Code Craft: Subtle Interrupt Problems Stack Up

[Elliot Williams’] column, Embed with Elliot, just did a great series on interrupts. It came in three parts, illustrating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of using interrupts on embedded systems. More than a few memories floated by while reading it. Some pretty painful because debugging interrupt problems can be a nightmare.

One of the things I’ve learned to watch out for over the years is the subtlety of stack based languages, like C/C++, which can ensnare the unwary. This problem has to do with the corruption of arrays of values on a stack during interrupt handling. The fix for this problem points up another one often used by black hats to gain access to systems.

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Embed with Elliot: Interrupts, the Ugly

Welcome to part three of “Interrupts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. We’ve already professed our love for interrupts, showing how they are useful for solving multiple common microcontroller tasks with aplomb. That was surely Good. And then we dipped into some of the scheduling and priority problems that can crop up, especially if your interrupt service routines (ISRs) run for too long, or do more than they should. That was Bad, but we can combat those problems by writing lightweight ISRs.

This installment, for better or worse, uncovers our least favorite side effect of running interrupts on a small microcontroller, and that is that your assumptions about what your code is doing can be wrong, and sometimes with disastrous consequences. It’s gonna get Ugly

TL;DR: Once you’ve started changing variables from inside interrupts, you can no longer count on their values staying constant — you never know when the interrupt is going to strike! Murphy’s law says that it will hit at the worst times. The solution is to temporarily turn off interrupts for critical blocks of code, so that your own ISRs can’t pull the rug out from under your feet. (Sounds easy, but read on!)
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Embed With Elliot: Interrupts, the Bad

We love interrupts in our microcontroller projects. If you aren’t already convinced, go read the first installment in this series where we covered the best aspects of interrupts.

But everything is not sunshine and daffodils. Interrupts take place outside of the normal program flow, and indeed preempt it. The microcontroller will put down whatever code it’s running and go off to run your ISR every time the triggering event happens. That power is great when you need it, but recall with Spider-Man’s mantra: With great power comes great responsibility. It’s your responsibility to design for the implicit high priority of ISRs, and to make sure that your main code can still get its work done in between interrupt calls.

Put another way, adding interrupts in your microcontroller code introduces issues of scheduling and prioritization that you didn’t have to deal with before. Let’s have a look at that aspect now, and we’ll put off the truly gruesome side-effects of using interrupts until next time.

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Embed with Elliot: Interrupts, The Good…

What’s the biggest difference between writing code for your big computer and a microcontroller? OK, the memory and limited resources, sure. But we were thinking more about the need to directly interface with hardware. And for that purpose, one of the most useful, and naturally also dangerous, tools in your embedded toolchest is the interrupt.

Interrupts do exactly what it sounds like they do — they interrupt the normal flow of your program’s operation when something happens — and run another chunk of code (an interrupt service routine, or ISR) instead. When the ISR is done, the microcontroller picks up exactly where it left off in your main flow.

Say you’ve tied your microcontroller to an accelerometer, and that accelerometer has a “data ready” pin that is set high when it has a new sample ready to read. You can wire that pin to an input on the microcontroller that’s interrupt-capable, write an ISR to handle the accelerometer data, and configure the microcontroller’s interrupt system to run that code when the accelerometer has new data ready. And from then on everything accelerometer-related happens automagically! (In theory.)

This is the first part of a three-part series: Interrupts, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In this column, we’ll focus on how interrupts work and how to get the most out of them: The Good. The second column will deal with the hazards of heavyweight interrupt routines, priority mismatches, and main loop starvation: the Bad side of interrupts. Finally, we’ll cover some of the downright tricky bugs that can crop up when using interrupts, mainly due to a failure of atomicity, that can result in logical failures and corrupted data; that’s certainly Ugly.

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3D Spectrum Analyzer uses 1280 LEDs

One of [Dooievriend]’s friends recently pressed him into service to write software for a 3d spectrum analyzer/VU that he made. The VU is a fairly complex build: it’s made up of 1280 LEDs in a 16x16x5 matrix controlled by a PIC32 clocked at 80MHz. [Dooievriend] wrote some firmware for the PIC that uses a variation on a discrete Fourier transform to create a 3D VU effect.

j6v2i When [Dooievriend] set out to design the audio analyzing portion of the firmware, his mind jumped to the discrete Fourier transform. This transform calculates the amplitude in a series of frequency bins in the audio—seemingly perfect for a VU. However, after some more research, [Dooievriend] decided to implement a constant Q transform. This transform is very similar to a Fourier transform, but it takes into account the logarithmic way that the human ear interprets sound.

[Dooievriend] started implementing the constant Q transform using an interrupt-based sampler, but he quickly ran into issues with slow floating-point math on his PIC32 (which doesn’t have a hardware floating-point unit). Thankfully he rewrote his code using fixed-point math, and the transform runs nearly real-time. Check out the video after the break to see the VU in action, and a second video that gives some details on the hardware build.

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Arduino SPI Library Gains Transaction Support

Transaction SPI Timing
Transaction SPI Timing

To prevent data corruption when using multiple SPI devices on the same bus, care must be taken to ensure that they are only accessed from within the main loop, or from the interrupt routine, never both. Data corruption can happen when one device is chip selected in the main loop, and then during that transfer an interrupt occurs, chip selecting another device. The original device now gets incorrect data.

For the last several weeks, [Paul] has been working on a new Arduino SPI library, to solve these types of conflicts. In the above scenario, the new library will generate a blocking SPI transaction, thus allowing the first main loop SPI transfer to complete, before attempting the second transfer. This is illustrated in the picture above, the blue trace rising edge is when the interrupt occurred, during the green trace chip select. The best part, it only affects SPI, your other interrupts will still happen on time. No servo jitter!

This is just one of the new library features, check out the link above for the rest. [Paul] sums it up best: “protects your SPI access from other interrupt-based libraries, and guarantees correct setting while you use the SPI bus”.

Veronica 6502 computer reaches Hello World stage


The screenshot on the right shows [Quinn Dunki’s] computer project displaying a Hello World program. Well, it’s only showing the word Hello right now, but the concept is the same. This proves that native 6502 code is running on the processor and reliably outputting data through its VGA hardware. That’s a welcome achievement after watching so much work go into this project.

But with anything this complex you can’t expect to make progress without finding bugs. And this step in the journey had a pretty big one in store for [Quinn]. After writing the assembly code and loading it into the machine she was dismayed to find that there were dropped characters all over the place. Now she shows a screenshot and says it’s easily recognizable as a race condition — proving she has a bigger brain than us.

The problem is a pair of uninterruptible processes running on the same AVR chip (part of the GPU she built). They are fighting with each other for control of the processor cycles and she fixed it by making the daughter board seen in the image above. It moves one of the time-critical processes out of that single AVR chip to fix the issue by using an IDT7200L FIFO SRAM chip.