The Kernel Address Sanitizer (KASAN)


KernelAddressSANitizer (KASAN) is a dynamic memory safety error detector designed to find out-of-bound and use-after-free bugs. KASAN has three modes:

  1. generic KASAN (similar to userspace ASan),

  2. software tag-based KASAN (similar to userspace HWASan),

  3. hardware tag-based KASAN (based on hardware memory tagging).

Software KASAN modes (1 and 2) use compile-time instrumentation to insert validity checks before every memory access, and therefore require a compiler version that supports that.

Generic KASAN is supported in both GCC and Clang. With GCC it requires version 8.3.0 or later. Any supported Clang version is compatible, but detection of out-of-bounds accesses for global variables is only supported since Clang 11.

Tag-based KASAN is only supported in Clang.

Currently generic KASAN is supported for the x86_64, arm, arm64, xtensa, s390 and riscv architectures, and tag-based KASAN modes are supported only for arm64.


To enable KASAN configure kernel with:


and choose between CONFIG_KASAN_GENERIC (to enable generic KASAN), CONFIG_KASAN_SW_TAGS (to enable software tag-based KASAN), and CONFIG_KASAN_HW_TAGS (to enable hardware tag-based KASAN).

For software modes, you also need to choose between CONFIG_KASAN_OUTLINE and CONFIG_KASAN_INLINE. Outline and inline are compiler instrumentation types. The former produces smaller binary while the latter is 1.1 - 2 times faster.

Both software KASAN modes work with both SLUB and SLAB memory allocators, while the hardware tag-based KASAN currently only support SLUB.

For better error reports that include stack traces, enable CONFIG_STACKTRACE.

To augment reports with last allocation and freeing stack of the physical page, it is recommended to enable also CONFIG_PAGE_OWNER and boot with page_owner=on.

Error reports

A typical out-of-bounds access generic KASAN report looks like this:

BUG: KASAN: slab-out-of-bounds in kmalloc_oob_right+0xa8/0xbc [test_kasan]
Write of size 1 at addr ffff8801f44ec37b by task insmod/2760

CPU: 1 PID: 2760 Comm: insmod Not tainted 4.19.0-rc3+ #698
Hardware name: QEMU Standard PC (i440FX + PIIX, 1996), BIOS 1.10.2-1 04/01/2014
Call Trace:
 kmalloc_oob_right+0xa8/0xbc [test_kasan]
 kmalloc_tests_init+0x16/0x700 [test_kasan]
RIP: 0033:0x7f96443109da
RSP: 002b:00007ffcf0b51b08 EFLAGS: 00000202 ORIG_RAX: 00000000000000af
RAX: ffffffffffffffda RBX: 000055dc3ee521a0 RCX: 00007f96443109da
RDX: 00007f96445cff88 RSI: 0000000000057a50 RDI: 00007f9644992000
RBP: 000055dc3ee510b0 R08: 0000000000000003 R09: 0000000000000000
R10: 00007f964430cd0a R11: 0000000000000202 R12: 00007f96445cff88
R13: 000055dc3ee51090 R14: 0000000000000000 R15: 0000000000000000

Allocated by task 2760:
 kmalloc_oob_right+0x56/0xbc [test_kasan]
 kmalloc_tests_init+0x16/0x700 [test_kasan]

Freed by task 815:

The buggy address belongs to the object at ffff8801f44ec300
 which belongs to the cache kmalloc-128 of size 128
The buggy address is located 123 bytes inside of
 128-byte region [ffff8801f44ec300, ffff8801f44ec380)
The buggy address belongs to the page:
page:ffffea0007d13b00 count:1 mapcount:0 mapping:ffff8801f7001640 index:0x0
flags: 0x200000000000100(slab)
raw: 0200000000000100 ffffea0007d11dc0 0000001a0000001a ffff8801f7001640
raw: 0000000000000000 0000000080150015 00000001ffffffff 0000000000000000
page dumped because: kasan: bad access detected

Memory state around the buggy address:
 ffff8801f44ec200: fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fb
 ffff8801f44ec280: fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fc
>ffff8801f44ec300: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 03
 ffff8801f44ec380: fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fb
 ffff8801f44ec400: fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fb fc fc fc fc fc fc fc fc

The header of the report provides a short summary of what kind of bug happened and what kind of access caused it. It’s followed by a stack trace of the bad access, a stack trace of where the accessed memory was allocated (in case bad access happens on a slab object), and a stack trace of where the object was freed (in case of a use-after-free bug report). Next comes a description of the accessed slab object and information about the accessed memory page.

In the last section the report shows memory state around the accessed address. Internally KASAN tracks memory state separately for each memory granule, which is either 8 or 16 aligned bytes depending on KASAN mode. Each number in the memory state section of the report shows the state of one of the memory granules that surround the accessed address.

