BPF and go pprof

Earlier this week I was made aware of what appeared to be an infinite loop in the in-kernel BPF verifier. Golang stacks were pulled, flamegraphs were captured (shoutout to profiler.firefox.com), and by all appearances it seemed like there was indeed an infinite loop.

I spent some time studying the verifier source and nothing really stood out to me as infinite loopable. Plus, the flamegraph showed a rather equal distribution of callees so the verifier being stuck in a single place seemed unlikely.

By some random chance I thought it would be useful to see how often the verifier was being called. I answered that question by running the following bpftrace script for a few seconds:

$ sudo ./bpftrace -e 't:syscalls:sys_enter_bpf { @ = count(); }'
Attaching 1 probe...

@: 932

So clearly this was not an infinite loop but rather bpf(BPF_PROG_LOAD, ...) being called in a tight loop. That by itself seemed rather odd so I took to the cilium/ebpf source. A quick dig turned up:

// BPF wraps SYS_BPF.
// Any pointers contained in attr must use the Pointer type from this package.
func BPF(cmd Cmd, attr unsafe.Pointer, size uintptr) (uintptr, error) {
    for {
        r1, _, errNo := unix.Syscall(unix.SYS_BPF, uintptr(cmd), uintptr(attr), size)

        // As of ~4.20 the verifier can be interrupted by a signal,
        // and returns EAGAIN in that case.
        if errNo == unix.EAGAIN && cmd == BPF_PROG_LOAD {

        var err error
        if errNo != 0 {
            err = wrappedErrno{errNo}

        return r1, err

Ah ha, so the looping condition is -EAGAIN. I quickly verified that by running:

$ sudo ./bpftrace -e 't:syscalls:sys_exit_bpf { @[args->ret] = count(); }'
Attaching 1 probe...

@[-11]: 543

-EAGAIN is -11, so great. That’s confirmation.

To answer why the verifier would ever return -EAGAIN, I grepped through kernel/bpf/verifier.c. It turns out there’s precisely one occurence of -EAGAIN in the file (which contains all verifier logic):

static int do_check(struct bpf_verifier_env *env)
        /* [...] */
        for (;;) {
                struct bpf_insn *insn;

                /* [...] */
                insn = &insns[env->insn_idx];
                class = BPF_CLASS(insn->code);

                /* [...] */
                if (signal_pending(current))
                        return -EAGAIN;

                /* Main logic follows */

So the only reason the verifier would return -EAGAIN is if there is a pending signal waiting for the caller.

In general this would be pretty difficult to debug b/c any code modification could potentially disturb the bad state. Fortunately, we can turn to bpftrace:

$ sudo ./bpftrace -e 't:syscalls:sys_exit_bpf { @[args->ret] = count(); } t:signal:signal_deliver / pid == $1 / { @sigs[args->sig] = count() }' $(pidof binary-under-investigation)
Attaching 2 probes...

@[-11]: 876
@sigs[27]: 1136

Here lies the smoking gun: signal 27 is SIGPROF. From here, two things were realized:

  1. Go’s built in CPU profiling uses SIGPROF to sample
  2. We recently turned on continuous pprof based profiling

In other words, what was happening was:

  1. The verifier was taking time for verification to complete
  2. While the verifier was working, pprof was sending SIGPROF at high enough frequency to prevent verifier from completing its work
  3. cilium/ebpf kept retrying bpf(BPF_PROG_LOAD, ..) because it received -EAGAINs
  4. All the above caused our process to spin on prog verification


This was a really nice bug b/c it’s simple to grok and totally non-obvious.

My only takeaway is that I’m not sure I like go’s signal based profiling mechanism. It intereres quite heavily with long-running syscalls like bpf(BPF_PROG_LOAD, ...). I would much rather prefer using PMU-based profilers like perf.