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Response time guarantees

In many programming languages and operating systems, threads and processes may pause for an unbounded amount of time, as discussed. Those reasons for pausing can be eliminated if you try hard enough.

Some software runs in environments where a failure to respond within a specified time can cause serious damage: computers that control aircraft, rockets, robots, cars, and other physical objects must respond quickly and predictably to their sensor inputs. In these systems, there is a specified deadline by which the software must respond; if it doesn’t meet the deadline, that may cause a failure of the entire system. These are so-called hard real-time systems.

Is real-time really real?

In embedded systems, real-time means that a system is carefully designed and tested to meet specified timing guarantees in all circumstances. This meaning is in contrast to the more vague use of the term real-time on the web, where it describes servers pushing data to clients and stream processing without hard response time constraints (see Chapter 11).

For example, if your car’s onboard sensors detect that you are currently experiencing a crash, you wouldn’t want the release of the airbag to be delayed due to an inopportune GC pause in the airbag release system.

Providing real-time guarantees in a system requires support from all levels of the software stack: a real-time operating system (RTOS) that allows processes to be scheduled with a guaranteed allocation of CPU time in specified intervals is needed; library functions must document their worst-case execution times; dynamic memory allocation may be restricted or disallowed entirely (real-time garbage collectors exist, but the application must still ensure that it doesn’t give the GC too much work to do); and an enormous amount of testing and measurement must be done to ensure that guarantees are being met.

All of this requires a large amount of additional work and severely restricts the range of programming languages, libraries, and tools that can be used (since most languages and tools do not provide real-time guarantees). For these reasons, developing real-time systems is very expensive, and they are most commonly used in safety- critical embedded devices. Moreover, “real-time” is not the same as “high- performance”—in fact, real-time systems may have lower throughput, since they have to prioritize timely responses above all else (see also “Latency and Resource Utilization” on page 286).

For most server-side data processing systems, real-time guarantees are simply not economical or appropriate. Consequently, these systems must suffer the pauses and clock instability that come from operating in a non-real-time environment.

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