Porting to Linux (There’s Always A Better Way)

Over the past months I met a couple of people who are relatively new to Linux. For one, I’ve been to Germany doing courses on Linux - naturally the audience in such a course is new to Linux. For another, I have one and a half customers here in Austria who are mainly doing microcontroller work and who don’t have a clue of Linux.

Many of these people have code which they have written and maintained over a long time, and which has a value. The code runs happily on bare metal, or on a minimal OS like Segger embOS, Enea OSE, VxWorks, or even Windows CE. No way rewriting it just because of Linux.

Well, there’s no need to. It’s just not trivial to choose the right mechanisms. Linux (and Unix in general) offers so many choices to mess things up right from the beginning. And it’s quite likely that things are in fact messed up, which is what I learned from the people I met.

“Good Old Device Firmware” is quite limited in what it can use.

  • It is a statically linked blob of executable code.

  • It operates in a single address space (there’s generally no idea what an address space is, so there is only one).

  • It has interrupts hammering on it.

  • If there is an OS, then chances are that there are multiple processes that are scheduled by the OS. Often processes communicate by dumping messages into each other’s message queues.

  • Locking mechanisms. In the presence of interrupts you need to disable them if need be. If processes are used, there are generally semaphores available in one or more flavors.

  • It’s these simple concepts where the confusion starts. For example, in Linux/Unix a process is probably not what you want - you rather want a thread instead. When you search for the term “message queue” you will find several mechanisms, none of which are what you want. You’ll notice sooner or later that you chose the wrong concept, but it’s maybe too late to revert - causing your Linux port to fail over the years. (In my opinion it’s never too late to revert, but that’s a different kind of story.)

In the remainder I’ll try to give a list of recipes for porting to Linux. I hope that it will help you speed up the porting project, by avoiding severe mistakes right at the beginning. The list cannot be complete - it’s just a blog post after all. But I do hope it will give you a bigger picture than you already have, and that it provides you with the starting points for your own research (which you will have to do unless you want to hire me as a consultant :-).

Processes are Threads

In the embedded OS world, you use the word “process” to refer to an entity that is scheduled by the OS. There is no such thing as separate address spaces and memory protection in such systems (these OS’s are initially designed for cheap MMU-less processors).

So, what people generally want is threads. Processes in Unix refer to address space separation and memory protection, so don’t get misled only by the term. The Unix way of multithreading is POSIX threads (pthreads for short). On Linux, man pthreads will tell you more. Better yet, buy yourself a copy of a PThreads Programming book. Read that book twice. Threading has lots of pitfalls, and it is crucial to understand these. (I have seen people create five threads to solve a simple data-acquisition-and-network-communication problem where they didn’t know what a mutex was.)

Signals Aren’t Messages

Don’t use Unix signals for communication. They have very few in common with what’s called a signal in RTOSs. (In the RTOS world, signals are often called messages.)

In Unix, signals are commonly used to tear down a process (not a thread), giving it a chance to perform proper cleanup before exit. There are other uses of signals as well, such as notification of memory protection violation (the dreaded “segmentation fault”) and other programming errors.

The problem with signal handling is that signals arrive in a special context which you probably know as “interrupt context” in your OS. Consequently, your options are very limited in a signal handler. You cannot use most of the functions that are available from the C runtime library!

If you still feel that you need to use signals, then perform the following steps.

  • Think twice. Why do you need signals? There’s probably a better way.

  • Read man -s 7 signal for more. Pay special attention to the section about async-signal-safe functions (note that none of the pthread_ functions appears in the list).

  • Try to defer processing from the signal handler into the regular course of your application. For example, you can use the “self pipe” trick (Google sure knows about it.)

  • Forget about asynchronous signal delivery and use one of the`` sigwait``, sigwaitinfo, and sigtimedwait system calls. This way you suspend the execution of one thread until a signal is caught, thus turning signal handling into a synchronous approach. You’d have to dedicate an entire thread to signal handling though.

