Archive for September, 2011

What’s the state of your Cortex?

Monday, September 26th, 2011 Miro Samek

Recently, I’ve been involved in a fascinating bug hunt related to a very peculiar behavior of the ARM Cortex-M3 core. Given the incredible popularity of this core, I thought that digging a little deeper into the mysteries of ARM Cortex could be interesting and informative.

First, I need to provide some background. So, the bug was related to the very unique ARM Cortex-M exception type called PendSV. This is an exception triggered by software, but unlike any regular software interrupt, PendSV is an asynchronous exception. This means that PendSV typically does not run immediately after it is triggered, but only after the Nested Vectored Interrupt Controller (NVIC) determines that the priority of the currently executing code drops below the priority associated with PendSV.

At this point, you might wonder, why and where would such “Pended Software Interrupt” be useful? Well, it turns out that PendSV is the only reliable way on ARM Cortex-M to find out when all (possibly nested) interrupt service routines (ISRs) have completed. And this determination is essential to run the scheduler in any preemptive real time kernel.

Virtually all preemptive RTOSes for ARM Cortex-M processors work as follows. Upon initialization the priority associated with PendSV is set to be the lowest of all exceptions (0xFF). All ISRs in the system, prioritized above PendSV, trigger the PendSV exception by writing 1 to the PENDSVSET bit in the NVIC ICSR register, like this:

*((uint32_t volatile *)0xE000ED04) = 0x10000000;

Now, the heavy lifting is left entirely to the NVIC hardware. NVIC will activate PendSV only after the last of all nested interrupts completes and is about to return to the preempted task context. This is exactly the right time for a context switch. In other words, the PendSV exception is designed to call the scheduler and perform the task preemption. ARM Cortex is so smart that it eliminates the overhead of exiting one exception (the last nested interrupt) and activating another (the PendSV) in the trick called “tail-chaining”.

Everything looks easy so far, but ARM Cortex has one more trick up it’s sleeve and this optimization, called “late-arrival”, has interesting side effects related to PendSV. This subtle interaction between PendSV and late-arrival leads essentially to a hardware race condition I’ve recently had a pleasure to chase down.

To illustrate the events that lead up to the bug, I’ve prepared a distilled hardware trace available for viewing at ARM-Cortex-M3_bug.txt. Please go ahead and click on this link to follow along.

The trace starts with an interrupt entry (labelled as Exception 83). This system runs under the preemptive kernel called QK, so the ISR calls QK_ISR_ENTRY() and later QK_ISR_EXIT() macros to inform the kernel about the interrupt. At trace index 069545 the QK_ISR_EXIT() macro triggers the PendSV exception by writing 0x10000000 into the ICSR register.

After this, the Exception 83 runs to completion and eventually tail-chains to Exception 14 (PendSV). This is all as expected.

However, the real problem starts at trace index 069618, at which the execution of the first instruction of PendSV (CPSID i) is cancelled due to arrival of a higher-priority Exception 36 (another interrupt).

This cancellation of low-priority Exception 14 in favor of the higher-priority Exception 36 is the ARM Cortex-special called late arrival. The ARM core optimizes the interrupt entry (which is identical for all exception), and instead of entering the low-priority exception and than immediately high-priority exception, it simply enters the high-priority exception.

The problem is that just before the late arrival, the PENDSVSET bit in the NVIC-ICSR register is already cleared.

However, the late-arriving Exception 36 sets this bit again in QK_ISR_EXIT(), which is normal for any interrupt (trace index 070126).

The Exception 36 eventually exits to the original PendSV (trace index 070130), but this is not the usual tail-chaining (the trace indicates tail-chaining by the pair Exception Exit/Exception Entry). This time around the trace shows only Exception Exit, but no entry.

This difference has very important implication, which is that the PENDSVSET bit in the NVIC-ICSR register is not cleared (remember that it is set, however).

What unfolds next is the consequence of the PENDSVSET bit being set. PendSV executes, fakes its own return to the QK scheduler, and eventually it unlocks interrupts. But before SVCall (Exception 11) can execute, the PendSV Exception 14 is taken again (because it is triggered by the PENDSVSET bit). This makes no sense and should never happen, because PendSV should never be in the triggered state at this point.

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So, what are the consequences of this behavior and what is the fix?

Well, as you can see, due to late-arrival PendSV can be occasionally entered with the PENDSVSET bit being set, so it will be triggered again immediately after it completes. This might or might not have adverse consequences. In case of the QK kernel, this was unacceptable and led to a Hardware Fault. In other RTOSes it might simply cause another scheduler call, waste of some CPU, and delay of the task-level response, but perhaps not a catastrophic failure.

The actual fix of the problem is very simple. Since you cannot rely on the automatic clearing of the PENDSVSET bit in the NVIC-ICSR register, you need to clear it manually (by writing 1 to the PENDSVCLR bit in the NVIC-ICSR register.) Of course this is wasteful, because only one time in a million this bit is actually not cleared automatically.

Interestingly, I have not seen such writing to the PENDSVCLR bit in open source RTOSes for ARM Cortex-M (such as FreeRTOS.org). Recently, I’ve come across some posts to the ARM Community Forums that this problem exists for the Frescale MQX RTOS (see PendSV pending inside PendSV handler? (Cortex-M4)).

If you use a preemptive kernel on ARM Cortex-M0/M3, perhaps you could check how your kernel handles PendSV. If you don’t see an explicit write to the PENDSVCLR bit, I would recommend that you think through the consequences of re-entering PendSV. I’d be very interested to collect a survey of how the existing kernels for ARM Cortex-M handle this situation.