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Guest column: Comparing two approaches to real-time Linux

Dec 21, 2000 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive
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In recent years, two alternative approaches to providing real-time services within Linux systems have surfaced. In this paper, I will define these two systems and discuss some of the main advantages and disadvantages of each.

The two share some interesting similarities. However, they also have some important distinctions which impact their appropriateness for various types of “real-time” applications, which span a broad spectrum from what is termed “hard real-time,” to what is considered “soft real-time.”

The two approaches will be referred to as “preemption improvement” and “interrupt abstraction.”

Preemption Improvement

In the preemption improvement approach, the Linux kernel code is modified to reduce the amount of time that the kernel spends in non-preemptible sections of code. In general, the strategy is to reduce the length of the longest section of non-preemptible code in order to minimize the latency of interrupts or real-time task scheduling in the system. The reason this is important is that the amount of time spent in the longest section of non-preemptible code is the shortest scheduling latency that can be guaranteed for a hard real-time system running on Linux. This, of course, has a direct impact on the value that the real-time system can provide.

It is interesting to note that there are multiple ways of trying to improve preemptibility in the Linux kernel. One is to add additional points in the Linux kernel, where the currently executing kernel thread relinquishes control (or explicitly makes itself available for preemption). The code to do this is often referred to as “low latency patches”, the most famous of which has been written by Ingo Molnar, a prominent Linux kernel contributor.

Another technique, recently pioneered by MontaVista, is a system utilizing SMP macros already in the Linux kernel to treat the machine as if it were running SMP even on a uniprocessor system. Then the preemption capabilities of the kernel used to provide SMP support are automatically invoked to enhance the preemptibility of the Linux kernel.

Another interesting aspect of this approach is that it is usually coupled with a new scheduler implementation that provides fixed overhead for scheduling real-time tasks. This scheduler is put in place in front of the normal Linux process scheduler, in order to give real-time tasks scheduling priority (as well as fixed scheduling cost).

Interrupt Abstraction

The other major approach to providing real-time with the Linux kernel is what I refer to as “interrupt abstraction”. In this approach, a separate scheduler is also used. However, instead of trying to instrument the existing Linux kernel in order to increase preemptibility, the entire kernel is made preemptible by having a separate hardware-handling layer intercept and manage the actual hardware interrupts on a system. This hardware abstraction layer has complete control over the hardware interrupts, and simulates the interrupts up to the Linux kernel in a way that allows the kernel to run unmodified on the real-time scheduler. This system is often described as a micro-kernel system, where the full Linux kernel runs as the lowest priority task alongside real-time tasks in the system on top of the real-time scheduler.

This approach is provided by two different real-time Linux projects: the RTLinux system, which originated at the University of New Mexico; and the Real Time Application Interface (RTAI), which originated at the University of Milan, in Italy.

Limitations of the Preemption Improvement model

The preemption improvement model of real-time support in the Linux kernel suffers from several key limitations.

Limits to guarantees

First, while this system does result in increased general preemptibility in the Linux kernel, (thus providing an environment for decreased real-time context switch latencies), there are severe limits on the guarantees that can be made about the latencies. You will often see statements in the literature about this approach with wording such as “the longest measured interrupt latency”. The reason for this is that it is impossible to provide a guarantee about the latency for this approach, unless every possible code path in the kernel is examined. Thus, the discussion always revolves around historical measurements and observations — NOT on a guarantee based on complete analysis of code paths.

A normal Linux kernel in the embedded space is somewhere between 300K to 500K. The code for the entire Linux kernel runs into about 40 megabytes of source code. Code is added to and modified on a daily basis in the source base. Thus, it is impossible in the general case to make any certifiable guarantee about the longest possible non-preemptible code path in the Linux kernel. The amount of code examination that would be required for this type of guarantee is prohibitive.

Implementers of the preemption improvement systems have utilized a variety of techniques to identify and eliminate “problem” code paths in the Linux kernel. MontaVista, for example, has issued some tools and instrumentation patches to analyze latencies in the Linux kernel. However, it should be noted that none of these techniques is exhaustive. That is, no one has gone to the effort of analyzing every possible code path, especially when coupled with error conditions. Note that it is not even possible in a test environment to simulate every conceivable error condition that the Linux kernel might encounter. This makes the analysis statistical in nature rather than comprehensive and conclusive.

