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Chapter: Embedded Systems Design : Real-time operating systems

Multitasking operating systems

A multitasking operating system works by dividing the processor’s time into discrete time slots. Each application or task requires a certain number of time slots to complete its execution.

Multitasking operating systems


For the majority of embedded systems, a single tasking operating system is too restrictive. What is required is an operat-ing system that can run multiple applications simultaneously and provide intertask control and communication. The facilities once only available to mini and mainframe computer users are now required by 16/32 bit microprocessor users.


A multitasking operating system works by dividing the processor’s time into discrete time slots. Each application or task requires a certain number of time slots to complete its execution. The operating system kernel decides which task can have the next slot, so instead of a task executing continuously until completion, its execution is interleaved with other tasks. This sharing of processor time between tasks gives the illusion to each user that he is the only one using the system.


Context switching, task tables, and kernels


Multitasking operating systems are based around a multitasking kernel which controls the time slicing mechanisms. A time slice is the time period each task has for execution before it is stopped and replaced during a context switch. This is periodi-cally triggered by a hardware interrupt from the system timer. This interrupt may provide the system clock and several inter-rupts may be executed and counted before a context switch is performed.

When a context switch is performed, the current task is interrupted, the processor’s registers are saved in a special table for that particular task and the task is placed back on the ‘ready’ list to await another time slice. Special tables, often called task control blocks, store all the information the system requires about the task, for example its memory usage, its priority level within the system and its error handling. It is this context information that is switched when one task is replaced by another.

The ‘ready’ list contains all the tasks and their status and is used by the scheduler to decide which task is allocated the next time slice. The scheduling algorithm determines the sequence and takes into account a task’s priority and present status. If a task is waiting for an I/O call to complete, it will be held in limbo until the call is complete.


Once a task is selected, the processor registers and status at the time of its last context switch are loaded back into the processor and the processor is started. The new task carries on as if nothing had happened until the next context switch takes place. This is the basic method behind all multitasking operating systems.


The diagram shows a simplified state diagram for a typical real-time operating system which uses this time slice mechanism. On each context switch, a task is selected by the kernel’s scheduler from the ‘ready’ list and is put into the run state. It is then executed until another context switch occurs. This is normally signalled by a periodic interrupt from a timer. In such cases the task is simply switched out and put back on the ‘ready’ list, awaiting its next slot. Alternatively, the execution can be stopped by the task executing certain kernel commands. It could suspend itself, where it remains present in the system but no further execution occurs. It could become dormant, awaiting a start command from another task, or even simply waiting for a server task within the operating system to perform a special function for it. A typical example of a server task is a driver performing special screen graphics functions. The most common reason for a task to come out of the run state, is to wait for a message or command, or delay itself for a certain time period. The various wait directives allow tasks to synchronise and control each other within the system. This state diagram is typical of many real-time operating systems.




The kernel controls memory usage and prevents tasks from corrupting each other. If required, it also controls memory sharing between tasks, allowing them to share common program mod-ules, such as high level language run-time libraries. A set of memory tables is maintained, which is used to decide if a request is accepted or rejected. This means that resources, such as physical memory and peripheral devices, can be protected from users without using hardware memory management provided the task is disciplined enough to use the operating system and not access the resources directly. This is essential to maintain the system’s integrity.


Message passing and control can be implemented in such systems by using the kernel to act as a message passer and controller between tasks. If task A wants to stop task B, then by executing a call to the kernel, the status of task B can be changed and its execution halted. Alternatively, task B can be delayed for a set time period or forced to wait for a message.


With a typical real-time operating system, there are two basic type of messages that the kernel will deal with:


                                                                        flags that can control but cannot carry any implicit informa-tion — often called semaphores or events and


                                                                        messages which can carry information and control tasks — often called messages or events.


The kernel maintains the tables required to store this infor-mation and is responsible for ensuring that tasks are controlled and receive the information. With the facility for tasks to commu-nicate between each other, system call support for accessing I/O, loading tasks from disk etc., can be achieved by running addi-tional tasks, with a special system status. These system tasks provide additional facilities and can be included as required.

To turn a real-time kernel into a full operating system with file systems and so on, requires the addition of several such tasks to perform I/O services, file handling and file management serv-ices, task loading, user interface and driver software. What was about a small <16 kbyte-sized kernel will often grow into a large 120 kbyte operating system. These extra facilities are built up as layers surrounding the kernel. Application tasks then fit around the outside. A typical onion structure is shown as an example. Due to the modular construction, applications can generally access any level directly if required. Therefore, application tasks that just require services provided by the kernel can be developed and debugged under the full environment, and stripped down for integration onto the target hardware.

