System call emulation

System calls are the most critical interface of all user space software. They are the means of invoking kernel's functionality. Without them, software would not be able to communicate with the user, access the file system or establish network connections.

Every kernel provides a very specific set of system calls, even if there is a similar set of libc APIs available on different systems. For example, the system call set greatly differs between Linux and FreeBSD.

MacOS uses a kernel named XNU. XNU's system calls differ greatly from those of Linux, which is why XNU system call emulation is at the heart of Darling.

XNU system calls

Unlike other kernels, XNU has three distinct system call tables:

  1. BSD system calls, invoked via sysenter/syscall. These calls frequently have a direct counterpart on Linux, which makes them easiest to implement.
  2. Mach system calls, which use negative system call numbers. These are non-existent on Linux and are mostly implemented in darlingserver. These calls are built around Mach ports.
  3. Machine dependent system calls, invoked via int 0x82. There are only a few of them and they are mainly related to thread-local storage.


Darling emulates system calls by providing a modified /usr/lib/system/libsystem_kernel.dylib library, the source code of which is located in src/kernel. However, some parts of the emulation are located in Darling's userspace kernel server (a.k.a. darlingserver, located in src/external/darlingserver).

This is why libsystem_kernel.dylib (and also dyld, which contains a static build of this library) can never be copied from macOS to Darling.

Emulating XNU system calls directly in Linux would have a few benefits, but isn't really workable. Unlike BSD kernels, Linux has no support for foreign system call emulation and having such an extensive and intrusive patchset merged into Linux would be too difficult. Requiring Darling's users to patch their kernels is out of question as well.

In the past, Darling used a kernel module to implement many of the same things now handled by darlingserver. This approach had certain advantages (e.g. much simpler to manage Darling processes and typically faster than darlingserver), but it was found to be too unstable. Additionally, debugging kernel code is much harder than debugging userspace code, so it also presented development challenges.

Disadvantages of this approach

  • Inability to run a full copy of macOS under Darling (notwithstanding the legality of such endeavor), at least the files mentioned above need to be different.

  • Inability to run software making direct system calls. This includes some old UPX-packed executables. In the past, software written in Go also belonged in this group, but this is no longer the case. Note that Apple provides no support for making direct system calls (which is effectively very similar to distributing statically linked executables described in the article) and frequently changes the system call table, hence such software is bound to break over time.

Advantages of this approach

  • Significantly easier development.
  • No need to worry about having patches merged into Linux.
  • It is easier for users to have newest code available, it is not needed to run the latest kernel to have the most up to date system call emulation.


libsystem_kernel consists of two main components: Apple's open-source wrappers and our own syscall emulation. This setup makes our emulation model what happens on macOS as closely as possible. Apple uses wrappers in order to perform additional set up for syscalls as necessary and this also allows them to modify the kernel syscall interface between releases while keeping a stable libsystem_kernel interface.

When the wrappers are called, they perform any necessary set up and then invoke the syscall using a macro. This macro normally expands to a bit of assembly code that includes a syscall instruction, but for Darling, this macro is replaced with our own modified version that redirects the call over to one of our syscall lookup functions (according to the syscall type: BSD, Mach, or machdep). Our handler then looks in the appropriate table and invokes our emulated version of the syscall (or returns ENOSYS if we don't support it).

After that, the process becomes largely syscall-specific and documenting how we handle each and every one of them here would be a large task, and probably not that useful (after all, if you're looking to dive into the specifics of libsystem_kernel, it's probably best to look at the code). However, it is useful to document details common across multiple syscalls, so that is what follows now.

Making Linux syscalls

The majority of our emulated libsystem_kernel syscalls need to make Linux syscalls (and some need to make multiple syscalls). In order to make this easier, libsystem_kernel has a LINUX_SYSCALL macro. It can be used like so: LINUX_SYSCALL(linux_syscall_number, arguments...). As an example, this is how our chroot uses it:

long sys_chroot(const char* path) {
  // ... other code ...
  LINUX_SYSCALL(__NR_chroot, path);
  // ... more code ...

In addition, to avoid dependence on external headers, libsystem_kernel includes copies of Linux headers defining syscall numbers. All of these syscall numbers are prefixed with __NR_. The syscall numbers, as well as availability, depends on the architecture. See this directory for the header we include.

Making darlingserver calls

Many syscalls can be emulated using only Linux syscalls. However, there are some, most notably Mach syscalls, that require calls into our userspace kernel server.

darlingserver calls have wrappers in libsystem_kernel that handle all the RPC boilerplate for messaging the server. Prototypes for these wrappers can be included using #include <darlingserver/rpc.h>. A full list of all the supported RPC calls can be found here.

