonly used to implement the finite state machines typically found in routing protocols.


Type used internally for tasks on the ready queue.


Type used internally for struct event objects that aren’t being used. The event system pools struct event to avoid heap allocations; this is the type they have when they’re in the pool.


Just before a task is run its type is changed to this. This is used to show X as the type in the output of show event cpu.

The programmer never has to work with these types explicitly. Each type of task is created and queued via special-purpose functions (actually macros, but irrelevant for the time being) for the specific type. For example, to add a EVENT_READ task, you would call

event_add_read(struct event_loop *master, int (*handler)(struct event *), void *arg, int fd, struct event **ref);

The struct event is then created and added to the appropriate internal datastructure within the threadmaster. Note that the READ and WRITE tasks are independent - a READ task only tests for readability, for example.

The Event Loop

To use the event system, after creating a threadmaster the program adds an initial set of tasks. As these tasks execute, they add more tasks that execute at some point in the future. This sequence of tasks drives the lifecycle of the program. When no more tasks are available, the program dies. Typically at startup the first task added is an I/O task for VTYSH as well as any network sockets needed for peerings or IPC.

To retrieve the next task to run the program calls event_fetch(). event_fetch() internally computes which task to execute next based on rudimentary priority logic. Events (type EVENT_EVENT) execute with the highest priority, followed by expired timers and finally I/O tasks (type EVENT_READ and EVENT_WRITE). When scheduling a task a function and an arbitrary argument are provided. The task returned from event_fetch() is then executed with event_call().

The following diagram illustrates a simplified version of this infrastructure.


Lifecycle of a program using a single threadmaster.

The series of “task” boxes represents the current ready task queue. The various other queues for other types are not shown. The fetch-execute loop is illustrated at the bottom.

Mapping the general names used in the figure to specific FRR functions:

  • task is struct event *

  • fetch is event_fetch()

  • exec() is event_call()

  • cancel() is event_cancel()

  • schedule() is any of the various task-specific event_add_* functions

Adding tasks is done with various task-specific function-like macros. These macros wrap underlying functions in event.c to provide additional information added at compile time, such as the line number the task was scheduled from, that can be accessed at runtime for debugging, logging and informational purposes. Each task type has its own specific scheduling function that follow the naming convention event_add_<type>; see frrevent.h for details.

There are some gotchas to keep in mind:

  • I/O tasks are keyed off the file descriptor associated with the I/O operation. This means that for any given file descriptor, only one of each type of I/O task (EVENT_READ and EVENT_WRITE) can be scheduled. For example, scheduling two write tasks one after the other will overwrite the first task with the second, resulting in total loss of the first task and difficult bugs.

  • Timer tasks are only as accurate as the monotonic clock provided by the underlying operating system.

  • Memory management of the arbitrary handler argument passed in the schedule call is the responsibility of the caller.

Kernel Thread Architecture

Efforts have begun to introduce kernel threads into FRR to improve performance and stability. Naturally a kernel thread architecture has long been seen as orthogonal to an event-driven architecture, and the two do have significant overlap in terms of design choices. Since the event model is tightly integrated into FRR, careful thought has been put into how pthreads are introduced, what role they fill, and how they will interoperate with the event model.

Design Overview

Each kernel thread behaves as a lightweight process within FRR, sharing the same process memory space. On the other hand, the event system is designed to run in a single process and drive serial execution of a set of tasks. With this consideration, a natural choice is to implement the event system within each kernel thread. This allows us to leverage the event-driven execution model with the currently existing task and context primitives. In this way the familiar execution model of FRR gains the ability to execute tasks simultaneously while preserving the existing model for concurrency.

The following figure illustrates the architecture with multiple pthreads, each running their own threadmaster-based event loop.


Lifecycle of a program using multiple pthreads, each running their own threadmaster

Each roundrect represents a single pthread running the same event loop described under Event Architecture. Note the arrow from the exec() box on the right to the schedule() box in the middle pthread. This illustrates code running in one pthread scheduling a task onto another pthread’s threadmaster. A global lock for each threadmaster is used to synchronize these operations. The pthread names are examples.

Kernel Thread Wrapper

The basis for the integration of pthreads and the event system is a lightweight wrapper for both systems implemented in lib/frr_pthread.[ch]. The header provides a core datastructure, struct frr_pthread, that encapsulates structures from both POSIX threads and event.c, frrevent.h. In particular, this datastructure has a pointer to a threadmaster that runs within the pthread. It also has fields for a name as well as start and stop functions that have signatures similar to the POSIX arguments for pthread_create().

