When it comes to a real-time operating system (RTOS), separating fact from fiction isn’t always easy. Alleged pitfalls—such as increasing costs and complexity—often spark concern among firmware developers. While arguments against an RTOS have taken on a life of their own, a closer look at the crux of each controversy reveals a much different story.
From ramping up real-time performance to improving portability, let’s dive into some of the ways an RTOS can serve as a benefit instead of a burden to firmware developers.
1. Cost efficiency
Developers don’t have to worry about an RTOS making too much of a dent in their bottom line. With big-name companies such as Amazon offering free or open-source RTOS products, the barrier to entry is virtually nonexistent. And as more businesses follow in the footsteps of Amazon, interest in such technology will continue to grow. Last year, 41% of embedded tech developers used an open-source RTOS in embedded projects, up from just 31% in 2012.
Though the cost of a commercial RTOS license runs around a few thousand dollars, it’s far from a cost-prohibitive option. Not only can exposure to proprietary source code help speed up the development process, but available support can help answer any questions along the way. Best of all, each license bears a one-time expense, meaning developers won’t have to deal with recurring costs later on.
2. Gentle learning curve
There’s no way around it—an RTOS will take some getting used to. But any time spent learning the ins and outs of an RTOS will more than pay off in the long run. Common RTOS alternatives, such as a polling-loop architecture, often require developers to become familiar with just about every component within a piece of firmware. In addition to extending time-to-market, this extra responsibility can impact system performance.
An RTOS helps solve for such issues by giving developers the opportunity to do what they do best—innovate. Rather than concerning themselves with each component’s performance, developers can focus on one specific area of the firmware. This undivided attention goes a long way toward minimizing the number of hiccups throughout development and ultimately paves the way for faster, better firmware.
3. Easy on memory
Efficient memory use matters, especially when it comes to applications that take up a lot of it. With an RTOS, developers can alleviate some of the anxiety that often accompanies operational memory. From RAM to flash, an RTOS uses a range of different types of memory architectures, but not much storage. A couple kilobytes of each are all it takes to keep a commercial RTOS up and running.
Developers who may run short on memory can leverage this efficiency to enhance other areas of their application. Whether it’s tacking on a new feature or improving an existing one, memory efficiency can bring about plenty of benefits.
4. Real-time performance
There’s no shortage of tasks to keep track of within a piece of firmware. Complicating matters further, each task carries a varying degree of priority. With an RTOS, however, staying on top of everything is easy. Preemptive behavior, which involves suspending one task in favor of another, can be achieved with the help of an RTOS. In fact, an RTOS excels at swapping out routine tasks for more important ones. The result? Unmatched flexibility that helps set the stage for improved and faster real-time performance.
For developers, cutting down on the amount of time between interrupts is an important part of maintaining firmware efficiency. By appropriately setting task priorities, an RTOS helps do just that. Instead of devoting their time and energy toward task priorities, developers can rely on an RTOS to carefully manage such concerns and keep real-time performance running smoothly.
5. Tops polling-loop architecture
Polling-loop architecture is nothing new to developers. Often used to relay processing times, polling-loop architecture works best within basic devices. But as complexity increases, its effectiveness typically takes a turn for the worse. This inconsistent behavior makes for largely unreliable devices.
With an RTOS, such concerns could quickly become a thing of the past. By taking care of processor allocation behind the scenes, an RTOS enables application software to ignore sudden shifts in processing time. And if designed in an effective way, an RTOS can also help ensure that real-time performance of high-priority threads remains consistent—no matter the amount of threads or the size of a piece of firmware. With this peace of mind, developers will have a much easier time keeping devices in top shape and introducing new capabilities over time.
6. Increased portability
Making the leap from one processor to another doesn’t have to be complicated. Designed to ensure developers can move around their applications with ease, an RTOS helps take the pain out of portability. Since an API is needed to get the most out of an RTOS, developers avoid being tied to a single platform.
Better yet, a well-designed RTOS can reduce the amount of porting required and largely preserve a developer’s code. Practically any 32-bit architecture will run a commercial or open-source RTOS. And when the RTOS runs, so will the application. This freedom and flexibility gives developers the opportunity to move between different platforms and processors without too much hassle. Attention that was once committed toward moving around applications can now be used to jumpstart innovation.
While several misconceptions surround an RTOS, the value of an RTOS is hard to ignore for those who look beyond them. Capable of ramping up real-time performance while also improving portability, an RTOS brings more than a few benefits to the development process.
When it comes time to tackle their next project, developers would be wise to consider an RTOS. Unlike other options on the market today, an RTOS can deliver the efficiency and effectiveness developers have come to expect.
Nick Carter is the Software Engineering Department Head at Morey Corp.