Have you ever heard of the Kuramoto Model? The Kuramoto Model Wikipedia page has an impressive video showing out of phase metronomes synchronizing:

Could two or more computers synchronize in a similar fashion? What would be the common “fabric” between the machines? In the clip with the metronomes, the base board is crucial in bringing the metronomes into phase. Perhaps you could use GPIO signals to achieve a similar link between two computers.

Architecting a Test

At a high level, you want to solve the problem of synchronizing two identical, cyclic tasks running on separate but identical hardware. A 1Hz task that blinks an LED would be an appropriate test program. The goal would be to run the blink program on both machines and, through the magic of the Kuramoto Model, the two LEDs would eventually blink in unison.

How would one computer communicate when it last ran to other? You can connect the output GPIO that drives the LED to an input GPIO on the peer board! Below is a sketch of the setup:

                +-------------------------------------------+                
                |BeagleBone Black 1                         |                
  BBB2_GPIO_OUT |   +----------+               +---------+  | BBB1_GPIO_OUT  
----------------+-->|  gtimer  |               |  gsync  +--+--------------->
                |   +----+-----+               +----^----+  |                
                |        |                          |       |                
                |        |                          |       |                
                |   +----v--------------------------+----+  |                
                |   |            Shared Memory           |  |                
                |   +------------------------------------+  |                
                |                                           |                
                +-------------------------------------------+                
                                                                             
                +-------------------------------------------+                
                |BeagleBone Black 2                         |                
  BBB1_GPIO_OUT |   +----------+               +---------+  | BBB2_GPIO_OUT  
----------------+-->|  gtimer  |               |  gsync  +--+--------------->
                |   +----+-----+               +----^----+  |                
                |        |                          |       |                
                |        |                          |       |                
                |   +----v--------------------------+----+  |                
                |   |            Shared Memory           |  |                
                |   +------------------------------------+  |                
                |                                           |                
                +-------------------------------------------+

Each BBB would host two processes: gtimer and gsync. The gtimer process monitors an input GPIO. gtimer blocks on the GPIO waiting for a rising edge event. When the input GPIO goes high, gtimer logs the time when the signal arrived in shared memory. Here’s a flowchart showing how gtimer does its thing:

+------------+     +-----------------+     +----------------------+     +----------------------+
| Init Shmem +---->| Init Input GPIO +---->| Wait for Rising Edge +---->| Write Wakeup Time to |
+------------+     +-----------------+     |        Event         |     |         Shmem        |
                                           +----------^-----------+     +----------+-----------+
                                                      |                            |            
                                                      +----------------------------+

gsync is essentially the blink program. gsync runs at a configurable rate, in this case 1Hz. gsync will immediately signal to its peer wakeup has occurred using an output GPIO. gsync then proceeds to read shared memory to know when its peer last ran. Using its own wakeup time and peer wakeup time, gsync can run the Kuramoto Model to compute a wakeup timer delta. The next wakeup time will be closer to bringing the process into sync with its peer. Here’s a flowchart showing how gsync works:

+-------------------+       +------------------+      
| Attached to Shmem +------>| Init Output GPIO |      
+-------------------+       +--------+---------+      
                                     |                
                         +-----------v--------------+ 
                    +----> Get CLOCK_MONOTONIC Time | 
                    |    +-----------+--------------+ 
                    |                |                
                    |   +------------v---------------+
                    |   | Send Wakeup Signal to Peer |
                    |   +------------+---------------+
                    |                |                
                    |    +-----------v--------------+ 
                    |    | Compute Next Wakeup Time | 
                    |    +-----------+--------------+ 
                    |                |                
                    |    +-----------v-------------+  
                    +----+ Sleep Until Next Wakeup |  
                         +-------------------------+  

The best implementation of gsync and gtimer isn’t immediately obvious. However, the hardware setup is pretty straightforward so lets look at that first.

Hardware Test Setup

You need two computers with which to test. The Beaglebone Black1 (BBB) single board computer is a good choice. The BBB is a good candidate for the following reasons:

  1. High availability.
  2. The BBB has a ton of unallocated GPIOs.
  3. The BBB runs Linux and so you can use the usual dev tools to build and deploy software.

The circuit below describes the hardware interconnect:

Sync Circuit

P9_15 is the input GPIO and P9_23 is the output GPIO. You can choose other pins if you like. Notice that the input and output GPIOs cross. That is, BBB1’s output GPIO is BBB2’s input GPIO and vice versa. A 470 Ohm resistor limits current to the LED. The resistor also serves as short circuit protection in case the GPIOs mistakenly are both outputs with one side set high and the other set low.

Speaking of GPIO configuration, many of the pins on the BBB support multiple functions. Chapter 6 of the book “Exploring BeagleBone”2 gives nice coverage of how to configure the GPIOs on the BBB. Verify P9_15 and P9_23 are free. You must configure the pins as GPIO with internal pull down resistors enabled (mux mode 7). If you choose to use different pins, make sure you configure them correctly before powering the circuit!