Calling frr_pthread_new() creates and registers a new frr_pthread. The returned structure has a pre-initialized threadmaster, and its start and stop functions are initialized to defaults that will run a basic event loop with the given threadmaster. Calling frr_pthread_run() starts the thread with the start function. From there, the model is the same as the regular event model. To schedule tasks on a particular pthread, simply use the regular event.c functions as usual and provide the threadmaster pointed to from the frr_pthread. As part of implementing the wrapper, the event.c functions were made thread-safe. Consequently, it is safe to schedule events on a threadmaster belonging both to the calling thread as well as any other pthread. This serves as the basis for inter-thread communication and boils down to a slightly more complicated method of message passing, where the messages are the regular task events as used in the event-driven model. The only difference is thread cancellation, which requires calling event_cancel_async() instead of event_cancel() to cancel a task currently scheduled on a threadmaster belonging to a different pthread. This is necessary to avoid race conditions in the specific case where one pthread wants to guarantee that a task on another pthread is cancelled before proceeding.

In addition, the existing commands to show statistics and other information for tasks within the event driven model have been expanded to handle multiple pthreads; running show event cpu will display the usual event breakdown, but it will do so for each pthread running in the program. For example, BGPD runs a dedicated I/O pthread and shows the following output for show event cpu:

frr# show event cpu

Event statistics for bgpd:

Showing statistics for pthread main
                      CPU (user+system): Real (wall-clock):
Active   Runtime(ms)   Invoked Avg uSec Max uSecs Avg uSec Max uSecs  Type  Thread
    0       1389.000        10   138900    248000   135549    255349   T   subgroup_coalesce_timer
    0          0.000         1        0         0       18        18   T   bgp_startup_timer_expire
    0        850.000        18    47222    222000    47795    233814   T   work_queue_run
    0          0.000        10        0         0        6        14   T   update_subgroup_merge_check_thread_cb
    0          0.000         8        0         0      117       160  W    zclient_flush_data
    2          2.000         1     2000      2000      831       831 R     bgp_accept
    0          1.000         1     1000      1000     2832      2832    E  zclient_connect
    1      42082.000    240574      174     37000      178     72810 R     vtysh_read
    1        152.000      1885       80      2000       96      6292 R     zclient_read
    0     549346.000   2997298      183      7000      153     20242    E  bgp_event
    0       2120.000       300     7066     14000     6813     22046   T   (bgp_holdtime_timer)
    0          0.000         2        0         0       57        59   T   update_group_refresh_default_originate_route_map
    0         90.000         1    90000     90000    73729     73729   T   bgp_route_map_update_timer
    0       1417.000      9147      154     48000      132     61998   T   bgp_process_packet
  300      71807.000   2995200       23      3000       24     11066   T   (bgp_connect_timer)
    0       1894.000     12713      148     45000      112     33606   T   (bgp_generate_updgrp_packets)
    0          0.000         1        0         0      105       105  W    vtysh_write
    0         52.000       599       86      2000      138      6992   T   (bgp_start_timer)
    1          1.000         8      125      1000      164       593 R     vtysh_accept
    0         15.000       600       25      2000       15       153   T   (bgp_routeadv_timer)
    0         11.000       299       36      3000       53      3128 RW    bgp_connect_check

Showing statistics for pthread BGP I/O thread
                      CPU (user+system): Real (wall-clock):
Active   Runtime(ms)   Invoked Avg uSec Max uSecs Avg uSec Max uSecs  Type  Thread
    0       1611.000      9296      173     13000      188     13685 R     bgp_process_reads
    0       2995.000     11753      254     26000      182     29355  W    bgp_process_writes

Showing statistics for pthread BGP Keepalives thread
                      CPU (user+system): Real (wall-clock):
Active   Runtime(ms)   Invoked Avg uSec Max uSecs Avg uSec Max uSecs  Type  Thread
No data to display yet.

Attentive readers will notice that there is a third thread, the Keepalives thread. This thread is responsible for – surprise – generating keepalives for peers. However, there are no statistics showing for that thread. Although the pthread uses the frr_pthread wrapper, it opts not to use the embedded threadmaster facilities. Instead it replaces the start and stop functions with custom functions. This was done because the threadmaster facilities introduce a small but significant amount of overhead relative to the pthread’s task. In this case since the pthread does not need the event-driven model and does not need to receive tasks from other pthreads, it is simpler and more efficient to implement it outside of the provided event facilities. The point to take away from this example is that while the facilities to make using pthreads within FRR easy are already implemented, the wrapper is flexible and allows usage of other models while still integrating with the rest of the FRR core infrastructure. Starting and stopping this pthread works the same as it does for any other frr_pthread; the only difference is that event statistics are not collected for it, because there are no events.

Notes on Design and Documentation

Because of the choice to embed the existing event system into each pthread within FRR, at this time there is not integrated support for other models of pthread use such as divide and conquer. Similarly, there is no explicit support for thread pooling or similar higher level constructs. The currently existing infrastructure is designed around the concept of long-running worker threads responsible for specific jobs within each daemon. This is not to say that divide and conquer, thread pooling, etc. could not be implemented in the future. However, designs in this direction must be very careful to take into account the existing codebase. Introducing kernel threads into programs that have been written under the assumption of a single thread of execution must be done very carefully to avoid insidious errors and to ensure the program remains understandable and maintainable.

In keeping with these goals, future work on kernel threading should be extensively documented here and FRR developers should be very careful with their design choices, as poor choices tightly integrated can prove to be catastrophic for development efforts in the future.