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Real Time Operating Systems vs Embedded Linux

Selecting the right operating system (OS) is a critical decision in embedded device design. From smartphones and IoT devices to automotive control systems, embedded devices are omnipresent in our daily lives. As developers consider what type of OS is ideal in their embedded device design, one key consideration is that each embedded device application has its own unique requirements. Selecting between a Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) and Embedded Linux can significantly impact a project’s success. Let’s explore important factors developers need to consider when deciding which OS is optimal for their embedded device design.


Understanding Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS) and Embedded Linux

Before diving into the decision-making process, let's briefly differentiate between an RTOS and Embedded Linux.


Figure 1: Classic architecture of an RTOS.

Source: ResearchGate


What are Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS)?

RTOS based projects are designed to manage tasks with stringent timing requirements. The operating system guarantees that critical tasks will execute within a predefined time frame, making it ideal for applications where timing and predictability are paramount. RTOS based projects typically have a small memory footprint and minimal overhead (Figure 1), allowing them to run on resource-constrained embedded devices.


RTOS Benefits:

  • An RTOS offers precise control over task scheduling, ensuring tasks meet deadlines consistently.

  • Low Latency: It minimizes interrupt latency, making it suitable for applications like automotive control systems and robotics.

  • RTOS consumes minimal memory and processing power, making it suitable for devices with limited resources.

  • Developers can precisely predict how long tasks will take to execute.

  • RTOS based hardware designs can be significantly less expensive than embedded Linux hardware, due to less stringent processor and memory requirements.

RTOS Disadvantages:

  • An RTOS is not well-suited for resource-intensive tasks like running a graphical user interface (GUI) or handling multimedia processing due to its minimalistic nature. In such cases, you may need to offload these tasks to a separate environment, which can be complex and costly.

  • Developing using an RTOS can be challenging, especially for developers who are not familiar with real-time programming concepts. Learning to design and implement tasks with precise timing requirements can take time and effort.

  • RTOS environments typically have a more limited set of software libraries and tools compared to Embedded Linux. This can increase development time and effort when building complex applications.

  • Depending on the chosen RTOS and vendor, long-term support and updates may vary. Some RTOS solutions may not receive regular updates, leaving devices potentially vulnerable to security threats.

  • Scaling an application built on an RTOS to accommodate additional features or functionalities can be challenging. Expanding the capabilities of an RTOS-based device may require a significant overhaul of the software architecture.

Figure 2: Basic embedded Linux system architecture.

Source: UC Geeks


What is Embedded Linux?

Embedded Linux is a full-fledged operating system based on the Linux kernel tailored for embedded applications. It provides a rich environment with extensive software libraries and tools (Figure 2), which can be advantageous for complex applications. Embedded Linux is highly configurable, making it adaptable to a wide range of hardware platforms.


Embedded Linux Benefits:

  • It offers access to a vast array of software components and libraries, simplifying application development.

  • It has robust networking capabilities, making it ideal for IoT and connected devices.

  • Embedded Linux benefits from a large and active open-source community, ensuring continuous updates and support.

Disadvantages of Embedded Linux:

  • Embedded Linux has higher resource requirements compared to RTOS. Devices with limited processing power, memory, or storage may struggle to run Embedded Linux efficiently, potentially leading to suboptimal performance.

  • Embedded Linux typically has longer boot times compared to RTOS, which can be problematic for devices requiring quick startup or immediate responsiveness.

  • The richness of Embedded Linux can be a double-edged sword. While it offers a wide range of features and software components, it also introduces complexity. Managing the complexity of a full-fledged OS can be challenging and may require more development time and expertise.

  • Unlike an RTOS, which can offer deterministic and predictable response times, the behavior of Embedded Linux can be less predictable due to background processes and system activities. This variability may not be suitable for applications with strict real-time requirements.

  • Although Embedded Linux offers robust security features, it may also introduce additional attack vectors and vulnerabilities due to its complexity. Ensuring the security of an Embedded Linux-based device requires careful configuration and regular updates.

  • While the Linux kernel itself is open-source, some components of an Embedded Linux distribution may be subject to licensing fees, depending on the specific distribution and use case.

  • Factors to Consider When Choosing an Operating System

Now that we have a basic understanding of an RTOS and Embedded Linux, let's delve into the key factors to consider when deciding which OS to use for your embedded device.


1. Application Requirements

The most critical factor in making this decision is the specific requirements of your embedded application. If your device requires precise control over task execution and low-latency responses, an RTOS is the way to go. For applications that demand a rich feature set, such as graphical user interfaces, web connectivity, and multimedia support, Embedded Linux provides a more comprehensive environment.


2. Development Resources and Expertise

If your team has experience with real-time systems, you might be more comfortable with an RTOS, as it requires specialized knowledge in real-time scheduling and embedded programming. A team well-versed in Linux development will find it easier to leverage Embedded Linux's extensive ecosystem.


3. Hardware Platform

Evaluate the device's CPU, memory, and storage capabilities. Ensure they align with the OS's requirements. Devices with limited memory and processing power may struggle to run Embedded Linux efficiently, making RTOS a more suitable choice.


4. Longevity and Maintenance

Developers should consider the longevity that their designs require. Embedded Linux typically has a longer lifecycle due to its active open-source community and continuous updates. RTOS solutions may vary in terms of long-term support. Embedded Linux offers robust security mechanisms and regular updates.


5. Licensing and Cost

Embedded Linux is often open source, reducing licensing costs. RTOS solutions may involve licensing fees, depending on the vendor.


Making the Decision Between RTOS and Embedded Linux For Your Embedded Device Design

Ultimately, the choice between an RTOS and Embedded Linux for your embedded device should align with your application's specific requirements, development resources, and hardware constraints. In some cases, a hybrid approach, combining RTOS for critical real-time tasks with Embedded Linux for non-real-time functionalities, may be the optimal solution.

Before making a final decision, thoroughly analyze your project's needs, perform prototyping and feasibility studies, and engage with your development team to ensure a well-informed choice. Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and the success of your embedded project depends on selecting the OS that best suits your unique set of requirements and constraints.


In conclusion, the decision to use an RTOS or Embedded Linux in an embedded device is a critical one that requires careful consideration of various factors. By assessing your application's requirements, available resources, hardware platform, long-term maintenance needs, and cost considerations, you can make an informed choice that will set the foundation for a successful embedded project.


Still have questions? Our team of engineers are experts in embedded designs utilizing either embedded Linux or an RTOS and are uniquely positioned to help you determine which OS will optimize your project. For more information, contact Connected Development today!


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