BPF CO-RE (Compile Once – Run Everywhere)

Categories: BPF

What does it mean for a BPF application to be portable? And why it's actually hard to achieve that without BPF Compile Once — Run Everywhere (CO-RE)? In this post we'll see what are the challenges of writing BPF programs that can work across multiple kernel versions and how BPF CO-RE is helping to address this problem.

This post was originally posted on Facebook's BPF blog. If you are curious about some of the new things that happened since BPF CO-RE got introduced initially, please see "BPF CO-RE as of 2021" section below. There is now also the "BPF CO-RE reference guide" with a lot of practical tips on using BPF CO-RE features in real-world BPF applications.

BPF: state of the art

Since the inception of (e)BPF, it’s been a constant priority for the BPF community to simplify BPF application development as much as possible, make it as straightforward and familiar of an experience as it would be for a user-space application. And with the steady progress around BPF programmability, writing BPF programs has never been easier.

Despite these usability improvements, though, one aspect of BPF application development has been neglected (mostly for technical reasons): portability. What does "BPF portability" mean, though? BPF portability is the ability to write a BPF program that will successfully compile, pass kernel verification, and will work correctly across different kernel versions without the need to recompile it for each particular kernel.

This note describes the BPF portability problem and our solution to it: BPF CO-RE (Compile Once – Run Everywhere). First, we’ll look at the BPF portability problem itself, describing why it is a problem and why it’s important to solve it. Then, we will outline high-level components of the solution, BPF CO-RE, and will give a glimpse into the pieces of the puzzle that needed to be put together to make it happen. Lastly, we’ll conclude with a tutorial of sorts, describing the user-visible API of the BPF CO-RE approach and demonstrating its application with examples.

The problem of BPF portability

A BPF program is a piece of user-provided code which is injected straight into a kernel. Once loaded and verified, BPF programs execute in kernel context. These programs operate inside kernel memory space with access to all the internal kernel state available to it. This is extremely powerful and is one of the reasons why BPF technology is successfully used in so many varied applications. However, this powerful capability also creates the BPF portability pains we have today: BPF programs do not control memory layout of a surrounding kernel environment. They have to work with what they get from independently developed, compiled, and deployed kernels.

Additionally, kernel types and data structures are in constant flux. Different kernel versions will have struct fields shuffled around inside a struct, or even moved into a new inner struct. Fields can be renamed or removed, their types changed, either into some trivially-compatible ones or completely different ones. Structs and other types can get renamed, or they can be conditionally compiled out (depending on kernel configuration), or just plain removed between kernel versions.

In other words, things change all the time between kernel releases and yet BPF application developers are expected to cope with this problem somehow. How is it even possible to do anything useful with BPF today considering this ever-changing kernel environment? There are a few reasons for this.

First, not all BPF programs need to look into internal kernel data structures. One example is opensnoop tool, which relies on kprobes/tracepoints to track which processes open which files, and just needs to capture a few syscall arguments to work. As syscall parameters offer a stable ABI, these don’t change between kernel versions and as such portability is not a concern to begin with. Unfortunately, applications like this are quite rare. These types of applications are also typically quite limited in what they can do.

So, additionally, BPF machinery inside kernel provides a limited set of "stable interfaces" that BPF programs can rely on to be stable between kernels. In reality, underlying structures and mechanisms do change, but these BPF-provided stable interfaces abstract such details from user programs.

As one example, for networking applications it is usually enough to look at a limited set of sk_buff's attributes (and packet data, of course) to be extremely useful and versatile. To that end, BPF verifier provides a stable __sk_buff "view" (notice underscores in front), which shields BPF programs from changing struct sk_buff layout. All the __sk_buff field accesses are transparently rewritten into an actual sk_buff accesses (sometimes quite elaborate ones – doing a bunch of internal pointer chasing before finally fetching the requested field). Similar mechanisms are available to a bunch of different BPF program types. They are done as program type-specific BPF contexts understood by BPF verifier. So, if you are developing a BPF program with such context, consider yourself lucky, you can blissfully live in a nice illusion of stability.

