Book Image

Hands-On RTOS with Microcontrollers

By : Brian Amos
Book Image

Hands-On RTOS with Microcontrollers

By: Brian Amos

Overview of this book

A real-time operating system (RTOS) is used to develop systems that respond to events within strict timelines. Real-time embedded systems have applications in various industries, from automotive and aerospace through to laboratory test equipment and consumer electronics. These systems provide consistent and reliable timing and are designed to run without intervention for years. This microcontrollers book starts by introducing you to the concept of RTOS and compares some other alternative methods for achieving real-time performance. Once you've understood the fundamentals, such as tasks, queues, mutexes, and semaphores, you'll learn what to look for when selecting a microcontroller and development environment. By working through examples that use an STM32F7 Nucleo board, the STM32CubeIDE, and SEGGER debug tools, including SEGGER J-Link, Ozone, and SystemView, you'll gain an understanding of preemptive scheduling policies and task communication. The book will then help you develop highly efficient low-level drivers and analyze their real-time performance and CPU utilization. Finally, you'll cover tips for troubleshooting and be able to take your new-found skills to the next level. By the end of this book, you'll have built on your embedded system skills and will be able to create real-time systems using microcontrollers and FreeRTOS.
Table of Contents (24 chapters)
Section 1: Introduction and RTOS Concepts
Section 2: Toolchain Setup
Section 3: RTOS Application Examples
Section 4: Advanced RTOS Techniques

Defining RTOS

OSes (such as Windows, Linux, and macOS) were created as a way to provide a consistent programming environment that abstracted away the underlying hardware to make it easier to write and maintain computer programs. They provide the application programmer with many different primitives (such as threads and mutexes) that can be used to create more complex behavior. For example, it is possible to create a multi-threaded program that provides protected access to shared data:

The preceding application doesn't implement thread and mutex primitives, it only makes use of them. The actual implementations of threads and mutexes are handled by the OS. This has a few advantages:

  • The application code is less complex.
  • It is easier to understand—the same primitives are used regardless of the programmer, making it easier to understand code created by different people.
  • The is better hardware portability—with the proper precautions, the code can be run on any hardware supported by the OS without modification.

In the preceding example, a mutex is used to ensure that only one thread can access the shared data at a time. In the case of a general-purpose OS, each thread will happily wait for the mutex to become available indefinitely before moving on to access the shared data. This is where RTOSes diverge from general-purpose OSes. In an RTOS, all blocking system calls are time-bound. Instead of waiting for the mutex indefinitely, an RTOS allows a maximum delay to be specified. For example, if Thread 1 attempts to acquire Mutex and still doesn't have it after 100 ms, or 1 second, it will continue waiting for the mutex to become available.

In an RTOS implementation, the maximum amount of time to wait for Mutex to become available is specified. If Thread 1 specifies that it must acquire the mutex within 100 ms and still hasn't received the mutex after 101 ms, Thread 1 will receive a notification that the mutex hasn't been acquired in time. This timeout is specified to help create a deterministic system.

Any OS that provides a deterministic way of executing a given piece of code can be considered a real-time OS. This definition of RTOS covers a fairly large number of systems.

There are a couple of characteristics that tend to differentiate one RTOS application from another: how often not meeting a real-time deadline is acceptable and the severity of not meeting a real-time deadline. The different ranges of RTOS applications are usually lumped into three categories—hard, firm, and soft real-time systems.

Don't get too hung up on the differences between firm and soft real-time systems. The definitions for these terms don't even have unanimous agreement from within our industry. What does matter is that you know your system's requirements and design a solution to meet them!

The severity of a failure is generally deemed safety-critical if a failure will cause the loss of life or significant property. There are hard real-time systems that have nothing to do with safety.

Hard real-time systems

A hard real-time system must meet its deadline 100% of the time. If the system does not meet a deadline, then it is considered to have failed. This doesn't necessarily mean a failure will hurt someone if it occurs in a hard real-time system—only that the system has failed if it misses a single deadline.

Some examples of hard real-time systems can be found in medical devices, such as pacemakers and control systems with extremely tightly controlled parameters. In the case of a pacemaker, if the pacemaker misses a deadline to administer an electrical pulse at the right moment in time, it might kill the patient (this is why pacemakers are defined as safety-critical systems).

In contrast, if a motion control system on a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine doesn't react to a command in time, it might plunge a tool into the wrong part of the part being machined, ruining it. In these cases that we have mentioned, one failure caused a loss of life, while the other turned some metal into scrap—but both were failures caused by a single missed deadline.

Firm real-time systems

As opposed to hard real-time systems, firm real-time systems need to hit their deadlines nearly all of the time. If video and audio lose synchronization momentarily, it probably won't be considered a system failure, but will likely upset the consumer of the video.

In most control systems (similar to the soldering iron in a previous example), a few samples that are read slightly outside of their specified time are unlikely to completely destroy system control. If a control system has an ADC that automatically takes a new sample, if the MCU doesn't read the new sample in time, it will be overwritten by a new one. This can occur occasionally, but if it happens too often or too frequently, the temperature stability will be ruined. In a particularly demanding system, it may only take a few missed samples before the entire control system is out of spec.

Soft real-time systems

Soft real-time systems are the most lax when it comes to how often the system must meet its deadlines. These systems often offer only a best-effort promise for keeping deadlines.

Cruise control in a car is a good example of a soft real-time system because there are no hard specifications or expectations of it. Drivers typically don't expect their speed to converge to within +/- x mph/kph of the set speed. They expect that given reasonable circumstances, such as no large hills, the control system will eventually get them close to their desired speed most of the time.

The range of RTOSes

RTOSes range in their functionality, as well as the architecture and size of the processor they're best suited to. On the smaller side, we have smaller 8–32-bit MCU-focused RTOSes, such as FreeRTOS, Keil RTX, Micrium µC, ThreadX, and many more. This class of RTOS is suitable for use on microcontrollers and provides a compact real-time kernel as the most basic offering. When moving from MCUs to 32- and 64-bit application processors, you'll tend to find RTOSes such as Wind River VxWorks and Wind River Linux, Green Hills' Integrity OS, and even Linux with PREEMPT_RT kernel extensions. These full-blown OSes offer a large selection of software, providing solutions for both real-time scheduling requirements as well as general computing tasks. Even with the OSes we've just rattled off, we've only scratched the surface of what's available. There are free and paid solutions (some costing well over USD$10,000) at all levels of RTOSes, big and small.

So, why would you choose to pay for a solution when there is something available for free? The main differentiating factors between freely available RTOS solutions and paid solutions are safety approvals, middleware, and customer support. Because RTOSes provide a highly deterministic execution environment, they are often used in complex safety-critical applications. By safety critical, we generally mean a system whose failure could harm people or cause significant damage. These systems require deterministic operation because they must behave in a predictable way all the time. Guaranteeing the code responds to events within a fixed amount of time is a significant step toward ensuring they behave consistently. Most of these safety-critical applications are regulated and have their own sets of governing bodies and standards, such as DO-178B and DO-178C for aircraft or IEC 61508 SIL 3 and ISO 26262 ASILD for industrial applications. To make safety-critical certifications more affordable, designers will typically either keep code for these systems extremely simple (so it is possible to prove mathematically that the system will function consistently and nothing can go wrong) or turn to a commercial RTOS solution, which has been through certification already, as a starting point. WITTENSTEIN SafeRTOS is a derivative of FreeRTOS that carries approvals for industrial, medical, and automotive use.

Middleware can also be an extremely important component in complex systems. Middleware is code that runs between the user code (code that you, the application programmer, write) and lower layers, such as the RTOS or bare metal (no RTOS). Another value proposition of paid solutions is that the ecosystem offers a suite of pre-integrated high-quality middleware (such as filesystems, networking stacks, GUI frameworks, industrial protocols, and so on) that minimizes development and reduces overall project risk. The reason for using middleware, rather than rolling your own, is to reduce the amount of original code being written by an in-house development team. This reduces both the risk and the total time spent by the team—so it can be a worth-while investment, depending on factors such as project complexity and schedule requirements.

Paid solutions will also typically come with some level of customer support directly from the firmware vendor. Engineers are expensive to hire and keep on staff. There's nothing a manger dreads more than walking into a room full of engineers who are puzzling over their tools, rather than working on the real problems that need to be solved. Having expert help that is an email or phone call away can increase a team's productivity dramatically, which leads to a shorter turnaround and a happier workplace for everyone.

FreeRTOS has both paid support and training options, as well as paid middleware solutions, that can be integrated. However, there are also open source and/or freely available middleware components available, some of which will be discussed in this book.

The RTOS used in this book

With all of the options available, you might be wondering: why is it that this book is only covering one RTOS on a single model of MCU? There are a few reasons, one being that most of the concepts we'll cover are applicable to nearly any RTOS available, in the same way that good coding habits transcend the language you happen to be coding. By focusing on a single implementation of an RTOS with a single MCU, we'll be able to dive into topics in more depth than would have been possible if all of the alternatives were also attempted to be discussed.

FreeRTOS is one of the most popular RTOS implementations for MCUs and is very widely available. It has been around for over 15 years and has been ported to dozens of platforms . If you've ever spoken to a true low-level embedded systems engineer who is familiar with RTOS programming, they've certainly heard of FreeRTOS and have likely used it at least once. By focusing our attention on FreeRTOS, you'll be well-positioned to quickly migrate your knowledge of FreeRTOS to other hardware or to transition to another RTOS, if the situation calls for it.

The other reason we're using FreeRTOS? Well, it's FREE! FreeRTOS is distributed under the MIT license. See for more details on licensing and other FreeRTOS derivatives, such as SAFERTOS and OpenRTOS.

The following is a diagram showing where FreeRTOS sits in a typical ARM firmware stack. Stack refers to all of the different layers of firmware components that make up the system and how they are stacked on top of one another. A user in this context refers to the programmer using FreeRTOS (rather than the end user of the embedded system):

Some noteworthy items are as follows:

  • User code is able to access the same FreeRTOS API, regardless of the underlying hardware port implementation.
  • FreeRTOS does not prevent User code from using vendor-supplied drivers, CMSIS, or raw hardware registers.

Having a standardized API that is consistent across hardware means code can be easily migrated between hardware targets, without being constantly rewritten. The ability to have code talk directly to hardware also provides the means to write extremely efficient code when necessary (at the expense of portability).

Now that we know what an RTOS is, let's have a closer look at when it is appropriate to use an RTOS.