What Are The Differences Between BPF and eBPF: An Overview

A Comprehensive Guide to BPF and eBPF for DevOps and SREs


For DevOps and Site Reliability Engineers (SREs), understanding and applying the right tools for monitoring and troubleshooting is crucial. Among the various technologies available, BPF (Berkeley Packet Filter) and its extended version, eBPF (extended Berkeley Packet Filter), have emerged as powerful tools. But what exactly are BPF and eBPF, and how do they differ? This article will delve into the basics of both, highlight their differences, and explore their applications in modern DevOps and SRE practices, with a special focus on observability.

What is BPF?

BPF, or Berkeley Packet Filter, is a technology that allows programs to filter and capture network packets efficiently. Developed in the early 1990s, BPF provides a way to write programs that can perform packet filtering directly in the kernel, making packet capture faster and more efficient than user-space alternatives.

Key Features of BPF

  • Packet Filtering: BPF programs can filter network packets based on various criteria, such as IP addresses, ports, and protocols.
  • Kernel Space Execution: BPF programs run in the kernel space, which allows them to process packets with minimal overhead.
  • Efficiency: BPF’s design minimizes the performance impact on the system, making it suitable for high-throughput network applications.

Common Use Cases for BPF

  • Network Monitoring: Tools like tcpdump and Wireshark use BPF to capture and analyze network traffic.
  • Security Applications: Intrusion detection systems can use BPF to filter and inspect network packets for malicious activity.

Introducing eBPF

eBPF, or extended Berkeley Packet Filter, builds on the original BPF framework and significantly expands its capabilities. Introduced in the Linux kernel, eBPF allows for more complex and versatile programs that can interact with various kernel subsystems beyond just network packets.

Key Features of eBPF

  • Extended Functionality: eBPF extends BPF’s capabilities to include tracing, profiling, and performance monitoring.
  • Safety and Verification: eBPF programs are verified before execution to ensure they do not harm the system, providing a safe environment for kernel-space execution.
  • User and Kernel Space Interaction: eBPF enables interaction between user-space applications and the kernel, allowing for advanced monitoring and debugging.

Common Use Cases for eBPF

  • System Monitoring: eBPF can be used to collect detailed performance metrics and trace system calls, providing insights into system behavior.
  • Security Enforcement: Tools like Cilium use eBPF for implementing security policies and micro-segmentation in cloud-native environments.
  • Performance Profiling: eBPF allows for detailed profiling of applications, helping identify performance bottlenecks.

Observability with BPF and eBPF

Observability is a key aspect of modern infrastructure management, enabling DevOps and SREs to gain deep insights into system performance and behavior. Both BPF and eBPF play crucial roles in enhancing observability.

Enhancing Observability with BPF

  • Network Traffic Analysis: By capturing and analyzing network packets, BPF provides visibility into network traffic patterns and potential bottlenecks.
  • Troubleshooting Network Issues: BPF helps in identifying and diagnosing network-related issues by filtering and inspecting packets.

Enhancing Observability with eBPF

eBPF takes observability to the next level by providing more comprehensive and detailed monitoring capabilities:

  • System Call Tracing: eBPF can trace system calls, giving insights into how applications interact with the kernel and identifying potential issues.
  • Performance Monitoring: eBPF can collect detailed performance metrics, such as CPU usage, memory allocation, and I/O operations, allowing for granular monitoring of system performance.
  • Dynamic Instrumentation: eBPF allows for dynamic instrumentation of running systems without the need to modify application code or restart services, making it ideal for real-time monitoring and troubleshooting.

Practical Applications of eBPF for Observability

Application Performance Monitoring By using eBPF, DevOps and SREs can monitor application performance in real-time. For example:

#include <linux/bpf.h>
#include <bpf/bpf_helpers.h>

// eBPF program to monitor CPU usage by process
int on_cpu_switch(struct trace_event_raw_sched_switch *ctx) {
    u32 pid = bpf_get_current_pid_tgid() >> 32;
    u64 ts = bpf_ktime_get_ns();

    // Log the timestamp and PID of the process switching to CPU
    bpf_printk("PID %u switched to CPU at %llu ns\n", pid, ts);
    return 0;

char LICENSE[] SEC("license") = "GPL";

This eBPF program traces CPU context switches and logs the PID and timestamp of processes switching to the CPU, providing valuable data for performance analysis.

Network Latency Monitoring

eBPF can also be used to monitor network latency by tracing network events:

#include <linux/bpf.h>
#include <bpf/bpf_helpers.h>

// eBPF program to trace network packets and calculate latency
int on_packet_receive(struct trace_event_raw_netif_receive_skb *ctx) {
u64 ts = bpf_ktime_get_ns();
u64 *start_ts;

// Retrieve the start timestamp from packet metadata
start_ts = bpf_get_socket_cookie(ctx->skb);
if (start_ts) {
    u64 latency = ts - *start_ts;
    bpf_printk("Packet latency: %llu ns\n", latency);
return 0;


char LICENSE[] SEC("license") = "GPL";

This eBPF program calculates the latency of received network packets, helping identify network performance issues.

