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What is eBPF? How it Works & Use Cases

4 min read

The Linux kernel is the core component of the operating system that manages hardware resources, processes, memory, and security. It is also a complex and dynamic system that constantly evolves and adapts to new challenges and requirements. However, modifying the kernel source code can be risky, time-consuming, and difficult to maintain. What if there was a way to extend the kernel functionality without changing its code?

This is where eBPF comes in, also known as extended Berkeley Packet Filter, a powerful technology that allows users to write custom programs that run inside the kernel and interact with its data structures and events. eBPF is not a new invention; it is based on the original BPF, which was designed for efficient packet filtering and analysis. Over the years, eBPF has evolved and expanded its scope to cover various aspects of the kernel, such as system calls, function calls, network traffic, and more.

eBPF offers several key benefits that make it an attractive and versatile tool for kernel developers and users. First, it provides safe and controlled access to the kernel, ensuring that the programs do not compromise the system stability or security. Second, it enables efficient and granular tracing of the kernel behavior and performance, allowing users to collect and analyze valuable information. Third, it allows dynamic and flexible programmability of the kernel, enabling users to customize and optimize its functionality according to their needs. Fourth, it supports diverse and innovative applications that span across different domains, such as observability, security, networking, and more.

In this article, we will explore the basics of eBPF, how it works, and what it can do. We will also look at some of the most common and exciting use cases of eBPF in action. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of this remarkable technology and its potential for transforming the Linux kernel and beyond.


What is eBPF?


eBPF stands for extended Berkeley Packet Filter, a technology that enables users to run custom programs inside the Linux kernel without modifying or recompiling it. These programs are written in a restricted C-like language and compiled into bytecode that can be executed by a virtual machine embedded in the kernel. The bytecode is attached to various hooks or events that trigger its execution, such as system calls, network packets, tracepoints, etc.

To ensure the safety and stability of the kernel environment, eBPF programs are subject to a sandboxing approach that limits their access to kernel resources and functions. For example, eBPF programs cannot use loops, pointers, or dynamic memory allocation, and they must terminate within a predefined number of instructions. Additionally, eBPF programs are checked by a verifier before being loaded into the kernel, which guarantees their code integrity and prevents them from causing system disruption or security breaches.


How Does eBPF Works?


eBPF Architecture Diagram

eBPF programs are executed by the kernel in response to certain events, such as system calls, network packets, function calls, or timer interrupts. To enable this, the kernel provides a set of hooks – predefined points where eBPF programs can be attached to intercept and process the events.

There are different types of hooks available for different purposes, such as:


  • kprobes and uprobes for tracing arbitrary kernel and user space function calls, respectively.
  • tracepoints for tracing stable and well-defined kernel events, such as system calls, scheduler actions, or block device operations.
  • socket filters and XDP for filtering and manipulating network traffic at various layers of the network stack.
  • cgroups and LSM for enforcing resource limits and security policies on processes and containers.

In addition to the event data, eBPF programs can also access additional resources and perform specific tasks with the help of helper functions. These are kernel functions that can be invoked by eBPF programs to read or write kernel data structures, manipulate packet data, generate random numbers, print messages, or perform other actions. Helper functions are also used to implement maps, which are key-value data structures that can store and share data between eBPF programs or between the kernel and user space.


Use Cases of eBPF


eBPF is a versatile and powerful technology that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios and domains. Now, we will explore some of the most common and impactful use cases of eBPF, and how it can help solve various challenges and problems.


  • Observability: One of the key benefits of eBPF is that it enables observability at the kernel level, allowing users to monitor and trace the behavior and performance of applications and systems. With eBPF, users can instrument any kernel function or user space application, and collect data such as latency, throughput, errors, resource utilization, and more. This data can then be used for analysis, visualization, and optimization. eBPF also supports dynamic tracing, which means users can attach and detach probes without modifying the code or restarting the system. This makes eBPF a powerful tool for debugging and troubleshooting issues in production environments.
  • Security: Another important use case of eBPF is security, as it can help protect systems and networks from various threats and attacks. With eBPF, users can implement in-kernel firewalls and network security filters, which can block or redirect traffic based on custom rules and policies. eBPF can also be used to detect and respond to malware and cyberattacks, such as rootkits, ransomware, and denial-of-service attacks, by monitoring system calls, network events, and file system operations. Additionally, eBPF can help harden systems by limiting the access and privileges of processes and resources, and enforcing security policies and compliance standards.
  • Networking: eBPF is also widely used for networking, as it can enhance the performance and functionality of network devices and protocols. With eBPF, users can implement load balancing and traffic steering, which can distribute and route network traffic across multiple servers or paths, based on criteria such as load, latency, or quality of service. eBPF can also perform deep packet inspection, which can analyze the content and metadata of network packets, and apply filters or actions based on the results. Furthermore, eBPF can enable users to customize and extend the network behavior and functionality, by adding new features or protocols, or modifying existing ones.
  • Other Use Cases: Besides the above-mentioned domains, eBPF can also be applied to other areas and scenarios, such as cloud-native development and microservices orchestration. eBPF can help improve the scalability, reliability, and efficiency of cloud-based applications and services, by enabling fine-grained control and visibility over the network and system resources. eBPF can also enhance the security and performance of containers and Kubernetes, by providing isolation, sandboxing, and monitoring capabilities. Moreover, eBPF can assist in debugging and troubleshooting complex system issues, such as memory leaks, race conditions, and deadlocks, by providing rich and detailed information and insights.

Conclusion


eBPF is a remarkable technology that enables users to extend and customize the Linux kernel functionality without modifying its source code. By writing and running eBPF programs inside the kernel, users can access and manipulate kernel data and events, and achieve various goals, such as observability, security, networking, and more. eBPF offers several advantages, such as safe kernel access, efficient tracing, dynamic programmability, and diverse applications, that make it a powerful and versatile tool for kernel developers and users.

However, eBPF is not without limitations and challenges. For instance, eBPF programs are restricted by the sandboxing and verification mechanisms, which can limit their complexity and functionality. Moreover, eBPF programs require a certain level of expertise and familiarity with the kernel internals, which can pose a steep learning curve for beginners. Furthermore, eBPF is still an evolving technology, and there are ongoing efforts to improve its performance, usability, and compatibility.

Nevertheless, eBPF is a promising and exciting technology that has the potential to revolutionize various fields and domains. With eBPF, users can unleash the full power and flexibility of the Linux kernel, and create innovative and customized solutions for their needs. Learn more about eBPF on their official page.


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Abraham Dahunsi Web Developer 🌐 | Technical Writer ✍️| DevOps Enthusiast👨‍💻 | Python🐍 |

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