Tock Design

Most operating systems provide isolation between components using a process-like abstraction: each component is given its own slice of the system memory (for its stack, heap, data) that is not accessible by other components. Processes are great because they provide a convenient abstraction for both isolation and concurrency. However, on resource-limited systems, like microcontrollers with much less than 1MB of memory, this approach leads to a trade-off between isolation granularity and resource consumption.

Tock's architecture resolves this trade-off by using a language sandbox to isolated components and a cooperative scheduling model for concurrency in the kernel. As a result, isolation is (more or less) free in terms of resource consumption at the expense of preemptive scheduling (so a malicious component could block the system by, e.g., spinning in an infinite loop).

To first order, all components in Tock, including those in the kernel, are mutually distrustful. Inside the kernel, Tock achieves this with a language-based isolation abstraction called capsules that incurs no memory or computation overhead. In user-space, Tock uses (more-or-less) a traditional process model where process are isolated from the kernel and each other using hardware protection mechanisms.

In addition, Tock is designed with other embedded systems-specific goals in mind. Tock favors overall reliability of the system and discourages components (prevents when possible) from preventing system progress when buggy.


Tock architecture

Tock includes three architectural components: a small trusted kernel, written in Rust, which implements a hardware abstraction layer (HAL); scheduler; and platform-specific configuration. Other system components are implemented in one of two protection mechanisms: capsules, which are compiled with the kernel and use Rust’s type and module systems for safety, and processes, which use the MPU for protection at runtime.

System components (an application, driver, virtualization layer, etc.) can be implemented in either a capsule or process, but each mechanism trades off concurrency and safety with memory consumption, performance, and granularity.

Memory OverheadNoneSeparate stack
Protection GranularityFineCoarse
Update at RuntimeNoYes

As a result, each is more appropriate for implementing different components. In general, drivers and virtualization layers are implemented as capsules, while applications and complex drivers using existing code/libraries, such as networking stacks, are implemented as processes.


A capsule is a Rust struct and associated functions. Capsules interact with each other directly, accessing exposed fields and calling functions in other capsules. Trusted platform configuration code initializes them, giving them access to any other capsules or kernel resources they need. Capsules can protect internal state by not exporting certain functions or fields.

Capsules run inside the kernel in privileged hardware mode, but Rust’s type and module systems protect the core kernel from buggy or malicious capsules. Because type and memory safety are enforced at compile-time, there is no overhead associated with safety, and capsules require minimal error checking. For example, a capsule never has to check the validity of a reference. If the reference exists, it points to valid memory of the right type. This allows extremely fine-grained isolation since there is virtually no overhead to splitting up components.

Rust’s language protection offers strong safety guarantees. Unless a capsule is able to subvert the Rust type system, it can only access resources explicitly granted to it, and only in ways permitted by the interfaces those resources expose. However, because capsules are cooperatively scheduled in the same single-threaded event loop as the kernel, they must be trusted for system liveness. If a capsule panics, or does not yield back to the event handler, the system can only recover by restarting.


Processes are independent applications that are isolated from the kernel and run with reduced privileges in separate execution threads from the kernel. The kernel schedules processes preemptively, so processes have stronger system liveness guarantees than capsules. Moreover, uses hardware protection to enforce process isolation at runtime. This allows processes to be written in any language and to be safely loaded at runtime.

Memory Layout

Processes are isolated from each other, the kernel, and the underlying hardware explicitly by the hardware Memory Protection Unit (MPU). The MPU limits which memory addresses a process can access. Accesses outside of a process's permitted region result in a fault and trap to the kernel.

Code, stored in flash, is made accessible with a read-only memory protection region. Each process is allocated a contiguous region of RAM. One novel aspect of a process is the presence of a "grant" region at the top of the address space. This is memory allocated to the process covered by a memory protection region that the process can neither read nor write. The grant region, discussed below, is needed for the kernel to be able to borrow memory from a process in order to ensure liveness and safety in response to system calls.


Capsules are not allowed to allocate memory dynamically since dynamic allocation in the kernel makes it hard to predict if memory will be exhausted. A single capsule with poor memory management could cause the rest of the kernel to fail. Moreover, since it uses a single stack, the kernel cannot easily recover from capsule failures.

However, capsules often need to dynamically allocate memory in response to process requests. For example, a virtual timer driver must allocate a structure to hold metadata for each new timer any process creates. Therefore, Tock allows capsules to dynamically allocate from the memory of a process making a request.

It is unsafe, though, for a capsule to directly hold a reference to process memory. Processes crash and can be dynamically loaded, so, without explicit checks throughout the kernel code, it would not be possible to ensure that a reference to process memory is still valid.

For a capsule to safely allocate memory from a process, the kernel must enforce three properties:

  1. Allocated memory does not allow capsules to break the type system.

  2. Capsules can only access pointers to process memory while the process is alive.

  3. The kernel must be able to reclaim memory from a terminated process.

Tock provides a safe memory allocation mechanism that meets these three requirements through memory grants. Capsules can allocate data of arbitrary type from the memory of processes that interact with them. This memory is allocated from the grant segment.

