This post will teach you what intrusive linked lists are and how they are used to manage processes in Linux.

What are intrusive linked lists?

Intrusive linked lists are a variation of linked lists where the links are embedded in the structure that’s being linked.

In a typical linked list implementation, a list node contains a data pointer to the linked data and a next pointer to the next node in the list.

Figure 1: A linked list

In an intrusive linked list implementation, the list node contains next pointer to the next list node, but no data pointer because the list is embedded in the linked object itself.

Figure 2: An intrusive linked list

A list structure for an intrusive singly linked list contains a single next pointer to another list node:

typedef struct list {
  struct list *next;
} list;

The list structure is then embedded in the structure that will be linked. For example, you might have a item structure with a val member:

typedef struct item {
  int val;
  list items;
} item;

To add a new item i2 to the list of i1, you set the pointer of i1 to the address of i2.items:

item* i1 = create_item(16);
item* i2 = create_item(18);

i1-> = &i2->items;

You can access the object that contains a list node by first getting the address of the list object (e.g. the value of You then subtract the offset of the list member from the address of the list object.

The offset is the number of bytes a member is positioned from the beginning of its containing object.

Figure 3: The address of an object with an embedded list

Consider a list object in an object i2 at memory address 0x18. The list member is offset 8 bytes from the beginning of the item data structure. Therefore, the beginning address of the i2 object is 0x18 - 8 = 0x10.

In GCC-compiled C, you can subtract bytes from a pointer by casting the pointer variable to a void pointer (which has a size of 1 byte when compiled with GCC). You can then subtract the bytes from the pointer value without the number being scaled to num * sizeof(structure):

item* _i2 = (void *)(i1-> - 8;

Note: Pointer arithmetic on a void pointer is illegal in C, but is supported by GCC. Linux is compiled using GCC, and so it can perform pointer arithmetic on void pointers.

Subtracting an absolute value isn’t portable, because data types can be different sizes depending on the CPU architecture. A better way is to use the offsetof macro. offsetof returns the offset of a member from its containing structure (in bytes):

item* _s2 = (void *)(i1-> - (offsetof(item, items));

To summarize:

  • The list node is embedded in a containing object.
  • The list node points to another list node embedded in the linked object.
  • The base address of the linked object is calculated by subtracting the offset of the list member from the memory address of the linked list object.

After all that pointer arithmetic, you’re probably wondering why anyone in their right mind would use an intrusive linked list over a regular linked list.

Why use intrusive linked lists?

There are two main reasons to use intrusive lists over non-intrusive linked lists:

  • Fewer memory allocations.
  • Less cache thrashing.

With non-intrusive linked lists, creating a new object and adding it to a list requires two memory allocations: one for the object, and one for the list node. With intrusive linked lists, you only need to allocate one object (since the list node is embedded in the object). This means fewer errors to be handled, because there are half as many cases where memory allocation can fail.

Intrusive linked lists also suffer less from cache thrashing. Iterating through a non-intrusive list node requires dereferencing a list node, and then dereferencing the list data. Intrusive linked lists only require dereferencing the next list node.

Before looking at how processes are managed using linked lists in Linux, you need to understand doubly and circular linked lists.

Doubly and circular linked lists

Doubly linked lists and circular linked lists are variations of singly linked lists. Linux uses circular doubly linked lists, so this section will cover both variations.

A doubly linked list is a linked list that keeps pointers to both the next node and the previous node.

Figure 4: A doubly linked list

The list structure would contain an extra prev pointer:

typedef struct dlist {
  struct dlist *next;
  struct dlist *prev;
} dlist;

Doubly linked lists make deletion and insertion easier, because you only need a reference to a single node to perform the deletion or insertion.

Another variant of linked lists are circular linked lists. A circular linked list is a linked list that never points to a null value. Instead, the last node points to the first node. In a circular doubly linked list, the first node also points to the last node.

Figure 5: A circular doubly linked list

A circular linked list makes it easy to iterate through an entire list from any node, without keeping a reference to a specific list head:

void list_print_each(list* node) {
  list* start = node;
  do {
    printf("%d,", node->val);
    node = node->next;
  } while (node != start);

The most popular linked lists in Linux are circular doubly linked lists.

Linked lists in Linux

Linux uses linked lists extensively. They are used for all kinds of tasks, from keeping track of free memory slabs, to iterating through each running process. A search for the struct list_head structure returns over 10,000 results in Linux 5.2.

In Linux, list nodes are added and removed a lot more than they are traversed. An analysis of Linux during normal usage found that traversals were only 6% of total linked list operations. Of those, 28% of traversals either occurred on empty lists, or only visited one node (see Rusty Russel’s analysis of linked lists for more info).

As Rusty’s analysis suggests, Linux mainly uses linked lists to keep lists of objects when either traversal is infrequent, or when the list size is small.

Linux includes a few different list structures. The most popular is an intrusive circular doubly linked list.

Implementing intrusive linked lists

The Linux circular doubly linked list is defined in include/linux/list.h.

The list structure is named list_head. It contains a next and prev pointer:

struct list_head {
  struct list_head *next, *prev;

You create a linked list of objects by embedding list_head as a member on the struct that will be made into a list:

struct atmel_sha_drv {
  struct list_head head;
  // ..

A new list can be either statically or dynamically initialized.

A statically initialized list can use the LIST_HEAD_INIT macro:

static struct atmel_sha_drv atmel_sha = {
  .dev_list = LIST_HEAD_INIT(atmel_sha.dev_list),
  // ..

