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Chapter: Embedded Systems Design : Interrupts and exceptions

Interrupt latency

One of the most important aspects of using interrupts is in the latency. This is usually defined as the time taken by the processor from recognition of the interrupt to the start of the ISR.

Interrupt latency


One of the most important aspects of using interrupts is in the latency. This is usually defined as the time taken by the processor from recognition of the interrupt to the start of the ISR. It consists of several stages and is dependent on both hardware and software factors. Its importance is that it defines several aspects of an embedded system with reference to its ability to respond to real-time events. The stages involved in calculating a latentcy are:


                                                                        The time taken to recognise the interrupt


Do not asssume that this is instantaneous as it will depend on the processor design and its own interrupt recognition mechanism. As previously mentioned, some processors will repeatedly sample an interrupt signal to ensure that it is a real one and not a false one.


                                                                       The time taken by the CPU to complete the current instruc-tion

This will also vary depending on what the CPU is doing and its complexity. For a simple CISC processor, this time will vary as its instructions all take a different number of clocks to complete. Usually the most time-consuming instructions are those that perform multiplication or division or some complex data manipulation such as bit field operations. For RISC processors with single cycle execution, the time is usually that to clear the execution pipeline and is 1 or 2 clocks. For complex processors that execute multiple in-structions per clocks, this calculation can get quite difficult. The other problem is identifying which instruction will be executing when the interrupt is recognised. In practice, this is impossible to do and the worst case execution time is used. This can often be one or more orders of magnitude greater than a typical instruction. A 32 bit division could take several hundred clocks while a simple add or subtract could be 1 cycle. Some compilers will restrict the use of multiple cycle instructions so that these worst case figures can be improved by only using fast executing instructions. As part of this, division and multiplication are often per-formed by software routines using a sequence of faster add, subtract and bit manipulation instructions. Of course, if the code is being written in assembly, then this can be finely tuned by examining the instruction mix.


                                                                         The time for the CPU to perform a context switch


This is the time taken by the processor to save its internal context information such as its program counter, internal data registers and anything else it needs. For CISC proces-sors, this can involve creating blocks of data on the stack by writing the information externally. For RISC processors this may mean simply switching registers internally without explicitly saving any information. Register windowing or shadowing is normally used.


                                                                         The time taken to fetch the interrupt vector


This is normally the time to fetch a single value from memory but even this time can be longer than you think! We will come back to this topic.


                                                                         The time taken to start the interrupt service routine execu-tion


Typically very short. However remember that because the pipeline is cleared, the instruction will need to be clocked through to execute it and this can take a few extra clocks, even with a RISC architecture.


In practice, processor architectures will have different precedures for all these stages depending on their design philosphy and sophistication.


With a simple microcontroller, this calculation is simple: take the longest execution time for any instruction, add to it the number of memory accesses that the processor needs times the number of clocks per access, add any other delays and you arrive with a worst case interrupt latency. This becomes more difficult when other factors are added such as memory management and caches. While the basic calculations are the same, the number of clocks involved in a memory access can vary dramatically — often by an order of magnitude! To correctly calculate the value, the interupt latency calculations also have to take into account the cost of external memory access and this can sometimes be the over-whelmingly dominant factor.


While all RISC systems should be designed with single cycle memory access for optimum performance, the practicalities are that memory cycles often incur wait states or bus delays. Unfortunately for designers, RISC architectures cannot tolerate such delays — one wait state halves the performance, two reduces performance to a third. This can have a dramatic effect on real-time performance. All the advantages gained with the new architecture may be lost.


The solution is to use caches to speed up the memory access and remove delays. This is often used in conjunction with memory management to help control the caches and ensure data coher-ency, as well as any address translation. However, there are some potential penalties for any system that uses caches and memory management which must be considered.

Consider the system in the diagram. The processor is using a Harvard architecture with combined caches and memory man-agement units to buffer it from the slower main memory. The caches are operating in copyback mode to provide further speed improvements. The processor receives an interrupt and immedi-ately starts exception processing. Although the internal context is preserved in shadow registers, the vector table, exception routines and data exist in external memory.


In this example, the first data fetch causes a cache miss. All the cache lines are full and contain some dirty data, therefore the cache must update main memory with a cache line before fetching the instruction. This involves an address translation, which causes a page fault. The MMU now has to perform an external table walk before the data can be stored. This has to complete before the cache line can be written out which, in turn, must complete before the first instruction of the exception routine can be executed. The effect is staggering — the quick six cycle interrupt latency is totally overshadowed by the 12 or so memory accesses that must be completed simply to get the first instruction. This may be a worst case scenario, but it has to be considered in any real-time design.

This problem can be contained by declaring exception routines and data as non-cachable, or through the use of a BATC or transparent window to remove the page fault and table walk. These techniques couple the CPU directly to external memory which, if slow, can be extremely detrimental to performance. Small areas of very fast memory can be reserved for exception handling to solve this problem; locking routines in cache can also be solutions, at the expense of performance in other system functions. It should be of no surprise that many of today's RISC controllers are using local memory (tightly coupled memory or TCM) to store interrupt routines and thus allow the system designer to address the latency problems of caches and memory management. This is added to the processor and resides on-chip. Access does not require any off-chip bus cycles and so it will not slow down the processor whenever it is used. By locating the time critical routines and data in this tightly coupled memory, it is possible to not only reduce the latency and ISR execution time but also make the execution more consistent in its timing.


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