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Decrease RAM Footprint and Accelerate Execution with FreeRTOS Notifications


Queues and semaphores are textbook features provided by all operating systems. Developers new to FreeRTOS use them because they are familiar with them. In most use cases, though, FreeRTOS direct-to-task notifications provide a smaller and up to 45% faster alternative to semaphores, and FreeRTOS message buffers and stream buffers provide a smaller and faster alternative to queues. This blog describes how to use direct-to-task-notifications in place of semaphores to create smaller and faster applications.

Well-architected FreeRTOS applications rarely need to use semaphores.


FreeRTOS V1.2.0, released in 2002, introduced semaphore functionality by implementing the semaphore API as a set of macros that call the queue API. That design choice had the advantage of adding semaphore functionality without increasing the code size (important when Flash memory sizes were typically smaller than today), but it had the disadvantage of making semaphores atypically heavy objects because they inherit all the queue’s comprehensive functionality. For example, queues are truly thread and priority aware, include an event mechanism and priority ordered lists of tasks waiting to send to and receive from the queue. Some semaphore use cases benefit from that comprehensive functionality, but the most common semaphore use cases don’t require it. So when looking for a lean event mechanism for use by driver libraries, we opted not to re-write the semaphore code, but instead to create a new primitive explicitly designed for those most common use cases. That primitive is direct-to-task notifications – from here on, referred to only as ‘notifications’.

What are direct-to-task notifications?

Most inter-task communication methods go through intermediary objects, such as a queue, semaphore, or event group. The sending task writes to the communication object, and the receiving task reads from the communication object. When using a direct-to-task notification, as the name implies, the sending task sends a notification directly to the receiving task, without an intermediary object.

Figure 1: Communicating through an intermediary object

Figure 2: Communicating without an intermediary object

Beginning with FreeRTOS V10.4.0, each task has an array of notifications. Before that, each task had a single notification. Each notification comprises a 32-bit value and a Boolean state, which together consume just 5 bytes of RAM.

Just as a task can block on a binary semaphore to wait for that semaphore to become ‘available’, a task can block on a notification to wait for that notification’s state to become ‘pending’. Likewise, just as a task can block on a counting semaphore to wait for that semaphore’s count to become non-zero, a task can block on a notification to wait for that notification’s value to become non-zero. The first example below demonstrates that scenario.

Notifications can do more than communicate events, they can also communicate data in a variety of ways. The second example below demonstrates how to use a notification to send a 32-bit value.

Example of using a notification to synchronise an interrupt with a task

Listing 1 below shows the structure of the task that is blocking on a notification. If the task blocked on a semaphore, then it would call the xSemaphoreTake() API function, but as the task is using a notification, it instead calls the ulTaskNotifyTake() API function. ulTaskNotifyTake() always uses the notification at index 0. Use ulTaskNotifyTakeIndexed() in place of ulTaskNotifyTake() to use a notification at any specific array index.

static void vNotifiedTask( void *pvParameters )
for( ;; )
/* Wait to receive a notification sent directly to this task.

The first parameter is set to pdFALSE, which makes the call

replicate the behavior of a counting semaphore. Set the

parameter to pdTRUE to replicate the behavior of a binary

semaphore. The second parameter is set to portMAX_DELAY,

which makes the task block indefinitely to wait for the

notification. That is done to simplify the example – real

applications should not block indefinitely as that prevents

the task recovering from error conditions. */

if( ulTaskNotifyTake( pdFALSE, portMAX_DELAY ) != 0 )
/* The task received a notification – do whatever is

necessary to process the received event. */

Listing 1

Listing 2 shows the structure of an interrupt that is sending a notification.

static uint32_t vNotifyingISR( void )
BaseType_t xHigherPriorityTaskWoken;

/* The xHigherPriorityTaskWoken parameter must be initialized

to pdFALSE as it will get set to pdTRUE inside the interrupt

safe API function if calling the API function unblocks a task

that has a higher priority than the task in the running state

(the task this ISR interrupted). */

xHigherPriorityTaskWoken = pdFALSE;

/* Send a notification directly to the task that will perform

any processing necessitated by this interrupt. */

vTaskNotifyGiveFromISR( /* The handle of the task to which

the notification is being sent. */

&xHigherPriorityTaskWoken );

/* If xHigherPriorityTaskWoken is now pdTRUE then calling

portYIELD_FROM_ISR() will result in a context switch, and

this interrupt will return directly to the unblocked task.

The FAQ “why is there a separate API for use in interrupts”

describes why it is done this way. */

portYIELD_FROM_ISR( xHigherPriorityTaskWoken );
Listing 2

Example of using a notification to send a value from an ISR to a task

This next example extends notification usage beyond simply replicating semaphore behavior by demonstrating how to send data with a notification. Sending data has minimal additional overhead.