But as soon as you need to get a glimpse at any raw internal kernel data (e.g., very commonly a struct task_struct which represents a process/thread and contains a treasure trove of process information), you are on your own. It is commonly the case for tracing, monitoring, and profiling applications, which are a huge class of extremely useful BPF programs.

In such cases, how do you make sure you are not reading garbage data when some kernel added an extra field before the field you thought is, say, at offset 16 from the start of struct task_struct? Suddenly, for that kernel, you'll need to read data from, e.g., offset 24. And the problems don't end there: what if a field got renamed, as was the case with thread_struct's fs field (useful for accessing thread-local storage), which got renamed to fsbase between 4.6 and 4.7 kernels. Or what if you have to run on two different configurations of a kernel, one of which disabled some specific feature and completely compiled out parts of the struct (a common case for additional accounting fields, which are optional, but extremely useful if present)? All this means that you can no longer compile your BPF program locally using kernel headers of your dev server and distribute it in compiled form to other systems, while expecting it to work and produce correct results. This is because kernel headers for different kernel versions will specify a different memory layout of data your program relies on.

So far, people have been dealing with this problem by relying on BCC (BPF Compiler Collection). With BCC, you embed your BPF program C source code into your user-space program (control application) as a plain string. When control application is eventually deployed and executed on target host, BCC invokes its embedded Clang/LLVM, pulls in local kernel headers (which you have to make sure are installed on the system from correct kernel-devel package), and performs compilation on the fly. This will make sure that memory layout that BPF program expects is exactly the same as in the target host's running kernel. If you have to deal with some optional and potentially compiled-out stuff in kernel, you'll just do #ifdef/#else guarding in your source code to accommodate such hazards as renamed fields, different semantics of values, or any optional stuff not available on current configuration. Embedded Clang will happily remove irrelevant parts of your code and will tailor BPF program code to specific kernel.

This sounds great, doesn't it? Not quite so, unfortunately. While this workflow works, it's not without major drawbacks.

  • Clang/LLVM combo is a big library, resulting in big fat binaries that need to be distributed with your application.

  • Clang/LLVM combo is resource-heavy, so when you are compiling BPF code at start up, you'll use a significant amount of resources, potentially tipping over a carefully balanced production workfload. And vice versa, on a busy host, compiling a small BPF program might take minutes in some cases.

  • You are making a big bet that the target system will have kernel headers present, which most of the time is not a problem, but sometimes can cause a lot of headaches. This is also an especially annoying requirement for kernel developers, because they often have to build and deploy custom one-off kernels as part of their development process. And without a custom-built kernel header package, no BCC-based application will work on such kernels, stripping developers of a useful set of tools for debugging and monitoring.

  • BPF program testing and development iteration is quite painful as well, as you are going to get even most trivial compilation errors only in runtime, once you recompile and restart your user-space control application. This certainly increases friction and is not helping to iterate fast.

Overall, while BCC is a great tool, especially for quick prototyping, experimentation, and small tools, it certainly has lots of disadvantages when used for widely deployed production BPF applications.

But BPF CO-RE is stepping up the game of BPF portability and is arguably the future of BPF program development, especially for complex real-world BPF applications.

High-level BPF CO-RE mechanics

BPF CO-RE brings together necessary pieces of functionality and data at all levels of the software stack: kernel, user-space BPF loader library (libbpf), and compiler (Clang) – to make it possible and easy to write BPF programs in a portable manner, handling discrepancies between different kernels within the same pre-compiled BPF program. BPF CO-RE requires a careful integration and cooperation of the following components:

  • BTF type information, which allows to capture crucial pieces of information about kernel and BPF program types and code, enabling all the other parts of BPF CO-RE puzzle;

  • compiler (Clang) provides means for BPF program C code to express the intent and record relocation information;

  • BPF loader (libbpf) ties BTFs from kernel and BPF program together to adjust compiled BPF code to specific kernel on target hosts;

  • kernel, while staying completely BPF CO-RE-agnostic, provides advanced BPF features to enable some of the more advanced scenarios.

