Kernel Objects

A kernel object can be one of three classes of data:

  • A core kernel object, such as a semaphore, thread, pipe, etc.

  • A thread stack, which is an array of z_thread_stack_element and declared with K_THREAD_STACK_DEFINE()

  • A device driver instance (const struct device) that belongs to one of a defined set of subsystems

The set of known kernel objects and driver subsystems is defined in include/kernel.h as k_objects.

Kernel objects are completely opaque to user threads. User threads work with addresses to kernel objects when making API calls, but may never dereference these addresses, doing so will cause a memory protection fault. All kernel objects must be placed in memory that is not accessible by user threads.

Since user threads may not directly manipulate kernel objects, all use of them must go through system calls. In order to perform a system call on a kernel object, checks are performed by system call handler functions that the kernel object address is valid and that the calling thread has sufficient permissions to work with it.

Permission on an object also has the semantics of a reference to an object. This is significant for certain object APIs which do temporary allocations, or objects which themselves have been allocated from a runtime memory pool.

If an object loses all references, two events may happen:

  • If the object has an associated cleanup function, the cleanup function may be called to release any runtime-allocated buffers the object was using.

  • If the object itself was dynamically allocated, the memory for the object will be freed.

Object Placement

Kernel objects that are only used by supervisor threads have no restrictions and can be located anywhere in the binary, or even declared on stacks. However, to prevent accidental or intentional corruption by user threads, they must not be located in any memory that user threads have direct access to.

In order for a static kernel object to be usable by a user thread via system call APIs, several conditions must be met on how the kernel object is declared:

  • The object must be declared as a top-level global at build time, such that it appears in the ELF symbol table. It is permitted to declare kernel objects with static scope. The post-build script scripts/build/ scans the generated ELF file to find kernel objects and places their memory addresses in a special table of kernel object metadata. Kernel objects may be members of arrays or embedded within other data structures.

  • Kernel objects must be located in memory reserved for the kernel. They must not be located in any memory partitions that are user-accessible.

  • Any memory reserved for a kernel object must be used exclusively for that object. Kernel objects may not be members of a union data type.

Kernel objects that are found but do not meet the above conditions will not be included in the generated table that is used to validate kernel object pointers passed in from user mode.

The debug output of the scripts/build/ script may be useful when debugging why some object was unexpectedly not being tracked. This information will be printed if the script is run with the --verbose flag, or if the build system is invoked with verbose output.

Dynamic Objects

Kernel objects may also be allocated at runtime if CONFIG_DYNAMIC_OBJECTS is enabled. In this case, the k_object_alloc() API may be used to instantiate an object from the calling thread’s resource pool. Such allocations may be freed in two ways:

  • Supervisor threads may call k_object_free() to force a dynamic object to be released.

  • If an object’s references drop to zero (which happens when no threads have permissions on it) the object will be automatically freed. User threads may drop their own permission on an object with k_object_release(), and their permissions are automatically cleared when a thread terminates. Supervisor threads may additionally revoke references for another thread using k_object_access_revoke().

Because permissions are also used for reference counting, it is important for supervisor threads to acquire permissions on objects they are using even though the access control aspects of the permission system are not enforced.

Implementation Details

The scripts/build/ script is a post-build step which finds all the valid kernel object instances in the binary. It accomplishes this by parsing the DWARF debug information present in the generated ELF file for the kernel.

Any instances of structs or arrays corresponding to kernel objects that meet the object placement criteria will have their memory addresses placed in a special perfect hash table of kernel objects generated by the ‘gperf’ tool. When a system call is made and the kernel is presented with a memory address of what may or may not be a valid kernel object, the address can be validated with a constant-time lookup in this table.

Drivers are a special case. All drivers are instances of device, but it is important to know what subsystem a driver belongs to so that incorrect operations, such as calling a UART API on a sensor driver object, can be prevented. When a device struct is found, its API pointer is examined to determine what subsystem the driver belongs to.

The table itself maps kernel object memory addresses to instances of z_object, which has all the metadata for that object. This includes:

  • A bitfield indicating permissions on that object. All threads have a numerical ID assigned to them at build time, used to index the permission bitfield for an object to see if that thread has permission on it. The size of this bitfield is controlled by the CONFIG_MAX_THREAD_BYTES option and the build system will generate an error if this value is too low.

  • A type field indicating what kind of object this is, which is some instance of k_objects.

  • A set of flags for that object. This is currently used to track initialization state and whether an object is public or not.

  • An extra data field. The semantics of this field vary by object type, see the definition of z_object_data.

Dynamic objects allocated at runtime are tracked in a runtime red/black tree which is used in parallel to the gperf table when validating object pointers.

Supervisor Thread Access Permission

Supervisor threads can access any kernel object. However, permissions for supervisor threads are still tracked for two reasons:

  • If a supervisor thread calls k_thread_user_mode_enter(), the thread will then run in user mode with any permissions it had been granted (in many cases, by itself) when it was a supervisor thread.

