The EVL core

Pitching the real-time EVL core

For some applications, offloading a particular set of time-critical tasks to a compact real-time 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 Xenomai 4 project introduces 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 a production-ready real-time infrastructure, which can be used as 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 3 Cobalt 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. The following figures have been obtained from the CLOC tool counting the lines of source code from the RTAI, Xenomai 3 Cobalt and Xenomai 4 EVL core implementation respectively:

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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 six elements:

  • 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. Monitors are used internally 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.

  • Observable. This element is the building block event-driven applications can use for implementing the observer design pattern, in which any number of observer threads can be notified of updates to any number of observable subjects, in a loosely coupled fashion.

  • 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 3’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, issuing I/O file requests such as calling printf(3) should not be done directly from time-critical loops. A file proxy solves such issue by offloading I/O operations on in-band files to dedicated workers, keeping the caller on the out-of-band execution stage.

Everything is a file

Each resource exported by EVL to applications is represented by a file. In addition, each EVL element is associated to a kernel device object:

  • Since all EVL resources are backed by a kernel file internally, the hard work of managing their lifetime, preventing stale references by tracking their users, is left to the VFS.

  • Applications can create public or private elements. A public element appears in the EVL device file hierarchy, which enables multi-process applications to share elements.

  • EVL elements benefit from the permission control, monitoring and auditing logic which come with the file semantics.

  • udev rules can be attached to events of interest which might happen for any element. Additionally, the internal kernel state of elements is exported to user space via the /sys filesystem.

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.

EVL also provides a way to extend existing socket protocol families with out-of-band I/O capabilities, or add your own protocols via the new PF_OOB family.

Last modified: Tue, 09 Jul 2024 18:31:08 +0200