Developing Real-Time Systems on Application Processors - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Developing Real-Time Systems on Application Processors


Guaranteeing real-time and deterministic behavior on SoC-based systems can be challenging. In this blog post, we offer three approaches to add real-time control to systems that use a SoC running a feature-rich OS such as Linux. Source: – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Developing Real-Time Systems on Application Processors

  • Developing Real-Time Systems on Application

Application processor usage continues to broaden.
System-on-Chips, often powered by ARM Cortex-A
cores, are overtaking several spaces where small
ARM Cortex-M, and other microcontroller devices,
have traditionally dominated. This trend is
driven by several facts, such as
  • The strong requirements for connectivity, often
    related to IoT and not only from a hardware point
    of view, but also related to software, protocols
    and security
  • The need for highly interactive interfaces such
    as multi-touch, high resolution screens and
    elaborate graphical user interfaces
  • The decreasing price of SoCs, as consequence of
    its volume gain and new production capabilities

Typical cases exemplifying the statement above
are the customers we see every day starting a
product redesign, upgrading from a
microcontroller to a microprocessor. This move
offers new challenges as the design is more
complicated and the operating system abstraction
layer is much more complex.
The difficulty of hardware design using an
application processor is overcome by the use of
reference designs and off-the-shelf alternatives
like Computer on Modules/System on Modules or
single board computers. On the operating system
layer, the use of embedded Linux distributions is
widespread in the industry. An immense world of
open source tools is available simplifying the
development of complex and feature-rich embedded
systems. Such development would be very
complicated and time-consuming if using
microcontrollers. Despite all the benefits, the
use of an operating system like Linux still
raises a lot of questions and distrust when
determinism and real-time control application
topics are addressed.
A common approach adopted by developers is the
strategy of separating time-critical tasks and
regular tasks onto different processors. Hence, a
Cortex-A processor, or similar, is typically
selected for multimedia and connectivity features
while a microcontroller is still employed to
handle real-time, determinism-critical tasks. The
aim of this blog post is to present some options
developers may consider when developing real-time
systems with application processors. We present
three possible solutions to provide real-time
capability to application processor-based designs.
Testing Real-Time performance There are several
benchmark tools intended to evaluate the
real-time performance of software systems,
nevertheless we wanted to quickly test if the
approaches presented below truly improve the
system behavior. Aiming to see the results, we
have opted to measure the jitter on a square wave
generated by the embedded system under testing on
a standard GPIO. By doing this we will be able to
shortly and quickly investigate the real-time
performance in an easy way which can provide us
some initial indication of potential
optimization. We developed a simple application
which toggles a GPIO at 2.5KHz (200µs High /
200µs Low). The GPIO output is connected to a
scope where we measure the resulting square wave
and evaluate the real output timings
Image 1 Jitter Measurement
The results observed on standard Linux
distribution are presented in the Image 2. The
task responsible for the GPIO toggling was
configured as a RT Task (SCHED_RR) and the Kernel
configured with Voluntary Kernel Preemption
Image 2 Histogram of the square wave generated
using the Standard Linux Kernel Configuration
The measurement distribution shows that only 92
of the samples are realized within an error below
10 of the period. Furthermore, the worst case
measured shows a delay greater than 15ms,
representing an error worse than 3700 of the
Real-Time Linux The first approach we present in
this article is software-related. Linux is not a
real-time operating system, but there are some
initiatives which have greatly improved the
determinism and timeliness of Linux. One of these
efforts is the Real-Time Linux project. Real-Time
Linux is a series of patches (PREEMPT_RT) aimed
at adding new preemption options to the Linux
Kernel along with other features and tools to
improve its suitability for real-time tasks. You
can find documentation on applying the PREEMPT_RT
patch to the Linux kernel and developing
applications for it at the official Real-Time
Linux Wiki (formerly here).
We did the proposed tests using the PREEMPT_RT
patches on a Colibri iMX6DL to exemplify the
improvement in real-time performance. The
documentation on preparing the Toradex Linux
image to deploy the PREEMPT_RT patch is available
at the Toradex Developer Center. The histogram
below (Image 3) shows the tests on a PREEMPT_RT
patched Linux kernel configured for real-time
Preemption. The tests show that only 0,002 of
the samples are worse than the 10 error
regarding to the period. Furthermore, the worst
case (0,106us) is only 25 of the period
representing a great improvement when compared to
the Standard Linux configuration (Image 2).
An example software system using the PREEMPT_RT
patch is provided by Codesys Solutions. They rely
on the Real-Time Linux kernel, together with the
OSADL, to deploy their software PLC solution
which is already widespread throughout the
automation industry across thousands of devices.
You can find more information about Codesys
running on Toradex Computer on Modules at this
link, including an executable demo.
Image 3 Histogram of the square wave generated
using the Preempt-RT kernel
Xenomai Xenomai is another popular framework to
make Linux a real-time system. Xenomai achieves
this by adding a co-kernel to the Linux kernel.
The co-kernel will handle time-critical
operations and will have higher priority than the
standard kernel. You can learn more here. To use
the real-time capabilities of Xenomai the
real-time APIs (aka libcobalt) must be used to
interface user-space applications with the Cobalt
core, which is responsible for ensuring real-time
Documentation on how to install Xenomai on your
target device can be found at the Xenomai
website Additionally, there is
a lot of Embedded Hardware which is known to
work, see hardware reference list (including the
whole NXP i.MX SoC series).
Image 4 Dual Core Xenomai Configuration, source
To validate Xenomai on the i.MX6 SoC we again
performed the simple square wave test. The target
device was the Colibri iMX6DL by Toradex. We used
the same test approach as described above for the
Real-Time Linux extension. Some parts of the
application code used to implement the test are
presented below to highlighted the use of Xenomai
APIs. The results of the tests performed on
Xenomai are presented in the chart below (image
5). Once again, the real-time solution provides a
clear advantage over the time-response of the
standard Linux kernel. Notice that this time, the
worst cases are inside the 10 error area.
(No Transcript)
Image 5 Histogram of the square wave generated
using the Xenomai
Heterogeneous Multicore Processing The
Heterogeneous Multicore Processing (HMP) approach
is a hardware solution. Application processors
like the NXP i.MX7 series, the NXP i.MX6SoloX and
the upcoming NXP i.MX8 series present a variety
of cores with different purposes. If we consider
the i.MX7S you will see a dual core processor
composed of a Cortex-A7_at_800MHz side-by-side with
a Cortex-M4_at_200MHz. The basic idea is that user
interface and high-speed connectivity are
implemented on an abstracted OS like Linux with
the Cortex-A core while, independently and in
parallel, executing control tasks on a Real-Time
OS, like FreeRTOS, with the Cortex-M core. Both
cores are able to share access to memory and
peripherals allowing flexibility and freedom when
defining which tasks are allocated to each
core/OS. Refer to Image 6.
Image 6 i.MX7 Block diagram from datasheet at
  • Some of the advantages of using the HMP approach
  • Legacy software from microcontrollers can be more
    easily reused
  • Firmware update (M4 core) is simplified as the
    firmware will be a file at the filesystem of the
    Cortex-A OS
  • Increased flexibility of choosing which
    peripherals will be handled by each core. Since
    it is software defined, future changes can be
    made without changing hardware design
  • More information on developing applications for
    HMP-based processors are available at the
    following locations
  • Article A Balancing Robot Leveraging the
    Heterogeneous Asymmetric Architecture of i.MX 7
    with FreeRTOS and Qt
  • Article FreeRTOS on the Cortex-M4 of a Colibri
  • Webinar Introducing the i.MX7 System on Chip

