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interrupt sources and processor handling

In digital computers, an interrupt is a response by the processor to an event that needs attention from the software. An interrupt condition alerts the processor and serves as a request for the processor to interrupt the currently executing code when permitted, so that the event can be processed in a timely manner. If the request is accepted, the processor responds by suspending its current activities, saving its state, and executing a function called an interrupt handler (or an interrupt service routine, ISR) to deal with the event. This interruption is temporary, and, unless the interrupt indicates a fatal error, the processor resumes normal activities after the interrupt handler finishes.[1]

Interrupts are commonly used by hardware devices to indicate electronic or physical state changes that require attention. Interrupts are also commonly used to implement computer multitasking, especially in real-time computing. Systems that use interrupts in these ways are said to be interrupt-driven.[2]


2 types of interrupts in operating system.jpg

Interrupt signals may be issued in response to hardware or software events. These are classified as hardware interrupts or software interrupts, respectively. For any particular processor, the number of interrupt types is limited by the architecture.

Hardware interrupts

A hardware interrupt is a condition related to the state of the hardware that may be signaled by an external hardware device, e.g., an interrupt request (IRQ) line on a PC, or detected by devices embedded in processor logic (e.g., the CPU timer in IBM System/370), to communicate that the device needs attention from the operating system (OS)[3] or, if there is no OS, from the "bare-metal" program running on the CPU. Such external devices may be part of the computer (e.g., disk controller) or they may be external peripherals. For example, pressing a keyboard key or moving a mouse plugged into a PS/2 port triggers hardware interrupts that cause the processor to read the keystroke or mouse position.

Hardware interrupts can arrive asynchronously with respect to the processor clock, and at any time during instruction execution. Consequently, all hardware interrupt signals are conditioned by synchronizing them to the processor clock, and acted upon only at instruction execution boundaries.

In many systems, each device is associated with a particular IRQ signal. This makes it possible to quickly determine which hardware device is requesting service, and to expedite servicing of that device.

On some older systems[4] all interrupts went to the same location and the OS used a specialized instruction to determine the highest priority unmasked interrupt outstanding. On contemporary systems there is generally a distinct interrupt routine for each type of interrupt or for each interrupt source, often implemented as one or more interrupt vector tables.


Processors typically have an internal interrupt mask register which allows selective enabling and disabling of hardware interrupts. Each interrupt signal is associated with a bit in the mask register; on some systems, the interrupt is enabled when the bit is set and disabled when the bit is clear, while on others, a set bit disables the interrupt. When the interrupt is disabled, the associated interrupt signal will be ignored by the processor. Signals which are affected by the mask are called maskable interrupts.

Some interrupt signals are not affected by the interrupt mask and therefore cannot be disabled; these are called non-maskable interrupts (NMI). NMIs indicate high priority events which cannot be ignored under any circumstances, such as the timeout signal from a watchdog timer.

To mask an interrupt is to disable it, while to unmask an interrupt is to enable it.[5]

Spurious interrupts

A spurious interrupt is an invalid, short-duration signal on an interrupt input.[6] These are usually caused by glitches[6] resulting from electrical interference, race conditions, or malfunctioning devices.

Software interrupts

A software interrupt is requested by the processor itself upon executing particular instructions or when certain conditions are met. Every software interrupt signal is associated with a particular interrupt handler.

A software interrupt may be intentionally caused by executing a special instruction which, by design, invokes an interrupt when executed. Such instructions function similarly to subroutine calls and are used for a variety of purposes, such as requesting operating system services and interacting with device drivers (e.g., to read or write storage media).

Software interrupts may also be unexpectedly triggered by program execution errors. These interrupts typically are called traps or exceptions. For example, a divide-by-zero exception will be "thrown" (a software interrupt is requested) if the processor executes a divide instruction with divisor equal to zero. Typically, the operating system will catch and handle this exception.

