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Hexabitz Software Architecture

A project log for HEXABITZ - Modular Electronics for REAL

A new kind of electronic prototyping!

HexabitzHexabitz 03/13/2018 at 03:550 Comments

Introduction

Hexabitz arrays are fully-distributed, multiprocessor systems. Each configurable module has its own MCU. Modules connect with each other to form an array, similar to the way computers connect to form a network. Having separate processors -instead of embedded multi-cores- in the same array gives you the flexibility of running them at different clock speeds or even mixing powerful, expensive processors with small and cheap ones.

This architecture dictates having a separate firmware uploaded to each module. You are required currently to write, debug and compile code for each module separately -while keeping in mind all the interactions between these modules- since there is no technology to support intuitive multi-processor software development. I’m looking forward to the day where we can write a single software -as if we were developing for a single target- and the intelligent compiler would then dissect this software into small pieces, figuring out all the required interactions between these modules on its own. Hopefully, it won’t be that long! 

Until we get our hands on such a revolutionary tool, we have to figure out ways to design and develop code for complex arrays so that an array of 10 modules does not take 20x development efforts. Fortunately, there are lots of tricks and solutions to substantially reduce the amount of work needed. We will discuss some here and in future posts.

In order to support a wide array of users, Hexabitz is designed for three developer levels/personalities:

  1. Advanced Developers (The Do-It-Yourself Folks): Users with critical needs and very high skills in embedded systems development can take Hexabitz hardware and write their own software from scratch using low-level, third-party hardware drivers available from chip manufacturers. Being an open-source hardware system gives these hardcore users the freedom of developing their own system without the hassle of hardware design and the nightmares of production lines and supply chains!
  2. Experienced and Mid-level Developers (Mix-n-Match Heros): You do not have to start from scratch! We laid down the ground work for software development through our operating system (BOS), APIs and module drivers, all coupled with a set of optimized third-party middleware (e.g., real-time operating system, FAT system, etc.). Users can either use all of the above and focus on application-level development or pick the level of integration and design the components that they feel are important to differentiate their product (e.g., using only BOS or only module drivers).
  3. Noobs (The I-Have-No-Idea Newbies): Newbies and beginners can still utilize Hexabitz through Command Line Interface (CLI). CLI is a set of plain-English commands that you can send to the modules to execute. These commands are very handy to perform quick tests and run simple applications. In fact, probably 80% of simple applications can be executed through a set of CLI commands. The CLI command set will be expanded regularly to offer more features while preserving simplicity and easy-access as much as possible.

Any Other Options?

We will focus, in the time being, on developing and supporting hardware and software tools and components mentioned above. We will do our best to offer more options in the future, especially in higher-level programming languages (e.g., visual programming, Python, MATLAB, etc.)

Hexabitz Software Components

Figure 6 illustrates the hierarchy of Hexabitz software components how they map to different users. We will discuss next these components and detail the important ones.

Figure 6. Hexabitz Software Components

1. Low-level Hardware Drivers - Developed by ST & ARM

The Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) and the Cortex Microcontroller Software Interface Standard (CMSIS) developed by ST and ARM, respectively, are the core low-layer drivers for Hexabitz mainstream-implementation MCU hardware. They interface directly with MCU registers and perform the most basic tasks. Most developers do not need to worry about these drivers but it helps to understand how they work and how they can be implemented if you want to dig in further in embedded systems development and optimize the code for your application.

2. Third-party Middleware - Developed by various vendors

A higher-level of third-party drivers is required to perform advanced functionality such as real-time control and data storage management. Two major third-party, middleware components are currently used in Hexabitz software: FreeRTOS and FATfs. It is also very likely that we add more components in the future as functionality expands.

FreeRTOS

FreeRTOS is the de-facto real-time operating system (RTOS) for MCUs and small embedded systems. It is open-source and free to use in its standard format, thus, accessible to everyone. An RTOS is a critical tool to ensure synchronous, predictable and real-time execution of software in embedded systems. Although FreeRTOS does not have all the capabilities of a computer-grade RTOS, it does have basic multi-threading (multi-tasking), memory management and access control. FreeRTOS code is complex and difficult to understand for non-specialists. However, from a user perspective, interactions with FreeRTOS become minimal if Hexabitz’s BOS and module drivers are utilized. Currently, Hexabitz is not making use of all of FreeRTOS features but as the platform evolves, we will integrate more and more of these powerful features. In general, each module is always running the following threads (tasks) in parallel (Note that parallel here is an over-simplified notion as MCUs can only execute code serially. The FreeRTOS scheduler, however, cycles between these tasks on every RTOS beat to simulate parallel execution.)

Figure 7. shows a screen capture of the CLI interface displaying tasks running in H01R00 module along with their running time (i.e., CPU utilization) percentage.