What this essentially means, is that guarantees of hard real-time performance can not be made in this environment. While this approach appears to produce favorable results for soft real-time uses, it cannot produce a system with hard real-time capabilities.

Difficulty of maintenance

A second major problem with the preemption improvement approach to real-time is that it imposes an additional burden on all contributing Linux kernel programmers. Not only must all current Linux code by analyzed for preemptibility, but new code added to the kernel must meet the strict requirements that it not introduce additional long non-preemptible kernel code paths.

It is more difficult to program fully preemptible algorithms than it is to program non-preemptible algorithms. This means that this approach imposes a large burden (and I believe an unrealistic one) on kernel programmers. Requiring preemptibility analysis on all new drivers or kernel features would unnecessarily slow the rate of kernel development. Not requiring preemptibility analysis on new kernel code leaves the kernel subject to non-measurable code path latencies. Either case leads to undesirable effects. One of the main reasons that developers and companies are interested in Linux is the rate at which the kernel is enhanced and debugged (modified). Crippling this rate in order to guarantee real-time performance would do serious damage to the value proposition that Linux provides.

Risk of bugs

Another major problem with the preemption improvement approach is that it requires substantial modifications to the Linux kernel, spread throughout the kernel. This poses the risk of introduction of bugs into the Linux kernel by the preemption improvement patches. In general, the larger a large-scale patch, the more likely it is to disturb the complex inner workings of the Linux kernel.

Limitations of the Interrupt Abstraction model

In contrast to the above problems, with the interrupt abstraction model, the Linux kernel is largely untouched. For example, the patch for the X86 version of Linux is only 9 lines long. The Linux kernel runs essentially unmodified under this system, and thus will run as expected for all kernel sub-systems (such as drivers), as well as user-space programs and applications. No code path analysis of the kernel is required. The only code that needs extensive analysis is the real-time scheduler (and associated IPC and service code), and the hardware abstraction layer. In its entirety, this code amounts to only about 64K. Several of the modules in this system are optional, bringing the total amount of code that must be analyzed to under 30K for most applications. Of course, this code already has been analyzed extensively by a large body of real-time experts.

However, the interrupt abstraction model also has some important limitations that developers should be aware of.

Unique programming model for real-time tasks

Currently, this model requires that real-time tasks be implemented as Linux kernel loadable modules. This is the same format that is used for other kernel features, such as file systems, device drivers, alternate loaders, and others. Kernel loadable modules utilize several APIs that are different from the POSIX APIs available for normal Linux process development. However, it should be noted that the bulk of the APIs used for real-time tasks is the same as that used for Linux drivers. There is copious documentation and examples for writing code for this environment, and it is a Linux environment.

It should be noted that the APIs to deal specifically with the real-time environment are new to the Linux kernel. A few different APIs can be used for real-time task management and communication, including a set of POSIX real-time APIs. This means that real-time tasks can be programmed using industry standard POSIX APIs for real-time systems.

A solution, but with caveats

There is work under way to produce a version of this system (at least with the RTAI project), which will allow scheduling using the real-time scheduler with a user-space process. This solution, once completed, should prove attractive for those who wish to avoid loading their real-time tasks in kernel mode.

However, it is important to recognize that even this system will have some important drawbacks, compared to a system where all real-time tasks reside in the Linux kernel. The most important one is that there are certain context switch latencies involved when a process is switched into in user space (due to MMU processing overhead, cache line flushes, and other things), that will inherently yield more jitter, and thus worse case guaranteed task switch latencies.

Anticipating objections

There are a few more objections to the interrupt abstraction approach which are often raised, and which I will address.

“But it's not Linux!”

Proponents of the preemption improvement model often say that this system is “not really Linux”. For this assertion to have any meaning, one has to determine just what exactly it means for something to be Linux. A general consensus in the community is that Linux is what Linus Torvalds says it is. He is the primary moderator of what goes into the main kernel tree, and thus decides what features will become a standard part of Linux. However, this metric is not useful in this case, since neither approach has yet been incorporated into the main Linux kernel. Indeed, every single Linux vendor (in the desktop, server, and embedded markets) ships a modified Linux kernel that deviates from the official source base as published on

If Linux is instead defined by the Linux API in user space, then this also poses a problem. Very few would dispute that an Ethernet driver is a part of Linux. Ethernet drivers are coded in a manner requiring special skills, as kernel modules, using a special in-kernel API. The same can be said of real-time tasks intended to be used with the interrupt abstraction model of Linux real-time.