Working in ensemble, these components enable unprecedented ability to develop portable BPF programs with ease, adaptability, and expressivity, previously achievable only through compiling BPF program’s C code in runtime through BCC, but without paying a high price for the BCC way.


One of the crucial enablers of the entire BPF CO-RE approach is BTF. BTF (BPF Type Format) was created as an alternative to a more generic and verbose DWARF debug information. BTF is a space-efficient, compact, yet still expressive enough format to describe all the type information of C programs. Due to its simplicity and BTF deduplication algorithm, BTF allows to achieve up to 100x reduction in size, when compared to DWARF. It is now practical to have Linux kernel with always present embedded BTF type information at runtime: just build the kernel with CONFIG_DEBUG_INFO_BTF=y option. Kernel’s BTF is available to kernel itself and is now used to enhance BPF verifier’s own capabilities beyond what the community imagined was possible just a year ago (e.g., direct kernel memory reads without bpf_probe_read() are now a thing).

More importantly for BPF CO-RE, kernel also exposes this self-describing authoritative BTF information (defining, among other things, exact struct layouts) through sysfs at /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux. Try it for yourself, with:

$ bpftool btf dump file /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux format c

You'll get a compilable C header file (usually referred to as "vmlinux.h") with all kernel types. And “all” does mean all, including those that are never exposed through headers provided by the kernel-devel package!

Compiler support

To enable BPF CO-RE and let BPF loader (i.e., libbpf) to adjust BPF program to a particular kernel running on target host, Clang was extended with few built-ins. They emit BTF relocations which capture a high-level description of what pieces of information BPF program code intended to read. If you were going to access task_struct->pid field, Clang would record that it was exactly a field named "pid" of type “pid_t” residing within a struct task_struct. This is done so that even if target kernel has a task_struct layout in which “pid” field got moved to a different offset within a task_struct structure (e.g., due to extra field added before “pid” field), or even if it was moved into some nested anonymous struct or union (and this is completely transparent in C code, so no one ever pays attention to details like that), you’ll still be able to find it just by its name and type information. This is called a field offset relocation.

It is possible to capture (and subsequently relocate) not just a field offset, but other field aspects, like field existence or size. Even for bitfields (which are notoriously "uncooperative" kinds of data in the C language, resisting efforts to make them relocatable) it is still possible to capture enough information to make them relocatable, all transparently to BPF program developer.

BPF loader (libbpf)

All the previous pieces of data (kernel BTF and Clang relocations) are coming together and are processed by libbpf, which serves as a BPF program loader. It takes compiled BPF ELF object file, post-processes it as necessary, sets up various kernel objects (maps, programs, etc), and triggers BPF program loading and verification.

Libbpf knows how to tailor BPF program code to a particular running kernel on the host. It looks at BPF program’s recorded BTF type and relocation information and matches them to a BTF information provided by the running kernel. Libbpf resolves and matches all the types and fields, updates necessary offsets and other relocatable data as needed to make sure that BPF program’s logic is correctly functioning for a specific kernel on the host. If everything checks out, you (BPF application developer) will get a BPF program, "custom tailored" to a kernel on target host as if your program was specifically compiled for it. But all that is achieved without paying the overhead of distributing Clang with your application and performing compilation in runtime on target host.


Amazingly, the kernel doesn’t need many changes to support BPF CO-RE. Due to a good separation of concerns, after libbpf processed BPF program code, to kernel it looks like any other valid BPF program code. It is indistinguishable from a BPF program compiled right there on the host with up-to-date kernel headers. This means that BPF CO-RE doesn’t require bleeding-edge kernel functionality for a lot of its functionality and thus can be adapted more widely and much sooner.

There will be some advanced scenarios that might require newer kernels, but those should be rare. We’ll discuss such scenarios when explaining user-facing mechanisms of BPF CO-RE in the next part, which goes into the details of user-facing API of BPF CO-RE.