Figure 7: Tasks (threads) running in a Hexabitz module. There are six communication tasks (PxMsgTask), a CLI task (UARTCmd), a DefaultTask, a FrontEndTask and a module-specific task (RGBledTask). IDLE and Tmr Svc are tasks created by FreeRTOS for its internal use.

FATfs

File Allocation Table (FAT) is a system to manage files on storage media. It is used on personal computers and many embedded systems. FATfs is a free, memory-optimized FAT module for small embedded systems. It enables you to read and write files stored on various storage media (e.g., SD/MMC cards, Flash memory, SRAM memory, etc.) and same files can be viewed or modified on personal computers as well. Storage-related modules utilize FATfs as part of their module drivers. FATfs code is highly optimized and difficult to read and understand. As with FreeRTOS, using module drivers effectively relieves the user from understanding FATfs intricacies while utilizing its features. 

3. Bitz Operating System (BOS) - Developed by Hexabitz

BOS is Hexabitz own operating system, built on top of FreeRTOS, and specifically designed to support Hexabitz arrays. It relieves the user from writing code to perform initialization, inter-array communication and housekeeping tasks, among others. BOS also manages the Command Line Interface (CLI)-a simple and intuitive tool for user interaction, as well as non-volatile storage of module and array parameters (and syncing these parameters across the array). Future software releases will introduce more intelligence and automation to let users focus on their end-application and delegate all background activities to the BOS. BOS is an essential part of every Hexabitz software project. Both the BOS and module drivers have the following sub-components:

Routing and Array Topology

The BOS is responsible about routing Messages and Streams within the array. Routing is based on an internal routing table that defines the number of connected modules, their Hexabitz part number and how they are connected to each other, as well as the polarity of each of the serial array ports. The last one is particular important for duplex (two-way) communication. As mentioned before, the default state of all communication (array) ports is to have the transmit pad (TXD) on top and the receive pad (RXD) on bottom in order to offer complete modularity and flexibility in assembling modules. For bidirectional communication to take place, however, you need the TXD line of first module to connect with the RXD line of second module and vice-versa. This is possible by programatically swapping one of these port pins whenever the modules are connected and putting the port back into normal polarity when they are separated.

Routing tables can be generated in two ways:

Every time the array boots up, it verifies its actual connections against the stored routing table so that any topology change can be accounted for. We will provide later a detailed anatomy of a sample topology header file and  instructions on how to generate one.

4. Module Drivers - Developed by Hexabitz

Module drivers provide all module-specific functionality, i.e., all the software needed to use and configure module front-end. Similar to BOS, modules have their own APIs, Messages, Streams and Commands. Each software project is usually created for a single module (because it will be loaded on a single MCU) and thus you should not add another module drivers to the same project. If you have an array of similar modules (e.g., multiple H01R00 modules), you can create a single project and use Targets feature in the software development tool (uVision) to account for the few variations between these modules (e.g., their IDs, etc.) This way you are able to generate, with a single click, firmware images for all modules from that same software project.

5. Command Line Interface (CLI) - Developed by Hexabitz

In order to make the platform easily accessible for non-embedded-programmers, Hexabitz features a Command Line Interface (CLI) based on the core CLI functionality of FreeRTOS. CLI is available at all array ports and can be accessed from any computer (or any device!) running a serial terminal tool. There are plenty of serial terminal tools that are free and require no or minimal drivers installation. We use a free terminal tool called RealTerm but users can use any other similar software as well. All you need to use the CLI is a cable the bridges module UART ports with other common PC communication ports (e.g., USB-RS232 cable).

Commands sent via CLI are executed instantly and thus there is no need to compile any code. Once the command is sent you cannot go back and change it and it is difficult to execute complex logic efficiently in the CLI. It is still, though, a very handy tool to perform quick tests and build small applications without the need to read a single line in the code! We will post later more details about using the CLI.

6. User Applications

As mentioned before, user application ideally reside in the Front-end Task. Users can forget about other threads and develop their own application just like they would do on a single-thread platform (with few exceptions). Confining user application to the Front-end Task makes it practically effortless to upgrade any existing project to use the latest release of Hexabitz BOS and module drivers.

License

All Hexabitz software will be released with MIT license. This means you are free to use our software in your own projects/products for personal or commercial applications. You are not required to open-source your projects/products as a result of using Hexabitz code inside it.

To our best knowledge, all third-party components currently included with Hexabitz software follow similar licenses (MIT, modified GPL, etc.). We will do our best to not include third-party components that require licensing or have restricted open-source terms (i.e., forcing you to open-source your project). There is no guarantee, however, that this does not happen. If we ever include a software component that requires buying a license or one that forces restrictive, open-source terms, we will mention this clearly. We advise you to verify the license of each third-party component with its vendor. 

Disclaimer

HEXABITZ SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE.

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