How Tracee solves the lack of BTF information

By tracing processes using Linux eBPF (Berkeley packet filter) technology, Tracee can correlate collected information and identify malicious behavioral patterns.
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Tracee is a project by Aqua Security for tracing processes at runtime. By tracing processes using Linux eBPF (Berkeley packet filter) technology, Tracee can correlate collected information and identify malicious behavioral patterns.


BPF is a system to help in network traffic analysis. The later eBPF system extends classic BPF to improve the programmability of the Linux kernel in different areas, such as network filtering, function hooking, and so on. Thanks to its register-based virtual machine, which is embedded in the kernel, eBPF can execute programs written with a restricted C language without needing to recompile the kernel or load a module. Through eBPF, you can run your program in kernel context and hook various events in the kernel path. To do so, eBPF needs to have deep knowledge about data structures that the kernel is using.


eBPF interfaces with Linux kernel ABI (application binary interface). Access to kernel structures from eBPF VM depends on the specific Linux kernel release.

eBPF CO-RE (compile once, run everywhere) is the ability to write an eBPF program that will successfully compile, pass kernel verification, and work correctly across different kernel releases without the need to recompile it for each particular kernel.


CO-RE needs a precise synergism of these components:

  • BTF (BPF type format) information: Allows the capture of crucial pieces of information about kernel and BPF program types and code, enabling all the other parts of BPF CO-RE puzzle.
  • Compiler (Clang): Records relocation information. For example, if you were going to access the 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 system ensures that even if a target kernel has a task_struct layout in which the pid field is moved to a different offset within a task_struct structure, you'll still be able to find it just by its name and type information.
  • BPF loader (libbpf): Ties BTFs from kernel and BPF programs together to adjust compiled BPF code to specific kernels on target hosts.

So how do these ingredients mix together for a successful recipe?


To make the code portable, the following tricks come into play:

  • CO-RE helpers/macros
  • BTF-defined maps
  • #include "vmlinux.h" (the header file containing all the kernel types)


The kernel must be built with the CONFIG_DEBUG_INFO_BTF=y option in order to provide the /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux interface that exposes BTF-formatted kernel types. This allows libbpf to resolve and match all the types and fields and update necessary offsets and other relocatable data to make sure that the eBPF program is working properly for the specific kernel on the target host.

The problem

The problem arises when an eBPF program is written to be portable but the target kernel doesn't expose the /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux interface. For more information, refer to this list of distributions that support BTF.

To load an run an eBPF object in different kernels, the libbpf loader uses the BTF information to calculate field offset relocations. Without the BTF interface, the loader doesn't have the necessary information to adjust the previously recorded types that the program tries to access after processing the object for the running kernel.

Is it possible to avoid this problem?

Use cases

This article explores Tracee, an Aqua Security open source project, that provides a possible solution.

Tracee provides different running modes to adapt itself to the environment conditions. It supports two eBPF integration modes:

  • CO-RE: A portable mode, which seamlessly runs on all supported environments
  • Non CO-RE: A kernel-specific mode, requiring the eBPF object to be built for the target host

Both of them are implemented in the eBPF C code (pkg/ebpf/c/tracee.bpf.c), where the pre-processing conditional directive takes place. This allows you to compile CO-RE the eBPF binary, passing the -DCORE argument at build time with Clang (take a look at the bpf-core Make target).

In this article, we're going to cover a case of the portable mode when the eBPF binary is built CO-RE, but the target kernel has not been built with CONFIG_DEBUG_INFO_BTF=y option.

To better understand this scenario, it helps to understand what's possible when the kernel doesn't expose BTF-formatted types on sysfs.

No BTF support

If you want to run Tracee on a host without BTF support, there are two options:

  1. Build and install the eBPF object for your kernel. This depends on Clang and on the availability of a kernel version-specific kernel-headers package.
  2. Download the BTF files from BTFHUB for your kernel release and provide it to the tracee-ebpf's loader through the TRACEE_BTF_FILE environment variable.

