Orocos Operating System Abstraction


Feb 6, 2010


Real-time OS Abstraction

The OS layer makes an abstraction of the operating system on which it runs. It provides C++ interfaces to only the minimal set of operating system primitives that it needs: time reading, mutexes, semaphores, condition variables and threads. The abstraction also allows OROCOS users to build their software on all supported systems with only a recompilation step. The OS Abstraction layer is not directly being used by the application writer.

The abstractions cause (almost) no execution overhead, because the wrappers can be called in-line. See the OROBLD_OS_AGNOSTIC option in CMake build tool to control in-lining.

The Operating System Interface


Keeping the OROCOS core portable requires an extra abstraction of some operating system (OS) functionalities. For example, a thread can be created, started, paused, scheduled, etc., but each OS uses other function calls to do this. OROCOS prefers C++ interfaces, which led to the RTT::os::ThreadInterface which allows control and provides information about a thread in OROCOS.

Two thread classes are available in OROCOS: RTT::os::Thread houses our thread implementation. The RTT::os::MainThread is a special case as only one such object exists and represents the thread that executes the main() function.

This drawing situates the Operating System abstraction with respect to device driver interfacing (DI) and the rest of OROCOS

OS directory Structure

The OS directory contains C++ classes to access Operating System functionality, like creating threads or signaling semaphores. Two kinds of subdirectories are used: the CPU architecture (i386, powerpc, x86_64) and the Operating System (gnulinux, xenomai, lxrt), or target.

The RTAI/LXRT OS target

RTAI/LXRT is an environment that allows user programs to run with real-time determinism next to the normal programs. The advantage is that the real-time application can use normal system libraries for its functioning, like showing a graphical user interface.

An introduction to RTAI/LXRT can be found in the Porting to LXRT HOWTO, which is a must-read if you don’t know what LXRT is.

The common rule when using LXRT is that any user space (GNU/Linux) library can be used and any header included as long as their non-real-time functions are not called from within a hard real-time thread. Specifically, this means that all the RTAI (and Orocos) OS functions, but not the native Linux ones, may be called from within a hard real-time thread. Fortunately these system calls can be done from a not hard real-time thread within the same program.

Porting Orocos to other Architectures / OSes

The OS directory is the only part of the Real-Time Toolkit that needs to be ported to other Operating Systems or processor architectures in case the target supports Standard C++. The os directory contains code common to all OSes. The oro_arch directories contain the architecture dependent headers (for example atomic counters and compare-and-swap ).

In order to start your port, look at the fosi_interface.h and fosi_internal_interface.hpp files in the os directory. These two files list the C/C++ function signatures of all to be ported functions in order to support a new Operating System. The main categories are: time reading, mutexes, semaphores and threads. The easiest way to port Orocos to another operating system, is to copy the gnulinux directory into a new directory and start modifying the functions to match those in your OS.

OS Header Files

The following table gives a short overview of the available headers in the os directory.


Which file to include


OS functionality


Include this file if you want to make system calls to the underlying operating system ( LXRT, GNU/Linux ) .

OS Abstraction classes

Mutex.hpp, MutexLock.hpp, Semaphore.hpp, PeriodicThread.hpp, SingleThread.hpp, main.h

The available C++ OS primitives. main.h is required to be included in your ORO_main() program file.

Table: Header Files

Using Threads and Real-time Execution of Your Program

Writing the Program main()

All tasks in the real-time system have to be performed by some thread. The OS abstraction expects an int ORO_main(int argc, char** argv) function (which the user has written) and will call that after all system initialisation has been done. Inside ORO_main() the user may expect that the system is properly set up and can be used. The resulting orocos-rtt library will contain the real main() function which will call the ORO_main() function.


Do not forget to include <rtt/os/main.h> in the main program file, or the linker will not find the ORO_main function.


Using global objects ( or static class members ) which use the OS functions before ORO_main() is entered (because they are constructed before main() ), can come into conflict with an uninitialised system. It is therefor advised not to use static global objects which use the OS primitives. Events in the CoreLib are an example of objects which should not be constructed as global static. You can use dynamically created (i.e. created with new ) global events instead.

The Orocos Thread


An OROCOS thread by the RTT::os::Thread class. The most common operations are start(), stop() and setting the periodicity. What is executed is defined in an user object which implements the RTT::os::RunnableInterface. It contains three methods : initialize(), step() and finalize(). You can inherit from this interface to implement your own functionality. In initialize(), you put the code that has to be executed once when the component is start()’ed. In step(), you put the instructions that must be executed periodically. In finalize(), you put the instructions that must be executed right after the last step() when the component is stop()’ed.