Finally, at least one more definition of Linux would include the basic correctness and robustness that is provided by the kernel due to the peer-review and contributions of the open source community. Making large-scale modifications to the Linux kernel without the same level of peer review and open source community involvement potentially damages that value that developers have come to expect.

On the need for a different programming model . . .

It is true that writing Linux kernel modules requires different programming skills than does writing a Linux application process. However, these skills are likely to be required by an embedded developer anyway, for such other things as device drivers, board initialization code, and other kernel features that are
required for embedded projects.

Other arguments often thrown up are other issues related to writing your application in kernel space, like the absence of normal process memory protection features. A very significant reason that people are adopting a full-featured operating system like Linux is that the embedded market is tending towards complex system requirements, and thus increased system code complexity. Memory protection, comprehensive resource management, and process isolation are important keys to building a robust complex embedded system. However, these arguments ignore the fact that using the interrupt abstraction model does not require that the entire application or system be written in kernel space.

Indeed, it is undesirable to put everything into the kernel. The nature of the complex systems that embedded designers want to build is such that there are now significant portions of the application that do NOT have real-time requirements. For example, an industrial control application may have hard real-time data acquisition requirements, as well as other aspects (such as data storage, networking, display and presentation, data transformation, and others) which do not require hard real-time capabilities. This division is true more often than not.

It is faulty logic to assume, just because an application is written in user space, that the portions requiring hard real-time performance will therefore be more easily written, or especially that they will be able to take advantage of the full POSIX API without limitation. For example, when a user-space thread is switched onto the real-time scheduler in the preemption improvement model, it must avoid using APIs and system calls which would eliminate its real-time characteristics.

In general, this means it must avoid using networking, disk I/O, memory allocations, and other services which cannot be guaranteed to respond with certain latencies. Also, this thread must be isolated from other non-real-time threads in the application (that DO use these services). So, whether the hard real-time portion of the application is implemented in kernel space or user space, there are a host of issues that the real-time designer will have to deal with, in order to preserve the real-time guarantees of the system.

Although programming in the kernel and implementing real-time tasks as loadable modules does impose an extra learning burden, this burden is extremely minor compared to the knowledge and expertise required to correctly design and code real-time algorithms in the first place. In other words, writing a kernel module is probably one of the least of your worries when you undertake to write an application with some real-time requirements. In some cases, being forced to
separate the real-time tasks into kernel modules can help define and clarify the separation between the real-time and non-real-time portions of the application.

Conclusion: “Different strokes for different folks”

In conclusion, while the preemption improvement model does provide some key benefits for developing certain types of real-time applications, it is incapable of yielding true hard real-time performance. Attempting to do so would certainly incur costly penalties in terms of other Linux benefits — such as driver breadth or development pace — in order to achieve true guarantees of hard real-time latencies.

Therefore, although the preemption improvement model does hold promise as a means to obtain soft real-time capabilities from Linux, which can benefit all Linux applications, it is unlikely to provide a viable long-term solution for Linux tasks that require true hard real-time performance.

The interrupt abstraction model, on the other hand, while imposing minor programming burdens on the embedded developer, is immediately capable of providing a true hard real-time environment for appropriately written applications within a Linux environment.

Author's bio: As Lineo's CTO, Tim Bird is accountable for the architecture, design and development of Lineo's embedded operating system platforms and applications. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in Computer Science from Brigham Young University. Bird began his career as an engineer at Novell, Inc., where, in 1993, he began working with Linux. In 1995, he joined Caldera, Inc. as a senior developer. In 1998, Bird helped create the Caldera division that eventually became Lineo, Inc. in 1999. He is also co-author of “Special Edition: Using OpenLinux” by MacMillan Publishing.

A variation of this article by Tim Bird originally appeared in the November issue of RTC Magazine.

This article was originally published on LinuxDevices and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

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