For generic KASAN the size of each memory granule is 8. The state of each granule is encoded in one shadow byte. Those 8 bytes can be accessible, partially accessible, freed or be a part of a redzone. KASAN uses the following encoding for each shadow byte: 0 means that all 8 bytes of the corresponding memory region are accessible; number N (1 <= N <= 7) means that the first N bytes are accessible, and other (8 - N) bytes are not; any negative value indicates that the entire 8-byte word is inaccessible. KASAN uses different negative values to distinguish between different kinds of inaccessible memory like redzones or freed memory (see mm/kasan/kasan.h).

In the report above the arrows point to the shadow byte 03, which means that the accessed address is partially accessible. For tag-based KASAN modes this last report section shows the memory tags around the accessed address (see the Implementation details section).

Boot parameters

Hardware tag-based KASAN mode (see the section about various modes below) is intended for use in production as a security mitigation. Therefore, it supports boot parameters that allow to disable KASAN competely or otherwise control particular KASAN features.

  • kasan=off or =on controls whether KASAN is enabled (default: on).

  • kasan.stacktrace=off or =on disables or enables alloc and free stack traces collection (default: on).

  • kasan.fault=report or =panic controls whether to only print a KASAN report or also panic the kernel (default: report). Note, that tag checking gets disabled after the first reported bug.

For developers

Software KASAN modes use compiler instrumentation to insert validity checks. Such instrumentation might be incompatible with some part of the kernel, and therefore needs to be disabled. To disable instrumentation for specific files or directories, add a line similar to the following to the respective kernel Makefile:

  • For a single file (e.g. main.o):

    KASAN_SANITIZE_main.o := n
  • For all files in one directory:


Implementation details

Generic KASAN

From a high level perspective, KASAN’s approach to memory error detection is similar to that of kmemcheck: use shadow memory to record whether each byte of memory is safe to access, and use compile-time instrumentation to insert checks of shadow memory on each memory access.

Generic KASAN dedicates 1/8th of kernel memory to its shadow memory (e.g. 16TB to cover 128TB on x86_64) and uses direct mapping with a scale and offset to translate a memory address to its corresponding shadow address.

Here is the function which translates an address to its corresponding shadow address:

static inline void *kasan_mem_to_shadow(const void *addr)
    return ((unsigned long)addr >> KASAN_SHADOW_SCALE_SHIFT)
            + KASAN_SHADOW_OFFSET;


Compile-time instrumentation is used to insert memory access checks. Compiler inserts function calls (__asan_load*(addr), __asan_store*(addr)) before each memory access of size 1, 2, 4, 8 or 16. These functions check whether memory access is valid or not by checking corresponding shadow memory.

GCC 5.0 has possibility to perform inline instrumentation. Instead of making function calls GCC directly inserts the code to check the shadow memory. This option significantly enlarges kernel but it gives x1.1-x2 performance boost over outline instrumented kernel.

Generic KASAN also reports the last 2 call stacks to creation of work that potentially has access to an object. Call stacks for the following are shown: call_rcu() and workqueue queuing.

Generic KASAN is the only mode that delays the reuse of freed object via quarantine (see mm/kasan/quarantine.c for implementation).

Software tag-based KASAN

Software tag-based KASAN requires software memory tagging support in the form of HWASan-like compiler instrumentation (see HWASan documentation for details).

Software tag-based KASAN is currently only implemented for arm64 architecture.

Software tag-based KASAN uses the Top Byte Ignore (TBI) feature of arm64 CPUs to store a pointer tag in the top byte of kernel pointers. Like generic KASAN it uses shadow memory to store memory tags associated with each 16-byte memory cell (therefore it dedicates 1/16th of the kernel memory for shadow memory).

On each memory allocation software tag-based KASAN generates a random tag, tags the allocated memory with this tag, and embeds this tag into the returned pointer.

Software tag-based KASAN uses compile-time instrumentation to insert checks before each memory access. These checks make sure that tag of the memory that is being accessed is equal to tag of the pointer that is used to access this memory. In case of a tag mismatch software tag-based KASAN prints a bug report.

Software tag-based KASAN also has two instrumentation modes (outline, that emits callbacks to check memory accesses; and inline, that performs the shadow memory checks inline). With outline instrumentation mode, a bug report is simply printed from the function that performs the access check. With inline instrumentation a brk instruction is emitted by the compiler, and a dedicated brk handler is used to print bug reports.

Software tag-based KASAN uses 0xFF as a match-all pointer tag (accesses through pointers with 0xFF pointer tag aren’t checked). The value 0xFE is currently reserved to tag freed memory regions.

Software tag-based KASAN currently only supports tagging of kmem_cache_alloc/kmalloc and page_alloc memory.

Hardware tag-based KASAN

Hardware tag-based KASAN is similar to the software mode in concept, but uses hardware memory tagging support instead of compiler instrumentation and shadow memory.

Hardware tag-based KASAN is currently only implemented for arm64 architecture and based on both arm64 Memory Tagging Extension (MTE) introduced in ARMv8.5 Instruction Set Architecture, and Top Byte Ignore (TBI).

Special arm64 instructions are used to assign memory tags for each allocation. Same tags are assigned to pointers to those allocations. On every memory access, hardware makes sure that tag of the memory that is being accessed is equal to tag of the pointer that is used to access this memory. In case of a tag mismatch a fault is generated and a report is printed.

