Embedded Java - Embedded.com

Embedded Java

Embedded Java can play a key role in next-generation cell phones, smart cards, wireless devices, and gaming systems as well as many other embedded applications. The key will be to choose the right options for implementation.

Since its introduction four years ago, Sun's Java language and run-time environment have suffered from excessive hype and, from an embedded systems designer's viewpoint, inadequate performance. Running a Java virtual machine (JVM) to interpret Java byte codes made the approach too big and too slow for most embedded applications. Sun's new Java-2 Micro Edition (J2ME) has changed the situation, however, by creating a version that takes a big step toward solving the concerns of embedded systems. Now, designers are taking a closer look.

Java has a number of advantages for embedded system designers. As a language, Java allows object-oriented programming without the dangers of C++. For instance, Java allows class inheritance but not from multiple parents, so there's no opportunity for confusion. Similarly, Java prevents the ambiguity that C++ allows in the definition of operators. Java operators are defined on only one type of variable, where C++ allows an operator to have a separate definition for each data type despite having the same name.

The Java run-time environment also offers useful attributes. It ensures that applications don't step on each other's toes or crash the entire system by checking the code in the JVM before execution. If the code attempts to alter the system's core behaviors, it won't be run. Java provides memory management so that the programmer doesn't have to allocate and free memory, running the risk of memory leaks. Java automatically frees unused memory through its garbage collection process. The run-time environment even simplifies program distribution by incorporating a core class library. Applications programmers don't have to supply those functions; they will already be available on the target.

In addition, Java is widely known and supported in the computing industry. This implies a wealth of resources in the forms of working applets and experienced programmers, both of which can help boost system development. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with each new application.

The trouble is, most embedded applications face two major constraints that Java hasn't handled well: not enough time and not enough room. The time constraint arises because, typically, an embedded system must respond to external events within a narrow time frame. If the system is not done handling one event before the next one occurs, it fails in its mission.

The time constraint also implies a need for determinism. Designers depend on software elements completing their respective tasks within a known or bounded period. Tasks that are inherently unbounded, such as wait loops, need to be able to be suspended while time-critical tasks are being executed.

The space constraint comes from cost and portability requirements. Designers need to use as little memory as possible, often restricting the design to a microcontroller's on-chip memory resources. This also helps reduce power consumption, an important consideration in battery-powered, portable systems.

Java has had problems working within these time and space constraints. The Java software environment works with an operating system and uses a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) to translate Java byte codes into the native language of the system's processor (Figure 1 ). It also has required sizeable class libraries as part of the core system. Both factors add considerably to the system's memory requirements.

Figure 1:  Java application software uses processor-independent bytecode that executes through a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) running on an arbitrary processor. The JVM combines with class libraries and run-time code to form the complete Java platform.

Java's interpreted code is inherently slower than compiled code, making it more difficult for systems to meet their real-time constraints. Faster processors could help, but power considerations often prevent embedded systems from using one. Even if the system is fast enough, Java's garbage collection algorithms are both unbounded and uninterruptable, making determinism an impossible goal.

The Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) addresses some of these concerns by reducing the size of class libraries and altering the garbage collection algorithm. It has brought Java within reach of many embedded designs by defining two categories of Java: the Connected Device Configuration (CDC) and the Connected Limited Device Configuration (CLDC). These replace the older Embedded Java, which was essentially a non-standard version of Java for custom applications.

J2ME Category CDC CLDC
Virtual Machine CVM KVM
Processor 32-bit 16- or 32-bit
Memory Requirements 2 – 16 Mbytes 160 – 512 Kbytes
Restrictions GUI dependencies on java.awt removed Limited error handling
No user-defined class loader
No support for:

  • Floating-point data types
  • Finalization of class instances
  • The Java Native Interface
  • Thread groups.
Target applications TV set-top boxes, Internet TVs, Internet-enabled screen-phones, high-end communicators, automobile entertainment and navigation systems, and other devices with persistent and high-bandwidth network connections. Cell phones, two-way pagers, personal organizers, home appliances, and other limited-resource and network-connected devices.

Table 1: The CDC and CLDC are both standard configurations for industry-wide use.

The CDC is a full-function version of Java aimed at devices with network connections, a 32-bit processor, and 2 Mbytes of memory available for the Java platform. This version of Java will allow devices to download and run general-purpose applets in a manner similar to desktop machines. PDAs, home appliances, and car navigation systems are examples of target applications.

The CLDC is a reduced version of Java for applications with a more tailored runtime environment. Rather than allowing general-purpose applets, the CLDC requires that the Java programs conform to the device's constraints. This loses the 'write-once, run anywhere' promise of Java, but still retains the other benefits of Java programming. The CLDC and its K virtual machine need as little as 160 Kbytes of memory and a 16-MHz, 16-bit processor.

With these two configurations, Sun has evolved standard Java configurations that fit the space constraints of many embedded system designs. The question of real-time and determinism has recently been addressed by the creation of a real-time Java specification within the Java community. Released in November, 2001, the Real Time Specification for Java (RTSJ V1.0) provides standard extensions to the Java platform and alterations to the garbage collection algorithm to make certain Java provides the determinism that many embedded applications need.

That leaves only the issue of raw performance to be resolved-and it looks like it has been. Answers have come from the industry as an array of approaches to boost Java execution speed. The approaches include using optimized JVMs, compiling Java to native code before execution, using just-in-time (JIT) compilers, and using hardware acceleration. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks.

Optimized JVMs typically speed execution 2x to 2.5x relative to their generic cousins. Such optimizations are processor specific, however. While many processor vendors offer optimized JVMs, not all do. Those that do may also offer optimized class libraries and real-time operating systems that work closely with the JVM to further increase software performance.

