The EVL core

Pitching the real-time EVL core

For certain types of applications, offloading a particular set of time-critical tasks to an autonomous software core embedded into the Linux kernel may deliver the best performance at the lowest engineering and runtime costs in comparison to imposing real-time behavior on the whole kernel logic in order to meet the deadlines which only those tasks have, like the native preemption model requires.

In a nutshell, the EVL project is about introducing a simple, scalable and dependable dual kernel architecture for Linux, based on the Dovetail interface for coupling a high-priority software core to the main kernel. This interface is showcased by a real-time core delivering basic services to applications via a straightforward API. The EVL core is an ongoing development toward a production-ready real-time infrastructure, which can also be a starting point for other flavours of dedicated software core embedded into the Linux kernel. This work is composed of:

  • the Dovetail interface, which introduces a high-priority execution stage into the main kernel logic, where a functionally-independent software core runs.

  • the EVL core which delivers dependable low-latency services to applications which have to meet real-time requirements. Applications are developed using the common Linux programming model.

  • an in-depth documentation which covers both Dovetail and the EVL core, with many cross-references between them, so that engineers can use the EVL core to support a real-time application, improve it, or even implement their own software core of choice on top of Dovetail almost by example.

What we are looking for:

  • Low engineering and maintenance costs. Working on EVL should only require common kernel development knowledge, and the code footprint and complexity must remain tractable for small development teams (currently about 20 KLOC, which is not even half the size of the Xenomai core).

  • Low runtime cost. Reliable, ultra low and bounded response time for the real-time workload including on low-end, single-core hardware with minimum overhead, leaving plenty of CPU cycles for running the general purpose workload concurrently.

  • High scalability. From single core to high-end multi-core machines running real-time workloads in parallel with low and bounded latency. Running these workloads on isolated CPUs significantly improves the worst-case latency figure in SMP configurations, but if your fixture only has one of them, the EVL core should still be able to deliver on ultra low and bounded latency.

  • Low configuration. We want very few to no runtime tweaks at all to be required to ensure the real-time workload is not affected by the regular, general purpose workload. Once enabled in the kernel, the EVL core should be ready to deliver.

Make it ordinary, make it simple

The EVL core is a dedicated software core which is embedded into the kernel, delivering real-time services to applications with stringent timing requirements. This small core is built like any ordinary feature of the Linux kernel, not as a foreign extension slapped on top of it. Dovetail plays an important part here, as it hides the nitty-gritty details of embedding a companion core into the kernel. Its fairly low code footprint and limited complexity makes it a good choice as a plug-and-forget real-time infrastructure, which can also be used as a starting point for custom core implementations:

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The user-space interface to this core is the EVL library (, which implements the basic system call wrappers, along with the fundamental thread synchronization services. No bells and whistles, only the basics. The intent is to provide simple mechanisms, complex semantics and policies can and should be implemented in high level APIs based on this library running in userland.

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As the name suggests, elements are the basic features we may require from the EVL core for supporting real-time applications in this dual kernel environment. Also, only the kernel could provide such features in an efficient way, pure user-space code could not deliver. The EVL core defines five of them:

  • thread. As the basic execution unit, we want it to be runnable either in real-time mode or regular GPOS mode alternatively, which exactly maps to Dovetail’s out-of-band and in-band contexts.

  • monitor. This element has the same purpose than the main kernel’s futex, which is about providing an integrated - although much simpler - set of fundamental thread synchronization features. It is used by the EVL library to implement mutexes, condition variables, event flag groups and semaphores in user-space.

  • clock. We may find platform-specific clock devices in addition to the core ones defined by the architecture, for which ad hoc drivers should be written. The clock element ensures all clock drivers present the same interface to applications in user-space. In addition, this element can export individual software timers to applications which comes in handy for running periodic loops or waiting for oneshot events on a specific time base.

  • cross-buffer. A cross-buffer (aka xbuf) is a bi-directional communication channel for exchanging data between out-of-band and in-band thread contexts, without impacting the real-time performance on the out-of-band side. Any kind of thread (EVL or regular) can wait/poll for input from the other side. Cross-buffers serve the same purpose than Xenomai’s message pipes implemented by the XDDP socket protocol.

  • file proxy. Linux-based dual kernel systems are nasty by design: the huge set of GPOS features is always visible to applications but they should not to use it when they carry out real-time work with the help of the autonomous core, or risk unbounded response time. Because of such exclusion, manipulating files created by the main kernel such as calling printf(3) should not be done directly from time-critical loops. A file proxy solves this type of issue by channeling the output it receives to an arbitrary file descriptor, keeping the writer on the out-of-band execution stage.

Everything is a file

The nice thing about the file semantics is that it may solve general problems for our embedded real-time core:

  • it can organize resource management for EVL’s kernel objects. If every element we export to the user is represented by a file, we can leave the hard work of managing the creation and release process to the VFS, tracking references to every element from file descriptors.

  • if a file backing some element can be obtained by opening a device present in the file system, we are done with providing applications a way to share this element between multiple processes: these processes would only need to open the same device file for sharing the underlying element.

  • we can benefit from the file permission, monitoring and auditing logic attached to files for our own elements.

Now, one might wonder: since the main kernel would be involved in creating and deleting elements, wouldn’t this prevent us from doing so in mere real-time mode? Short answer: surely it would, and this is just fine. Nearly two decades after Xenomai v1, I’m still to find the first practical use case which would require this. As a matter of fact, those potentially heavyweight operations can and should happen when the application is not busy running time-critical code.

The above translates as follows in EVL:

  • Each time an application creates a new element, a character device appears in the file system hierarchy under a directory named /dev/evl/element_type/. By opening the device file, the application receives a file descriptor which can be used for controlling and/or exchanging data with the underlying element. This is definitely a regular file descriptor, on a regular character device.

  • Since every element is backed by a kernel device, we may also bind udev rules to events of interest on such element. We may also export the internal state of any element via the /sysfs, which is much better than stuffing /proc with even more ad hoc files for the same purpose.

  • Since every file opened on the same device refers to the same EVL element, we have our handle for sharing elements between processes.

  • Even local resources created by the EVL core passed to applications which are not elements are also backed by a file, like clock-based individual timers.

  • Using file descriptors, the application can monitor events occurring on an arbitrary set of elements with a single EVL system call, just like one would do using poll(2), epoll(7) or select(2).

EVL device drivers are (almost) common drivers

EVL does not introduce any specific driver model. It exports a dedicated kernel API for implementing real-time I/O operations in common character device drivers. In fact, the EVL core is composed of a set of such drivers, implementing each class of elements.

Last modified: Fri, 13 Mar 2020 12:44:32 CET