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Linux shell for iOS

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A project to get a Linux shell running on iOS, using usermode x86 emulation and syscall translation.

For the current status of the project, check the issues tab, and the commit logs.


This project has a git submodule, make sure to clone with

or run
git submodule update --init
after cloning.

You'll need these things to build the project:

  • Python 3
    • Meson (
      pip3 install meson
  • Ninja
  • Clang and LLD (on mac,
    brew install llvm
    , on linux,
    sudo apt install clang lld
    sudo pacman -S clang lld
    or whatever)
  • sqlite3 (this is so common it may already be installed on linux and is definitely already installed on mac. if not, do something like
    sudo apt install libsqlite3-dev
  • libarchive (
    brew install libarchive
    sudo port install libarchive
    sudo apt install libarchive-dev
    ) TODO: bundle this dependency

Build for iOS

Open the project in Xcode, open iSH.xcconfig, and change

to something unique. Then click Run. There are scripts that should do everything else automatically. If you run into any problems, open an issue and I'll try to help.

Build command line tool for testing

To set up your environment, cd to the project and run

meson build
to create a build directory in
. Then cd to the build directory and run

To set up a self-contained Alpine linux filesystem, download the Alpine minirootfs tarball for i386 from the Alpine website and run

, with the minirootfs tarball as the first argument and the name of the output directory as the second argument. Then you can run things inside the Alpine filesystem with
./ish -f alpine /bin/login -f root
, assuming the output directory is called
. If
doesn't exist for you in your build directory, that might be because it couldn't find libarchive on your system (see above for ways to install it.)

You can replace

to run the program in a real process and single step and compare the registers at each step. I use it for debugging. Requires 64-bit Linux 4.11 or later.


iSH has several logging channels which can be enabled at build time. By default, all of them are disabled. To enable them:

  • In Xcode: Set the
    setting in iSH.xcconfig to a space-separated list of log channels.
  • With Meson (command line tool for testing): Run
    meson configure -Dlog=""

Available channels:

  • strace
    : The most useful channel, logs the parameters and return value of almost every system call.
  • instr
    : Logs every instruction executed by the emulator. This slows things down a lot.
  • verbose
    : Debug logs that don't fit into another category.
  • Grep for
    to see if more log channels have been added since this list was updated.

A note on the JIT

Possibly the most interesting thing I wrote as part of iSH is the JIT. It's not actually a JIT since it doesn't target machine code. Instead it generates an array of pointers to functions called gadgets, and each gadget ends with a tailcall to the next function; like the threaded code technique used by some Forth interpreters. The result is a speedup of roughly 3-5x compared to pure emulation.

Unfortunately, I made the decision to write nearly all of the gadgets in assembly language. This was probably a good decision with regards to performance (though I'll never know for sure), but a horrible decision with regards to readability, maintainability, and my sanity. The amount of bullshit I've had to put up with from the compiler/assembler/linker is insane. It's like there's a demon in there that makes sure my code is sufficiently deformed, and if not, makes up stupid reasons why it shouldn't compile. In order to stay sane while writing this code, I've had to ignore best practices in code structure and naming. You'll find macros and variables with such descriptive names as

. Assembler macros nested beyond belief. And to top it off, there are almost no comments.

So a warning: Long-term exposure to this code may cause loss of sanity, nightmares about GAS macros and linker errors, or any number of other debilitating side effects. This code is known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm.

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