Doing Things Real-time

To achieve half decent sync results, execute gtimer and gsync as real-time processes on a Linux kernel supporting preemption. The task of configuring and building an RT Linux kernel is nontrivial even in 2023. The bbb_kernel_builder project streamlines the process of building a Linux kernel for the BBB with the PREEMPT_RT patches applied.

There’s more to setting up a real-time Linux application than configuring and building the kernel. A lot more. “Real-Time Linux App Development” goes into the details. The article provides a checklist of all the tweaks you can make at the system and source code level to achieve deterministic behavior. Both the gtimer and gsync implementations follow the guidelines given in the linked article:

  • Prefault heap and stack memory.
  • Lock pages to memory and disable mmap usage.
  • Configure inter-process mutexes with the PTHREAD_PRIO_INHERIT and PTHREAD_PROCESS_SHARED attributes.
  • Set cyclic tasks to use absolute time values as their next wakeup. Reference the CLOCK_MONOTONIC clock for time.

You don’t need to hardcode the scheduling policy and priorities in the source. Instead, you can use the chrt utility to set those parameters up from the run script:

#!/bin/bash

GPIO_DEVNAME="/dev/gpiochip1"
GPIO_IN_OFFSET=16
GPIO_OUT_OFFSET=17
SHMEMKEY=57005
GTIMER_PRIO=80
GSYNC_PRIO=70
FREQ_HZ=1
COUPLING_CONST=0.5

chrt --fifo $GTIMER_PRIO ./gtimer $GPIO_DEVNAME $GPIO_IN_OFFSET $SHMEMKEY &

chrt --fifo $GSYNC_PRIO \
    ./gsync -f $FREQ_HZ -k $COUPLING_CONST $GPIO_DEVNAME $GPIO_OUT_OFFSET \
            $SHMEMKEY &

SCHED_FIFO was the most appropriate RT scheduling policy for this application. gtimer has a higher priority than gsync because you want to log the time when the peer signal arrives ASAP. That means that gtimer may have to preempt a running gsync.

One thing you’d usually do on a multicore system is allocate your cores among the real-time processes. The BBB is a single core system meaning your RT processes get to run on the same core as all the SCHED_OTHER tasks. There’s not much you can do about this. That said, the code is portable to other systems running Linux. An interesting follow-up experiment would be porting this project to a multicore platform. You could dedicate a core to each RT process and compare the measured latencies with those presented at the end of this article.

GPIO Woes

One of the more tedious parts of implementing this sync concept is getting software control of the GPIOs right. You might start with the legacy sysfs API for GPIO control. The general idea is that you can control the behavior and state of a GPIO pin by writing/reading data in a number of different text files. You can export GPIOs to /sys/class/gpio/export. You compute the GPIO number using the formula GPIO_NUM = (32 * CHIPNUM) + OFFSET. After exporting the GPIO, you get a nice file structure like the one shown below:

root@gsync:~# ls /sys/class/gpio/gpio48
active_low device direction edge label power subsystem uevent value

In the snippet, you have the property files for gpio48 AKA GPIO1_16 (chip 1/offset 16) associated with the BBB header pin labeled P9_15. If you wanted to set the pin to be an output pin, you could write out to the direction file:

echo out > /sys/class/gpio/gpio48/direction

If you wanted to set the pin high, you could write 1 to the value file:

echo 1 > /sys/class/gpio/gpio48/value

You get the idea. The sysfs method of GPIO control is nice for one-and-done configurations. That said, you can imagine that opening and closing a file every time you want to toggle a pin is pretty inefficient. You might get away with it running at 1Hz but if you ever decide to up the rate, repeated file IO is going to hurt performance.

So what’s the best way of controlling GPIOs from userspace these days? The answer is libgpiod3. libgpiod uses the character device interface to the GPIOs. You don’t lose any of the functionality you had with the sysfs API and you don’t have to deal with the ioctl-based kernel-userpace interaction directly. It even gets bonus points for coming with C++ bindings and a set of useful examples. It’s hard to misuse the API since it throws exceptions for every imaginable error. The time efficiency in toggling a GPIO is also optimal4.

The Kuramoto Model

Finally, it’s time to implement the Kuramoto Model. Step one is to translate the equation from the wiki page to something manageable in the code. Here’s the original equation:

\[ {d\theta \over dt} = \omega_i + {K \over N}\sum_{i=1}^N \sin(\theta_j - \theta_i) \]

Phase Angles and Time

One thing is immediately apparent: you need a way to convert time to phase angles and vice versa. Your blink task has a known frequency of 1 Hertz meaning one complete task cycle takes 1 second. You can map portions of the cycle in seconds to angles on the unit circle. For example,

  • 0.00 -> \( 0 \) radians
  • 0.25 -> \( \pi \over 2 \) radians
  • 0.50 -> \( \pi \) radians
  • 0.75 -> \( 3 \pi \over 2 \) radians
  • 1.00 -> \( 2 \pi \) radians

The relationship between time, \(t\), and frequency, \(F\), is \( t = {1 \over F} \). You’re interested in the time it takes to move some angle \( \theta \) in radians. What you find is that

\[ t = {\theta \over {2 \pi F}} \]

To go from time to angle you can solve for \(\theta\):

\[ \theta = {2 \pi F t} \]

Note, the \( t \) is in units of seconds. The gsync implementation tracks time in units of nanoseconds. The conversion equations used in the code account for the units change.