Just as with buffers passed through allow, references to granted memory are wrapped in a type-safe struct that ensures the process is still alive before dereferencing. Unlike shared buffers, which can only be a buffer type in a capsule, granted memory can be defined as any type. Therefore, processes cannot access this memory since doing so might violate type-safety.

In-Kernel Design Principles

To help meet Tock's goals, encourage portability across hardware, and ensure a sustainable operating system, several design principles have emerged over time for the Tock kernel. These are general principles that new contributions to the kernel should try to uphold. However, these principles have been informed by Tock's development, and will likely continue to evolve as Tock and the Rust ecosystem evolve.

Role of HILs

Generally, the Tock kernel is structured into three layers:

  1. Chip-specific drivers: these typically live in a crate in the chips subdirectory, or an equivalent crate in an different repository (e.g. the Titan port is out of tree but its h1b crate is the equivalent here). These drivers have implementations that are specific to the hardware of a particular microcontroller. Ideally, their implementation is fairly simple, and they merely adhere to a common interface (a HIL). That's not always the case, but that's the ideal.

  2. Chip-agnostic, portable, peripheral drivers and subsystems. These typically live in the capsules crate. These include things like virtual alarms and virtual I2C stack, as well as drivers for hardware peripherals not on the chip itself (e.g. sensors, radios, etc). These drivers typically rely on the chip-specific drivers through the HILs.

  3. System call drivers, also typically found in the capsules crate. These are the drivers that implement a particular part of the system call interfaces, and are often even more abstracted from the hardware than (2) - for example, the temperature sensor system call driver can use any temperature sensor, including several implemented as portable peripheral drivers.

    The system call interface is another point of standardization that can be implemented in various ways. So it is perfectly reasonable to have several implementations of the same system call interface that use completely different hardware stacks, and therefore HILs and chip-specific drivers (e.g. a console driver that operates over USB might just be implemented as a different system call driver that implements the same system calls, rather than trying to fit USB into the UART HIL).

Because of their importance, the interfaces between these layers are a key part of Tock's design and implementation. These interfaces are called Tock's Hardware Interface Layer, or HIL. A HIL is a portable collection of Rust traits that can be implemented in either a portable or a non-portable way. An example of a non-portable implementation of a HIL is an Alarm that is implemented in terms of counter and compare registers of a specific chip, while an example of a portable implementation is a virtualization layer that multiplexes multiple Alarms top of a single underlying Alarm.

A HIL consists of one or more Rust traits that are intended to be used together. In some cases, implementations may only implement a subset of a HIL's traits. For example the analog-to-digital (ADC) conversion HIL may have traits both for single and streams of samples. A particular implementation may only support single samples and so not implement the streaming traits.

The choice of particular HIL interfaces is pretty important, and we have some general principles we follow:

  1. HIL implementations should be fairly general. If we have an interface that doesn't work very well across different hardware, we probably have the wrong interface - it's either too high level, or too low level, or it's just not flexible enough. But HILs shouldn't generally be designed to optimize for particular applications or hardware, and definitely not for a particular combination of applications and hardware. If there are cases where that is really truly necessary, a driver can be very chip or board specific and circumvent the HILs entirely.

    Sometimes there are useful interfaces that some chips can provide natively, while other chips lack the necessary hardware support, but the functionality could be emulated in some way. In these cases, Tock sometimes uses "advanced" traits in HILs that enable a chip to expose its more sophisticated features while not requiring that all implementors of the HIL have to implement the function. For example, the UART HIL includes a ReceiveAdvanced trait that includes a special function receive_automatic() which receives bytes on the UART until a pause between bytes is detected. This is supported directly by the SAM4L hardware, but can also be emulated using timers and GPIO interrupts. By including this in an advanced trait, capsules can still use the interface but other UART implementations that do not have that required feature do not have to implement it.

  2. A HIL implementation may assume it is the only way the device will be used. As a result, Tock tries to avoid having more than one HIL for a particular service or abstraction, because it will not, in general, be possible for the kernel to support simultaneously using different HILs for the same device. For example, suppose there were two different HILs for a UART with slightly different APIs. The chip-specific implementation of each one will need to read and write hardware registers and handle interrupts, so they cannot exist simultaneously. By allowing a HIL to assume it is the only way the device will be used, Tock allows HILs to precisely define their semantics without having to worry about potential future conflicts or use cases.

Split-phase Operation

While processes are time sliced and preemptive in Tock, the kernel is not. Everything is run-to-completion. That is an important design choice because it allows the kernel to avoid allocating lots of stacks for lots of tasks, and it makes it possible to reason more simply about static and other shared variables.

Therefore, all I/O operations in the Tock kernel are asynchronous and non-blocking. A method call starts an operation and returns immediately. When the operation completes, the struct implementing the operation calls a callback. Tock uses callbacks rather than closures because closures typically require dynamic memory allocation, which the kernel avoids and does not generally support.

This design does add complexity when writing drivers as a blocking API is generally simpler to use. However, this is a conscious choice to favor overall safety of the kernel (e.g. avoiding running out of memory or preventing other code from running on time) over functional correctness of individual drivers (because they might be more error-prone, not because they cannot be written correctly).

