RSTA-MEP and the Linux Crewstation
The crewstation falls into the category of soft real time: the system doesn't fail if something is late. Because this is a human-in-the-loop test bed, with most of the time-critical components in the embedded systems, it has to run only fast enough for the operator to perform tasks. For this reason we're not using one of the real-time Linux frameworks; we're overpowering the problem with brute-force hardware. We have SCSI disks, enough memory basically to eliminate paging, a GeForce4 graphics card for fast OpenGL and dual 2.4GHz processors from Microway.
A limit did emerge for two parts of the system: video and pointing the sensor. The live framing video is fed to the crewstation at RS-170 rate, one set of scan lines every 1/60 of a second. These had to be combined and displayed fast enough to keep up and maintain a constant rate. To do that, we made sure we had enough network bandwidth to ship the video and plenty of CPU and graphics horsepower to keep the displays refreshed. We then used the NVIDIA driver's ability to sync to the vertical retrace of the monitor. With the monitor set to refresh at 60Hz, we were there. (See the README.txt file supplied with NVIDIA drivers; the current one is at download.nvidia.com/XFree86_40/1.0-4194/README.)
Pointing the sensor presents a similar challenge. The sensor must be responsive enough to the grips that the operator can point it without missing the target and overcompensating. Although the video is largely a matter of bandwidth, pointing the sensor is a matter of latency. Having a long message chain contributes to latency. For instance, a button press or a slewing command starts off in the grip or GUI process, goes to the control process to determine if that input is valid and then moves to the translator to go to EO message format. Next it goes across the gigabit Ethernet to an embedded process that receives that message, then moves to the OE and the embedded systems code, then on to the actuator and, finally, the results come back in the video stream. The combination of dividing the translator process into two threads and compiling with full optimizations (-Wall -ansi -O3 -ffast-math -mpentiumpro) did the trick.
We used the gprof profiler to see where the hot spots were in the code. (See the info page for gprof.) Here, we ran into a problem with profiling the video code: when we used X timers (XtAppAddTimeOut), no timing data accrued in the profile. (Do the profiler and XtAppAddTimeOut use the same signal and interfere with each other?) Another optimization we discovered is for the video source to write both the odd and even scan lines across the network with a single write statement instead of two separate, smaller ones.
Using Linux led to problems in a few places. For instance, we couldn't find a vendor who supplied PCI Mezzanine cards for PowerPC with VxWorks drivers, PCI cards with Linux drivers or who could handle VI protocol. In the end we had to drop Fibre Channel.
We did find, though, a couple of cases where Linux gave us an advantage on this project. Because we booted from a hard drive, we didn't have to write our system to EEPROM the way the embedded side did. When they made that transition to EEPROM, their ability to debug was diminished. Also, Linux provides core files to aid debugging, which VxWorks doesn't. The Linux crewstation is more robust and delivers better image quality than its predecessor. Finally, our shop integration and unit testing are easier on Linux, because commodity PCs are more plentiful than are embedded PowerPCs. In the future, we expect that having the full power and flexibility of the Linux, X and OpenGL environment will be valuable as we add more modes and more devices to our prototype.
GeForce is a trademark of the NVIDIA Corporation: www.nvidia.com
Microway is a trademark of Microway Inc.: www.microway.com
Power Programming...Motif by Eric F. Johnson and Kevin Reichard, Second Edition Version 1.2, 1993, Management Information Source, Inc. New York, New York. ISBN: 1-55828-319-6.
Unofficial VxWorks and Tornado FAQ: www.xs4all.nl/~borkhuis/vxworks/vxfaq.html
VxWorks and Tornado are trademarks of Wind River systems: www.windriver.com
VxWorks/Tornado II FAQ (especially section 4.6 on sockets): www.xs4all.nl/~borkhuis/vxworks/vxworks.html
WSTAWG Web Page: wstawg.army.mil/index.asp
XTest Extensions to XFree86: xfree86.org/pub/XFree86/4.2.0/doc/xtestlib.TXT
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