  • An alternative way of synchronous signal handling is to use the new signalfd system call. Its semantics are the same as sigwaitinfo, only you use a file descriptor as an “event source”. You can embed this file descriptor among other event sources in an event driven application, using select, poll, or epoll. See below for more.

Message Queues aren’t Message Queues

Chances are that the threads (err, processes) of your OS communicate via messages queues over which messages (err, signals) are sent. A naive Google search (“Linux message queues”) will lead you to POSIX and System V message queues, both of which are inter process communication (IPC) mechanisms. This is probably not what you want, as your messages need not be transferred across different address spaces. Intra process message queues are normally built on top of pthread primitives. You can find a sample such implementation here.

Semaphores and Mutexes

Many of those OSs out there have semaphores as the one and only synchronisation mechanism. Linux has semaphores - System V and POSIX style. Again these are probably not what you want. You are likely to initialize your semaphores with a count of one and use it as a binary semaphore. This is what a pthread mutex is for instead.

See man pthread_mutex_init for more.

Confusing note for those porting from Windows: A critical section is the region that is protected by a mutex, although a CRITICAL_SECTION is the closest Windows pendant to a mutex.


Timers are hard, not only on Linux.

In most embedded OSs, timers expire as interrupts which are then handled by the application. Sometimes there is the possibility to let the OS send you a message (err, signal) on timer expiration.

There are multiple APIs for timers, most of which (setitimer, timer_create) require you to use signals (Unix signals this time) - see above for the drawbacks to this approach. Unfortunately a straightforward Google search will lead you to these APIs.

An alternative is to simply defer the execution of a thread for a specified amount of time, using nanosleep. Another alternative is to use timerfd_create and friends in conjunction with select or poll, and embed timers into an event driven application. (See below for event loops based on file descriptors. See here for a sample implementation of such a thing.)

You can always build your own structures around whatever timer mechanism and emulate the behavior of your OS on Linux. This might require quite a bit of understanding of Linux programming, though.


Polling for something to happen is generally the most stupid thing to do, not only on Linux. The are cases (screwed hardware for example) where there is no other way, but otherwise there’s always a better way.

I have seen people set a flag in one process (err, thread), and poll for it every millisecond from another thread. I know, a millisecond is an eternity in nowadays’ processors - but I can imagine that there are more flags of that sort being polled for, in a moderately complex program. After all, it’s events that these flags communicate. Some OSs have an “event flag” mechanism which tries to achieve exactly that, albeit a bit more intelligently - for example without the need for polling, and without losing events through race conditions.

There’s a big wealth of mechanisms in Linux to communicate events. Use message queues (see above), for example. Build your own “event flag” mechanism by using PThreads primitives (but not before you have read the book).

Event Dispatching

On Unix, everything is a file. Entire disks are represented as files, partitions are, network sockets are, arbitrary devices are (for example, serial/UART lines). Regular files are, naturally. On Linux, even timers and Unix signals can be represented as files, as I mentioned previously. Every open file is represented as a file descriptor. File descriptors can be read from and written to, using the read and write system calls, regardless of their type.

For people who are new to Unix, this may come as a surprise: you can read from a serial line as if it were a network connection, and you can read from a network connection as if it were a regular file. (Anyone tried that on Windows?)

This fact alone is something you can take advantage of in your porting project.

Now what has this got to do with event dispatching? Consider the following types of events that regularly happen on an OS:

  • Network connection has data to be read.

  • Network connection can be written to without blocking (or, “local TCP buffer just got emptied” or so).

  • Same with serial IO (open /dev/ttyS0 or so just like a regular file), as with any kind of stream connection.

  • A timer has expired.

  • A signal has arrived.

  • An arbitrary event happened (check out the eventfd system call; I didn’t mention it).

  • Even USB events are delivered via files. (It’s just a bit more complicated because USB is a bit more complicated; there’s libusb there to handle this.).

  • Most drivers for hardware devices deliver the device interrupts as events through file descriptors (you open /dev/blah just like a regular file), nicely telling you “Hey, I’ve got to tell you something!”.