Triggering methods

Each interrupt signal input is designed to be triggered by either a logic signal level or a particular signal edge (level transition). Level-sensitive inputs continuously request processor service so long as a particular (high or low) logic level is applied to the input. Edge-sensitive inputs react to signal edges: a particular (rising or falling) edge will cause a service request to be latched; the processor resets the latch when the interrupt handler executes.


A level-triggered interrupt is requested by holding the interrupt signal at its particular (high or low) active logic level. A device invokes a level-triggered interrupt by driving the signal to and holding it at the active level. It negates the signal when the processor commands it to do so, typically after the device has been serviced.

The processor samples the interrupt input signal during each instruction cycle. The processor will recognize the interrupt request if the signal is asserted when sampling occurs.

Level-triggered inputs allow multiple devices to share a common interrupt signal via wired-OR connections. The processor polls to determine which devices are requesting service. After servicing a device, the processor may again poll and, if necessary, service other devices before exiting the ISR.


An edge-triggered interrupt is an interrupt signaled by a level transition on the interrupt line, either a falling edge (high to low) or a rising edge (low to high). A device wishing to signal an interrupt drives a pulse onto the line and then releases the line to its inactive state. If the pulse is too short to be detected by polled I/O then special hardware may be required to detect it.

Processor response

The processor samples the interrupt trigger signal during each instruction cycle, and will respond to the trigger only if the signal is asserted when sampling occurs. Regardless of the triggering method, the processor will begin interrupt processing at the next instruction boundary following a detected trigger, thus ensuring:

  • The Program Counter (PC) is saved in a known place.
  • All instructions before the one pointed to by the PC have fully executed.
  • No instruction beyond the one pointed to by the PC has been executed, or any such instructions are undone before handling the interrupt.
  • The execution state of the instruction pointed to by the PC is known.

System implementation

Interrupts may be implemented in hardware as a distinct component with control lines, or they may be integrated into the memory subsystem.

If implemented in hardware as a distinct component, an interrupt controller circuit such as the IBM PC's Programmable Interrupt Controller (PIC) may be connected between the interrupting device and the processor's interrupt pin to multiplex several sources of interrupt onto the one or two CPU lines typically available. If implemented as part of the memory controller, interrupts are mapped into the system's memory address space.

Shared IRQs

Multiple devices may share an edge-triggered interrupt line if they are designed to. The interrupt line must have a pull-down or pull-up resistor so that when not actively driven it settles to its inactive state, which is the default state of it. Devices signal an interrupt by briefly driving the line to its non-default state, and let the line float (do not actively drive it) when not signaling an interrupt. This type of connection is also referred to as open collector. The line then carries all the pulses generated by all the devices. (This is analogous to the pull cord on some buses and trolleys that any passenger can pull to signal the driver that they are requesting a stop.) However, interrupt pulses from different devices may merge if they occur close in time. To avoid losing interrupts the CPU must trigger on the trailing edge of the pulse (e.g. the rising edge if the line is pulled up and driven low). After detecting an interrupt the CPU must check all the devices for service requirements.

Edge-triggered interrupts do not suffer the problems that level-triggered interrupts have with sharing. Service of a low-priority device can be postponed arbitrarily, while interrupts from high-priority devices continue to be received and get serviced. If there is a device that the CPU does not know how to service, which may raise spurious interrupts, it won't interfere with interrupt signaling of other devices. However, it is easy for an edge-triggered interrupt to be missed - for example, when interrupts are masked for a period - and unless there is some type of hardware latch that records the event it is impossible to recover. This problem caused many "lockups" in early computer hardware because the processor did not know it was expected to do something. More modern hardware often has one or more interrupt status registers that latch interrupts requests; well-written edge-driven interrupt handling code can check these registers to ensure no events are missed.

The elderly Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus uses edge-triggered interrupts, without mandating that devices be able to share IRQ lines, but all mainstream ISA motherboards include pull-up resistors on their IRQ lines, so well-behaved ISA devices sharing IRQ lines should just work fine. The parallel port also uses edge-triggered interrupts. Many older devices assume that they have exclusive use of IRQ lines, making it electrically unsafe to share them.

