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2015 June 17

PteroDAQ bug fix

Now that my son is home from college, I’m getting him to do some bug fixes to the PteroDAQ data acquisition system he wrote for my class to use. The first fix that we’ve put back into the repository was for a problem that was noticed on the very old slow Windows machines in the lab—at high sampling rates, the recording got messed up.  The recording would start fine, then get all scrambled, then get scrambled in a different way, and eventually return to recording correctly, after which the cycle would repeat.  Looking at the recorded data, it was as if bytes were getting lost and the packets coming from the KL25Z were being read in the wrong frame.  As more bytes got lost the frameshift changed until eventually the packets were back in sync.  There seemed to be 5 changes in behavior for each cycle until things got back in sync.

This happened at a very low sampling rate on the old Windows machines, but even on faster machines still happened at a high enough sampling rate.

What the program was designed to do was to drop entire packets when the host couldn’t keep up with the data rate and the buffer on the KL25Z filled up, but that didn’t seem to be what was happening.  The checksums on the packets were not failing, so the packets were being received correctly on the host, which meant that the problem had to be before the checksums were added.  That in turn suggested a buffer overflow for the queuing on the KL25Z board.  More careful examination of the recordings indicated that when we got back into sync, exactly 4096 packets of 10 bytes each had been lost, which suggested that the 5 changes in behavior we saw during the cycle corresponded to 5 losses of the 8192-byte buffer.


We suspected a race condition between pushing data onto the queue and popping it off, so modified the code to turn off interrupts during queue_pop and queue_avail calls (we also made all the queue variables “volatile”, to make sure that the compiler wouldn’t optimize them out reads or writes, though I don’t think it was doing so).  This protection for the queue pop and availability calls changed the behavior to what was expected—at low sampling rates everything works fine, and at high sampling rates things start out well until the queue fills up, then complete packets are dropped when they won’t fit on the queue, and the average sampling rate is constant independent of the requested sampling rate, at the rate that the packets are taken out of the queue.

On my old MacBook Pro, the highest sampling rate that can be continued indefinitely for a single channel is 615Hz (about 6150 bytes/sec transferred).  On the household’s newer iMac, the highest sampling rate was 1572Hz (15720 bytes/sec). (Update, 2015 Jun 18: on my son’s System76 laptop, the highest sampling rate was 1576Hz.)

One can record for short bursts at much higher sampling rates—but only for 819.2 /(f_{s} - \max f_{s}) for a single channel (8192 bytes at 10 bytes/packet is 819.2 packets in the queue).  At 700Hz, one should be able record for about 9.6376 seconds on my MacBook Pro (assuming a max sustained rate of 615 Hz).  Sure enough, the first missing packet is the 6748th one, at 9.6386 s.

I thought that 2 channels (12-byte packets) should be accepted on my MacBook Pro at (10bytes/12bytes)615Hz, or 512.5Hz, but the observed maximum rate is 533Hz, so it isn’t quite linear in the number of bytes in the packet.  Four channels (16-byte packets) run at 418Hz. There is some fixed overhead in addition to the per-byte cost on the host computer.

There is another, more fundamental limitation on the PteroDAQ sampling rate—how fast the code can read the analog-to-digital converter and push the bytes into the queue.  That seems to be 6928Hz, at which speed the longest burst we can get without dropping packets should be just under 130ms (it turned out to lose the 819th packet at 118.22ms, so I’m a little off in my estimate).  I determined the max sampling rate by asking for a faster one (10kHz) and seeing what the actual sampling rate was at the beginning of the run, then trying that sampling rate and again checking the achieved sampling rate. With two channels, the maximum sampling rate is only 3593Hz, suggesting that most of the speed limitation is in the conversion time for the analog-to-digital converter.

The current version of PteroDAQ uses long sample times (so that we can handle fairly high-impedance signal sources) and does hardware averaging of 32 readings (to reduce noise). By sacrificing quality (more noise), we could make the conversions much faster, but that is not a reasonable tradeoff currently, when we are mainly limited by how fast the Python program on the host reads and interprets the input stream from the USB port.  We’ll have to look into Python profiling, to see where the time is being spent and try to speed things up.

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