The first option is not a CO-RE solution. It compiles the eBPF binary, including a long list of kernel headers. That means you need kernel development packages installed on the target system. Also, this solution needs Clang installed on your target machine. The Clang compiler can be resource-heavy, so compiling eBPF code can use a significant amount of resources, potentially affecting a carefully balanced production workload. That said, it's a good practice to avoid the presence of a compiler in your production environment. This could lead to attackers successfully building an exploit and performing a privilege escalation.

The second option is a CO-RE solution. The problem here is that you have to provide the BTF files in your system in order to make Tracee work. The entire archive is nearly 1.3 GB. Of course you can provide just the right BTF file for your kernel release, but that can be difficult when dealing with different kernel releases.

In the end, these possible solutions can also introduce problems, and that's where Tracee works its magic.

A portable solution

With a non-trivial building procedure, the Tracee project compiles a binary to be CO-RE even if the target environment doesn't provide BTF information. This is possible with the embed Go package that provides, at runtime, access to files embedded in the program. During the build, the continuous integration (CI) pipeline downloads, extracts, minimizes, and then embeds BTF files along with the eBPF object inside the tracee-ebpf resultant binary.

Tracee can extract the right BTF file and provide it to libbpf, which in turn loads the eBPF program to run across different kernels. But how can Tracee embed all these BTF files downloaded from BTFHub without weighing too much in the end?

It uses a feature recently introduced in bpftool by the Kinvolk team called BTFGen, available using the bpftool gen min_core_btf subcommand. Given an eBPF program, BTFGen generates reduced BTF files, collecting just what the eBPF code needs for its run. This reduction allows Tracee to embed all these files that are now lighter (just a few kilobytes) and support kernels that don't have the /sys/kernel/btf/vmlinux interface exposed.

Tracee build

Here's the execution flow of the Tracee build:

Detailed flowchart of tracee build from tracee/3rdparty/ to tracee-ebpf bin compiled

(Alessio Greggi and Massimiliano Giovagnoli, CC BY-SA 4.0)

First, you must build the tracee-ebpf binary, the Go program that loads the eBPF object. The Makefile provides the command make bpf-core to build the tracee.bpf.core.o object with BTF records.

Then STATIC=1 BTFHUB=1 make all builds tracee-ebpf, which has btfhub targeted as a dependency. This last target runs the script 3rdparty/, which is responsible for downloading the BTFHub repositories:

  • btfhub
  • btfhub-archive

Once downloaded and placed in the 3rdparty directory, the procedure executes the downloaded script 3rdparty/btfhub/tools/ This script generates reduced BTF files, tailored for the tracee.bpf.core.o eBPF binary.

The script collects *.tar.xz files from 3rdparty/btfhub-archive/ to uncompress them and finally process them with bpftool, using the following command:

for file in $(find ./archive/${dir} -name *.tar.xz); do
    dir=$(dirname $file)
    base=$(basename $file)
    extracted=$(tar xvfJ $dir/$base)
    bpftool gen min_core_btf ${extracted} dist/btfhub/${extracted} tracee.bpf.core.o

This code has been simplified to make it easier to understand the scenario.

Now, you have all the ingredients available for the recipe:

  • tracee.bpf.core.o eBPF object
  • BTF reduced files (for all kernel releases)
  • tracee-ebpf Go source code

At this point, go build is invoked to do its job. Inside the embedded-ebpf.go file, you can find the following code:

//go:embed "dist/tracee.bpf.core.o"
//go:embed "dist/btfhub/*"

Here, the Go compiler is instructed to embed the eBPF CO-RE object with all the BTF-reduced files inside itself. Once compiled, these files will be available using the embed.FS file system. To have an idea of the current situation, you can imagine the binary with a file system structured like this:

├── btfhub
│   ├── 4.19.0-17-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-17-cloud-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-17-rt-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-18-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-18-cloud-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-18-rt-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-20-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-20-cloud-amd64.btf
│   ├── 4.19.0-20-rt-amd64.btf
│   └── ...
└── tracee.bpf.core.o

The Go binary is ready. Now to try it out!