There are 3 ways multiple devices "sharing the same line" can be raised. First is by exclusive conduction (switching) or exclusive connection (to pins). Next is by bus (all connected to the same line listening): cards on a bus must know when they are to talk and not talk (ie, the ISA bus). Talking can be triggered in two ways: by accumulation latch or by logic gates. Logic gates expect a continual data flow that is monitored for key signals. Accumulators only trigger when the remote side excites the gate beyond a threshold, thus no negotiated speed is required. Each has its speed versus distance advantages. A trigger, generally, is the method in which excitation is detected: rising edge, falling edge, threshold (oscilloscope can trigger a wide variety of shapes and conditions).

Triggering for software interrupts must be built into the software (both in OS and app). A 'C' app has a trigger table (a table of functions) in its header, which both the app and OS know of and use appropriately that is not related to hardware. However do not confuse this with hardware interrupts which signal the CPU (the CPU enacts software from a table of functions, similarly to software interrupts).

Difficulty with sharing interrupt lines

Multiple devices sharing an interrupt line (of any triggering style) all act as spurious interrupt sources with respect to each other. With many devices on one line, the workload in servicing interrupts grows in proportion to the square of the number of devices. It is therefore preferred to spread devices evenly across the available interrupt lines. Shortage of interrupt lines is a problem in older system designs where the interrupt lines are distinct physical conductors. Message-signaled interrupts, where the interrupt line is virtual, are favored in new system architectures (such as PCI Express) and relieve this problem to a considerable extent.

Some devices with a poorly designed programming interface provide no way to determine whether they have requested service. They may lock up or otherwise misbehave if serviced when they do not want it. Such devices cannot tolerate spurious interrupts, and so also cannot tolerate sharing an interrupt line. ISA cards, due to often cheap design and construction, are notorious for this problem. Such devices are becoming much rarer, as hardware logic becomes cheaper and new system architectures mandate shareable interrupts.


Some systems use a hybrid of level-triggered and edge-triggered signaling. The hardware not only looks for an edge, but it also verifies that the interrupt signal stays active for a certain period of time.

A common use of a hybrid interrupt is for the NMI (non-maskable interrupt) input. Because NMIs generally signal major – or even catastrophic – system events, a good implementation of this signal tries to ensure that the interrupt is valid by verifying that it remains active for a period of time. This 2-step approach helps to eliminate false interrupts from affecting the system.


A message-signaled interrupt does not use a physical interrupt line. Instead, a device signals its request for service by sending a short message over some communications medium, typically a computer bus. The message might be of a type reserved for interrupts, or it might be of some pre-existing type such as a memory write.

Message-signalled interrupts behave very much like edge-triggered interrupts, in that the interrupt is a momentary signal rather than a continuous condition. Interrupt-handling software treats the two in much the same manner. Typically, multiple pending message-signaled interrupts with the same message (the same virtual interrupt line) are allowed to merge, just as closely spaced edge-triggered interrupts can merge.

Message-signalled interrupt vectors can be shared, to the extent that the underlying communication medium can be shared. No additional effort is required.

Because the identity of the interrupt is indicated by a pattern of data bits, not requiring a separate physical conductor, many more distinct interrupts can be efficiently handled. This reduces the need for sharing. Interrupt messages can also be passed over a serial bus, not requiring any additional lines.

PCI Express, a serial computer bus, uses message-signaled interrupts exclusively.


In a push button analogy applied to computer systems, the term doorbell or doorbell interrupt is often used to describe a mechanism whereby a software system can signal or notify a computer hardware device that there is some work to be done. Typically, the software system will place data in some well-known and mutually agreed upon memory locations, and "ring the doorbell" by writing to a different memory location. This different memory location is often called the doorbell region, and there may even be multiple doorbells serving different purposes in this region. It is this act of writing to the doorbell region of memory that "rings the bell" and notifies the hardware device that the data are ready and waiting. The hardware device would now know that the data are valid and can be acted upon. It would typically write the data to a hard disk drive, or send them over a network, or encrypt them, etc.