There is a set of system calls that are used to wait for events on multiple file descriptor, namely select,`` poll``, and epoll. Note that these system call put the calling process (err, thread) to sleep until something happens - the name poll has nothing to do with polling as we know it.

So, depending on your application, you might find it relatively easy to use either of these system calls. Build a bit of an infrastructure around it, like registering and unregistering callbacks, and you will be able to comfortably use these extremely exciting mechanisms. (Or take my own infrastructure. Or take anybody else’s, mine’s not the only - it’s just the best.)

One last note: look at the desktop environment of your choice. It’s made up of a hundred or so processes (no, not threads). Under Gnome, which is what I use, there’s a process called`` gnome-panel``, for example. Try out strace -p <pid of gnome-panel>;, direct the mouse over the panel, and see what happens: poll all over.


One of the primary goals of an OS is to shield you from hardware. There a clear separation between user space and kernel space. User space uses system calls to talk to the kernel. No interrupts in user space. Basta. (Don’t even think about using signals!)

If you have hardware that nobody else has, then chances are you will have to deal with it yourself and write a driver for it. That’s about the only case where you’ll get in touch with interrupts and have to learn kernel programming. But this is a completely different story, and a different world. Definitely fun.

Nevertheless, I suggest you stay away from kernel programming just because it is fun. Debugging is much harder there. A buggy user space program crashes, possibly leaving you with a core dump that you can examine with a debugger (well, GDB). Everything else will remain running. A buggy kernel crashes, leaving nothing running. This is what I call hard.

On Linux, there are a couple of hardware interfaces exported to userspace. I already mentioned userspace USB. There is a similar thing to implement USB devices in user space, called GadgetFS.

For others, look inside the kernel documentation, part of the kernel source, in the Documentation/ directory. (Usually, the kernel source is installed in /usr/src/linux/.) Or simply ask Google.

For example, check out the userspace I2C and SPI interfaces described in Documentation/i2c/dev-interface and Documentation/spi/spidev.


Well, realtime … what’s that? To put it bluntly, Linux is realtime capable.

By default, Linux schedules processes (“scheduled entities”, so to say - threads as well as processes) in a fair way. This is, everyone gets its fair share of CPU resources. As such, there are no guarantees given as to when a process is scheduled, and whether its deadlines are met.


You can make any process realtime-scheduled, by calling sched_setscheduler(). You can make threads realtime-scheduled, selectively, by creating them with the appropriate attributes (see pthread_attr_setschedparam(), and read the book :-).

Realtime-processes are scheduled immediately when they become runnable (unless a higher priority process is runnable as well, of course). And by immediate I mean immediate - and that’s what I call realtime. No fairness involved anymore, definitely not nice anymore. And therefore potentially harmful.

Basically, there’s two realtime scheduling policies to choose from:

  • SCHED_FIFO. The process runs until it puts itself to sleep (waiting for something to happen), or until it is interrupted by a process which has an even higher priority.

  • SCHED_RR. Processes in the same priority level alternate in a round robin manner, with very short timeslices. As with SCHED_FIFO, they are interrupted by higher priority processes.

Check out the man pages, and read the book. No joke. Doing realtime scheduling is crying for trouble. Even more so if code is involved where you don’t know 100% exactly what it does. It might go into an infinite loop, at best. At worst, it will trigger race conditions only under certain circumstances, or bring up deadlock situations. Naturally, this kind of errors does not show up during in-house testing where you are able to inspect and fix them, but rather months later, at your customer’s site.

That’s it been for now. I could possibly add a couple more items to this list, right now. Deployment comes to mind (What’s a firmware image in Linux? Will I be minimal? Do I use BusyBox and uClibc?), build issues (Shared libraries? Static? What, how, why?). I could add another couple more items if I you give me a minute.

If you have read through this list, you’ll see what I mean: take care to choose the right mechanisms. Don’t start coding immediately because there’s no time left in the project. Thinking twice and investigating will save you from spending even more time later in the project. (But what am I telling you?)