RTAI: Real-Time Application Interface

An introduction to RTAI for deterministic and preemptive real-time behaviour for Linux.
An Introduction to RTAI

In order to make Linux usable for hard real-time applications, members of the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Politecnico di Milano (DIAPM) envisioned a real-time hardware abstraction layer (RTHAL) onto which a real-time applications interface (RTAI) could be mounted. Unfortunately, further investigation revealed that the Linux kernel available in late 1996, 2.0.25, was not yet mature enough for the concept.

Around the same time, a group headed by Victor Yodaiken at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) in Soccorro, NM introduced its real-time Linux (RTLinux), which provided the DIAPM team with the opportunity to learn further about the Linux kernel, the hardware and the modifications necessary to provide preemptive and deterministic scheduling. The turning point came in 1998 when the Linux 2.2.x kernel featured key improvements, including much-needed architectural changes to the Linux/hardware interface. These changes, combined with the experience gained by the DIAPM team while working with their own evolution of the NMT-RTLinux kernel, and the concepts of 1996, resulted in RTAI.

RTAI provides guaranteed, hard real-time scheduling, yet retains all of the features and services of standard Linux. Additionally, RTAI provides support for UP and SMP—with the ability to assign both tasks and IRQs to specific CPUs, x486 and Pentiums, simultaneous one-shot and periodic schedulers, both inter-Linux and intra-Linux shared memory, POSIX compatibility, FPU support, inter-task synchronization, semaphores, mutexes, message queues, RPCs, mailboxes, the ability to use RTAI system calls from within standard user space and more.

RTAI Architecture

The underlying architecture for RTLinux and RTAI is quite similar. For each implementation, the Linux operating system is run as the lowest priority task of a small real-time operating system. Thus, Linux undergoes no changes to its operation from the standpoint of the user or the Linux kernel, except that it is permitted to execute only when there are no real-time tasks executing. Functionally, both architectures provide the capability of running special real-time tasks and interrupt handlers that execute whenever needed, regardless of what other tasks Linux may be performing. Both implementations extend the standard Linux programming environment to real-time problems by allowing real-time tasks and interrupt handlers to communicate with ordinary Linux processes through a device interface or shared memory.

The primary architectural difference between the two implementations is in how these real-time features are added to Linux. Both RTLinux and RTAI take advantage of Linux's loadable kernel modules when implementing real-time services. However, one of the key differences between the two is how these changes, to add the real-time extensions, are applied to the standard Linux kernel.

RTLinux applies most changes directly to the kernel source files, resulting in modifications and additions to numerous Linux kernel source files. Hence, it increases the intrusion on the Linux kernel source files, which can then result in increased code maintenance. It also makes tracking kernel updates/changes and finding bugs far more difficult.

RTAI limits the changes to the standard Linux kernel by adding a hardware abstraction layer (HAL) comprised of a structure of pointers to the interrupt vectors, and the interrupt enable/disable functions. The HAL is implemented by modifying fewer than 20 lines of existing code, and by adding about 50 lines of new code. This approach minimizes the intrusion on the standard Linux kernel and localizes the interrupt handling and emulation code, which is a far more elegant approach. Another advantage of the HAL technique is that it is possible to revert Linux to standard operation by changing the pointers in the RTHAL structure back to the original ones. This has proven quite useful when real-time operation is inactive or when trying to isolate obscure bugs.

Many have surmised that the HAL could cause unacceptable delays and latencies through the real-time tasking path. In fact, the HAL's impact on the kernel's performance is negligible, reflecting highly on the maturity and design of the Linux kernel and on those who contributed to its development.

Real-Time Application Interface

The HAL supports five core loadable modules which provide the desired on-demand, real-time capability. These modules include rtai, which provides the basic rtai framework; rtai_sched, which provides periodic or one-shot scheduling; rtai_mups, which provides simultaneous one-shot and periodic schedulers or two periodic schedulers, each having different base clocks; rtai_shm, which allows memory sharing inter-Linux, between real-time tasks and Linux processes, and also intra-Linux as a replacement for the UNIX V IPC; and rtai_fifos, which is an adaptation of the NMT RTLinux FIFOs (file in, file out).

Like all kernel modules, these can be loaded and unloaded (using the standard Linux insmod and rmmod commands) as their respective capabilities are required or released. For example, if you want to install only interrupt handlers, you have to load only the rtai module. If you also want to communicate with standard Linux processes using FIFOs, then you would load the rtai and rtai_fifos modules. This modular and non-intrusive architecture allows FIFOs to run on any queue and use immediate wake-ups as necessary.