Software watchdog

When an intermittent software error occurs in a memory-protected system, the OS can catch the event and pass control to a user-written thread instead of the memory dump facilities. This thread can make an intelligent decision about how best to recover from the failure, instead of forcing a full reset as the hardware watchdog timer would do. The software watchdog could:

The important distinction here is that we retain intelligent, programmed control of the embedded system, even though various processes and threads within the control software may have failed for various reasons. A hardware watchdog timer is still of use to recover from hardware “latch-ups,” but for software failures we now have much better control.

While performing some variation of these recovery strategies, the system can also collect information about the nature of the software failure. For example, if the embedded system contains or has access to some mass storage (flash memory, hard drive, a network link to another computer with disk storage), the software watchdog can generate a chronologically archived sequence of dump files. These dump files could then be used for postmortem diagnostics.

Embedded control systems often employ these “partial restart” approaches to surviving intermittent software failures without the operators experiencing any system “downtime” or even being aware of these quick-recovery software failures. Since the dump files are available, the developers of the software can detect and correct software problems without having to deal with the emergencies that result when critical systems fail at inconvenient times. If we compare this to the hardware watchdog timer approach and the prolonged interruptions in service that result, it's obvious what our preference is!

Postmortem dump-file analysis is especially important for mission-critical embedded systems. Whenever a critical system fails in the field, significant effort should be made to identify the cause of the failure so that a “fix” can be engineered and applied to other systems before they experience similar failures.

Dump files give programmers the information they need to fix the problem—without them, programmers may have little more to go on than a customer's cryptic complaint that “the system crashed.”