Implementing a Kernel Launcher#

A new implementation for a kernel launcher becomes necessary when you want to introduce another kind of kernel to an existing configuration. Out of the box, Gateway Provisioners provides kernel launchers that support the IPython kernel (and subclasses thereof), the Apache Toree scala kernel, and the R kernel - IRKernel. There are other “language-agnostic kernel launchers” provided by Remote Provisioners, but those are used in container environments to start the container or pod where the “kernel image” uses one of the three language-based launchers to start the kernel within the container.

Its generally recommended that the launcher be written in the language of the kernel, but that is not a requirement so long as the launcher can start and manage the kernel’s lifecycle and issue interrupts (if the kernel does not support message-based interrupts itself).

The four tasks of a kernel launcher are:

  1. Create the necessary connection information based on the five zero-mq ports, a signature key and algorithm specifier, along with a server listener socket.

  2. Conveyance of the connection (and listener socket) information back to the host application (Gateway Provisioners) process after properly encrypting the information.

  3. Invocation of the target kernel.

  4. Listen for interrupt and shutdown requests from the host application on the communication socket and carry out the action when appropriate.

Creating the Connection Information#

If your target kernel exists, then there is probably support for creating ZeroMQ ports. If this proves difficult, you may be able to take a hybrid approach where the connection information, encryption and listener portion of things is implemented in Python, while invocation takes place in the native language. This is how the R kernel-launcher support is implemented.

When creating the connection information, your kernel launcher should handle the possibility that the --port-range option has been specified such that each port should reside within the specified range.

The port used between the host application and the kernel launcher, known as the communication port, should also adhere to the port range. It is not required that this port be ZeroMQ (and is not a ZMQ port in existing implementations).

Here’s where the Python (and R) ports are selected, adhering to any port range restrictions.

Encrypting the Connection Information#

The next task of the kernel launcher is sending the connection information back to the host server. Prior to doing this, the connection information, including the communication port, is encrypted using AES encryption and a 16-byte key. The AES key is then encrypted using the public key specified in the public_key parameter. These two fields (the AES-encrypted payload and the public-key-encrypted AES key) are then included into a JSON structure that also include the launcher’s version information and base64-encoded. Here’s such an example from the Python (and R) kernel launchers.

The payload is then sent back on a socket identified by the --response-address option.

Invoking the Target Kernel#

For the R kernel launcher, the kernel is started using IRKernel::main() after the SparkContext is initialized based on the spark-context-initialization-mode parameter.

The scala kernel launcher works similarly in that the Apache Toree kernel provides an “entrypoint” to start the kernel, however, because the Toree kernel initializes a SparkContext itself, the need to do so is conveyed directly to the kernel.

For the Python kernel launcher, it creates a namespace instance that contains the SparkContext information, if requested to do so via the spark-context-initialization-mode parameter, instantiates an IPKernelApp instance using the configured namespace, then calls the start() method.

Invoking Subclasses of ipykernel.kernelbase.Kernel#

Because the python kernel launcher uses IPKernelApp, support for any subclass of ipykernel.kernelbase.Kernel can be launched by Gateway Provisioner’s Python kernel launcher.

To specify an alternate subclass, add --kernel-class-name (along with the specified dotted class string) to the kernel.json file’s argv stanza. Gateway Provisioner’s Python launcher will import that class and pass it as a parameter to IPKernelApp.initialize().


When generating kernel specfiications via the CLI tooling, this option is available via the --ipykernel-subclass-name parameter.

For example, to generate the equivalent of the JSON below, enter:

jupyter ssh-spec install --ipykernel-subclass-name echo_kernel.kernel.EchoKernel --kernel-name echo --display-name Echo

Here’s an example kernel.json file that launches the “echo” kernel using the DistributedProvisioner:

  "argv": [
  "env": {},
  "display_name": "Echo",
  "language": "python",
  "interrupt_mode": "signal",
  "metadata": {
    "debugger": true,
    "kernel_provisioner": {
      "provisioner_name": "distributed-provisioner",
      "config": {
        "launch_timeout": 30


The referenced kernel-class-name package must be properly installed on all nodes/images where the associated kernel will run.

Listening for Interrupt and Shutdown Requests#

The last task that must be performed by a kernel launcher is to listen on the communication port for work. There are currently two requests sent on the port, a signal event and a shutdown request.

Signal Event#

The signal event is of the form {"signum": n} where the string 'signum' indicates a signal event and n is an integer specifying the signal number to send to the kernel. Typically, the value of n is 2 representing SIGINT and used to interrupt any current processing. As more kernels adopt a message-based interrupt approach, this will not be as common. Gateway Provisioners also use this event to perform its poll() implementation by sending {"signum": 0}. Raising a signal of 0 to a process is a common way to determine the process is still alive.

Shutdown Request#

A shutdown request is sent when the Gateway Provisioners has typically terminated the kernel, and it’s just performing its final cleanup. The form of this request is {"shutdown": 1}. This is what instructs the launcher to abandon listening on the communication socket and to exit.

Here’s an example from the Python (and R) server listener code of handling host-initiated requests.

Other Parameters#

Besides --port-range, --public-key, and --response-address, the kernel launcher needs to support --kernel-id that indicates the kernel’s ID as known to the host server (mostly for log reconciliation). It should also tolerate the existence of --spark-context-initialization-mode but, unless applicable for Spark environments, should only support values of "none" for this option.