In a typical system, all these service tasks and applications are controlled, scheduled and executed by the kernel. If an appli-cation wishes to write some data to a hard disk in the system, the process starts with the application creating a parameter block and asking the file manager to open the file. This system call is normally executed by a TRAP instruction. The kernel then places the task on its ‘waiting’ list until the file manager had finished and passed the status information back to the application task. Once this event has been received, it wakes up and is placed on the ‘ready’ list awaiting a time slot.


These actions are performed by the kernel. The next appli-cation command requests the file handling services to assign an identifier — often called a logical unit number (LUN) — to the file prior to the actual access. This is needed later for the I/O services call. Again, another parameter block is created and the file handler is requested to assign the LUN. The calling task is placed on the ‘waiting’ list until this request is completed and the LUN returned by the file handler. The LUN identifies a particular I/O resource such as a serial port or a file without actually knowing its physical characteristics. The device is therefore described as logical rather than physical.

With the LUN, the task can create another parameter block, containing the data, and ask the I/O services to write the data to the file. This may require the I/O services to make system calls of its own. It may need to call the file services for more data or to pass further information on. The data is then supplied to the device driver which actually executes the instructions to physically write the data to the disk. It is generally at this level that the logical nature of the I/O request is translated into the physical character-istics associated with the hardware. This translation should lie in the domain of the device driver software. The user application is unaware of these characteristics.


A complex system call can cause many calls between the system tasks. A program loader that is requested by an application task to load another task from memory needs to call the file services and I/O services to obtain the file from disk, and the kernel to allocate memory for the task to be physically loaded.


The technique of using standard names, files, and/or logi-cal unit numbers to access system I/O makes the porting of application software from one system to another very easy. Such accesses are independent of the hardware the system is running on, and allow applications to treat data received or sent in the same way, irrespective of its source.


What is a real-time operating system?


Many multitasking operating systems available today are also described as ‘real-time’. These operating systems provide additional facilities allowing applications that would normally interface directly with the microprocessor architecture to use interrupts and drive peripherals to do so without the operating system blocking such activities. Many multitasking operating systems prevent the user from accessing such sensitive resources. This overzealous caring can prevent many operating systems from being used in applications such as industrial control.


A characteristic of a real-time operating system is its de-fined response time to external stimuli. If a peripheral generates an interrupt, a real-time system will acknowledge and start to service it within a maximum defined time. Such response times vary from system to system, but the maximum time specified is a worst case figure, and will not be exceeded due to changes in factors such as system workload.


Any system meeting this requirement can be described as real-time, irrespective of the actual value, but typical industry accepted figures for context switches and interrupt response times are about 10 microseconds. This figure gets smaller as processors become more powerful and run at higher speeds. With several processors having the same context switch mechanism, the final context switch time come down to its clock speed and the memory access time.

The consequences to industrial control of not having a real-time characteristic can be disastrous. If a system is controlling an automatic assembly line, and does not respond in time to a request from a conveyor belt limit switch to stop the belt, the results are easy to imagine. The response does not need to be instantaneous


— if the limit switch is set so that there are 3 seconds to stop the belt, any system with a guaranteed worst case response of less than 3 seconds can meet this real-time requirement.


For an operating system to be real-time, its internal mecha-nisms need to show real-time characteristics so that the internal processes sequentially respond to external interrupts in guaran-teed times.


When an interrupt is generated, the current task is inter-rupted to allow the kernel to acknowledge the interrupt and obtain the vector number that it needs to determine how to handle it. A typical technique is to use the kernel’s interrupt handler to update a linked list which contains information on all the tasks that need to be notified of the interrupt.


If a task is attached to a vector used by the operating system, the system actions its own requirements prior to any further response by the task. The handler then sends an event message to the tasks attached to the vector, which may change their status and completely change the priorities of the task ready list. The scheduler analyses the list, and dispatches the highest priority task to run. If the interrupt and task priorities are high enough, this may be the next time slice.


The diagram depicts such a mechanism: the interrupt han-dler and linked list searches are performed by the kernel. The first priority is to service the interrupt. This may be from a disk controller indicating that it has completed a data transfer. Once the kernel has satisfied its own needs, the handler will start a linked list search. The list comprises blocks of data identifying tasks that have their own service routines. Each block will contain a refer-ence to the next block, hence the linked list terminology.

Each identified task is then sent a special message. This will start the task’s service routine when it receives its next time slice. The kernel interrupt handler will finally execute an RTE return from the exception instruction which will restore the processor state prior to the interrupt. In such arrangements the task service routines execute in USER mode. The only SUPERVISOR operation is that of the kernel and its own interrupt handler. As can be imagined, this processing can increase the interrupt latency seen by the task quite dramatically. A ten-fold increase is not uncom-mon.


To be practical, a real-time operating system has to guaran-tee maximum response times for its interrupt handler, event passing mechanisms, scheduler algorithm and provide system calls to allow tasks to attach and handle interrupts.


