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4. Serial Port Basics

You don't have to understand the basics to use the serial port But understanding it may help to determine what is wrong if you run into problems. This section not only presents new topics but also repeats some of what was said in the previous section How the Hardware Transfers Bytes but in greater detail.

4.1 What is a Serial Port ?

Intro to Serial

The UART serial port (or just "serial port for short" is an I/O (Input/Output) device.

An I/O device is just a way to get data into and out of a computer. There are many types of I/O devices such as the older serial ports and parallel ports, network cards, universal serial buses (USB), and firewire etc. Most pre-2007 PC's have a serial port or two (on older PC's). Each has a 9-pin connector (sometimes 25-pin) on the back of the computer. Computer programs can send data (bytes) to the transmit pin (output) and receive bytes from the receive pin (input). The other pins are for control purposes and ground.

The serial port is much more than just a connector. It converts the data from parallel to serial and changes the electrical representation of the data. Inside the computer, data bits flow in parallel (using many wires at the same time). Serial flow is a stream of bits over a single wire (such as on the transmit or receive pin of the serial connector). For the serial port to create such a flow, it must convert data from parallel (inside the computer) to serial on the transmit pin (and conversely).

Most of the electronics of the serial port is found in a computer chip (or a part of a chip) known as a UART. For more details on UARTs see the section What Are UARTS? But you may want to finish this section first so that you will hopefully understand how the UART fits into the overall scheme of things.

Pins and Wires

Old PC's used 25 pin connectors but only about 9 pins were actually used so later on most connectors were only 9-pin. Each of the 9 pins usually connects to a wire. Besides the two wires used for transmitting and receiving data, another pin (wire) is signal ground. The voltage on any wire is measured with respect to this ground. Thus the minimum number of wires to use for 2-way transmission of data is 3. Except that it has been known to work with no signal ground wire but with degraded performance and sometimes with errors.

There are still more wires which are for control purposes (signalling) only and not for sending bytes. All of these signals could have been shared on a single wire, but instead, there is a separate dedicated wire for every type of signal. Some (or all) of these control wires are called "modem control lines". Modem control wires are either in the asserted state (on) of +5 volts or in the negated state (off) of -5 volts. One of these wires is to signal the computer to stop sending bytes out the serial port cable. Conversely, another wire signals the device attached to the serial port to stop sending bytes to the computer. If the attached device is a modem, other wires may tell the modem to hang up the telephone line or tell the computer that a connection has been made or that the telephone line is ringing (someone is attempting to call in). See section Pinout and Signals for more details.

RS-232 (EIA-232, etc.)

The serial port (not the USB) is usually a RS-232-C, EIA-232-D, or EIA-232-E. These three are almost the same thing. The original RS (Recommended Standard) prefix officially became EIA (Electronics Industries Association) and later EIA/TIA after EIA merged with TIA (Telecommunications Industries Association). The EIA-232 spec provides also for synchronous (sync) communication but the hardware to support sync is almost always missing on PC's. The RS designation is was intended to become obsolete but is still widely used and will be used in this howto for RS-232. Other documents may use the full EIA/TIA designation, or just EIA or TIA. For info on other (non-RS-232) serial ports see the section Other Serial Devices (not async RS-232)

4.2 IO Address & IRQ

Since the computer needs to communicate with each serial port, the operating system must know that each serial port exists and where it is (its I/O address). It also needs to know which wire (IRQ number) the serial port must use to request service from the computer's CPU. It requests service by sending an interrupt voltage on this wire. Thus every serial port device must store in its non-volatile memory both its I/O address and its Interrupt ReQuest number: IRQ. See Interrupts. The PCI bus has its own system of interrupts. But since the PCI-aware BIOS sets up these PCI interrupts to map to IRQs, it seemingly behaves just as described above. Except that sharing of PCI interrupts is allowed (2 or more devices may use the same IRQ number).

I/O addresses are not the same as memory addresses. When an I/O addresses is put onto the computer's address bus, another wire is energized. This both tells main memory to ignore the address and tells all devices which have I/O addresses (such as the serial port) to listen to the address sent on the bus to see if it matches the device's. If the address matches, then the I/O device reads the data on the data bus.

The I/O address of a certain device (such as ttyS2) will actually be a range of addresses. The lower address in this range is the base address. "address" usually means just the "base address".

4.3 Names: ttyS0, ttyS1, etc.

The serial ports are named ttyS0, ttyS1, etc. (and usually correspond respectively to COM1, COM2, etc. in DOS/Windows). The /dev directory has a special file for each port. Type "ls /dev/ttyS*" to see them. Just because there may be (for example) a ttyS3 file, doesn't necessarily mean that there exists a physical serial port there.

Which one of these names (ttyS0, ttyS1, etc.) refers to which physical serial port is determined as follows. The serial driver (software) maintains a table showing which I/O address corresponds to which ttyS. This mapping of names (such as ttyS1) to I/O addresses (and IRQ's) may be both set and viewed by the "setserial" command. See What is Setserial. This does not set the I/O address and IRQ in the hardware itself (which is set by jumpers or by plug-and-play software). Thus which physical port corresponds to say ttyS1 depends both on what the serial driver thinks (per setserial) and what is set in the hardware. If a mistake has been made, the physical port may not correspond to any name (such as ttyS2) and thus it can't be used. See Serial Port Devices /dev/ttyS2, etc. for more details.

4.4 Interrupts

When the serial port receives a number of bytes (may be set to 1, 4, 8, or 14) into its FIFO buffer, it signals the CPU to fetch them by sending an electrical signal known as an interrupt on a certain wire normally used only by that port. Thus the FIFO waits until it has received a number of bytes and then issues an interrupt.

