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1. Introduction
Linux distinguishes between administrative and operational state of an
interface. Administrative state is the result of "ip link set dev
<dev> up or down" and reflects whether the administrator wants to use
the device for traffic.
However, an interface is not usable just because the admin enabled it
- ethernet requires to be plugged into the switch and, depending on
a site's networking policy and configuration, an 802.1X authentication
to be performed before user data can be transferred. Operational state
shows the ability of an interface to transmit this user data.
Thanks to 802.1X, userspace must be granted the possibility to
influence operational state. To accommodate this, operational state is
split into two parts: Two flags that can be set by the driver only, and
a RFC2863 compatible state that is derived from these flags, a policy,
and changeable from userspace under certain rules.
2. Querying from userspace
Both admin and operational state can be queried via the netlink
operation RTM_GETLINK. It is also possible to subscribe to RTMGRP_LINK
to be notified of updates. This is important for setting from userspace.
These values contain interface state:
ifinfomsg::if_flags & IFF_UP:
Interface is admin up
ifinfomsg::if_flags & IFF_RUNNING:
Interface is in RFC2863 operational state UP or UNKNOWN. This is for
backward compatibility, routing daemons, dhcp clients can use this
flag to determine whether they should use the interface.
ifinfomsg::if_flags & IFF_LOWER_UP:
Driver has signaled netif_carrier_on()
ifinfomsg::if_flags & IFF_DORMANT:
Driver has signaled netif_dormant_on()
contains RFC2863 state of the interface in numeric representation:
Interface is in unknown state, neither driver nor userspace has set
operational state. Interface must be considered for user data as
setting operational state has not been implemented in every driver.
Unused in current kernel (notpresent interfaces normally disappear),
just a numerical placeholder.
Interface is unable to transfer data on L1, f.e. ethernet is not
plugged or interface is ADMIN down.
Interfaces stacked on an interface that is IF_OPER_DOWN show this
state (f.e. VLAN).
Unused in current kernel.
Interface is L1 up, but waiting for an external event, f.e. for a
protocol to establish. (802.1X)
Interface is operational up and can be used.
This TLV can also be queried via sysfs.
contains link policy. This is needed for userspace interaction
described below.
This TLV can also be queried via sysfs.
3. Kernel driver API
Kernel drivers have access to two flags that map to IFF_LOWER_UP and
IFF_DORMANT. These flags can be set from everywhere, even from
interrupts. It is guaranteed that only the driver has write access,
however, if different layers of the driver manipulate the same flag,
the driver has to provide the synchronisation needed.
The driver uses netif_carrier_on() to clear and netif_carrier_off() to
set this flag. On netif_carrier_off(), the scheduler stops sending
packets. The name 'carrier' and the inversion are historical, think of
it as lower layer.
netif_carrier_ok() can be used to query that bit.
Set by the driver to express that the device cannot yet be used
because some driver controlled protocol establishment has to
complete. Corresponding functions are netif_dormant_on() to set the
flag, netif_dormant_off() to clear it and netif_dormant() to query.
On device allocation, networking core sets the flags equivalent to
netif_carrier_ok() and !netif_dormant().
Whenever the driver CHANGES one of these flags, a workqueue event is
scheduled to translate the flag combination to IFLA_OPERSTATE as
IF_OPER_LOWERLAYERDOWN if the interface is stacked, IF_OPER_DOWN
otherwise. Kernel can recognise stacked interfaces because their
ifindex != iflink.
netif_carrier_ok() && netif_dormant():
netif_carrier_ok() && !netif_dormant():
IF_OPER_UP if userspace interaction is disabled. Otherwise
IF_OPER_DORMANT with the possibility for userspace to initiate the
IF_OPER_UP transition afterwards.
4. Setting from userspace
Applications have to use the netlink interface to influence the
RFC2863 operational state of an interface. Setting IFLA_LINKMODE to 1
via RTM_SETLINK instructs the kernel that an interface should go to
IF_OPER_DORMANT instead of IF_OPER_UP when the combination
netif_carrier_ok() && !netif_dormant() is set by the
driver. Afterwards, the userspace application can set IFLA_OPERSTATE
to IF_OPER_DORMANT or IF_OPER_UP as long as the driver does not set
netif_carrier_off() or netif_dormant_on(). Changes made by userspace
are multicasted on the netlink group RTMGRP_LINK.
So basically a 802.1X supplicant interacts with the kernel like this:
-subscribe to RTMGRP_LINK
-query RTM_GETLINK once to get initial state
-if initial flags are not (IFF_LOWER_UP && !IFF_DORMANT), wait until
netlink multicast signals this state
-do 802.1X, eventually abort if flags go down again
-send RTM_SETLINK to set operstate to IF_OPER_UP if authentication
succeeds, IF_OPER_DORMANT otherwise
-see how operstate and IFF_RUNNING is echoed via netlink multicast
-set interface back to IF_OPER_DORMANT if 802.1X reauthentication
-restart if kernel changes IFF_LOWER_UP or IFF_DORMANT flag
if supplicant goes down, bring back IFLA_LINKMODE to 0 and
IFLA_OPERSTATE to a sane value.
A routing daemon or dhcp client just needs to care for IFF_RUNNING or
waiting for operstate to go IF_OPER_UP/IF_OPER_UNKNOWN before
considering the interface / querying a DHCP address.
For technical questions and/or comments please e-mail to Stefan Rompf
(stefan at