Each wrapper is of the form:

int dserver_rpc_CALL_NAME_HERE(int arg1, char arg2 /* and arg3, arg4, etc. */, int* return_val1, char* return_val2 /* and return_val3, return_val4, etc. */);

The arguments to the wrapper are the arguments (if any) to the RPC call followed by pointers to store the return values (if any) from the call. All return value pointers can be set to NULL if you don't want/care about that value.

File descriptors can also be sent and received like any other argument or return value; the wrappers take care of the necessary RPC boilerplate behind the scenes.

For example, this is the wrapper prototype for the uidgid call, which retrieves the UID and GID of the current process (as seen within the process) and optionally updates them (if either new_uid or new_gid are greater than -1):

int dserver_rpc_uidgid(int32_t new_uid, int32_t new_gid, int32_t* out_old_uid, int32_t* out_old_gid);

The following are all valid invocations of this wrapper:

int old_uid;
int old_gid;

// retrieve the old UID and set the new UID to 5 (without changing the GID)
dserver_rpc_uidgid(5, -1, &old_uid, NULL);

// retrieve the old UID and GID and don't change the UID or GID values
dserver_rpc_uidgid(-1, -1, &old_uid, &old_gid);

// set the new GID to 89 (without changing the UID)
dserver_rpc_uidgid(-1, 89, NULL, NULL);

For more details on darlingserver RPC, see the appropriate doc.

errno translation

Every syscall needs to return a status code, and Linux syscalls also return status codes. Therefore, many of our emulated syscalls that make Linux syscalls return the Linux syscall's return code as their own. However, since errno values differ between BSD and Linux, we need to translate these codes before returning them. That's what errno_linux_to_bsd is for: feed it a Linux errno and it'll give you the equivalent BSD errno. It will also automatically handle signs: if you give a positive code, it'll return a positive code, and vice versa for negative codes.

"Simple" implementations of certain libc functions

Libc provides some incredibly useful functions that we simply cannot use in libsystem_kernel, due the fact that libsystem_kernel can't have any external dependencies. However, we would still like to have many of these available in libsystem_kernel. Solution? Implement our own simple versions of these functions.

The result is that everything in simple.h is available in libsystem_kernel. These are all designed to provide the necessary functionality from their libc counterparts. This means, for example, that most (but not all) format specifiers are supported by __simple_printf, mainly just because we don't need them all. Additionally, __simple_kprintf is libsystem_kernel-unique: it can be used to print to the Linux kernel log stream (using our LKM).

vchroot handling

As part of Darling's containerization, Darling uses something called a virtual chroot, or "vchroot" for short. The idea behind this technique is that, since we control libsystem_kernel, through which all Darwin filesystem operations must go, we can rewrite paths in libsystem_kernel to make the root (i.e. /) point to our prefix (e.g. ~/.darling). The main advantage of this method compared to an actual chroot is that Linux libraries and programs used within the prefix are oblivious to this and see the normal Linux root. This means that Linux libraries can communicate with daemons and services exactly like they normally would, requiring no extra setup on our part.

The disadvantage of this approach is that means a lot more work for our libsystem_kernel. We have to be careful to translate every single path we handle, both ones we receive as input (i.e. we must expand them to their full Linux paths) and ones we return (i.e. we must unexpand them back to their prefix-relative paths). Thankfully, there are two functions in libsystem_kernel that handle all the expansion and unexpansion to make it easier on syscalls: vchroot_expand and vchroot_unexpand.

vchroot_expand expects a pointer to an argument structure (for legacy reasons; this used to be an LKM call). This structure contains 3 members. On input, path is a character buffer containing the path to expand. On output, it contains the expanded path. flags specifies flags for the call. Currently, there is only a single flag: VCHROOT_FOLLOW tells the function to return the expanded symlink target path if the input path refers to a symlink. dfd specifies a descriptor pointing to a directory to use as the base from which to resolve relative input paths. If it is set to -100, the process's current working directory. vchroot_expand returns 0 on success or a Linux errno (remember to translate this if returning it from a syscall!).

vchroot_unexpand does the opposite of vchroot_expand: it takes a fully expanded Linux path, and returns the unexpanded prefix-relative path. Like vchroot_expand, it expects a pointer to an argument structure, although it only has a single member: path. On input, path is a character buffer containing the path to unexpand. On output, path contains the unexpanded path. Like vchroot_expand, vchroot_unexpand returns 0 on success or a Linux errno.