The Wakeup Delta

At this point, you’re ready to plug some numbers into the base equation to compute \( d\theta \over dt \)! Fill in the blanks on the terms:

  • \( \omega_i \) -> This is your base frequency. In radians, the base frequency is \( 2 \pi \).
  • \( K \) -> This is the coupling constant and is a tuneable parameter. gsync defaults to \( K = 0.5 \).
  • \( N \) -> This is the number of participants. Since you are syncing 2 computers, \( N = 2 \).
  • \( \theta_j \) -> This is your peer’s phase offset from the ideal base frequency. You can compute \( \theta_j \) by taking your peer’s reported wakeup time and converting to a phase angle using the conversion function previously derived.
  • \( \theta_i \) -> This is your own phase offset. Similar to \( \theta_j \), \( \theta_i \) converts your actual wakeup time to a phase angle. To explain a bit further, you have an expected and an actual wakeup time on the computer. The expected time is the time you would execute if there were no additional latencies imposed by the system. The actual wakeup time is the measured time after you resume execution. In short, you’re off phase from the desired base frequency and the model uses \( \theta_i \) to account for that.

In the code, the sync function takes as input the computer’s actual wakeup time and the last reported peer wakeup time extracted from shared memory. Using the latter information, along with frequency and coupling constant info given at program startup, gsync computes \( d\theta \over dt\) and converts it to a time in nanoseconds. That time is an offset to the next gsync wakeup time.

As an example, suppose gsync ran with a frequency of 1 Hz or every 1 seconds. Also suppose the sync function returned time deltas in seconds. If the sync function returned a time delta of \( -0.5 \), then gsync would next sleep for \( 1 - 0.5 = 0.5 \) seconds (that is, gsync will wakeup earlier by half a second). Maybe the sync function over shot. In the next run, the sync function returns a delta of \( 0.8 \), then gsync will sleep for \( 1.0 + 0.8 = 1.8 \) seconds (that is, it will wakeup later). Essentially, the delta in the wakeup time of the computers oscillates about \( 0 \)! The smaller the oscillations, the better the sync.

The End Result

In the end, what do you see? Well, running gtimer and gsync on both BBBs with the frequency of gtimer set to 1 Hz and the coupling constant set to \( 0.5\), you see two LEDs blinking synchronously. It takes maybe 3 to 4 cycles (blinks) before they flash in unison. Running both processes for a day and doesn’t produce any noticeable hiccups in the sync!

You can also play a bit with the coupling constant to see what sort of effect it has. You can increment the coupling constant in steps of \( 0.1 \) starting at \( K = 0.1 \). What you’ll find is that if \( K \) is too low, the LEDs never seem to synchronize. After crossing a threshold value, synchronization always seems to occur.

So the sync at 1Hz “looks good enough.” Still, it would be interesting to measure using an oscilloscope the delay between the rising edge of one computer’s signal versus the other’s. You can experiment with a number of different rates starting at 1Hz and ramping up to about 500Hz in increments of 50Hz. Below is a histogram of the time deltas you would encounter on a 100Hz run:

100Hz Run

With about 20,000 samples, the average delay was ~100 usec. More interesting than the average is the absolute maximum delay which was approximately 572 usec. These observations more or less held true for all test runs in the range [1, 400] Hertz.

Beyond the 400Hz run rate, you start to see some oddball results. Below is a capture of a 500Hz run:

500Hz Run

The average delta was still approximately 100 usec. The maximum delta saw huge spikes around 2.7 ms. Worse yet, these were more than just a few outliers, there were multiple hits in the 2.5 ms range. Are the spikes driven by weak coupling? Is there a timing bug between gtimer and gsync? Questions for another day.

Conclusion

Synchronizing at least two computers linked via only GPIO is possible. Better yet, the Kuramoto Model used to bring the two machines into phase is relatively straightforward to code and reason about. Moreover, submillisecond synchronization is achievable for rates below 500Hz on bargain hardware using free and open source software.

The complete project source with build instructions, usage, etc. is available on GitHub under gsync.


  1. The Beaglebone Black (BBB) is a low cost (~$60), ARM board capable of running Linux. The BBB has a ton of configurable GPIOs and so is suited in that regard for this project. ↩︎

  2. “Exploring Beaglebone” is an awesome book not only for understanding all the ins and outs of the BBB, but in general as an introduction to development on an embedded platform. Chapter 6 is especially useful if you find yourself needing to configure the BBB’s GPIOs. ↩︎

  3. libgpiod development now lives at kernel.org. That said, you will find the old GitHub repo easier to browse. Just be wary when looking at the GH repo, you’re looking at outdated code! ↩︎

  4. Well that’s kinda BS. You could control the pins directly in memory. I thought about trying that before learning about libgpiod. However, the complexity added by this optimization didn’t seem necessary for the task of toggling a GPIO at a 1Hz rate. ↩︎