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Punctuality Matters: Using Linux to Manage Time-Critical Situations

The robustness of Linux is widely acknowledged, but it can’t quite match the microsecond management of a real-time operating system (RTOS) for time critical situations such as CNC machine instructions, vehicular control, or health sensor collection. If your software must record, manage, or control events within a narrow and precise time window and you’re invested in Linux for core development, you can consider some of these strategies for handling time-critical tasks without abandoning your familiar environment.

Real-time patches

Linux can be nudged closer to real-time performance using kernel patches specifically designed for real-time applications like PREEMPT_RT. These patches modify the Linux kernel to reduce latency and improve the predictability of task scheduling by minimizing the duration of non-preemptible critical kernel code. This does not transform Linux into a hard real-time system, but it provides sufficient precision for many scenarios. Bear in mind that this solution requires you to keep your real-time patches aligned with your Linux kernel, which might slow down the frequency of kernel updates your team can manage. You also must navigate issues such as page swapping that can disrupt timing.

Embracing the hypervisor

Hypervisors offer a parallel environment beneath/beside Linux to manage time-sensitive tasks. They enable running virtual machines (VMs) alongside the main Linux system, each capable of hosting different operating systems. This allows you to place your real-time tasks into an RTOS while reserving Linux for higher-level functions. While hypervisors can improve real-time reliability and system flexibility, don’t forget to take their overhead and resource contention into account.

Onboard processing

Modern CPUs often feature integrated co-processors, like an ARM Cortex-M or a DSP, which is suitable for real-time operations as well as low-power needs while the main CPU is dormant. These can handle time-critical tasks independent of the CPU, effectively using available hardware resources without the need for additional components. These parallel processing environments can be highly efficient at specific tasks. However, this approach adds complexity in coordinating tasks and data flow between CPUs and co-processors – and not all hardware platforms have suitable co-processors.

Leverage a microcontroller

For dedicated time-critical processing, especially in low-power applications, microcontrollers can be very effective. With a basic event loop or interrupt-driven sleep mode, they operate efficiently and independently, offering high reliability as dedicated systems, and potentially lower power consumption for battery-powered devices. The drawback is that they can increase costs due to additional hardware, potentially create a larger physical footprint, and add development complexity because of separate code bases.

Dedicated cores

Reserving a CPU core exclusively for real-time tasks might be overkill, but it’s a viable option when there’s sufficiently extra processing power. By using cores optimized for lower power consumption, this method can also have power-saving benefits. A real-time dedicated core ensures that time-critical tasks don’t get interrupted by other system activities. However, it almost always underutilizes the processor’s full capabilities and can be complex to properly manage memory pages and core affinities.

Which solution is the best?

The appropriateness of these methods hinges entirely on the specifics of your time-critical hardware and access requirements. For instance, if essential hardware is only accessible via the main CPU, microcontrollers or co-processors won’t be viable. Implementing any of these solutions introduces complexity, often requiring dual software environments and toolsets, as well as solid communication between time-critical and non-critical processes (communication channels must be designed meticulously to avoid becoming performance bottlenecks).

Conclusion

Incorporating time-critical capabilities into Linux systems is a balancing act of innovation and practicality. While Linux may never achieve ‘hard’ real-time status, with care and innovation it can be adapted to meet time-sensitive demands. Integrating real-time capabilities into a Linux-based system is a multifaceted challenge and each solution presents a unique set of trade-offs. To learn more about these challenges and related topics, read Designing Your First Embedded Device: Choosing Your Software Stack.

 

If you want to learn more about embedded Linux, come talk to us at Embedded World 2024 (9th-11th April) in Nürnberg: KDAB at EW24.

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