Making kernels for Jupyter

A ‘kernel’ is a program that runs and introspects the user’s code. IPython includes a kernel for Python code, and people have written kernels for several other languages.

When Jupyter starts a kernel, it passes it a connection file. This specifies how to set up communications with the frontend.

There are two options for writing a kernel:

  1. You can reuse the IPython kernel machinery to handle the communications, and just describe how to execute your code. This is much simpler if the target language can be driven from Python. See Making simple Python wrapper kernels for details.

  2. You can implement the kernel machinery in your target language. This is more work initially, but the people using your kernel might be more likely to contribute to it if it’s in the language they know.

Connection files

Your kernel will be given the path to a connection file when it starts (see Kernel specs for how to specify the command line arguments for your kernel). This file, which is accessible only to the current user, will contain a JSON dictionary looking something like this:

  "control_port": 50160,
  "shell_port": 57503,
  "transport": "tcp",
  "signature_scheme": "hmac-sha256",
  "stdin_port": 52597,
  "hb_port": 42540,
  "ip": "",
  "iopub_port": 40885,
  "key": "a0436f6c-1916-498b-8eb9-e81ab9368e84"

The transport, ip and five _port fields specify five ports which the kernel should bind to using ZeroMQ. For instance, the address of the shell socket in the example above would be:


New ports are chosen at random for each kernel started.

signature_scheme and key are used to cryptographically sign messages, so that other users on the system can’t send code to run in this kernel. See The Wire Protocol for the details of how this signature is calculated.

Handling messages

After reading the connection file and binding to the necessary sockets, the kernel should go into an event loop, listening on the hb (heartbeat), control and shell sockets.

Heartbeat messages should be echoed back immediately on the same socket - the frontend uses this to check that the kernel is still alive.

Messages on the control and shell sockets should be parsed, and their signature validated. See The Wire Protocol for how to do this.

The kernel will send messages on the iopub socket to display output, and on the stdin socket to prompt the user for textual input.

See also

Messaging in Jupyter

Details of the different sockets and the messages that come over them

Creating Language Kernels for IPython

A blog post by the author of IHaskell, a Haskell kernel


A simple example implementation of the kernel machinery in Python

Kernel specs

A kernel typically identifies itself to an IPython-compatible application by creating a directory, the name of which is used as an identifier for the kernel. The contents of this directory is what is referred to as the kernel specfication. For more information on kernel specs and other ways kernels are identified, please refer to the Jupyter Kernel Management documentation.