Tracee run

Here's the execution flow of the Tracee run:

Flow chart of tracee run assuming BTF info is not available in the kernel, which leads to "copy btf kernel related file" and "load btf file using libbpf under the hood"

(Alessio Greggi and Massimiliano Giovagnoli, CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the flow chart illustrates, one of the very first phases of tracee-ebpf execution is to discover the environment where it is running. The first condition is an abstraction of the cmd/tracee-ebpf/initialize/bpfobject.go file, specifically where the BpfObject() function takes place. The program performs some checks to understand the environment and make decisions based on it:

  1. BPF file given and BTF (vmlinux or env) exists: always load BPF as CO-RE
  2. BPF file given but no BTF exists: it is a non CO-RE BPF
  3. No BPF file given and BTF (vmlinux or env) exists: load embedded BPF as CO-RE
  4. No BPF file given and no BTF available: check embedded BTF files
  5. No BPF file given and no BTF available and no embedded BTF: non CO-RE BPF

Here's the code extract:

func BpfObject(config *tracee.Config, kConfig *helpers.KernelConfig, OSInfo *helpers.OSInfo) error {
	bpfFilePath, err := checkEnvPath("TRACEE_BPF_FILE")
	btfFilePath, err := checkEnvPath("TRACEE_BTF_FILE")
	// Decision ordering:
	// (1) BPF file given & BTF (vmlinux or env) exists: always load BPF as CO-RE
	// (2) BPF file given & if no BTF exists: it is a non CO-RE BPF
	// (3) no BPF file given & BTF (vmlinux or env) exists: load embedded BPF as CO-RE
	// (4) no BPF file given & no BTF available: check embedded BTF files
	unpackBTFFile = filepath.Join(traceeInstallPath, "/tracee.btf")
	err = unpackBTFHub(unpackBTFFile, OSInfo)
	if err == nil {
		if debug {
			fmt.Printf("BTF: using BTF file from embedded btfhub: %v\n", unpackBTFFile)
		config.BTFObjPath = unpackBTFFile
		bpfFilePath = "embedded-core"
		bpfBytes, err = unpackCOREBinary()
		if err != nil {
			return fmt.Errorf("could not unpack embedded CO-RE eBPF object: %v", err)
		goto out
	// (5) no BPF file given & no BTF available & no embedded BTF: non CO-RE BPF
	config.KernelConfig = kConfig
	config.BPFObjPath = bpfFilePath
	config.BPFObjBytes = bpfBytes
	return nil

This analysis focuses on the fourth case, when eBPF program and BTF files are not provided to tracee-ebpf. At that point, tracee-ebpf tries to load the eBPF program extracting all the necessary files from its embed file system. tracee-ebpf is able to provide the files that it needs to run, even in a hostile environment. It is a sort of high-resilience mode used when none of the conditions have been satisfied.

As you see, BpfObject() calls these functions in the fourth case branch:

  • unpackBTFHub()
  • unpackCOREBinary()

They extract respectively:

  • The BTF file for the underlying kernel
  • The BPF CO-RE binary

Unpack the BTFHub

Now take a look starting from unpackBTFHub():

func unpackBTFHub(outFilePath string, OSInfo *helpers.OSInfo) error {
	var btfFilePath string

	osId := OSInfo.GetOSReleaseFieldValue(helpers.OS_ID)
	versionId := strings.Replace(OSInfo.GetOSReleaseFieldValue(helpers.OS_VERSION_ID), "\"", "", -1)
	kernelRelease := OSInfo.GetOSReleaseFieldValue(helpers.OS_KERNEL_RELEASE)
	arch := OSInfo.GetOSReleaseFieldValue(helpers.OS_ARCH)

	if err := os.MkdirAll(filepath.Dir(outFilePath), 0755); err != nil {
		return fmt.Errorf("could not create temp dir: %s", err.Error())