BPF vs. eBPF: Key Differences

While BPF and eBPF share a common heritage, they differ significantly in their capabilities and applications. Here are the key differences:

Scope and Capabilities

BPF: Primarily focused on network packet filtering. eBPF: Extends beyond packet filtering to include tracing, profiling, and other system-level monitoring tasks.

Flexibility and Complexity

BPF: Limited in scope but simpler to implement for network filtering tasks. eBPF: More complex and powerful, suitable for a wide range of monitoring and performance tasks.

Safety and Security

BPF: Basic safety mechanisms, mainly focused on preventing packet filter crashes. eBPF: Advanced safety features, including program verification to prevent harmful actions in the kernel.

Use Cases and Applications

BPF: Best suited for network monitoring and basic filtering tasks. eBPF: Ideal for comprehensive system monitoring, security enforcement, and performance profiling.

Practical Examples

To illustrate the practical differences between BPF and eBPF, let’s look at a couple of examples.

Example 1: Network Packet Filtering with BPF

// Simple BPF program to filter TCP packets on port 80
struct bpf_program {
struct bpf_insn insns[10];
int len;

// BPF instructions to filter TCP packets on port 80
struct bpf_program my_program = {
.insns = {
{ BPF_LD + BPF_H + BPF_ABS, 0, 0, 12 }, // Load the Ethernet type
{ BPF_JMP + BPF_JEQ + BPF_K, 0, 5, 0x0800 }, // If IP, jump to IP header
{ BPF_LD + BPF_B + BPF_ABS, 0, 0, 23 }, // Load the IP protocol
{ BPF_JMP + BPF_JEQ + BPF_K, 0, 3, 6 }, // If TCP, jump to TCP header
{ BPF_LD + BPF_H + BPF_ABS, 0, 0, 20 }, // Load the TCP destination port
{ BPF_JMP + BPF_JEQ + BPF_K, 0, 1, 80 }, // If port 80, accept packet
{ BPF_RET + BPF_K, 0, 0, 0xFFFFFFFF }, // Accept packet
{ BPF_RET + BPF_K, 0, 0, 0x00000000 }, // Reject packet
.len = 8

Example 2: System Call Tracing with eBPF

#include <linux/bpf.h>
#include <bpf/bpf_helpers.h>

// eBPF program to trace open system calls
int trace_open(struct trace_event_raw_sys_enter* ctx) {
char filename[256];
bpf_probe_read_user_str(filename, sizeof(filename), (char*)ctx->args[0]);
bpf_printk("Opening file: %s\n", filename);
return 0;

char LICENSE[] SEC("license") = "GPL";

Applying BPF and eBPF in DevOps and SRE

Understanding how to apply BPF and eBPF can significantly enhance monitoring, debugging, and security practices in DevOps and SRE environments. Here are some practical tips:

Monitoring and Observability

Network Performance: Use BPF for lightweight packet filtering and monitoring network performance. System Performance: Leverage eBPF for detailed system performance metrics, including CPU, memory, and I/O usage.


Intrusion Detection: Implement BPF-based filters to detect and log suspicious network activity. Security Policies: Use eBPF to enforce security policies at the kernel level, providing robust protection against various threats.

Debugging and Profiling

Application Profiling: Employ eBPF tools like BPF Compiler Collection (BCC) to profile applications and identify performance bottlenecks. System Tracing: Use eBPF for tracing system calls and understanding system behavior during complex operations.

Further Resources

For those interested in diving deeper into BPF and eBPF, here are some valuable resources:

Books: “Linux Observability with BPF” by David Calavera and Lorenzo Fontana, “BPF Performance Tools” by Brendan Gregg Websites and Tutorials:, BCC Documentation

By understanding and leveraging BPF and eBPF, DevOps and SREs can gain deep insights into their systems, improve performance monitoring, and enhance security measures. These powerful tools are essential for modern infrastructure management, providing unparalleled visibility and control.

Detailed Terminology:

What is BPF? Berkeley Packet Filter (BPF), initially introduced in the early 1990s, stands as a landmark technology in the domain of network traffic filtering. At its core, BPF was designed to provide a highly efficient means of packet filtering, surpassing traditional methods that required packets to traverse from kernel space to user space for processing. This innovative approach allowed for direct packet analysis and decision-making within the kernel, thereby significantly reducing latency and improving overall system throughput. BPF operates on a simple yet powerful premise: it utilizes a virtual machine (VM) within the kernel to run programs that decide the fate of packets (e.g., to accept, reject, or forward them). This mechanism not only streamlines packet processing but also introduces a level of programmability and flexibility previously unseen in kernel-level operations.

What is eBPF? Extended Berkeley Packet Filter (eBPF) emerges as an evolutionary leap from its predecessor, transforming the landscape of kernel optimization and programmability. eBPF extends the capabilities of the classic BPF, introducing a more powerful in-kernel virtual machine capable of executing small programs written in a restricted C-like language. These programs are compiled into eBPF bytecode, which the eBPF VM can then execute with high efficiency. eBPF’s innovation lies in its versatility and the breadth of its application domains. Beyond network packet filtering, eBPF enables performance monitoring, security policy enforcement, and even dynamic tracing of kernel and user-space applications. This expanded functionality is facilitated by eBPF’s advanced features, such as an extended set of instructions, larger and more complex data structures, and the ability to call a set of pre-defined kernel functions, known as “helpers.”