The term doorbell interrupt is usually a misnomer. It is similar to an interrupt, because it causes some work to be done by the device; however, the doorbell region is sometimes implemented as a polled region, sometimes the doorbell region writes through to physical device registers, and sometimes the doorbell region is hardwired directly to physical device registers. When either writing through or directly to physical device registers, this may cause a real interrupt to occur at the device's central processor unit (CPU), if it has one.

Doorbell interrupts can be compared to Message Signaled Interrupts, as they have some similarities.

Multiprocessor IPI

In multiprocessor systems, a processor may send an interrupt request to another processor via inter-processor interrupts[a] (IPI).


Interrupts provide low overhead and good latency at low load, but degrade significantly at high interrupt rate unless care is taken to prevent several pathologies. The phenomenon where the overall system performance is severely hindered by excessive amounts of processing time spent handling interrupts is called an interrupt storm.

There are various forms of livelocks, when the system spends all of its time processing interrupts to the exclusion of other required tasks. Under extreme conditions, a large number of interrupts (like very high network traffic) may completely stall the system. To avoid such problems, an operating system must schedule network interrupt handling as carefully as it schedules process execution.[7]

With multi-core processors, additional performance improvements in interrupt handling can be achieved through receive-side scaling (RSS) when multiqueue NICs are used. Such NICs provide multiple receive queues associated to separate interrupts; by routing each of those interrupts to different cores, processing of the interrupt requests triggered by the network traffic received by a single NIC can be distributed among multiple cores. Distribution of the interrupts among cores can be performed automatically by the operating system, or the routing of interrupts (usually referred to as IRQ affinity) can be manually configured.[8][9]

A purely software-based implementation of the receiving traffic distribution, known as receive packet steering (RPS), distributes received traffic among cores later in the data path, as part of the interrupt handler functionality. Advantages of RPS over RSS include no requirements for specific hardware, more advanced traffic distribution filters, and reduced rate of interrupts produced by a NIC. As a downside, RPS increases the rate of inter-processor interrupts (IPIs). Receive flow steering (RFS) takes the software-based approach further by accounting for application locality; further performance improvements are achieved by processing interrupt requests by the same cores on which particular network packets will be consumed by the targeted application.[8][10][11]

Typical uses

Interrupts are commonly used to service hardware timers, transfer data to and from storage (e.g., disk I/O) and communication interfaces (e.g., UART, Ethernet), handle keyboard and mouse events, and to respond to any other time-sensitive events as required by the application system. Non-maskable interrupts are typically used to respond to high-priority requests such as watchdog timer timeouts, power-down signals and traps.

Hardware timers are often used to generate periodic interrupts. In some applications, such interrupts are counted by the interrupt handler to keep track of absolute or elapsed time, or used by the OS task scheduler to manage execution of running processes, or both. Periodic interrupts are also commonly used to invoke sampling from input devices such as analog-to-digital converters, incremental encoder interfaces, and GPIO inputs, and to program output devices such as digital-to-analog converters, motor controllers, and GPIO outputs.

A disk interrupt signals the completion of a data transfer from or to the disk peripheral; this may cause a process to run which is waiting to read or write. A power-off interrupt predicts imminent loss of power, allowing the computer to perform an orderly shut-down while there still remains enough power to do so. Keyboard interrupts typically cause keystrokes to be buffered so as to implement typeahead.

Interrupts are sometimes used to emulate instructions which are unimplemented on some computers in a product family.[12] For example floating point instructions may be implemented in hardware on some systems and emulated on lower-cost systems. In the latter case, execution of an unimplemented floating point instruction will cause an "illegal instruction" exception interrupt. The interrupt handler will implement the floating point function in software and then return to the interrupted program as if the hardware-implemented instruction had been executed.[13] This provides application software portability across the entire line.

Interrupts are similar to signals, the difference being that signals are used for inter-process communication (IPC), mediated by the kernel (possibly via system calls) and handled by processes, while interrupts are mediated by the processor and handled by the kernel. The kernel may pass an interrupt as a signal to the process that caused it (typical examples are SIGSEGV, SIGBUS, SIGILL and SIGFPE).


