Recently, I’ve noticed strange hangs of KVM VMs on a custom VMM. As it fits the topic of this blog, I thought I make the issue more googleable. Until we dive into the issue, we have to set the scene a bit.

The Scene

Consider that we want to run a KVM vCPU on Linux, but we want it to unconditionally exit after 1ms regardless of what the guest does. To achieve this, we can create a CLOCK_MONOTONIC timer with timer_create that sends a signal to the thread that runs the vCPU (via SIGEV_THREAD_ID). We choose SIGUSR1, but other signals work as well.

We have to make sure that we do not receive the signal when the vCPU does not execute. This is important, because then the signal will not fulfill its goal of kicking the vCPU out of guest execution. For that, we mask SIGUSR1 with pthread_sigmask in the host thread and unmask it for the vCPU via KVM_SET_SIGNAL_MASK.

This setup works beautifully and in essence emulates the VMX preemption timer1. There is only one wart at this point. When KVM_RUN returns EINTR, because the timer signal was pending, we need to “consume” the signal or the next KVM_RUN will immediately exit again. We can do this with sigtimedwait with a zero timeout.

Weird VM Hangs

When I used this scheme on my Intel Tiger Lake laptop, I noticed strange hangs in VMs. The VM would sometimes get stuck on one instruction. The weird thing was that the vCPU could still receive and handle interrupts, but this one harmless looking instruction would never complete. The effect was that some Linux kernel threads would just get stuck while others continue to run.

The instruction in question was this from the set_bit function of my Linux 5.4 guest:

ffffffff810238b0 <set_bit>:
ffffffff810238b0:       f0 48 0f ab 3e          lock bts %rdi,(%rsi)
ffffffff810238b5:       c3                      ret

Way too late, I noticed the following warning in the host’s kernel log with a matching instruction point:

x86/split lock detection: #AC: vmm/61253 took a split_lock trap at address: 0xffffffff810238b0

Split lock detection is an anti-DoS feature that can find or kill processes that perform misaligned locked memory accesses, because they trigger extremely slow paths in the CPU that impact the performance of other cores in the system.

When I checked in more detail, the lock bts was indeed performing a misaligned locked memory access, but why would this warning cause a permanent hang at this instruction?

On my laptop running Linux 6.6, split lock detection was in its default setting warn. This is reasonable, because the underlying issue is not something you typically care about on a desktop system. The documentation of the relevant kernel parameter reads as follows:

   [X86] Enable split lock detection or bus lock detection

   When enabled (and if hardware support is present), atomic
   instructions that access data across cache line
   boundaries will result in an alignment check exception
   for split lock detection or a debug exception for
   bus lock detection.


   warn    - the kernel will emit rate-limited warnings
             about applications triggering the #AC
             exception or the #DB exception. This mode is
             the default on CPUs that support split lock
             detection or bus lock detection. Default
             behavior is by #AC if both features are
             enabled in hardware.

There were no clues about the hang here either. 🤔

Going Deeper

When I checked the kernel function that emits the warning (called via handle_guest_split_lock), the pieces started falling together:

static void split_lock_warn(unsigned long ip)
	struct delayed_work *work;
	int cpu;

	if (!current->reported_split_lock)
		pr_warn_ratelimited("#AC: %s/%d took a split_lock trap at address: 0x%lx\n",
				    current->comm, current->pid, ip);
	current->reported_split_lock = 1;

	if (sysctl_sld_mitigate) {
		 * misery factor #1:
		 * sleep 10ms before trying to execute split lock.
		if (msleep_interruptible(10) > 0)
		 * Misery factor #2:
		 * only allow one buslocked disabled core at a time.
		if (down_interruptible(&buslock_sem) == -EINTR)
		work = &sl_reenable_unlock;
	} else {
		work = &sl_reenable;

	cpu = get_cpu();
	schedule_delayed_work_on(cpu, work, 2);

	/* Disable split lock detection on this CPU to make progress */

When the host detects a split lock, it will try to punish the offending thread by introducing a 10ms delay. But recall that our vCPU has a 1ms timer pending!

The situation is thus the following:

  1. The VMM programs a 1ms timer and starts guest execution with KVM_RUN.
  2. The guest executes a misaligned lock bts and exits with an #AC exception.
  3. The host Linux kernel sleeps for 10ms to punish this behavior.
  4. The sleep is interrupted and the function immediately returns with split lock detection still enabled.

At this point, the VMM sees that 10ms has passed and processes its timeout events. It programs a new timeout and we have the same sequence of events again.

I have created a minimal example of this issue here. The guest code just counts how many times it can can execute the lock bts instruction.

When you execute this test program once with split_lock_detect=warn and once with split_lock_detect=off, you get the following data:

The plot shows number of loops that the guest finished on the vertical axis and the pending timeout in ms on the horizontal axis.

You can clearly see that for timeouts below 10ms, this (artificial) guest makes no progress at all when split lock detection is enabled! On the other hand, when split lock detection is disabled, the guest makes roughly as much progress as we give it time.


As I already mentioned, the easiest workaround is to turn split lock detection off via split_lock_detect=off. This is safe unless you run a public cloud. Alternatively, the punishment can be disabled by writing 0 into /proc/sys/kernel/split_lock_mitigate.

A Bug?

The split_lock_warn function is clearly written to allow the offender to make some progress. But in the situation where msleep_interruptible is actually interrupted, this is not the case anymore. It looks like a bug to me.

It’s a difficult question what the correct behavior should be here. If msleep_interruptible managed to sleep at least a bit (i.e. some punishment was dealt), we should still go into the lower part of the function that disables split lock detection and allow for forward progress. This may make it possible to circumvent this punishment though.

  1. I couldn’t find a good resource to link here. The VMX preemption timer is a simple timer that counts down a value in the VMCS proportional to the TSC frequency and generates a VM exit when it reaches zero. See chapter 24.5.1 “VMX-Preemption Timer” in the Intel SDM