Hardware tag-based KASAN uses 0xFF as a match-all pointer tag (accesses through pointers with 0xFF pointer tag aren’t checked). The value 0xFE is currently reserved to tag freed memory regions.

Hardware tag-based KASAN currently only supports tagging of kmem_cache_alloc/kmalloc and page_alloc memory.

If the hardware doesn’t support MTE (pre ARMv8.5), hardware tag-based KASAN won’t be enabled. In this case all boot parameters are ignored.

Note, that enabling CONFIG_KASAN_HW_TAGS always results in in-kernel TBI being enabled. Even when kasan.mode=off is provided, or when the hardware doesn’t support MTE (but supports TBI).

Hardware tag-based KASAN only reports the first found bug. After that MTE tag checking gets disabled.

What memory accesses are sanitised by KASAN?

The kernel maps memory in a number of different parts of the address space. This poses something of a problem for KASAN, which requires that all addresses accessed by instrumented code have a valid shadow region.

The range of kernel virtual addresses is large: there is not enough real memory to support a real shadow region for every address that could be accessed by the kernel.

By default

By default, architectures only map real memory over the shadow region for the linear mapping (and potentially other small areas). For all other areas - such as vmalloc and vmemmap space - a single read-only page is mapped over the shadow area. This read-only shadow page declares all memory accesses as permitted.

This presents a problem for modules: they do not live in the linear mapping, but in a dedicated module space. By hooking in to the module allocator, KASAN can temporarily map real shadow memory to cover them. This allows detection of invalid accesses to module globals, for example.

This also creates an incompatibility with VMAP_STACK: if the stack lives in vmalloc space, it will be shadowed by the read-only page, and the kernel will fault when trying to set up the shadow data for stack variables.


With CONFIG_KASAN_VMALLOC, KASAN can cover vmalloc space at the cost of greater memory usage. Currently this is only supported on x86.

This works by hooking into vmalloc and vmap, and dynamically allocating real shadow memory to back the mappings.

Most mappings in vmalloc space are small, requiring less than a full page of shadow space. Allocating a full shadow page per mapping would therefore be wasteful. Furthermore, to ensure that different mappings use different shadow pages, mappings would have to be aligned to KASAN_GRANULE_SIZE * PAGE_SIZE.

Instead, KASAN shares backing space across multiple mappings. It allocates a backing page when a mapping in vmalloc space uses a particular page of the shadow region. This page can be shared by other vmalloc mappings later on.

KASAN hooks into the vmap infrastructure to lazily clean up unused shadow memory.

To avoid the difficulties around swapping mappings around, KASAN expects that the part of the shadow region that covers the vmalloc space will not be covered by the early shadow page, but will be left unmapped. This will require changes in arch-specific code.

This allows VMAP_STACK support on x86, and can simplify support of architectures that do not have a fixed module region.


KASAN tests consist of two parts:

1. Tests that are integrated with the KUnit Test Framework. Enabled with CONFIG_KASAN_KUNIT_TEST. These tests can be run and partially verified automatically in a few different ways, see the instructions below.

2. Tests that are currently incompatible with KUnit. Enabled with CONFIG_KASAN_MODULE_TEST and can only be run as a module. These tests can only be verified manually, by loading the kernel module and inspecting the kernel log for KASAN reports.

Each KUnit-compatible KASAN test prints a KASAN report if an error is detected. Then the test prints its number and status.

When a test passes:

ok 28 - kmalloc_double_kzfree

When a test fails due to a failed kmalloc:

# kmalloc_large_oob_right: ASSERTION FAILED at lib/test_kasan.c:163
Expected ptr is not null, but is
not ok 4 - kmalloc_large_oob_right

When a test fails due to a missing KASAN report:

# kmalloc_double_kzfree: EXPECTATION FAILED at lib/test_kasan.c:629
Expected kasan_data->report_expected == kasan_data->report_found, but
kasan_data->report_expected == 1
kasan_data->report_found == 0
not ok 28 - kmalloc_double_kzfree

At the end the cumulative status of all KASAN tests is printed. On success:

ok 1 - kasan

Or, if one of the tests failed:

not ok 1 - kasan

There are a few ways to run KUnit-compatible KASAN tests.

1. Loadable module

With CONFIG_KUNIT enabled, CONFIG_KASAN_KUNIT_TEST can be built as a loadable module and run on any architecture that supports KASAN by loading the module with insmod or modprobe. The module is called test_kasan.

2. Built-In

With CONFIG_KUNIT built-in, CONFIG_KASAN_KUNIT_TEST can be built-in on any architecure that supports KASAN. These and any other KUnit tests enabled will run and print the results at boot as a late-init call.

3. Using kunit_tool

With CONFIG_KUNIT and CONFIG_KASAN_KUNIT_TEST built-in, it’s also possible use kunit_tool to see the results of these and other KUnit tests in a more readable way. This will not print the KASAN reports of the tests that passed. Use KUnit documentation for more up-to-date information on kunit_tool.