However, you are encouraged NOT to use the OS classes! The Core Primitives use these classes as a basis to provide a more fundamental activity-based (as opposite to thread based) execution mechanism which will insert your periodic activities in a periodic thread.

Common uses of periodic threads are :

  • Running periodic control tasks.

  • Fetching periodic progress reports.

  • Running the CoreLib periodic tasks.

A special function is forseen when the Thread executes non periodically (ie getPeriod() == 0): loop(), which is executed instead of step and in which it is allowed to not return (for a long time).

The user himself is responsible for providing a mechanism to return from the loop() function. The Thread expects this mechanism to be implemented in the breakLoop() function, which must return true if the loop() function could be signaled to return. Thread will call breakLoop() in its stop() method if loop() is still being executed and, if successful, will wait until loop() returns. The Thread::isRunning() function can be used to check if loop() is being executed or not.


The RTT::Activity provides a better integrated implementation for SingleThread and should be favourably used.

Common uses of non periodic threads are :

  • Listening for data on a network socket.

  • Reading a file or files from hard-disk.

  • Waiting for user input.

  • Execute a lengthy calculation.

  • React to asynchronous events.

Setting the Scheduler and Priorities.

The Orocos thread priorities are set during thread construction time and can be changed later on with setPriority. Priorities are integer numbers which are passed directly to the underlying OS. One can use priorities portably by using the RTT::os::LowestPriority, RTT::os::HighestPriority and RTT::os::IncreasePriority variables which are defined for each OS.

OSes that support multiple schedulers can use the setScheduler function to influence the scheduling policy of a given thread. Orocos guarantees that the ORO_SCHED_RT and ORO_SCHED_OTHER variables are defined and can be used portably. The former `hints’ a real-time scheduling policy, while the latter `hints’ a not real-time scheduling policy. Each OS may define additional variables which map more appropriately to its scheduler policies. When only one scheduling policy is available, both variables map to the same scheduler.

ThreadScope: Oscilloscope Monitoring of Orocos Threads

You can configure the OS layer at compilation time using CMake to report thread execution as block-waves on the parallel port or any other digital output device. Monitoring through the parallel port requires that a parallel port Device Driver is installed, and for Linux based OSes, that you execute the Orocos program as root.

If the Logger is active, it will log the mapping of Threads to the device’s output pins to the orocos.log file. Just before step() is entered, the pin will be set high, and when step() is left, the pin is set low again. From within any RTT activity function, you may then additionally use the ThreadScope driver as such :

  RTT::DigitalOutInterface* pp = DigitalOutInterface::nameserver.getObject("ThreadScope");
if ( pp )
    pp->setBit( this->getTask()->thread()->threadNumber(), value );

which sets the corresponding bit to a boolean value. The main thread claims pin zero, the other pins are assigned incrementally as each new Orocos thread is created.

Synchronisation Primitives

Orocos OS only provides a few synchronisation primitives, mainly for guarding critical sections.


There are two kinds of Mutexes : RTT::os::Mutex and RTT::os::MutexRecursive. To lock a mutex, it has a method lock(), to unlock, the method is unlock() and to try to lock, it is trylock(). A lock() and trylock() on a recursive mutex from the same thread will always succeed, otherwise, it blocks.

For ease of use, there is a RTT::os::MutexLock which gets a Mutex as argument in the constructor. As long as the MutexLock object exists, the given Mutex is locked. This is called a scoped lock.

The first listing shows a complete lock over a function :

RTT::os::Mutex m;
void foo() {
   int i;
   RTT::os::MutexLock lock(m);
   // m is locked.
   // ...
} // when leaving foo(), m is unlocked.

Any scope is valid, so if the critical section is smaller than the size of the function, you can :

RTT::os::Mutex m;
void bar() {
   int i;
   // non critical section
      RTT::os::MutexLock lock(m);
      // m is locked.
      // critical section
   } //  m is unlocked.
   // non critical section

Signals and Semaphores

Orocos provides a C++ semaphore abstraction class RTT::os::Semaphore. It is used mainly for non periodic, blocking tasks or threads. The higher level Event implementation in CoreLib can be used for thread safe signalling and data exchange in periodic tasks.

RTT::os::Semaphore sem(0); // initial value is zero.
void foo() {
   // Wait on sem, decrement value (blocking ):
   // awake : another thread did signal().

   // Signal sem, increment value (non blocking):

   // try wait on sem (non blocking):
   bool result = sem.trywait();
   if (result == false ) {
       // sem.value() was zero
   } else {
       // sem.value() was non-zero and is now decremented.

Compare And Swap ( CAS )

CAS is a fundamental building block of the CoreLib classes for inter-thread communication and must be implemented for each OS target. See the Lock-Free sections of the CoreLib manual for Orocos classes which use this primitive.