There are limited cases when the kernel can briefly block. For example, the SAM4L's GPIO controller can take up to 5 cycles to become ready between operations. Technically, a completely asynchronous driver would make this split-phase: the operation returns immediately, and issues a callback when it completes. However, because just setting up the callback will take more than 5 cycles, spinning for 5 cycles is not only simpler, it's also cheaper. The implementation therefore spins for a handful of cycles before returning, such that the operation is synchronous. These cases are rare, though: the operation has to be so fast that it's not worth allowing other code to run during the delay.

External Dependencies

Tock generally prohibits any external crates within the Tock kernel to avoid including external unsafe code. However, in certain situations Tock does allow external dependencies. This is decided on a case by case basis. For more details on this see External Dependencies.

Tock uses some external libraries by vendoring them within the libraries folder. This puts the library's source in the same repository, while keeping the library as a clearly separate crate. This adds a maintenance requirement and complicates updates, so this is also used on a limited basis.

Using unsafe and Capabilities

Tock attempts to minimize the amount of unsafe code in the kernel. Of course, there are a number of operations that the kernel must do which fundamentally violate Rust's memory safety guarantees, and we try to compartmentalize these operations and explain how to use them in an ultimately safe manner.

For operations that violate Rust safety, Tock marks the functions, structs, and traits as unsafe. This restricts the crates that can use these elements. Generally, Tock tries to make it clear where an unsafe operation is occurring by requiring the unsafe keyword be present. For example, with memory-mapped input/output (MMIO) registers, casting an arbitrary pointer to a struct that represents those registers violates memory safety unless the register map and address are verified to be correct. To denote this, doing the cast is clearly marked as unsafe. However, once the cast is complete, accessing those registers no longer violates memory safety. Therefore, using the registers does not require the unsafe keyword.

Not all potentially dangerous code violates Rust's safety model, however. For example, stopping a process from running on the board does not violate language-level safety, but is still a potentially problematic operation from a security and system reliability standpoint, as not all kernel code should be able halt arbitrary processes (in particular, untrusted capsules should not have this access to this API). One way to restrict access to these types of functions would be to re-use the unsafe mechanism, since cargo will emit a warning if code that is prohibited from using unsafe attempts to invoke an unsafe function. However, this muddles the use of unsafe, and makes it difficult to understand if code potentially violates safety or is a restricted API.

Instead, Tock uses capabilities to restrict access to important APIs. As such, any public APIs inside the kernel that should be very restricted in what other code can use them should require a specific capability in their function signatures. This prevents code that has not explicitly been granted the capability from calling the protected API.

To promote the principle of least privilege, capabilities are relatively fine-grained and provide narrow access to specific APIs. This means that generally new APIs will require defining new capabilities.

Ease of Use and Understanding

Whenever possible, Tock's design optimizes to lower the barrier for new users or developers to understand and use Tock. Sometimes, this means intentionally making a design choice that prioritizes readability or clarity over performance.

As an example, Tock generally avoids using Rust's features and #[cfg()] attribute to enable conditional compilation. While using a set of features can lead to optimizing exactly what code should be included when the kernel is built, it also makes it very difficult for users unfamiliar with the features to decide which features to enable and when. Likely, these users will use the default configuration, reducing the benefit of having the features available. Also, conditional compilation makes it very difficult to understand exactly what version of the kernel is running on any particular board as the features can substantially change what code is running. Finally, the non-default options are unlikely to be tested as robustly as the default configuration, leading to versions of the kernel which are no longer available.

Tock also tries to ensure Tock "just works" for users. This manifests by trying to minimize the number of steps to get Tock running. The build system uses make which is familiar to many developers, and just running make in a board folder will compile the kernel. The most supported boards (Hail and imix) can then be programmed by just running make install. Installing an app just requires one more command: tockloader install blink. Tockloader will continue to expand to support the ease-of-use with Tock. Now, "just works" is a design goal that Tock is not completely meeting. But, future design decisions should continue to encourage Tock to "just work".

Demonstrated Features

Tock discourages adding functionality to the kernel unless a clear use case has been established. For example, adding a red-black tree implementation to kernel/src/common might be useful in the future for some new Tock feature. However, that would be unlikely to be merged without a use case inside of the kernel that motivates needing a red-black tree. This general principle provides a starting point for evaluating new features in pull requests.

Requiring a use case also makes the code more likely to be tested and used, as well as updated as other internal kernel APIs change.

Merge Aggressively, Archive Unabashedly

As an experimental embedded operating system with roots in academic research, Tock is likely to receive contributions of new, risky, experimental, or narrowly focused code that may or may not be useful for the long-term growth of Tock. Rather than use a "holding" or "contribution" repository for new, experimental code, Tock tries to merge new features into mainline Tock. This both eases the maintenance burden of the code (it doesn't have to be maintained out-of-tree) and makes the feature more visible.

However, not all features catch on, or are completed, or prove useful, and having the code in mainline Tock becomes an overall maintenance burden. In these cases, Tock will move the code to an archive repository.