  • If a supervisor thread creates a user thread with the K_INHERIT_PERMS option, the child thread will be granted the same permissions as the parent thread, except the parent thread object.

User Thread Access Permission

By default, when a user thread is created, it will only have access permissions on its own thread object. Other kernel objects by default are not usable. Access to them needs to be explicitly or implicitly granted. There are several ways to do this.

  • If a thread is created with the K_INHERIT_PERMS, that thread will inherit all the permissions of the parent thread, except the parent thread object.

  • A thread that has permission on an object, or is running in supervisor mode, may grant permission on that object to another thread via the k_object_access_grant() API. The convenience pseudo-function k_thread_access_grant() may also be used, which accepts an arbitrary number of pointers to kernel objects and calls k_object_access_grant() on each of them. The thread being granted permission, or the object whose access is being granted, do not need to be in an initialized state. If the caller is from user mode, the caller must have permissions on both the kernel object and the target thread object.

  • Supervisor threads may declare a particular kernel object to be a public object, usable by all current and future threads with the k_object_access_all_grant() API. You must assume that any untrusted or exploited code will then be able to access the object. Use this API with caution!

  • If a thread was declared statically with K_THREAD_DEFINE(), then the K_THREAD_ACCESS_GRANT() may be used to grant that thread access to a set of kernel objects at boot time.

Once a thread has been granted access to an object, such access may be removed with the k_object_access_revoke() API. This API is not available to user threads, however user threads may use k_object_release() to relinquish their own permissions on an object.

API calls from supervisor mode to set permissions on kernel objects that are not being tracked by the kernel will be no-ops. Doing the same from user mode will result in a fatal error for the calling thread.

Objects allocated with k_object_alloc() implicitly grant permission on the allocated object to the calling thread.

Initialization State

Most operations on kernel objects will fail if the object is considered to be in an uninitialized state. The appropriate init function for the object must be performed first.

Some objects will be implicitly initialized at boot:

  • Kernel objects that were declared with static initialization macros (such as K_SEM_DEFINE for semaphores) will be in an initialized state at build time.

  • Device driver objects are considered initialized after their init function is run by the kernel early in the boot process.

If a kernel object is initialized with a private static initializer, the object must have z_object_init() called on it at some point by a supervisor thread, otherwise the kernel will consider the object uninitialized if accessed by a user thread. This is very uncommon, typically only for kernel objects that are embedded within some larger struct and initialized statically.

struct foo {
    struct k_sem sem;

struct foo my_foo = {
    .sem = Z_SEM_INITIALIZER(my_foo.sem, 0, 1),


Creating New Kernel Object Types

When implementing new kernel features or driver subsystems, it may be necessary to define some new kernel object types. There are different steps needed for creating core kernel objects and new driver subsystems.

Creating New Core Kernel Objects

  • In scripts/build/, add the name of the struct to the kobjects list.

Instances of the new struct should now be tracked.

Creating New Driver Subsystem Kernel Objects

All driver instances are device. They are differentiated by what API struct they are set to.

  • In scripts/build/, add the name of the API struct for the new subsystem to the subsystems list.

Driver instances of the new subsystem should now be tracked.

Configuration Options

Related configuration options:

API Reference

group usermode_apis



Grant a static thread access to a list of kernel objects.

For threads declared with K_THREAD_DEFINE(), grant the thread access to a set of kernel objects. These objects do not need to be in an initialized state. The permissions will be granted when the threads are initialized in the early boot sequence.

All arguments beyond the first must be pointers to kernel objects.


Object initialized


Object is Public


Object allocated


Driver Object


void k_object_access_grant(const void *object, struct k_thread *thread)

Grant a thread access to a kernel object

The thread will be granted access to the object if the caller is from supervisor mode, or the caller is from user mode AND has permissions on both the object and the thread whose access is being granted.

  • object – Address of kernel object

  • thread – Thread to grant access to the object

void k_object_access_revoke(const void *object, struct k_thread *thread)

Revoke a thread’s access to a kernel object

The thread will lose access to the object if the caller is from supervisor mode, or the caller is from user mode AND has permissions on both the object and the thread whose access is being revoked.

  • object – Address of kernel object

  • thread – Thread to remove access to the object

void k_object_release(const void *object)

Release an object.

Allows user threads to drop their own permission on an object Their permissions are automatically cleared when a thread terminates.

  • object – The object to be released

void k_object_access_all_grant(const void *object)

Grant all present and future threads access to an object

If the caller is from supervisor mode, or the caller is from user mode and have sufficient permissions on the object, then that object will have permissions granted to it for all current and future threads running in the system, effectively becoming a public kernel object.

Use of this API should be avoided on systems that are running untrusted code as it is possible for such code to derive the addresses of kernel objects and perform unwanted operations on them.

It is not possible to revoke permissions on public objects; once public, any thread may use it.

  • object – Address of kernel object

static inline void k_object_free(void *obj)

Free an object.

  • obj