Back to the Basics - Practical Embedded Coding Tips: Part 1

Jakob Engblom

April 19, 2009

Jakob Engblom April 19, 2009

Virtually every embedded system uses interrupts; many support multitasking or multithreaded operations. These sorts of applications can expect the program's control flow to change contexts at just about any time. When that interrupt comes, the current operation is put on hold and another function or task starts running. What happens if functions and tasks share variables? Disaster surely looms if one routine corrupts the other's data.

By carefully controlling how data is shared, we create reentrant functions, those that allow multiple concurrent invocations that do not interfere with each other. The word "pure" is sometimes used interchangeably with "reentrant."

Reentrancy was originally invented for mainframes, in the days when memory was a valuable commodity. System operators noticed that a dozen or hundreds of identical copies of a few big programs would be in the computer's memory array at any time. At the University of Maryland, my old hacking grounds, the monster Univac 1108 had one of the early reentrant FORTRAN compilers.

It burned up a breathtaking (for those days) 32 kW of system memory, but being reentrant, it required only 32 k even if 50 users were running it. Everyone executed the same code, from the same set of addresses. Each person had his or her own data area, yet everyone running the compiler quite literally executed identical code. As the operating system changed contexts from user to user it swapped data areas so one person's work didn't affect any other. Share the code, but not the data.

In the embedded world a routine must satisfy the following conditions to be reentrant:

Rule # 1. It uses all shared variables in an atomic way, unless each is allocated to a specific instance of the function.
Rule # 2. It does not call nonreentrant functions.
Rule 3. It does not use the hardware in a nonatomic way.

Atomic Variables
Both the first and last rules use the word "atomic," which comes from the Greek word meaning "indivisible." In the computer world "atomic" means an operation that cannot be interrupted. Consider the assembly language instruction:

mov ax,bx

Since nothing short of a reset can stop or interrupt this instruction it's atomic. It will start and complete without any interference from other tasks or interrupts. The first part of Rule #1 requires the atomic use of shared variables. Suppose two functions each share the global variable "foobar." Function A contains:


This code is not reentrant, because foobar is used nonatomically. That is, it takes three statements to change its value, not one. The foobar handling is not indivisible; an interrupt can come between these statements, switch context to the other function, which then may also try and change foobar.

Clearly there's a conflict, foobar will wind up with an incorrect value, the autopilot will crash, and hundreds of screaming people will wonder, "Why didn't they teach those developers about reentrancy?" Suppose, instead, function A looks like:


Now the operation is atomic, an interrupt will not suspend processing with foobar in a partially changed state, so the routine is reentrant.

Except . . . do you really know what your C compiler generates? On an x86 processor the code might look like:


which is clearly not atomic, and so not reentrant. The atomic version is:


The moral is to be wary of the compiler; assume it generates atomic code and you may find 60 Minutes knocking at your door.

The second part of the first reentrancy rule reads " . . . unless each is allocated to a specific instance of the function." This is an exception to the atomic rule that skirts the issue of shared variables.

An instance is a path through the code. There's no reason a single function can't be called from many other places. In a multitasking environment it's quite possible that several copies of the function may indeed be executing concurrently. (Suppose the routine is a driver that retrieves data from a queue; many different parts of the code may want queued data more or less simultaneously.) Each execution path is an "instance" of the code. Consider:

int foo;
void some_function(void){

foo is a global variable whose scope exists beyond that of the function. Even if no other routine uses foo, some_function can trash the variable if more than one instance of it runs at any time. C and C++ can save us from this peril. Use automatic variables. That is, declare foo inside of the function. Then, each instance of the routine will use a new version of foo created from the stack, as follows:

void some_function(void){
int foo;

Another option is to dynamically assign memory (using malloc), again so each incarnation uses a unique data area. The fundamental reentrancy problem is thus avoided, as it's impossible for multiple instances to stamp on a common version of the variable.

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