Notes on the general-purpose clock on BCM2835

17.02.2018 20:30

Raspberry Pi boards, or more specifically the Broadcom system-on-chips they are based upon, have the capability to generate a wide range of stable clock signals entirely in hardware. These are called general-purpose clock peripherals (GPCLK) and the clock signals they generate can be routed to some of the GPIO pins as alternate pin functions. I was recently interested in this particular detail of Raspberry Pi and noticed that there is little publicly accessible information about this functionality. I had to distill a coherent picture from various, sometimes conflicting, sources of information floating around various websites and forums. So, in the hope that it will be useful for someone else, I'm posting my notes on Raspberry Pi GPCLKs with links for anyone that needs to dig deeper. My research was focused on Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3, but it should mostly apply to all Raspberry Pi boards.

Here is an example of a clock setup that uses two GPCLK peripherals to produce two clocks that drive components external to the BCM2835 system-on-chip (in my case a 12.228 MHz clock for an external audio interface and a 24 MHz clock for an USB hub). This diagram is often called the clock tree and is a common sight in datasheets. Unfortunately, the publicly-accessible BCM2835 datasheet omits it, so I drew my own on what information I could gather on the web. Only components relevant to clocking the GPCLKs are shown:

Rough sketch of a clock tree for BCM2835.

The root of the tree is an oscillator on the far left of the diagram. BCM2835 derives all other internal clocks from it by multiplying or dividing its frequency. On a Compute Module 3 the oscillator clock is a 19.2 MHz signal defined by the on-board crystal resonator. The oscillator frequency is fixed and cannot be changed in software.

19.2 MHz crystal resonator on a Compute Module 3.

The oscillator is routed to a number of phase-locked loop (PLL) devices. A PLL is a complex device that allows you to multiply the frequency of a clock by a configurable, rational factor. Practical PLLs necessarily add some amount of jitter into the clock. How much depends on their internal design and is largely independent of the multiplication factor. For BCM2835 some figures can be found in the Compute Module datasheet, under the section Electrical specification. You can see that routing the clock through a PLL increases the jitter by 28 ps.

GPCLK jitter characteristics from RPI CM datasheet.

Image by Raspberry Pi (Trading) Ltd.

The BCM2835 contains 5 independent PLLs - PLLA, PLLB, PLLC, PLLD and PLLH. The system uses most of these for their own purposes, such as clocking the ARM CPU, the VideoCore GPU, HDMI interface, etc. The PLLs have some default configuration that however cannot be strongly relied upon. Some default frequencies are listed on this page. Note that it says that PLLC settings depend on overclocking settings. My own experiments show that PLLH settings change between firmware versions and whether a monitor is attached to HDMI or not. On some Raspberry Pi boards, other PLLs are used to clock on-board peripherals like Ethernet or Wi-Fi - search for gp_clk in dt-blob.dts. On the Compute Module, PLLA appears to be turned-off by default and free for general-purpose use. This kernel commit suggests that PLLD settings are also stable.

For each PLL, the multiplication factors can be set independently in software using registers in I/O memory. To my knowledge these registers are not publicly documented, but the clk-bcm2835.c file in the Linux kernel offers some insight into what settings are available. The output of each PLL branches off into several channels. Each channel has a small integer divider that can be used to lower the frequency. It is best to leave the settings of the PLL and channel dividers to the firmware by using the vco@PLLA and chan@APER sections in dt-blob.bin. This is described in the Raspberry Pi documentation.

There are three available GPCLK peripherals: GPCLK0, GPCLK1 and GPCLK2. For each you can independently choose a source. 5 clock sources are available: oscillator clock and 4 channels from 4 PLLs (PLLB isn't selectable). Furthermore, each GPCLK peripheral has a independent fractional divider. This divider can again divide the frequency of the selected clock source by (almost) an arbitrary rational number.

Things are somewhat better documented at this stage. The GPCLK clock source and fractional divider are controlled from I/O memory registers that are described in the BCM2835 ARM peripherals document. Note that there is an error in the equation for the average output frequency in Table 6-32. It should be:

f_{GPCLK} = \frac{f_{source}}{\mathrm{DIVI} + \frac{\mathrm{DIVF}}{4096}}

It is perfectly possible to setup GPCLK by writing directly into registers from Linux user space, for example by mmaping /dev/mem or using a command-line tool like busybox devmem. This way you can hand-tune the integer and fractional parts of the dividers or use the noise-shaping functions. You might want to do this if jitter is important. When experimenting, if find the easiest way to get the register base address is to search the kernel log. In the following case, the CM_GP0CTL register would be at 0x3f201070:

# dmesg|grep gpiomem
gpiomem-bcm2835 3f200000.gpiomem: Initialised: Registers at 0x3f200000

A simpler way for taking care of GPCLK settings is again through the dt-blob.bin file. By using the clock@GPCLK0 directives under clock_routing and clock_setup, the necessary register values are calculated and set automatically at boot by the firmware. As far as I can see, these only allow using PLLA and APER. Attempting to set or use other PLL sources has unpredictable results in my experience. I also recommend checking the actual clock output with an oscilloscope, since these automatic settings might not be optimal.