BPF CO-RE: user-facing experience

Let's go through typical scenarios that real-world BPF applications have to deal with and see how they are addressed with BPF CO-RE. As you’ll see below, some portability issues (e.g., compatible struct layout differences) are handled quite transparently and naturally, while others are handled more explicitly, e.g., through if/else conditionals (as opposed to compile-time #ifdef/#else constructs in BCC programs) and extra mechanisms provided by BPF CO-RE.

Getting rid of kernel header dependency

In addition to using kernel’s BTF information for field relocations, it’s also possible to use it to generate a big header ("vmlinux.h") with all internal kernel types and avoid dependency on system-wide kernel headers altogether. You can get it with bpftool:

$ bpftool btf dump file /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux format c > vmlinux.h

With vmlinux.h at your hands, there is no need for all those #include <linux/sched.h>, #include <linux/fs.h>, etc, typically used in BPF programs. You can now just #include "vmlinux.h" and forget about kernel-devel package. This header contains all kernel types: those exposed as part of UAPI, internal types available through kernel-devel, and some more internal kernel types not available anywhere else.

Unfortunately, BTF (as well as DWARF) doesn’t record #define macros, so some common macros might be missing with vmlinux.h. Most commonly missing ones might be provided as part of libbpf’s bpf_helpers.h (kernel-side "library", provided by libbpf).

Reading kernel structure’s fields

Most common and typical situation is just reading a field from one of many kernel structs. Let’s say you want to read task_struct’s pid. This is easy and simple with BCC:

BCC way:

pid_t pid = task->pid;

BCC will conveniently rewrite task->pid into a call to bpf_probe_read(), which is great (though sometimes might not work, depending on the complexity of an expression used). With libbpf, because it doesn’t have BCC’s code-rewriting magic at its disposal, there are a few ways you can achieve the same result.

If you are using recently added BTF_PROG_TYPE_TRACING BPF programs, then you have a smartness of BPF verifier on your side, which now understands and tracks BTF types natively and allows you to follow pointers and read kernel memory directly (and safely), avoiding bpf_probe_read() calls, so you don’t need compiler rewriting magic to get the same nice and familiar syntax.


pid_t pid = task->pid;

Pairing this functionality with BPF CO-RE to support portable (i.e., relocatable) field reads, you’ll have to enclose this code into __builtin_preserve_access_index compiler built-in:


pid_t pid = __builtin_preserve_access_index(({ task->pid; }));

That’s it. It will work as you expect, but will be portable between different kernel versions. But given the bleeding-edge recency of BPF_PROG_TYPE_TRACING, you might not have the luxury of using it yet, so you have to use bpf_probe_read() explicitly instead.

Non-CO-RE libbpf way:

pid_t pid; bpf_probe_read(&pid, sizeof(pid), &task->pid);

Now, with CO-RE+libbpf there are two ways to do this. One, directly replacing bpf_probe_read() with bpf_core_read():

pid_t pid; bpf_core_read(&pid, sizeof(pid), &task->pid);

bpf_core_read() is a simple macro which passes all the arguments directly to bpf_probe_read(), but it also makes Clang record field offset relocation for third argument (&task->pid) by passing it through __builtin_preserve_access_index(). So the last example is actually just this, under the hood:

bpf_probe_read(&pid, sizeof(pid), __builtin_preserve_access_index(&task->pid));

Alas, these bpf_probe_read()/bpf_core_read() calls can get old pretty quickly, especially if you deal with a bunch of structs linked together through pointers. For instance, to get inode number for current process’ executable binary, you’d have to do something like this with BCC:

u64 inode = task->mm->exe_file->f_inode->i_ino;

With vanilla bpf_probe_read()/bpf_core_read(), this will turn into 4 calls with an extra temporary variable to store value for all those intermediate pointers, just to finally get to i_ino field. Fortunately, with BPF CO-RE, there is a helper macro that will allow you to get almost BCC-like usability, yet doesn’t require code-rewriting magic at all:

