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What is IRQL and its importance?

When people first hear the term IRQL (pronounced Er-kel) their thoughts sometimes turn to the sitcom “Family Matters” and Jaleel White’s alter ego, Steve Urkel.  However, we’re not going to be taking a trip down Television’s Memory Lane today.  Instead we’re going to talk about Interrupt Request Levels – aka IRQL’s.  If you develop device drivers or spend a lot of time debugging, IRQL’s are familiar territory for you.  An interrupt request level (IRQL) defines the hardware priority at which a processor operates at any given time. In the Windows Driver Model, a thread running at a low IRQL can be interrupted to run code at a higher IRQL.  The number of IRQL’s and their specific values are processor-dependent.

Processes running at a higher IRQL will pre-empt a thread or interrupt running at a lower IRQL.  An IRQL of 0 means that the processor is running a normal Kernel or User mode process.  An IRQL of 1 means that the processor is running an Asynchronous Procedure Call (APC) or Page Fault.  IRQL 2 is used for deferred procedure calls (DPC) and thread scheduling.  IRQL 2 is known as the DISPATCH_LEVEL.  When a processor is running at a given IRQL, interrupts at that IRQL and lower are blocked by the processor.  Therefore, a processor currently at DISPATCH_LEVEL can only be interrupted by a request from an IRQL greater than 2.  A system will schedule all threads to run at IRQL’s below DISPATCH_LEVEL – this level is also where the thread scheduler itself will run.  So if there is a thread that has an IRQL greater than 2, that thread will have exclusive use of the processor.  Since the scheduler runs at DISPATCH_LEVEL, and that interrupt level is now blocked off by the thread at a higher IRQL, the thread scheduler cannot run and schedule any other thread.  So far, this is pretty straightforward – especially when we’re talking about a single processor system.

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Additional Resources:

Microsoft, Windows, Operating System, Windows Os, Architecture, Debugging, Performance, Memory, Management, Memory Management

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