Linux, Netlink, and Go — Part 2: generic netlink

In Part 1 of this series, I described some of the fundamental concepts of netlink sockets, messages, and attributes. It is assumed that readers are already familiar with netlink from the previous post in this series.

In this post, I will dive into generic netlink, a specialized netlink family designed to be more extensible than a typical netlink family.

The pseudo-code in this series will use Go’s x/sys/unix package and types from my netlink and wifi packages. The series is split into parts as follows:

What is generic netlink?

Generic netlink was designed to allow kernel modules to easily communicate with userspace applications using netlink. Instead of creating a new top level netlink family for each module, generic netlink provides a simplified interface to enable modules to plug into the generic netlink bus.

Generic netlink messages

Generic netlink makes use of a message with a small payload. This message occupies the first four bytes of a netlink message payload, and looks like so:

  • Command (8 bits): specifies which command to issue to a generic netlink family.
  • Version (8 bits): the version of a command to issue to generic netlink.

2 bytes of padding immediately follow these fields. Remember, netlink makes use of 4 byte boundaries! After the padding, a generic netlink message payload is present. This payload may contain data (such as netlink attributes) as parameters for a command, or data in response to a command.

Generic netlink families

Not to be confused with netlink’s families, generic netlink also has a concept of families: kernel modules which register with the generic netlink bus for communication. Some examples of these may include:

  • nlctrl: the generic netlink controller, used to determine which generic netlink families are available. Present on all systems where generic netlink is available.
  • TASKSTATS: provides per-task and per-process statistics from the kernel to userspace.
  • nl80211: provides access to IEEE 802.11 WiFi device statistics and interactions.

nlctrl: the generic netlink controller

In order to discover which generic netlink families are available on a given machine, a request can be sent to the generic netlink controller. The controller is a special family which is present on all machines where generic netlink is available.

To send a message to the controller, its family ID (always 0x10) is used in the Type field of the outer netlink header. The payload of the netlink message contains the generic netlink header, which specifies a command and its version. Finally, parameters can be passed as netlink attributes in the body of the generic netlink message.

When you put it all together, the command “controller: list all generic netlink families” looks something like this:

msg := netlink.Message{
Header: netlink.Header{
// Specify nlctrl's type (0x10) to communicate with it.
Type: genetlink.Controller,
Flags: netlink.HeaderFlagsRequest | netlink.HeaderFlagsDump,
// Some fields omitted for brevity.
// The generic netlink header and data are wrapped in a
// netlink message, marshaled into byte form.
Data: marshal(genetlink.Message{
Header: genetlink.Header{
Command: ctrlCommandGetFamily,
Version: ctrlVersion,

Requesting information about a single family from the controller is slightly different. The “dump” flag is omitted from the netlink header, and the generic netlink message payload contains attributes which specify the name of a specific family:

// Used in Data field of genetlink.Message.
b := netlink.MarshalAttributes([]netlink.Attribute{{
Type: attrFamilyName,
// Null-terminated string in byte form.
Data: nlenc.Bytes("nl80211"),

Many of these constants are taken from the generic netlink kernel headers. To see them in action in Go source code, you may also reference package genetlink.

Generic netlink family attributes

Family information is returned in a generic netlink message payload as a series of netlink attributes. These attributes include information about a generic netlink family, such as:

  • ID (16 bits): unique identifier for family. Note: ID may change between reboots or if certain kernel modules are loaded or unloaded. Always perform a lookup by name to retrieve a family’s ID!
  • Name (null-terminated string): human-readable name for the family, like “nlctrl”, “TASKSTATS”, or “nl80211”.
  • Version (32 bits): version of generic netlink family. Oddly, this field is 32 bits while the version field in the generic netlink header is 8 bits. I have never seen this value occupy more than 8 bits.
  • Multicast groups (nested attributes): netlink attribute “array” with attribute type incremented by one for each element. Contains additional nested attributes with multicast group name (null-terminated string) and ID (32 bits).

Several other attributes exist as well, but as I have not worked with them, I cannot explain their use.


Thanks to the foundation provided by netlink, generic netlink provides a simple and elegant mechanism for extending netlink. There are many available generic netlink families, and the list may differ greatly from system to system.

To discover which generic netlink families are available on your machine, try genl-ctrl-list. Specifying -d provides a great amount of detail about each family.

$ genl-ctrl-list
0x0010 nlctrl version 2
0x0011 VFS_DQUOT version 1
0x0013 NLBL_MGMT version 3
0x0014 NLBL_CIPSOv4 version 3
0x0015 NLBL_UNLBL version 3
0x0016 acpi_event version 1
0x0017 thermal_event version 1
0x0018 tcp_metrics version 1
0x0019 TASKSTATS version 1
0x001a nl80211 version 1

The final part of this series will detail high-level usage of netlink, generic netlink, and nl80211, using Go packages netlink and wifi.

Thanks again for reading! If you have questions or comments, feel free to reach out via the comments, Twitter, or Gophers Slack (username: mdlayher).