BPF CO-RE way:

u64 inode = BPF_CORE_READ(task, mm, exe_file, f_inode, i_ino);

Alternatively, if you already have a variable that you want to read into, you can do the following and avoid extra intermediate variable (hidden inside BPF_CORE_READ):

u64 inode;
BPF_CORE_READ_INTO(&inode, task, mm, exe_file, f_inode, i_ino);

There is a corresponding bpf_core_read_str() which is a drop-in replacement for bpf_probe_read_str(). There is also a BPF_CORE_READ_STR_INTO() macro, which work similarly to BPF_CORE_READ_INTO(), but will perform bpf_probe_read_str() call for the last field.

It’s also possible to check if field exists in target kernel, using aptly named bpf_core_field_exists() macro, and do something differently based on whether it’s there or not:

pid_t pid = bpf_core_field_exists(task->pid) ? BPF_CORE_READ(task, pid) : -1;

Additionally, it’s possible to capture any field’s size, using bpf_core_field_size() macro, for cases where you can’t guarantee that the size of the data you are working with is not changing between kernel versions:

u32 comm_sz = bpf_core_field_size(task->comm); /* will set comm_sz to 16 */

On top of that, for rare (but extremely painful to support across kernels) cases when you have to read a bitfield out of a kernel struct, there are special BPF_CORE_READ_BITFIELD() (using direct memory reads) and BPF_CORE_READ_BITFIELD_PROBED() (relying on bpf_probe_read() calls) macros. They abstract away otherwise gory and painful details of extracting bit fields while preserving portability across kernel versions:

struct tcp_sock *s = ...;

/* with direct reads */
bool is_cwnd_limited = BPF_CORE_READ_BITFIELD(s, is_cwnd_limited);

/* with bpf_probe_read()-based reads */
u64 is_cwnd_limited;
BPF_CORE_READ_BITFIELD_PROBED(s, is_cwnd_limited, &is_cwnd_limited);

Field relocations and related macros are a work horse of BPF CO-RE. They cover lots of real-world use cases and will get you quite far with your BPF programs.

Dealing with kernel version and configuration differences

In some cases, BPF program has to deal with kernel differences that go beyond slight structural changes of common kernel structures. Sometimes the field gets renamed, so for all the purposes it becomes a completely different field (but with the same meaning). And vice versa, while field stays the same, its meaning might change. E.g., starting some time after 4.6 kernel, task_struct’s utime and stime fields were switched from accounting in jiffies to nanoseconds, so you’d have to do conversion differently before and after. Other times, data you’d like to extract is present in some kernel configurations, but compiled out on others. And there might be many other scenarios, in which it’s just impossible to have a single common type definition that will fit all kernels

For cases like that, BPF CO-RE provides two complementary solutions: libbpf-provided extern Kconfig variables and struct flavors.

Libbpf-provided externs are a simple idea. BPF program can define an extern variable with a well-known name (e.g., "LINUX_KERNEL_VERSION" to extract a running kernel version) or a name that matches one of Kconfig’s keys (e.g., “CONFIG_HZ” to get the value of HZ that kernel was built with) and libbpf will do its magic to set everything up in such a way that your BPF program can use such extern variables as any other global variable. These variables will have correct values, matching the active kernel your BPF program is executed in. Additionally, BPF verifier will track those variables as known constants and will be able to use them for advanced control flow analysis and dead code elimination. Check out an example on how thread’s CPU user time extraction can be done with BPF CO-RE:

extern u32 LINUX_KERNEL_VERSION __kconfig;
extern u32 CONFIG_HZ __kconfig;

u64 utime_ns;

    utime_ns = BPF_CORE_READ(task, utime);
    /* convert jiffies to nanoseconds */
    utime_ns = BPF_CORE_READ(task, utime) * (1000000000UL / CONFIG_HZ);

