Task Synchronisation

Synchronisation is an everyday event, both in the real-world and the computer program. For example meeting a friend for a coffee requires synchronisation, in that both parties need to arrive within a given timeframe to make the event worthwhile (sometimes referred to as a rendezvous – however this tends to have more romantic implications). Alternatively, receiving a PO via fax is a form of synchronisation. The company waiting on the PO will-not/cannot start working on the project until this event occurs. Finally, in an automated robot manufacturing system, the movement and work done by each robot must be synchronised with each other and in conjunction with the actual production line.
In the field of embedded systems’ software there are also many requirements for synchronisation with a program. In multi-tasking system using a RTOS examples are:
  • Asynchronous device driver where we are dealing with slow devices. We don’t necessarily want tasks blocked waiting on the device.
  • At system start-up, many RTOSs start tasks as active (ready to run). We may have an ordering dependency for execution (e.g. initialisation of global resources) where all tasks must wait for a given condition (the concept of a barrier which can be very important in multi-processor systems).
  • Having a managed task abort notification, rather than deleting tasks (which can lead to resource issues). Similar in concept to the UNIX/Linux kill signal. Also used to manage task pools.
The definition of synchronisation found on dictionary.com is:
  1. the relation that exists when things occur at the same time; “the drug produces an increased synchrony of the brain waves” [syn: synchronism] [ant: asynchronism]
  2. an adjustment that causes something to occur or recur in unison [syn: synchronization]
  3. coordinating by causing to indicate the same time; “the synchronization of their watches was an important preliminary” [syn: synchronization]
So synchronisation is about making sure event happen at the same time (as in a common clock in communications systems) as opposed to asynchronous which means not happen at the same time. Unfortunately, as we shall see, most texts related to RTOS descriptions misuse/misunderstand this term.

It should be noted that synchronisation and mutual exclusion often get lumped together and confused. Mutual exclusion is about making sure thing don’t happen at the same time, whereas synchronisation is about making sure they do.

In regard to task synchronisation there four classes of interaction we need to address:

  1. one-to-one – only two task synchronising
  2. one-to-many
  3. many-to-one
  4. many-to-many

Initially we address the condition where only two tasks are synchronising.

In the simplest case of synchronisation, we have two tasks (Task1 and Task2) that need to synchronise their execution.
  • Task2 runs until it reaches the synchronisation point as defined by an RTOS synchronisation object (SO), at which point it waits for Task1
  • Task1 now runs and reaches the synchronisation point, signals Task2 via the SO. Both tasks are now ready to run.
  • The higher priority task now continues execution and the lower priority task is made ready (If the tasks are of equal priority typically Task1 will continue as this avoids a context switch).

We can now say that Task1 and Task2 have synchronized their threads of execution.

However, what should the behavior be if Task1 arrives first? In terms of the dictionary definition of synchronisation, Task1 should wait for Task2. Unfortunately, with most RTOSs this is not the case and Task1 will continue execution without blocking. This means we need to further refine our definition of synchronisation to include the concepts of:
  • Symmetric or Bilateral Synchronisation
  • Asymmetric or Unilateral Synchronisation
Bilateral synchronisation is the condition when whichever task arrives first it waits for the other one. This is often called the Rendezvous (as support by the Ada programming language). Surprisingly this is rarely supported by the majority of RTOSs. One limitation of bilateral synchronisation is that it cannot be used for ISR-to-task synchronisation (as an ISRs must never block).
Unilateral Synchronisation, which feels like a paradox, is the case where:
  • if Task2 arrives at the SO first it will wait for Task1, and then synchronisation with Task1 when it arrives
  • if Task1 arrives at the SO first it will not wait for Task2, thus unilateral synchronisation.


When reading literature associated with RTOSs and synchronisation, this is the most commonly described model (e.g. Li, 2003).
This, however, brings us yet another dilemma; what happens when Task2 now reaches the synchronisation point (assuming Task1 has already passed the synchronisation point)? Does Task2 block and wait for Task1, or does it see that Task1 has already visited to SO and continue? Or to put it another way, is the notification of synchronisation to the synch object from Task1 persistent or non-persistent?
In a non-persistent model, the fact that Task1 has already passed the synchronisation point is not remembered, therefore Task2 blocks until Task1 signals again . Due to how most RTOSs actually support unilateral synchronisation (discussed later), this, like bilateral synchronisation, is also an uncommon model. Interestingly, Win32 supports this model using a concept called a PulseEvent. If no tasks are waiting when the PulseEvent is called then the event is discarded.
The key to this model is that the fact that Task1 has already signalled the SO (passed the synchronisation point) is remembered. When Task2 arrives at the synchronisation point is doesn’t block, but continues (this particular use case is actually asynchronous event notification).

However, we have yet another dichotomy; does Task2 consumes the signal Task1 has set (auto-reset) or does Task1 clear the signal (manual-reset) at some later time.

In the consuming model, if Task2 now arrives back at the SO and waits, it will block until again signalled by Task1. In the manual-reset model, Task2 will continue to pass the synchronisation point until Task1 (or indeed Task2) explicitly clears the signal (normally with a separate API call).

Finally, in the consuming model what happens if Task1 signals the SO more than once before Task2 arrives at the synchronisation point, and therefore the original signal has not been consumed? One model is there is no effect, the signal remains set and is consumed when Task2 arrives (binary model). The alternative is that a count is kept of the number of signals set by Task1. Each time Task2 waits on the SO this count is decremented, and Task2 will only block if the count is zero.

So we can classify RTOS synchronisation into the following:

In the next posting I shall be looking at synchronisation involving more than two tasks and then following that one by examining some actual RTOSs and their support for synchronisation.

Niall Cooling
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Co-Founder and Director of Feabhas since 1995.
Niall has been designing and programming embedded systems for over 30 years. He has worked in different sectors, including aerospace, telecomms, government and banking.
His current interest lie in IoT Security and Agile for Embedded Systems.

About Niall Cooling

Co-Founder and Director of Feabhas since 1995. Niall has been designing and programming embedded systems for over 30 years. He has worked in different sectors, including aerospace, telecomms, government and banking. His current interest lie in IoT Security and Agile for Embedded Systems.
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3 Responses to Task Synchronisation

  1. Boudewijn says:

    You neglected to mention the most intuitive way of synchronisation: messages. In the case of the asynchronous device driver, all the user has to do is send a request message to the driver and decide how long to wait for a reply (if at all).

    No need to pick one behavioural model and hope it suits your needs, just specify the transactions directly.

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  2. Pete says:

    "Bilateral synchronisation is the condition when whichever task arrives first it waits for the other one" ... "Surprisingly this is rarely supported by the majority of RTOSs."

    Any reason why you can't do bilateral synchronisation with semaphores in the usual way? Namely, with two of them:

    // Task 1:

    // Task 2:

    See 'the little book of semaphores' for details.

    (it's free in pdf format from http://www.greenteapress.com/semaphores/).

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  3. Pingback: Cocoa edge case – dev blog by Krzysztof Profic | Concurrency and Threading on iOS #4 – Task synchronisation

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