Hello eBPF: Developing eBPF Apps in Java (1)

eBPF allows you to attach programs directly to hooks in the Linux kernel without loading kernel modules, like hooks for networking or executing programs. This has historically been used for writing custom package filters in firewalls. Still, nowadays, it is used for monitoring and tracing, becoming an ever more critical building block of modern observability tools. To quote from ebpf.io:

Historically, the operating system has always been an ideal place to implement observability, security, and networking functionality due to the kernel’s privileged ability to oversee and control the entire system. At the same time, an operating system kernel is hard to evolve due to its central role and high requirement towards stability and security. The rate of innovation at the operating system level has thus traditionally been lower compared to functionality implemented outside of the operating system.

eBPF changes this formula fundamentally. It allows sandboxed programs to run within the operating system, which means that application developers can run eBPF programs to add additional capabilities to the operating system at runtime. The operating system then guarantees safety and execution efficiency as if natively compiled with the aid of a Just-In-Time (JIT) compiler and verification engine. This has led to a wave of eBPF-based projects covering a wide array of use cases, including next-generation networking, observability, and security functionality.

Today, eBPF is used extensively to drive a wide variety of use cases: Providing high-performance networking and load-balancing in modern data centers and cloud native environments, extracting fine-grained security observability data at low overhead, helping application developers trace applications, providing insights for performance troubleshooting, preventive application and container runtime security enforcement, and much more. The possibilities are endless, and the innovation that eBPF is unlocking has only just begun.

Writing eBPF apps

On the lowest level, eBPF programs are compiled down to eBPF bytecode and attached to hooks in the kernel via a syscall. This is tedious; so many libraries for eBPF allow you to write applications using and interacting with eBPF in C++, Rust, Go, Python, and even Lua.

But there are none for Java, which is a pity. So… I decided to write bindings using the new Foreign Function API (Project Panama, preview in 21) and bcc, the first and widely used library for eBPF, which is typically used with its Python API and allows you to write eBPF programs in C, compiling eBPF programs dynamically at runtime.

That’s why I wrote From C to Java Code using Panama a few weeks ago.

Anyway, I’m starting my new blog series and eBPF library hello-ebpf:

Let’s discover eBPF together. Join me on the journey to write all examples from the Learning eBPF book (get it also from Bookshop.org, Amazon, or O’Reilly) by Liz Rice and more in Java, implementing a Java library for eBPF along the way, with a blog series to document the journey. I highly recommend reading the book alongside my articles; for this blog post, I read the book till page 18.

The project is still in its infancy, but I hope that we can eventually extend the overview image from ebpf.io with a duke:

Goals

The main goal is to provide a library (and documentation) for Java developers to explore eBPF and write their own eBPF programs without leaving their favorite language and runtime.

The initial goal is to be as close to the BCC Python API as possible to port the book’s examples to Java easily. You can find the Java versions of the examples in the src/main/me/bechberger/samples and the API in the src/main/me/bechberger/bcc directory in the GitHub repository.

Implementation

The Python API is just a wrapper around the bcc library using the built-in cffi, which extends the raw bindings to improve usability. The initial implementation of the library is a translation of the Python code to Java 21 code with Panama for FFI.

For example the following method of the Python API

    def get_syscall_fnname(self, name):
        name = _assert_is_bytes(name)
        return self.get_syscall_prefix() + name

is translated into Java as follows:

    public String get_syscall_fnname(String fnName) {
        return get_syscall_prefix() + fnName;
    }

This is the reason why the library has the same license as the Python API, Apache 2.0. The API is purposefully close to the Python API and only deviates where absolutely necessary, adding a few helper methods to improve it slightly. This makes it easier to work with the examples from the book and speeds up the initial development. But finishing a translation of the Python API is not the end goal:

Plans

A look ahead into the future so you know what to expect:

  • Implement the full API so that we can recreate all bcc examples from the book
  • Make it adequately available as a library on Maven Central
  • Support the newer libbpf library
  • Allow writing eBPF programs in Java

These plans might change, but I’ll try to keep this current. I’m open to suggestions, contributions, and ideas.

Contributing

Contributions are welcome; just open an issue or a pull request. Discussions take place in the discussions section of the GitHub repository. Please spread the word if you like it; this greatly helps the project.

I’m happy to include more example programs, API documentation, helper methods, and links to repositories and projects that use this library.

Running the first example

The Java library is still in its infancy, but we are already implementing the most basic eBPF program from the book that prints “Hello World!” every time a new program is started via the execve system call:

> ./run.sh bcc.HelloWorld
           <...>-30325   [042] ...21 10571.161861: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-30325   [004] ...21 10571.164091: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-30325   [115] ...21 10571.166249: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-39907   [127] ...21 10571.167210: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-30325   [115] ...21 10572.231333: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-30325   [060] ...21 10572.233574: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-30325   [099] ...21 10572.235698: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
             zsh-39911   [100] ...21 10572.236664: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
 MediaSu~isor #3-19365   [064] ...21 10573.417254: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
 MediaSu~isor #3-22497   [000] ...21 10573.417254: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
 MediaPD~oder #1-39914   [083] ...21 10573.418197: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!
 MediaSu~isor #3-39913   [116] ...21 10573.418249: bpf_trace_printk: Hello, World!

This helps you track the processes that use execve and lets you observe that Firefox (via MediaSu~isor) creates many processes and see whenever a Z-Shell creates a new process.

The related code can be found in chapter2/HelloWorld.java:

public class HelloWorld {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    try (BPF b = BPF.builder("""
            int hello(void *ctx) {
               bpf_trace_printk("Hello, World!");
               return 0;
            }
            """).build()) {
      var syscall = b.get_syscall_fnname("execve");
      b.attach_kprobe(syscall, "hello");
      b.trace_print();
    }
  }
}

The eBPF program appends a “Hello World” trace message to the /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/trace DebugFS file via bpf_trace_printk everytime the hello method is called. The trace has the following format: “<current task, e.g. zsh>-<process id> [<CPU id the task is running on>] <options> <timestamp>: <appending ebpf method>: <actual message, like 'Hello World'>“. But bpf_trace_printk is slow, it should only be used for debugging purposes.

The Java code attaches the hello method to the execve system call and then prints the lines from the /sys/kernel/debug/tracing/trace file. The program is equivalent to the Python code from the book. But, of course, many features have not yet been implemented and so the programs you can write are quite limited.

Conclusion

eBPF is an integral part of the modern observability tech stack. The hello-ebpf Java library will allow you to write eBPF applications directly in Java for the first time. This is an enormous undertaking for a side project so it will take some time. With my new blog series, you can be part of the journey, learning eBPF and building great tools.

I plan to write a blog post every few weeks and hope you join me. You wouldn’t be the first: Mohammed Aboullaite has already entered and helped me with his eBPF expertise. The voyage will hopefully take us from the first hello world examples shown in this blog post to a fully fledged Java eBPF library.

This article is part of my work in the SapMachine team at SAP, making profiling and debugging easier for everyone. Thank you to Martin Dörr and Lukas Werling who helped in the preparation of this article.

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