SMP and Embedded Real Time
With the advent of multithreaded/multicore CPUs, even embedded real-time applications are starting to run on SMP systems—for example, both the Xbox 360 and PS/3 are multithreaded, and there even have been SMP ARM processors! As this trend continues, there will be an increasing need for real-time response from SMP systems. Because not all embedded systems vendors will be willing or able to create or purchase SMP real-time operating systems, we can expect that a number of them will make use of Linux.
Because of this change, a number of real-time tenets have now become myths. This article exposes these myths and then discusses some of the challenges that Linux is surmounting in order to meet the needs of this new SMP-real-time-embedded world.
New technologies often have a corrosive effect on the wisdom of the ages. The advent of commodity multicore and multithreaded hardware is no different, making myths of the following pearls of wisdom:
Embedded systems are always uniprocessor systems.
Parallel programming is mind crushingly difficult.
Real time must be either hard or soft.
Parallel real-time programming is impossibly difficult.
There is no connection between real-time and enterprise systems.
Each of these myths is exposed in the following sections, and Ingo Molnar's -rt real-time patchset (also known as the CONFIG_PREEMPT_RT patchset after the configuration variable used to enable real-time behavior) plays a key role in exposing the last two myths.
Past embedded systems almost always were uniprocessors, especially given that single-chip multiprocessors are a very recent phenomenon. The PS/3, the Xbox 360 and the SMP ARM are recent exceptions to this rule. But what does the future hold?
Figure 1 shows how clock frequencies have leveled off since 2003. Now, Moore's Law is still in full force, as transistor densities are still increasing. However, these increasing densities are no longer providing the side benefit of increased clock frequency that they once did.
Some say that parallel processing, hardware multithreading and multicore CPU chips will be needed to make good use of the ever-increasing numbers of transistors. Others say that embedded systems need increasing levels of integration and reduced power consumption more than they do ever-increasing performance. Embedded systems vendors might therefore choose more on-chip I/O or memory over increased parallelism.
This debate will not be resolved soon, although we have all seen examples of multithreaded and multicore CPUs in embedded systems. That said, as multithreaded/multicore systems become cheaper and more prevalent, we will see more rather than fewer of them.
But these multithreaded/multicore systems require parallel software. Given the forbidding reputation of parallel programming, how are we going to program these systems successfully?
Why is parallel programming hard? Answers include deadlocks, race conditions and testing coverage, but the real answer is that it is not really all that hard. After all, if parallel programming was really so difficult, why are there so many parallel open-source projects, including Apache, MySQL and the Linux kernel?
A better question would be “Why is parallel programming perceived to be so difficult?” Let's go back to the year 1991. I was walking across the parking lot to Sequent's benchmarking center carrying six dual-80486 CPU boards, when I suddenly realized that I was carrying several times the price of my house. (Yes, I did walk more carefully. Why do you ask?) These horribly expensive systems were limited to a privileged few, who were the only ones with the opportunity to learn parallel programming.
In contrast, in 2006, I am typing on a dual-core x86 laptop that is orders of magnitude cheaper than even one of Sequent's CPU boards. Because almost everyone now can gain access to parallel hardware, almost everyone can learn to program it and also learn that although it can be nontrivial, it is really not all that hard.
Even so, many multithreaded/multicore embedded systems have real-time constraints. But what exactly is real time?