The settings shown on the clock tree diagram on the top were obtained with the following part compiled into the dt-blob.bin:

clock_routing {
	vco@PLLA {
		freq = <1920000000>;
	chan@APER {
		div = <4>;
	clock@GPCLK0 {
		pll = "PLLA";
		chan = "APER";
	clock@GPCLK2 {
		pll = "PLLA";
		chan = "APER";

clock_setup {
	clock@GPCLK0 {
		freq = <24000000>;
	clock@GPCLK2 {
		freq = <12288000>;

If the clocks can be setup automatically, why is all this background important? Rational dividers used by GPCLKs work by switching the output between two frequencies. In contrast to PLLs the jitter they introduce depends largely on their settings and can be quite severe in some cases. For example, this is how the 12.228 MHz clock looked like when set by firmware from a first-attempt dt-blob.bin:

Clock signal with a lot of jitter produced by GPCLK function.

It's best to keep your clocks divided by integer ratios, because in that case the dividers introduce minimal jitter. If you can't do that, jitter is minimized by maximizing the input clock source frequency. In my case, I wanted to generate two clocks that didn't have an integer ratio, so I was forced to use the fractional part on at least one divider. I opted to have low jitter, integer divided clock for the 24 MHz USB clock and a higher jitter (but still well within acceptable range) for the 12.288 MHz audio clock.

This is how the 12.228 MHz clock looks like with the settings shown above. It's a significant improvement over the first attempt:

Low-jitter clock signal produced by GPCLK function.

GPCLKs can be useful in lowering the cost of a system, since they can remove the need for separate expensive crystal resonators. However, it can sometimes be deceiving how easy they are to set up on Raspberry Pi. dt-blob.bin offers a convenient way of enabling clocks on boot without any assistance from Linux userland. Unfortunately the exact mechanism on how the firmware sets the registers is not public, hence it's worth double checking its work by understanding what is happening behind the scenes, inspecting the registers and checking the actual clock signal with an oscilloscope.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Digital | Comments »


08.02.2018 11:28

Gašper and I attended FOSDEM last weekend. It is an event about open source and free software development that happens each year in Brussels. I've known about it for some time, mostly because it was quite a popular destination among a group of Kiberpipa alumni a few years ago. I've never managed to join them. This year though I was determined to go. Partly because I couldn't get a ticket for 34C3 and was starting to miss this kind of a crowd, and partly because several topics on the schedule were relevant to one of my current projects.

Marietje Schaake on Next Generation Internet at FOSDEM 2018

FOSDEM turned out to be quite unlike any other event I've attended. I was surprised to hear that there are no tickets or registration. When we arrived at the event it was immediately apparent why that is the case. Basically, for two days the Université libre de Bruxelles simply surrenders their lecture rooms and hallways to software developers. Each room is dedicated to talks on a particular topic, such as software defined radio or Internet of things. Hallways are filled with booths, from companies offering jobs to volunteer projects gathering donations and selling t-shirts. I counted more than 50 tracks, distributed over 5 campus buildings. More than once I found myself lost in the unfamiliar passageways.

Opinions whether the event is too crowded or not seem to differ. I often found the halls unbearably packed and had to step out to get a breath of air, but I do have a low threshold for these kind of things. Mostly cold, wet and windy weather didn't help with crowds indoors either. The lecture rooms themselves had volunteers taking care they were not filled over capacity. This meant that once you got in a room, following the talks was a pleasant experience. However, most rooms had long queues in front. The only way to get in was to show up early in the morning and stay there. I didn't manage to get back into any smaller room after leaving for lunch, so I usually ended up in the biggest auditorium with the keynote talks.

Queues at the food court at FOSDEM 2018.

Speaking about keynotes. I enjoyed Simon Phipps's and Italo Vignoli's talk about the past 20 years of open source. They gave a thorough overview of the topic with some predictions for the future. I found myself thinking whether open source movement really was such a phenomenal success. Indeed it is everywhere behind pervasive web services of today, however the freedom for users to run, study and improve software at their convenience is mostly missing these days where software is hidden behind an opaque web server on someone else's computer. Liam Proven in Alternate histories of computing explored how every generation reinvents solutions and mistakes of their predecessors, with a focus on Lisp machines. It seems that one defining property of computer industry is that implementing a thing from scratch is invariably favored over understanding and building upon existing work. I also recommend Steven Goodwin's talk about how hard it is to get behavior right in simplest things like smart light switches. He gave nice examples why a smart appliance that has not been well thought out will cause more grief than a dumb old one.

From the more technical talks I don't have many recommendations. I haven't managed to get into most of the rooms I had planned for. From hanging around the Internet of things discussions one general sentiment I captured was that MQTT has become a de facto standard for any Internet-connected sensor or actuator. ESP8266 remains as popular as ever for home-brew projects. Moritz Fischer gave a fascinating, but very dense intro into a multitasking scheduler for ARM Cortex microcontrollers that was apparently custom developed by Google for use on their Chromebook laptops. Even though I'm fairly familiar with ARM, he lost me after the first 10 minutes. However if I ever need to look into multitasking on ARM microcontrollers, his slides seem to be a very good reference.

One of the rare moments of dry weather at FOSDEM 2018

I don't regret going to FOSDEM. It has been an interesting experience and the trip has been worth it just for the several ideas Gašper and I got there. I can't complain about the quality of the talks I've seen and although the whole thing seemed chaotic at times it must have been a gargantuan effort on the part of the volunteer team to organize. I will most likely not be going again next year though. I feel like this is more of an event for getting together with a team you've been closely involved with in developing a large open source project. Apart from drive-by patches, I've not collaborated in such projects for years now, so I often felt as an outsider that was more adding to the crowds than contributing to the discussion.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »