This is a guest post by written by Guilherme Fernandes, Raul Muoz, Leonardo Veiga, Brandon Shibley, all working for Toradex.


Application processor usage continues to broaden. System-on-Chips, usually powered by ARM Cortex-A cores, are taking over 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 re 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 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 article 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.

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 core @ 800MHz side-by-side with a Cortex-M4 core @ 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 Figure 1.

A Look at Three Options to Develop Real-Time Linux Systems on Application Proces ...

Figure 1 NXP i.MX7 Block Diagram (Click to Enlarge)

Some of the advantages of using the HMP approach are:

Legacy software from microcontrollers can be more easily reused; Firmware update (M4 core) is simplified as the firmware may 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 these two articles:

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 its face as seen in the short video below.

[embedded content] Real-Time Linux

The second 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 some 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 this link . We developed a simple application which toggles a GPIO at a 2.5KHz (200s High / 200s Low). The GPIO output is connected to a scope where we measure the resulting square wave and evaluate the real output timings. The histograms below show the comparison between the tests on a standard Linux kernel configured for Voluntary Preemption (top) and a PREEMPT_RT patched Linux kernel configured for Real-time Preemption (bottom). The x-axis represents the period of the square wave sample and the y-axis represents the number of samples which measured with such a period. The table below the chart presents the worst and average data.

A Look at Three Options to Develop Real-Time Linux Systems on Application Proces ...

Figure 2: Histogram of the square wave generated using the standard Kernel (top) and Preempt-RT kernel (bottom) Click to Enlarge

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