LIST_HEAD_INIT expands to set the next and prev pointers of the list node to point to itself:

#define LIST_HEAD_INIT(name) { &(name), &(name) }

To initiate a list dynamically, you can use the INIT_LIST_HEAD macro. Often a separate list_head is kept as a head node:

static struct list_head hole_cache;


INIT_LIST_HEAD is called with a pointer to a list node. Again, the list’s next and prev pointers are set to point to itself:

static inline void INIT_LIST_HEAD(struct list_head *list)
  WRITE_ONCE(list->next, list);
  list->prev = list;

Note: the WRITE_ONCE macro prevents unwanted compiler optimizations when assigning a value.

After a list has been initialized, new items can be added with list_add:

struct hole {
  // ..
  struct list_head list;

static struct hole initholes[64];

// ..

for(i = 0; i < 64; i++)
  list_add(&(initholes[i].list), &hole_cache);

list_add accepts a head node pointer, and a pointer to the node that should be inserted. It then calls __list_add to insert the new node between the head node, and head->next:

static inline void list_add(struct list_head *new, struct list_head *head)
  __list_add(new, head, head->next);

__list_add reassigns pointers to add the new list node:

static inline void __list_add(struct list_head *new,
			      struct list_head *prev,
			      struct list_head *next)
  // ..

  next->prev = new;
  new->next = next;
  new->prev = prev;
  WRITE_ONCE(prev->next, new);

Linux provides a list_entry macro to access the containing data structure of a list node:

struct hole *ret;

ret = list_entry(, struct hole, list);

This uses the offsetof trick from earlier in this post. list_entry expands to a container_of macro:

#define list_entry(ptr, type, member) \
  container_of(ptr, type, member)

The container_of macro calculates the containing object’s address by subtracting the offset of the list node from the address of the list_head object:

#define container_of(ptr, type, member) ({				\
  void *__mptr = (void *)(ptr);					\
  ((type *)(__mptr - offsetof(type, member))); })

That’s the basic implementation of intrusive linked lists in Linux.

Tracking processes

In POSIX, a process is an executing instance of a program. One of the kernel’s key responsibilities is to create processes and schedule them so that each process runs for an appropriate amount of time.

Internally, Linux refers to processes as tasks. As tasks are created, they are added to a task list. This list can be used when Linux needs to iterate over every single task, for example when sending a signal to each process.

Linux represents tasks as a tast_struct. A task_struct includes a list_head member named tasks to link between tasks:

struct task_struct {
  // ..
  pid_t	pid;
  // ..
  struct list_head tasks;
  // ..

The initial task is statically allocated as init_task, and the tasks field is initialized with itself as the head:

struct task_struct init_task = {
  // ..
  .tasks		= LIST_HEAD_INIT(init_task.tasks),

Future tasks are added to this task list when they are created.

New tasks are created in Linux by forking. This is implemented in copy_process, which creates a new task_struct from the currently executing process (current) by calling dup_task_struct:

struct task_struct *copy_process(
  // ..
  struct task_struct *p;
  // ..
  p = dup_task_struct(current, node);
  // ..

After a new task is created, it’s added to the task list by calling list_add_tail_rcu with the address of init_task.tasks:

struct task_struct *copy_process(
  // ..
  // ..
  list_add_tail_rcu(&p->tasks, &init_task.tasks);

list_add_tail_rcu is a variation of the list_add function from earlier. It uses RCU, which is a synchronization mechanism that supports concurrency between a single writer and multiple readers (no need to go into the details). list_add_tail_rcu has the effect of adding the newly created task’s tasks node to the tail of the init_task task list.

As mentioned, the task list is mainly used when the Kernel needs to perform an action on each task. For example, freezing tasks when a computer is going into hibernate mode, swapping tasks to an updated version of the kernel during a live patch, or when a signal is sent to each process. Most of these uses are rare, and so the efficiency of iterating over each item in a list isn’t a major concern.

One of the times a signal is sent to each process is when the SysRq key and e are pressed together, which terminates all processes.

Note: SysReq is a key that was added in the 80s, Linux adds default shortcuts you can use with it.

The kernel registers a handler function that’s called when the SysReq + e keys are pressed. The handler calls send_sig_all, with SIGTERM which sends a SIGTERM signal to all processes apart from the init process and kernel tasks. It does this with the for_each_process macro. You can see from the code that it does nothing if the process is a kernel thread or the init task, otherwise it calls do_send_sig_info.

static void send_sig_all(int sig)
  struct task_struct *p;

  // ..

  for_each_process(p) {
    if (p->flags & PF_KTHREAD)
    if (is_global_init(p))

    do_send_sig_info(sig, SEND_SIG_PRIV, p, PIDTYPE_MAX);

  // ..

At this point it’s macros all the way down. The for_each_process macro expands into a for loop that loops over each item in the list by changing the value of p. Starting at init_task, it uses the next_task macro to reach the next task in the list:

#define for_each_process(p) \
	for (p = &init_task ; (p = next_task(p)) != &init_task ; )

The next_task macro expands to list_entry_rcu to get the next task_struct of the list head pointer:

#define next_task(p) \
	list_entry_rcu((p)->, struct task_struct, `tasks`)

list_entry_rcu is itself a macro that expands to the container_of macro, which then gets the base address of the containing structure.

It’s worth noting that the tasks linked list isn’t the only way Linux keeps reference to tasks. It also creates a dictionary data structure (an idr) that offers constant time access, which is used to quickly access a task object from a given pid. This is much more efficient way of accessing a single task than traversing the entire task list.


Intrusive linked lists are an interesting alternative to non-intrusive linked lists that reduce cache thrashing and memory allocations.

Linux uses intrusive linked lists a lot, generally when the lists are short or when they are rarely traversed. If you plan to become a kernel hacker, you should become familiar with intrusive linked lists.