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Real-Time Java: An Introduction

by Peter Mikhalenko
05/10/2006

I've worked in investment banking for several years and my experience suggests that most problems in financial software arise from the lack of real-time support. Many large financial IT systems use a Java platform, and even an unplanned two-second stop for full garbage collection in an application can cause a loss of tens of thousands of dollars. The situation is worsened by the fact that garbage collections usually occur during a high-application activity, when the app is especially sensitive to any breaks in execution. The same situation occurs in other high-tech and production industries, which is why they are taking a careful look at real-time Java specification and its implementations.

Java and real-time--some might think that these words are from separate contexts, but actually one of the oldest JSRs (JSR number 1, to be exact) is about a real-time extension for the Java platform. However, order of submission does not guarantee order of implementation. The fact that Sun implemented it only recently does not mean it's a low-priority feature; it's actually a very complicated and thorough piece of work. But are real-time requirements compatible with the Java religion? Many issues must be addressed, such as GC semantics, synchronization, thread scheduling, and high-resolution time management. In this article, I will shed some light on them.

What does "real time" mean?

According to Greg Bollella, a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems and one of the authors of the real-time Java specification, real time means "the ability to reliably and predictably reason about and control the temporal behavior of program logic." Real time does not mean "fast," as many developers might think; it means predictable and reliable when a reaction to real-world events is required. The real-time computer will always respond before a particular deadline that you've assigned it. Depending on how you set your deadlines, numerous systems could be called real-time.

A large domain of applications cannot afford delaying even for one second; this domain includes, as mentioned earlier, many financial applications, on-board aircraft software, nuclear power plant software, and more. So this is all not about speed, although real-time platform designers did their best to make it fast. Obviously, the standard Java platform does not meet the needs of real-time systems, and this is addressed in the license agreement accompanying J2SE and J2EE packages, which explicitly states that Java cannot be used in nuclear power plant software, defense systems, etc.

Real-time Java

Real-time application development requires an API set and semantics that allow developers to correctly control the temporal behavior of application, i.e., how it will behave in real-world time. A real-time edition of Java must therefore provide some semantic JVM enhancements and a new API set appropriate for real-time applications. It is not surprising that the main obstacle in achieving real-time characteristics for Java is its garbage collector. A real-time garbage collector became a revolutionary and central component of Sun's recently-released Java real-time edition RTS 1.0, although its first implementation does not include one (it is expected in the next release). Java RTS addresses other issues, making strong deterministic guarantees for thread scheduling, synchronization overhead, lock queuing order, class initialization, and maximum interrupt response latency. Java RTS is intended only for suitable underlying operating systems, which means that only a real-time operating system, such as QNX, is appropriate for implementing the JVM.

The first official commercial implementation of the real-time Java specification is implemented for Solaris 10, works on UltraSparc hardware, and requires a J2SE 1.4.1 as a base. Future releases will support Java 5 and some other platforms. Sun Java Real-Time System is already being used by the U.S. Navy, Raytheon, and Boeing. Of course Sun Java RTS 1.0 is not the first real-time implementation of Java; some real-time features were implemented previously by embedded systems vendors, but their implementations covered only specific needs and did not conform to JSR-1 specification. The Java RTS is good news for developers who use Java as a main platform for any reason, but need a real-time JVM.

Okay, this all sounds good, but what does it mean from a developer point of view, and what will be required to adapt existing applications to an RTS API? Will it allow us to get rid of the main problem--unpredictable garbage collection pauses? Unfortunately, I must disappoint you: it's not that easy. Simply installing an RTS extension and renaming java.lang.Thread instances to javax.realtime.RealtimeThread will not turn the application into a real-time app.

However, this is a good start; with that change you will get a revolutionary real-time garbage collection. It's also worth mentioning that existing J2SE application will successfully run under Java RTS because the RTSJ specification only restricts the semantics of the JLS and JVM specification to a subset; it does not allow syntactic extensions which could break existing applications.

To make the real-time garbage collector predictable, you should understand how your program demands memory from the heap, because the garbage collector and your program both use it. The program makes garbage, the garbage collector turns garbage into free memory, and they have to interact in the heap. Since they can't do that at the same time, there must be some "synchronization" between the two. Thus, you have to tell the garbage collector something about how fast your program will create garbage so it knows how fast it must collect it. Getting that number can be somewhat tricky, but you must consider memory, no matter what you do.

If running in RealtimeThread is not enough, and after reworking the code, the GC pauses are still too long or unpredictable, you might use an execution context other than RealtimeThread, such as javax.realtime.NoHeapRealtimeThread. It achieves predictability by using memory other than the regular Java heap, such as immortal and scoped memory, which will be discussed below. Getting predictability surely requires trade-offs; typically, you sacrifice average throughput performance.

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