The other mechanism, struct flavors, helps with cases where different kernels have incompatible types, so it’s just impossible to compile a single BPF program for both kernels with a single common struct definition. As a somewhat contrived example, let’s see how struct flavors can be used to extract fs/fsbase (which got renamed, as mentioned above) to do some thread-local data processing:

/* up-to-date thread_struct definition matching newer kernels */
struct thread_struct {
    u64 fsbase;

/* legacy thread_struct definition for <= 4.6 kernels */
struct thread_struct___v46 { /* ___v46 is a "flavor" part */
    u64 fs;

extern int LINUX_KERNEL_VERSION __kconfig;

struct thread_struct *thr = ...;
u64 fsbase;
    fsbase = BPF_CORE_READ((struct thread_struct___v46 *)thr, fs);
    fsbase = BPF_CORE_READ(thr, fsbase);

In this example, BPF application defines "legacy" struct thread_struct definition for <= 4.6 kernels as struct thread_struct___v46. Three underscores in type name and everything after it are considered to be a “flavor” of this struct. This flavor part will be ignored by libbpf, meaning that this type definition will still be matched against struct thread_struct of the actual running kernel when performing necessary relocations. Such convention allows to have multiple alternative (and incompatible) definitions for the same kernel type in a single C program and be able to pick the most appropriate one in runtime (through, say, kernel version-specific logic as in the above example) and use type cast to a struct flavor to extract necessary fields.

Without struct flavors, it would be impossible to really have a "compile once" program that could run on multiple kernels in cases like above. You’d need #ifdef’ed source code, compiled into two separate BPF program variants, with appropriate variant picked manually by control application in runtime. All this would be just unnecessary added complexity and pain. While not transparently, BPF CO-RE allows to solve this problem with familiar C code constructs even for such advanced scenarios.

Altering behavior based on user-provided configuration

Knowing kernel version and configuration in BPF program is still sometimes insufficient to make the right decision on what and how to get data out of a kernel. In such cases, user-space control application might be the only party knowing what exactly needs to be done and which features need to be enabled or disabled. This is normally communicated through some sort of configuration data, shared between user-space and BPF program. One way to achieve that today without relying on BPF CO-RE is through using BPF map as a container for configuration data. BPF program performs BPF map lookups to extract configuration and alters its control flow based on this config.

There are major downsides to such approach:

  • Runtime overhead of doing map look up each time BPF program tries to get configuration value. This can add up quickly and be quite prohibitive in some high-performance BPF applications.

  • Config value, while immutable and read-only after BPF program starts, is still treated by BPF verifier as an unknown black box value during the verification phase. This means that verifier can’t prune dead code and perform other advanced code analysis. This makes it impossible to have configurable parts of BPF program logic that will use bleeding-edge features, supported on new kernels only, without breaking the same program when running on older kernels. This is due to BPF verifier having to pessimistically assume configuration can be anything and that this "unknown" functionality might be called anyways, despite user configuration clearly making that impossible.

The solution to such a (admittedly complicated) use case is through using read-only global data. It is set once by a control application before the BPF program is loaded into a kernel. From the BPF program side, this looks like a normal global variable access. There won’t be any BPF map lookup overhead – global variables are implemented as a direct memory access. Control application side will set initial configuration values before BPF program is loaded, so by the time BPF verifier will get to validation of a program, configuration values will be well known and read-only. This will allow BPF verifier to track them as known constants and use its advanced control flow analysis to perform dead code elimination.

So, for the above example, on older kernel BPF verifier will prove that, say, unknown BPF helper is never going to be used and will eliminate that code altogether. On newer ones, though, application-provided configuration is going to be different and will allow the use of new fancy BPF helper and this logic will get successfully validated by BPF verifier. The following BPF code example should make this more clear:

/* global read-only variables, set up by control app */
const bool use_fancy_helper;
const u32 fallback_value;


u32 value;
if (use_fancy_helper)
    value = bpf_fancy_helper(ctx);
    value = bpf_default_helper(ctx) * fallback_value;

From the user-space side, application will be able to easily provide this configuration through BPF skeleton. BPF skeleton discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but see the runqslower tool in kernel repository for a good show case of using it to simplify BPF application.