With the conveyor belt example above, a typical software configuration would dedicate a task to controlling the conveyor belt. This task would make several system calls on start-up to access the parallel I/O peripheral that interfaces the system to components such as the drive motors and limit switches and tells the kernel that certain interrupt vectors are attached to the task and are handled by its own interrupt handling routine.


Once the task has set everything up, it remains dormant until an event is sent by other tasks to switch the belt on or off. If a limit switch is triggered, it sets off an interrupt which forces the kernel to handle it. The currently executing task stops, the kernel handler searches the task interrupt attachment linked list, and places the controller task on the ready list, with its own handler ready to execute. At the appropriate time slice, the handler runs, accesses the peripheral and switches off the belt. This result may not be normal, and so the task also sends event messages to the others, informing them that it has acted independently and may force other actions. Once this has been done, the task goes back to its dormant state awaiting further commands.


Real-time operating systems have other advantages: to prevent a system from power failure usually needs a guaranteed response time so that the short time between the recognition of and the actual power failure can be used to store vital data and bring the system down in a controlled manner. Many operating systems actually have a power fail module built into the kernel so that no time is lost in executing the module code.


So far in this chapter, an overview of the basics behind a real-time operating system have been explained. There are, how-ever, several variants available for the key functions such as task swapping and so on. The next few sections will delve deeper into these topics.


Task swapping methods


The choice of scheduler algorithms can play an important part in the design of an embedded system and can dramatically affect the underlying design of the software. There are many different types of scheduler algorithm that can be used, each with either different characteristics or different approaches to solving the same problem of how to assign priorities to schedule tasks so that correct operation is assured.


Time slice


Time slicing has been previously mentioned in this chapter under the topic of multitasking and can be used within an embed-ded system where time critical operations are not essential. To be more accurate about its definition, it describes the task switching mechanism and not the algorithm behind it although its meaning has become synonymous with both.


Time slicing works by making the task switching regular periodic points in time. This means that any task that needs to run next will have to wait until the current time slice is completed or until the current task suspends its operation. This technique can also be used as a scheduling method as will be explained later in this chapter. The choice of which task to run next is determined by the scheduling algorithm and thus is nothing to do with the time slice mechanism itself. It just happens that many time slice-based systems use a round-robin or other fairness scheduler to distribute the time slices across all the tasks that need to run.


For real-time systems where speed is of the essence, the time slice period plus the context switch time of the processor deter-mines the context switch time of the system. With most time slice periods in the order of milliseconds, it is the dominant factor in the system response. While the time period can be reduced to improve the system context switch time, it will increase the number of task switches that will occur and this will reduce the efficiency of the system. The larger the number of switches, the less time there is available for processing.



The alternative to time slicing is to use pre-emption where a currently running task can be stopped and switched out — pre-empted — by a higher priority active task. The active qualifier is important as the example of pre-emption later in this section will show. The main difference is that the task switch does not need to wait for the end of a time slice and therefore the system context switch is now the same as the processor context switch.


As an example of how pre-emption works, consider a system with two tasks A and B. A is a high priority task that acts as an ISR to service a peripheral and is activated by a processor interrupt from the peripheral. While it is not servicing the periph-eral, the task remains dormant and stays in a suspended state. Task B is a low priority task that performs system housekeeping.


When the interrupt is recognised by the processor, the operating system will process it and activate task A. This task with its higher priority compared to task B will cause task B to be pre-empted and replaced by task A. Task A will continue processing until it has completed and then suspend itself. At this point, task B will context switch task A out because task A is no longer active.


This can be done with a time slice mechanism provided the interrupt rate is less than the time slice rate. If it is higher, this can also be fine provided there is sufficient buffering available to store data without losing it while waiting for the next time slice point. The problem comes when the interrupt rate is higher or if there are multiple interrupts and associated tasks. In this case, multiple tasks may compete for the same time slice point and the ability to run even though the total processing time needed to run all of them may be considerably less than the time provided within a single time slot. This can be solved by artificially creating more context switch points by getting each task to suspend after com-pletion. This may offer only a partial solution because a higher priority task may still have to wait on a lower priority task to complete. With time slicing, the lower priority task cannot be pre-empted and therefore the higher priority task must wait for the end of the time slice or the lower priority task to complete. This is a form of priority inversion which is explained in more detail later.


Most real-time operating systems support pre-emption in preference to time slicing although some can support both meth-odologies


Co-operative multitasking


This is the mechanism behind Windows 3.1 and while not applicable to real-time operating systems for reasons which will become apparent, it has been included for reference.


The idea of co-operative multitasking is that the tasks themselves co-operate between themselves to provide the illusion of multitasking. This is done by periodically allowing other tasks or applications the opportunity to execute. This requires program ming within the application and the system can be destroyed by a single rogue program that hogs all the processing power. This method may be acceptable for a desktop personal computer but it is not reliable enough for most real-time embedded systems.


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