Listing 3 shows the structure of a function that returns the result of an analog to digital (ADC) conversion. The task that calls the function waits for the conversion result in the Blocked state, so it is not consuming any CPU cycles. The result is sent to it from the conversion end interrupt service routine (ISR). This scenario requires the use of the slightly more complex xTaskNotify() and xTaskNotifyWait() API functions. As before, xTaskNotify() and xTaskNotifyWait() operate on the notification at index 0 of the notification array. Use xTaskNotifyIndexed() and xTaskNotifyWaitIndexed() to operate on any specific index in the array.


/* Holds the handle of a task to notify when an ADC conversion

ends on any given ADC channel. */

static TaskHandle_t xBlockedTasks[ MAX_ADC_CHANNELS ] = { 0 };

ErrorCode_t xGetADC( uint8_t ucChannel,
uint32_t *pulConversionResult )
ErrorCode_t xErrorCode = SUCCESS;

/* Check the ADC channel is not already in use. */
if( xBlockedTasks[ ucChannel ] != NULL )
/* A task is already waiting for a result from

this channel. */

xErrorCode = CHANNEL_IN_USE;
/* Store the handle of the calling task so it can

be notified when the conversion is complete. This

is cleared back to NULL by the conversion end

interrupt. */

xBlockedTasks[ ucChannel ] = xTaskGetCurrentTaskHandle();

if( xErrorCode == SUCCESS )
/* Ensure the calling task does not already have a

notification pending. xTaskNotifyStateClear() clears

the state of the notification at array index 0. Use

xTaskNotifyStateClearIndexed() to clear the state of

a notification at a specific array index. */

xTaskNotifyStateClear( NULL );

/* Start the ADC conversion. */
StartADCConversion( ucChannel );

/* Block to wait for the conversion result. */
xResult = xTaskNotifyWait(
/* The new ADC value will overwrite the old

value, so there is no need to clear any bits

before or after waiting for the new

notification value. */

/* The address of the variable in which to

store the result. */

/* Wait indefinitely. Again this is only done

to keep the example simple. Production code

should never block indefinitely as doing so

prevents the task from recovering from

errors. */

portMAX_DELAY );

/* If not using an infinite block time then check xResult

to see why xTaskNotifyWait() returned. Production code

should not use an infinite block time as doing so prevents

the task recovering from an error.*/


return xErrorCode;
Listing 3

Finally, Listing 4 shows the structure of the interrupt service routine that uses a notification to send the conversion result to the waiting task.

/* The interrupt service routine (ISR) that executes each time

an ADC conversion completes. It is assumed the xBlockedTasks[]

array used in Listing 3 is in scope for use by this ISR.*/

void ADC_ConversionEndISR( void )
Uint8_t ucChannel;
uint32_t ulConversionResult;
BaseType_t xHigherPriorityTaskWoken = pdFALSE, xResult;

/* This ISR handles all ADC channels. Determine which

channel needs servicing. */

ucChannel = ADC_GetChannelNumber();

if( ucChannel < MAX_ADC_CHANNELS )
/* Read the conversion result to clear the interrupt. */
ulConversionResult = ADC_ReadResult( ucChannel );

/* Is a task waiting for a result from channel

ucChannel? */

if( xBlockedTasks[ ucChannel ] != NULL )
/* Send a notification, and the ADC conversion

result, directly to the waiting task. */

xTaskNotifyFromISR( /* xTaskToNotify parameter. */
xBlockedTasks[ ucChannel ],
/* ulValue parameter. */
/* eAction parameter. */
&xHigherPriorityTaskWoken );

/* There is no longer a task waiting for a result

from channel ucChannel. */

xBlockedTasks[ ucChannel ] = NULL;

/* As normal – see comments in code Listing 2. */
portYIELD_FROM_ISR( xHigherPriorityTaskWoken );
Listing 4


FreeRTOS is an established product that evolved over nearly two decades, and continues to evolve, to include optional features tailored to what we learned are the most common use cases. These features include direct-to-task notifications, message buffers, and stream buffers. Developers should use these tailored features before older FreeRTOS features because they are smaller and faster, but new FreeRTOS developers often overlook them because the concepts don’t appear in standard OS texts. Tailoring a feature for specific use cases implies a restriction in the number of applicable use cases. The much more flexible original FreeRTOS features are still available to cover all use cases – but in most applications the use of comprehensive features, such as queues and semaphores, can be the exception rather than the norm.

About the author

Richard Barry founded the FreeRTOS project in 2003, spent more than a decade developing and promoting FreeRTOS through his company Real Time Engineers Ltd, and now continues his work on FreeRTOS within a larger team as a principal engineer at Amazon Web Services. Richard graduated with 1st Class Honors in Computing for Real Time Systems, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for his contributions to the development of embedded technology. Richard has also been directly involved in the startup of several companies, and authored several books.
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