Toradex, Antimicro and The Qt Company
collaboratively built a robot showcasing this
concept. The robot - named TAQ - is an inverted
pendulum balancing robot designed with the
Toradex Computer on Module Colibri iMX7. The user
interface is built upon Linux with the Qt
framework running on the Cortex-A7 and the
balancing/motor control is deployed on the
Cortex-M4. Inter-core communication is used to
remote control the robot and animate the robot
face as seen in the video link below
Image 7 presents the test results on a Colibri
iMX7, this time the square wave generation is
held by the FreeRTOS running on the M4 core of
the i.MX7 SoC. As expected, the test results
overcome all the other approaches.
Image 7 Histogram of the square wave generated
using the Heterogeneous Multicore
Architecture.The square wave is generated using
FreeRTOS on the M4 core
Conclusion This article presents a brief overview
of some solutions available to develop real-time
systems on application processors running Linux
as the target operating system. This is a
starting point for developers who are aiming to
use microprocessors and are concerned about
real-time control and determinism. We presented
one hardware-based approach, using the
Heterogeneous Multicore Processing SoCs and two
software based approaches namely Linux-RT Patch
and Xenomai. The results presented do not intend
to compare operating systems or real-time
techniques. Each of them has pros and cons, and
may be more or less suitable depending on the use
case. The primary takeaway is that several
feasible solutions exist for utilizing Linux with
application processors in reliable real-time
Thank you
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