Hardware interrupts were introduced as an optimization, eliminating unproductive waiting time in polling loops, waiting for external events. The first system to use this approach was the DYSEAC, completed in 1954, although earlier systems provided error trap functions.[14]

The UNIVAC 1103 computer is generally credited with the earliest use of interrupts in 1953.[15][specify] Earlier, on the UNIVAC I (1951) "Arithmetic overflow either triggered the execution a two-instruction fix-up routine at address 0, or, at the programmer's option, caused the computer to stop." The IBM 650 (1954) incorporated the first occurrence of interrupt masking.[disputed ] The National Bureau of Standards DYSEAC (1954) was the first to use interrupts for I/O. The IBM 704 was the first to use interrupts for debugging, with a "transfer trap", which could invoke a special routine when a branch instruction was encountered. The MIT Lincoln Laboratory TX-2 system (1957) was the first to provide multiple levels of priority interrupts.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Known as shoulder taps on some IBM operating systems.


  1. ^ Jonathan Corbet; Alessandro Rubini; Greg Kroah-Hartman (2005). "Linux Device Drivers, Third Edition, Chapter 10. Interrupt Handling" (PDF). O'Reilly Media. p. 269. Retrieved December 25, 2014. Then it's just a matter of cleaning up, running software interrupts, and getting back to regular work. The "regular work" may well have changed as a result of an interrupt (the handler could wake_up a process, for example), so the last thing that happens on return from an interrupt is a possible rescheduling of the processor.
  2. ^ Rosenthal, Scott (May 1995). "Basics of Interrupts". Archived from the original on 2016-04-26. Retrieved 2010-11-11.
  3. ^ "Hardware interrupts". Retrieved 2014-02-09.
  4. ^ "Interrupt Instructions". Control Data 3600 Computer System Reference Manual (PDF). Control Data Corporation. July 1964. p. 4-6. 60021300.
  5. ^ Bai, Ying (2017). Microcontroller Engineering with MSP432: Fundamentals and Applications. CRC Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-4987-7298-3. LCCN 2016020120. In Cortex-M4 system, the interrupts and exceptions have the following properties: ... Generally, a single bit in a mask register is used to mask (disable) or unmask (enable) certain interrupt/exceptions to occur
  6. ^ a b Li, Qing; Yao, Caroline (2003). Real-Time Concepts for Embedded Systems. CRC Press. p. 163. ISBN 1482280825.
  7. ^ Mogul, Jeffrey C.; Ramakrishnan, K. K. (1997). "Eliminating receive livelock in an interrupt-driven kernel". ACM Transactions on Computer Systems. 15 (3): 217–252. doi:10.1145/263326.263335. S2CID 215749380. Retrieved 2010-11-11.
  8. ^ a b Tom Herbert; Willem de Bruijn (May 9, 2014). "Documentation/networking/scaling.txt". Linux kernel documentation. Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  9. ^ "Intel 82574 Gigabit Ethernet Controller Family Datasheet" (PDF). Intel. June 2014. p. 1. Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  10. ^ Jonathan Corbet (November 17, 2009). "Receive packet steering". Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  11. ^ Jake Edge (April 7, 2010). "Receive flow steering". Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  12. ^ Thusoo, Shalesh; et al. "Patent US 5632028 A". Google Patents. Retrieved Aug 13, 2017.
  13. ^ Altera Corporation (2009). Nios II Processor Reference (PDF). p. 4. Retrieved Aug 13, 2017.
  14. ^ Codd, Edgar F. "Multiprogramming". Advances in Computers. 3: 82.
  15. ^ Bell, C. Gordon; Newell, Allen (1971). Computer structures: readings and examples. McGraw-Hill. p. 46. ISBN 9780070043572. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019.
  16. ^ Smotherman, Mark. "Interrupts". Retrieved Feb 18, 2019.

Edited: 2021-06-18 18:24:29