Optimized or not, using a JVM still involves interpretation, which restricts program execution speed. Compiling the Java code to native code before execution avoids that restriction. In such cases, Java becomes just another high-level language, like C++, and the limits to execution speed are set only by the compiler's code efficiency. The trouble is, this compilation must be performed as with other high-level languages: before placement into program memory. The result is an inflexible system, unable to download Java code upgrades or new applications.

The just-in-time compiler seeks to regain that flexibility by operating to compile Java code “on the fly” for immediate execution. This yields performance and flexibility, but adds to the launch time of a specific application because of the need to start compilation first. Using a JIT also increases the system memory requirements by occupying at least 100 Kbytes in addition to the JVM and applications.

To speed Java execution without the disadvantages of either compilation or the software JVM, embedded developers can turn to hardware accelerators. These devices offload some or most of the JVM's task to dedicated hardware, resulting in a 5x to 10x improvement over interpreted Java. Hardware accelerators don't take over the entire task, however. The host CPU will still handle particularly complex or seldom-used byte codes.

Semiconductor vendors have taken several approaches to accelerating Java in hardware, choosing to focus on different tasks. One approach is the hardware interpreter. The interpreter takes incoming Java code and transforms much of it into the CPU's native code, saving the JVM the trouble (See Figure 2 ). Examples include Nazomi's Jstar, InSilicon's JVX, and ARM's Jazelle (for more details on the ARM Jazelle, see the TechOnLine Webcast on ARM Jazelle Technology). Most recently, ARC Cores has added a Java extension core from Digital Communication Technology (DCT) to its base processor. In most cases, the interpreters are silicon IP that, in effect, extend a processor's instruction set to include Java bytecodes.

Figure 2:  A Java coprocessor, such as the Nazomi Jstar, boosts JVM performance by handling the time-consuming translation of bytecode into the native instructions of the host CPU.

Coprocessors not only interpret the bytecodes, they execute the resulting machine code, offloading the CPU completely. They are, in effect, processors that use Java bytecode as their native machine language. Some, like InSilicon's JVXtreme, are pure coprocessors. Others, such as Aurora VLSI's Espresso and DeCaf, can act as coprocessors or as stand-alone processors that handle the Java code while another CPU handles things such as the user interface. AJile's aJ-100, DCT's Lightfoot, and Zucotto's Xpresso are also coprocessors. As with the interpreters, these coprocessors are often available as cores for ASIC or FPGA implementation.

A third form of Java acceleration, hardware JIT compilers, work to compile Java bytecode on the fly. These differ from hardware interpreters in that they don't merely translate the software from one form to another. They literally compile, including making optimizations and restructuring code execution order to boost performance. MachStream from Parthus falls into the JIT category.

This array of hardware and software alternatives for speeding Java code execution seems like it should solve the problem of Java performance in embedded systems. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict how much of a performance boost they will offer. That difficulty is compounded by the interaction of the accelerators with other systems elements. The CPU architecture, the amount of system memory available, the RTOS, the JVM, the class libraries, and the hardware acceleration all affect the system's final performance. Application software has an impact. A system hardware and software configuration that works well for an Internet appliance, for instance, may be slower in a set-top box and totally unsuitable for a cell phone.

Unfortunately, embedded designers have few tools to help them evaluate the performance of alternative configurations. The most useful tool is the SPEC JVM98 benchmark, developed by System Performance Evaluation Corporation. The benchmark measures the efficiency of the JVM, JIT compilers, and operating-system implementations. It also provides platform-specific measurements, including the performance of the CPU, cache, memory, and coprocessor configuration.

But SPEC JVM98 is not geared toward the needs of embedded systems. It was developed for networked and stand-alone client computers, and assumes that there is a full implementation of Java with a complete desktop system environment. To run the benchmark, for example, the target system needs at least 32 Mbytes of memory and a full graphics display in order to view the results. Few embedded systems are that resource rich.

The CaffeineMark from Pendragon Software is the benchmark that is popular in the embedded space. Like the Dhrystone MIPS benchmark, CaffeineMark is an artificial benchmark that measures only a few Java features. It excludes such things as floating-point operations, garbage collection, and multiple treads, any of which may be important to embedded developers. Further, there is no standard configuration under which the benchmark runs. As a result, benchmark results from vendors are difficult to interpret.

The lack of evaluation tools may not be a problem much longer for embedded Java. The EDN Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium (EEMBC) has begun development of a Java benchmark suite. The EEMBC benchmarks propose to make a number of system measurements, including such things as garbage collection time and determinism, I/O performance, interrupt latency, memory usage, and system power consumption during the benchmark. Detailed software execution benchmarks will also be included, measuring such things as class loader time, class method execution, number of threads used, time spent in each thread, and the time to invoke threads.

The consortium plans to have the benchmarks run under a variety of application environments, including smart cards, cell phones, palm devices, Internet appliances, and set-top boxes. Not all benchmarks will run in each environment, however, because tests appropriate for one application may be meaningless in another. When run in an unbiased standard system configuration that the consortium will define, the benchmarks will allow independent evaluation of CPUs, JVMs, JITs, RTOSs, and hardware accelerators. All benchmark results will be certifiable through the EEMBC Certification Labs.

Because application software also has an impact on Java performance, the consortium will structure the benchmarks to reflect the needs of several common application types. Browsers, games, notepad editing, and graphics-intensive applets will form part of the benchmark mix.

When these tools are ready, they will provide a means of making comparisons in light of the intended application. Developers will have a much easier time choosing among embedded Java's many alternatives and ensuring that the final system performance will meet the target. Then, Java can take a lead role in future embedded system development.

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