BPF CO-RE’s goal is to help BPF developers to solve simple portability problems (like reading struct fields) in a simple way and make it still possible (and tolerable, if not trivial) to address complicated portability problems (like incompatible data structure changes, complicated user-space controlled conditions, etc). This allows BPF developers to stay within the "Compile Once — Run Everywhere" paradigm. This is achieved through combining a few BPF CO-RE building blocks, described above:

  • vmlinux.h eliminates dependency on kernel headers;

  • field relocations (field offsets, existence, size, etc) make data extraction from kernel portable;

  • libbpf-provided Kconfig extern variables allow BPF programs to accommodate various kernel version- and configuration-specific changes;

  • when everything else fails, app-provided read-only configuration and struct flavors are an ultimate big hammer to address whatever complicated scenario application has to handle.

Not all of those features of CO-RE are going to be needed to successfully write, deploy, and maintain portable BPF programs, but when you will need them, they are going to be there and will help you solve your problem in the simplest way possible. All that while still providing a good usability and familiar workflow of compiling C code into binary and distributing lightweight binaries around. There is no more need to drag along a heavy-weight compiler library and pay precious runtime resources for runtime compilation. There is no more need to catch trivial compilation errors in runtime, either.

BPF CO-RE as of 2021

As of 2021, BPF CO-RE is now a mature technology used across a wide variety of projects.

At Facebook, BPF CO-RE powers multiple production BPF-based applications successfully, handling both simple cases of changing field offsets and much more advanced cases of kernel data structures being removed, renamed, or completely changed. All within a single compiled-once BPF application.

Since the introduction of BPF CO-RE, more than 25 BCC tools got converted to libbpf and BPF CO-RE (check out libbpf-tools). As more and more Linux distributions enable kernel BTF by default (see the list), BPF CO-RE-based tools become more widely applicable and more efficient replacements for heavy-weight Python-based BCC tools. And that's the way forward, as emphasized by Brendan Gregg in his "BPF binaries: BTF, CO-RE, and the future of BPF perf tools" blog post.

BPF CO-RE is gaining a rapid adoption across various areas, powering efficient BPF applications. It is used in tracing and performance monitoring, security and audit, even networking BPF applications. Anywhere from tiny embedded systems to huge production servers. libbpf-bootstrap project was created to simplify starting BPF development with libbpf and BPF CO-RE. So make sure to check out "Building BPF applications with libbpf-bootstrap" blog post, if you are interested.

On the more technical level, in addition to already described field relocations, BPF CO-RE has gained support for:

  • type size and existences relocations. When types are added, removed, or renamed, it's important to be able to detect this and adjust BPF application logic accordingly. See bpf_core_type_exists() and bpf_core_type_size() macros, provided by libbpf.
  • enum relocations (existence and value). Some internal, non-UAPI kernel enums do change across kernel versions, or even depend on exact config used for kernel compilation (e.g., enum cgroup_subsys_id, see BPF selftest dealing with it), making it impossible to hard-code any specific value reliably. Enum relocations (bpf_core_enum_value_exists() and bpf_core_enum_value() macros, provided by libbpf) allow to check existence of a specific enum value and capture its value. One important application of this is detection of availability of new BPF helpers, and falling back to older one, if kernel is too old.

When compiled with read-only global variables, both are indispensable to perform simple and reliable kernel feature detection from BPF side.

There is now also a dedicated BPF CO-RE reference guide post with practical guidance to all BPF CO-RE features and tips on how to apply them when developing real-world BPF application.


  1. BPF CO-RE presentation from LSF/MM2019 conference: summary, slides.

  2. Arnaldo Carvalho de Melo’s presentation "BPF: The Status of BTF" dives deep into BPF CO-RE and dissects the runqslower tool quite nicely.

  3. BTF deduplication algorithm.