	btfFilePath = fmt.Sprintf("dist/btfhub/%s/%s/%s/%s.btf", osId, versionId, arch, kernelRelease)
	btfFile, err := embed.BPFBundleInjected.Open(btfFilePath)
	if err != nil {
		return fmt.Errorf("error opening embedded btfhub file: %s", err.Error())
	defer btfFile.Close()

	outFile, err := os.Create(outFilePath)
	if err != nil {
		return fmt.Errorf("could not create btf file: %s", err.Error())
	defer outFile.Close()

	if _, err := io.Copy(outFile, btfFile); err != nil {
		return fmt.Errorf("error copying embedded btfhub file: %s", err.Error())


	return nil

The function has a first phase where it collects information about the running kernel (osId, versionId, kernelRelease, etc). Then, it creates the directory that is going to host the BTF file (/tmp/tracee by default). It retrieves the right BTF file from the embed file system:

btfFile, err := embed.BPFBundleInjected.Open(btfFilePath)

Finally, it creates and fills the file.

Unpack the CORE Binary

The unpackCOREBinary() function does a similar thing:

func unpackCOREBinary() ([]byte, error) {
	b, err := embed.BPFBundleInjected.ReadFile("dist/tracee.bpf.core.o")
	if err != nil {
		return nil, err

	if debug.Enabled() {
		fmt.Println("unpacked CO:RE bpf object file into memory")

	return b, nil

Once the main function BpfObject()returns, tracee-ebpf is ready to load the eBPF binary through libbpfgo. This is done in the initBPF() function, inside pkg/ebpf/tracee.go. Here's the configuration of the program execution:

func (t *Tracee) initBPF() error {
        newModuleArgs := bpf.NewModuleArgs{
		KConfigFilePath: t.config.KernelConfig.GetKernelConfigFilePath(),
		BTFObjPath:      t.config.BTFObjPath,
		BPFObjBuff:      t.config.BPFObjBytes,
		BPFObjName:      t.config.BPFObjPath,

	// Open the eBPF object file (create a new module)

	t.bpfModule, err = bpf.NewModuleFromBufferArgs(newModuleArgs)
	if err != nil {
		return err

In this piece of code we are initializing the eBPF args filling the libbfgo structure NewModuleArgs{}. Through its BTFObjPath argument, we are able to instruct libbpf to use the BTF file, previously extracted by the BpfObject() function.

At this point, tracee-ebpf is ready to run properly!

Illustration of the kernel

(Alessio Greggi and Massimiliano Giovagnoli, CC BY-SA 4.0)

eBPF module initialization

Next, during the execution of the Tracee.Init() function, the configured arguments will be used to open the eBPF object file:

Tracee.bpfModule = libbpfgo.NewModuleFromBufferArgs(newModuleArgs)

Initialize the probes:

t.probes, err = probes.Init(t.bpfModule, netEnabled)

Load the eBPF object into kernel:

err = t.bpfModule.BPFLoadObject()

Populate eBPF maps with initial data:

err = t.populateBPFMaps()

And finally, attach eBPF programs to selected events' probes:

err = t.attachProbes()


Just as eBPF simplified the way to program the kernel, CO-RE is tackling another barrier. But leveraging such features has some requirements. Fortunately, with Tracee, the Aqua Security team found a way to take advantage of portability in case those requirements can't be satisfied.

At the same time, we're sure that this is only the beginning of a continuously evolving subsystem that will find increasing support over and over, even in different operating systems.

What to read next
Alessio is a DevOps Engineer playing with containers and automation at Clastix. He has a background in cyber security and he’s worked as Security Analyst for a company in the defense sector. Alessio holds a Bachelor in Computer Science from the University of Rome, Tor Vergata and is very passionate about open source and community engagement.
Massimiliano Giovagnoli having always been fascinated by mathematics and computers, began his career as a web developer, and with a need to dive into how things work his interests and experience moved to infrastructure design and management.

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