General protection fault

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A general protection fault (GPF) in the Intel x86 and AMD x86-64 instruction set architectures (ISAs), as well as other ISAs, is a fault (a type of interrupt) initiated by ISA-defined protection mechanisms in response to an access violation caused by some running code, either in the kernel or a user program. The mechanism is first described in Intel manuals and datasheets for the 80286 CPU, which was introduced in 1983; it is also described in section 9.8.13 in the Intel 80386 programmer's reference manual from 1986. A general protection fault is implemented as an interrupt (vector number 13 in decimal) in both the x86 and the AMD64 architectures. Some operating systems may also classify some exceptions not related to access violations, such as illegal opcode exceptions, as general protection faults, even though they have nothing to do with memory protection.

If the processor detects a protection violation, it stops executing the code and sends a GPF interrupt. In most cases the operating system removes the failing process from the execution queue, signals the user, and continues executing other processes. If, however, the operating system fails to catch the general protection fault, i.e. another protection violation occurs before the operating system returns from the previous GPF interrupt, the processor signals a double fault, stopping the operating system. If yet another failure (triple fault) occurs, the processor will be unable to recover. Since the 80286, the processor will enter a special halt state called Shutdown, which can only be exited through a hardware reset, if a triple fault occurs. The IBM PC AT, the first PC-compatible system to contain an 80286, has hardware that detects the Shutdown state and automatically resets the CPU when it occurs, and all descendants of the PC AT do the same, so in a PC, a triple fault causes an immediate system reset.

Behavior in specific operating systems[edit]

In Microsoft Windows, the general protection fault presents with varied language, depending on product version:

Operating system Error message
Windows 3.0 Unrecoverable Application Error (UAE)[1]
Windows 3.1x [Program Name] has caused a General Protection Fault in module [module name] at [memory address].
Windows 95
Windows 98
Windows NT 4.0
This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down.
Windows 2000 [Program Name] has generated errors and will be closed by Windows.
Windows Me [Program Name] has caused an error in [Module Name]. [Program Name] will now close.
Windows XP
Windows Server 2003
Windows Server 2003 R2
[Program Name/Description] has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.
Windows Vista and later
Windows Server 2008 and later
[Program Name/Description] has stopped working.

In systems such as Unix and Linux, the errors are reported separately (e.g. segmentation fault for memory errors).

Memory errors[edit]

In memory errors, the faulting program accesses memory that it should not access. Examples include:

  • Attempting to write to a read-only portion of memory
  • Attempting to execute bytes in memory which are not designated as instructions
  • Attempting to read as data bytes in memory which are designated as instructions
  • Other miscellaneous conflicts between the designation of a part of memory and its use

However, many modern operating systems implement their memory access-control schemes via paging instead of segmentation, so it is often the case that invalid memory references in operating systems such as Windows are reported via page faults instead of general protection faults. Operating systems typically provide an abstraction layer (such as exception handling or signals) that hides whatever internal processor mechanism was used to raise a memory access error from a program, for the purposes of providing a standard interface for handling many different types of processor-generated error conditions.

In terms of the x86 architecture, general protection faults are specific to segmentation-based protection when it comes to memory accesses. However, general protection faults are still used to report other protection violations (aside from memory access violations) when paging is used, such as the use of instructions not accessible from the current privilege level (CPL).

While it is theoretically possible for an operating system to utilize both paging and segmentation, for the most part, common operating systems typically rely on paging for the bulk of their memory access control needs.

Privilege errors[edit]

There are some things on a computer which are reserved for the exclusive use of the operating system. If a program which is not part of the operating system attempts to use one of these features, it may cause a general protection fault.

Additionally, there are storage locations which are reserved both for the operating system and the processor itself. As a consequence of their reservation, they are read-only and an attempt to write data to them by an unprivileged program is an error.

Technical causes for faults[edit]

General protection faults are raised by the processor when a protected instruction is encountered which exceeds the permission level of the currently executing task, either because a user-mode program is attempting a protected instruction, or because the operating system has issued a request which would put the processor into an undefined state.

General protection faults are caught and handled by modern operating systems. Generally, if the fault originated in a user-mode program, the user-mode program is terminated. If, however, the fault originated in a core system driver or the operating system itself, the operating system usually saves diagnostic information either to a file or to the screen and stops operating. It either restarts the computer or displays an error screen, such as a Blue Screen of Death or kernel panic.

Segment limits exceeded[edit]

Segment limits can be exceeded:

Segment permissions violated[edit]

Segment permissions can be violated by:

  • jumping to non-executable segments
  • writing to code segments, or read only segments
  • reading execute-only segments

Segments illegally loaded[edit]

This can occur when:

  • a stack segment (SS) is loaded with a segment selector for a read only, executable, null segment, or segment with descriptor privilege not matching the current privilege in CS
  • a code segment (CS) loaded with a segment selector for a data, system, or null segment
  • SS, DS, ES, FS, or GS are segments loaded with a segment selector for a system segment
  • SS, DS, ES, FS, or GS are segments loaded with a segment selector for an execute-only code segment
  • accessing memory using DS, ES, FS, or GS registers, when they contain a null selector


Faults can occur in the task state segment (TSS) structure when:

  • switching to a busy task during a call or jump instruction
  • switching to an available task during an interrupt return (IRET) instruction
  • using a segment selector on a switch pointing to a TSS descriptor in the LDT[clarification needed]


Other causes of general protection faults are:

  • attempting to access an interrupt/exception handler from v86 mode when the handler's code segment descriptor privilege level (DPL) is greater than zero
  • attempting to write a one into the reserved bits of CR4
  • attempting to execute privileged instructions when the current privilege level (CPL) is not zero
  • writing to a reserved bit in an MSR instruction
  • accessing a gate containing a null segment selector
  • executing a software interrupt when the CPL is greater than the DPL set for the interrupt gate
  • the segment selector in a call, interrupt or trap gate does not point to a code segment
  • exceeding the instruction length of 15 bytes (Undefined opcode exception)
  • violating privilege rules
  • enabling paging whilst disabling protection
  • referencing the interrupt descriptor table following an interrupt or exception that is not an interrupt, trap, or a task gate
  • Legacy SSE: Memory operand is not 16-byte aligned.


Further reading[edit]

  • Intel Architecture Software Developer's Manual–Volume 3: System Programming