Introducing Dovetail

Using Linux as a host for lightweight software cores specialized in delivering very short and bounded response times has been a popular way of supporting real-time applications in the embedded space over the years.

This design - known as the dual kernel approach - introduces a small real-time infrastructure which schedules time-critical activities independently from the main kernel. Application threads co-managed by this infrastructure still benefit from the ancillary kernel services such as virtual memory management, and can also leverage the rich GPOS feature set Linux provides such as networking, data storage or GUIs.

Although the real-time infrastructure has to present specific driver stack and API implementations to applications, there are nonetheless significant upsides to keeping the real-time core separate from the GPOS infrastructure:

  • because the two kernels are independent, real-time activities are not serialized with GPOS operations internally, removing potential delays which might be induced by the non time-critical work. Likewise, there is no requirement for keeping the GPOS operations fine-grained and highly preemptible at any time, which would otherwise induce noticeable overhead on low-end hardware, due to the requirement for pervasive task priority inheritance and IRQ threading.

  • the functional isolation of the real-time infrastructure from the rest of the kernel code restricts common bug hunting to the scope of the smaller kernel, excluding most interactions with the very large GPOS kernel base.

  • with a dedicated infrastructure providing a specific, well-defined set of real-time services, applications can unambiguously figure out which API calls are available for supporting time-critical work, excluding all the rest as being potentially non-deterministic with respect to response time.

This documentation presents Dovetail, an effort to integrate the support for interfacing Linux with a real-time component deeply inside the host kernel’s logic.

The two software layers forming Dovetail are described: firstly the interrupt pipeline which creates a high-priority execution stage for a real-time infrastructure, and finally the support for alternate task control between the Linux kernel and the real-time component over the kthreads and user tasks.

Although both layers are likely to be needed for implementing a real-time component, only the interrupt pipeline has to be enabled in the early stage of porting Dovetail. Support for alternate task control builds upon the latter, and may - and should - be postponed until the pipeline is fully functional on the target architecture or platform. The code base is specifically maintained in a way which allows such incremental process.

Dovetail only introduces the basic mechanisms for hosting a real-time core into the Linux kernel, enabling the common programming model for its applications in user-space. It does not implement the real-time core per se, which should be provided by a separate kernel component.

Why do we need this?

Dovetail is the successor to the I-pipe, the interrupt pipeline implementation Xenomai’s Cobalt real-time core currently relies on. The rationale behind this effort is about securing the maintenance of this key component of Xenomai so that it could be maintained with common kernel development knowledge, at a fraction of the engineering and maintenance cost native preemption requires. For several reasons, the I-pipe does not qualify.

Maintaining the I-pipe proved to be difficult over the years as changes to the mainline kernel regularly caused non-trivial code conflicts, sometimes nasty regressions to us downstream. Although the concept of interrupt pipelining proved to be correct in delivering short response time with reasonably limited changes to the original kernel, the way this mechanism is currently integrated into the mainline code shows its age, as explained in this document.


The intended audience of this document is people having common kernel development knowledge, who may be interested in building a real-time component on Dovetail, porting it to their architecture or platform of choice. Knowing about the basics of interrupt flow, IRQ chip and clock event device drivers in the kernel tree would be a requirement for porting this code.

However, this document is not suited for getting one’s feet wet with kernel development. Many assumptions about pre-existing knowledge of the reader regarding kernel fundamentals are made.