Yes we CAN... add new features

Have you ever experienced an otherwise fine product that is missing just the one feature you need for your application?

This is what happened when community member John Whittington debugged a CAN bus with his own fork of the original CandleLight Hardware design. He found that candump -H -t a only shows zeros in the hardware timestamp field, even though the firmware supports timestamping and opened an issue on github. While with conventional closed source products, this is the point where this story would end, for an open source project, this is where a journey starts. So let us have a look on how the firmware and driver of the open hardware project CandleLight got hardware timestamping support in a joint effort of community members.

Some stuffed bits of history

As for all good tales, the CandleLight's story begins quite some time ago. On Christmas Eve in 2013 (no, I am not kidding you) the first patch to support an USB-CAN adapter built by the company Geschwister Schneider UG was posted on the Linux-CAN mailing list. When Hubert Denkmair asked in 2016 on the linux-can mailinglist for an open protocol for USB CAN adapters, Max Schneider himself suggested to use the Geschwister Schneider implementation as a template and just extract the protocol definition from the existing driver and build a compatible device. Hubert Denkmair was hooked and later published his hardware design under the CERN Open Hardware License v1.2 and firmware under MIT License on Github. Over the years, several forks of the original design and the original firmware were added and modified, some featuring different micro-controllers, adding multichannel support or using USB-C.

Hardware Timestamping

For precise measurements of the timing behavior on a bus or for running timing protocols on a bus, it is very important to know the exact point in time when a packet (or frame, as they are called in the CAN-universe) is transmitted or received. Most modern Ethernet interfaces and some CAN controllers have this feature, as it is also used to increase the precision of timing protocols such as the Precision Time Protocol PTP on Ethernet or the SYNC protocol on CANopen. This requires the hardware handling the packets to do this measurement as close to the hardware as possible, to minimize jitter in the measurement. The most common method to achieve this is to have a constantly running hardware counter, which is latched into a register on the Receive- or Transmit-complete-interrupt by hardware.

To achieve the lowest possible jitter this latching should be implemented as a feature of the CAN hardware itself and be sampled at a known point in the CAN frame. Sadly the micro-controller in the CandleLight does not support this kind of extra-low-latency hardware timestamping on its CAN Interface. The CandleLight firmware can however add timestamps in its CAN receive interrupt routine, which gives a jitter-performance that is not as good as actual hardware timestamps but miles ahead of the timestamps Linux can generate on the other end of the USB connection, where it hat to travel through several layers of soft- and hardware. For simplicity's sake we will just call these timestamps generated in the firmware hardware timestamps to differentiate them from the timestamps generated in Linux which we will call software timestamps.

To see if your hardware supports timestamping, use ethtool --show-time-stamping <device> which will list the capabilities of your hardware. For a CAN interface with hardware timestamping support the result will for example look like

>ethtool --show-time-stamping can0
Time stamping parameters for can0:
PTP Hardware Clock: none
Hardware Transmit Timestamp Modes:
Hardware Receive Filter Modes:

Teaching an old driver new tricks

While the CandleLight firmware has support for hardware timestamps since 2016, the gs_usb driver used for the CandleLight did not read the timestamps transmitted over USB until recently. The fact that the firmware with hardware timestamping works with an older driver is due to a clever trick in the USB protocol: the protocol has a bit field for indicating additional features. Hardware timestamps is one of these features, but as long as said feature is not supported on both sides, it is simply ignored. This allows for forward and backward compatibility of new firmware and new driver features. With some pointers from the maintainers to other drivers implementing hardware timestamping, John added the required feature and published it on github. This work was also posted on the linux-can mailing list and then finally made its way mainline with the 6.1 kernel release.

The results are quite impressive: John shared some measurement results which show a significant improvement of the hardware timestamps over software timestamps.

In the diagram above the y-axis shows the observed timestamp jitter of the hardware timestamps on the left vs. the software timestamping performed in Linux.

Sharing is Caring

Not only did John share his driver patches, which allows all CandleLight users to also have this new cool feature available, but he also shared the script used for analysis and plot of the measurement results. He also presented the technical details and more detailed measurement results in a post on his own blog.

This entire story shows the benefits of active participation in open-source development. Not just using open source projects and making use of other peoples' efforts, but also adding new features and contributing back to the projects is what makes our everyday job so great.


This new feature on the gs_usb driver allows for precise timing measurement, but there is also some other ongoing work in the CandleLight project:

  • adding CAN-FD to the firmware (the USB protocol already supports CAN-FD)
  • currently the transmit timestamps are generated when the packet is inserted into the TX FIFO. Using the TX Complete Interrupt will increase their precision even more.
  • at the moment timestamps have 1µs resolution. The internal micro-controller clock could allow for some more precision, which is to be evaluated.

If you want to participate in these tasks, you are more than welcome, just according to last year's Pengutronix Christmas card motto Send Patches!

Weiterführende Links

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