However, this interrupt will also be sent if there is an unexpected delay while waiting for the next byte to arrive (known as a timeout). Thus if the bytes are being received slowly (such as from someone typing on a terminal keyboard) there may be an interrupt issued for every byte received. For some UART chips the rule is like this: If 4 bytes in a row could have been received in an interval of time, but none of these 4 show up, then the port gives up waiting for more bytes and issues an interrupt to fetch the bytes currently in the FIFO. Of course, if the FIFO is empty, no interrupt will be issued.

Each interrupt conductor (inside the computer) has a number (IRQ) and the serial port must know which conductor to use to signal on. For example, ttyS0 normally uses IRQ number 4 known as IRQ4 (or IRQ 4). A list of them and more will be found in "man setserial" (search for "Configuring Serial Ports"). Interrupts are issued whenever the serial port needs to get the CPU's attention. It's important to do this in a timely manner since the buffer inside the serial port can hold only 16 incoming bytes. If the CPU fails to remove such received bytes promptly, then there will not be any space left for any more incoming bytes and the small buffer may overflow (overrun) resulting in a loss of data bytes.

There is no Flow Control to prevent this.

Interrupts are also issued when the serial port has just sent out all of its bytes from its small transmit FIFO buffer out the external cable. It then has space for 16 more outgoing bytes. The interrupt is to notify the CPU of that fact so that it may put more bytes in the small transmit buffer to be transmitted. Also, when a modem control line changes state, an interrupt is issued.

The buffers mentioned above are all hardware buffers. The serial port also has large buffers in main memory. This will be explained later

Interrupts convey a lot of information but only indirectly. The interrupt itself just tells a chip called the interrupt controller that a certain serial port needs attention. The interrupt controller then signals the CPU. The CPU then runs a special program to service the serial port. That program is called an interrupt service routine (part of the serial driver software). It tries to find out what has happened at the serial port and then deals with the problem such a transferring bytes from (or to) the serial port's hardware buffer. This program can easily find out what has happened since the serial port has registers at IO addresses known to the serial driver software. These registers contain status information about the serial port. The software reads these registers and by inspecting the contents, finds out what has happened and takes appropriate action.

4.5 Data Flow (Speeds)

Data (bytes representing letters, pictures, etc.) flows into and out of your serial port. Flow rates (such as 56k (56000) bits/sec) are (incorrectly) called "speed". But almost everyone says "speed" instead of "flow rate".

It's important to understand that the average speed is often less than the specified speed. Waits (or idle time) result in a lower average speed. These waits may include long waits of perhaps a second due to Flow Control. At the other extreme there may be very short waits (idle time) of several micro-seconds between bytes. If the device on the serial port (such as a modem) can't accept the full serial port speed, then the average speed must be reduced.

4.6 Flow Control

Flow control means the ability to slow down the flow of bytes in a wire. For serial ports this means the ability to stop and then restart the flow without any loss of bytes. Flow control is needed for modems and other hardware to allow a jump in instantaneous flow rates.

Example of Flow Control

For example, consider the case where you connect a 33.6k external modem via a short cable to your serial port. The modem sends and receives bytes over the phone line at 33.6k bits per second (bps). Assume it's not doing any data compression or error correction. You have set the serial port speed to 115,200 bits/sec (bps), and you are sending data from your computer to the phone line. Then the flow from the your computer to your modem over the short cable is at 115.2k bps. However the flow from your modem out the phone line is only 33.6k bps. Since a faster flow (115.2k) is going into your modem than is coming out of it, the modem is storing the excess flow (115.2k -33.6k = 81.6k bps) in one of its buffers. This buffer would soon overrun (run out of free storage space) unless the high 115.2k flow is stopped.

But now flow control comes to the rescue. When the modem's buffer is almost full, the modem sends a stop signal to the serial port. The serial port passes on the stop signal on to the device driver and the 115.2k bps flow is halted. Then the modem continues to send out data at 33.6k bps drawing on the data it previous accumulated in its buffer. Since nothing is coming into this buffer, the number of bytes in it starts to drop. When almost no bytes are left in the buffer, the modem sends a start signal to the serial port and the 115.2k flow from the computer to the modem resumes. In effect, flow control creates an average flow rate in the short cable (in this case 33.6k) which is significantly less than the "on" flow rate of 115.2k bps. This is "start-stop" flow control.

In the above simple example it was assumed that the modem did no data compression. This could happen when the modem is sending a file which is already compressed and can't be compressed further. Now let's consider the opposite extreme where the modem is compressing the data with a high compression ratio. In such a case the modem might need an input flow rate of say 115.2k bps to provide an output (to the phone line) of 33.6k bps (compressed data). This compression ratio is 3.43 (115.2/33.6). In this case the modem is able to compress the 115.2 bps PC-to-modem flow and send the same data (in compressed form) out the phone line at 33.6bps. There's no need for flow control here so long as the compression ratio remains higher than 3.43. But the compression ratio varies from second to second and if it should drop below 3.43, flow control will be needed

In the above example, the modem was an external modem. But the same situation exists (as of early 2003) for most internal modems. There is still a speed limit on the PC-to-modem speed even though this flow doesn't take place over an external cable. This makes the internal modems compatible with the external modems.

In the above example of flow control, the flow was from the computer to a modem. But there is also flow control which is used for the opposite direction of flow: from a modem (or other device) to a computer. Each direction of flow involves 3 buffers: 1. in the modem 2. in the UART chip (called FIFOs) and 3. in main memory managed by the serial driver. Flow control protects all buffers (except the FIFOs) from overflowing.

Under Linux, the small UART FIFO buffers are not protected by flow control but instead rely on a fast response to the interrupts they issue. Some UART chips can be set to do hardware flow control to protect their FIFOs but Linux (as of early 2003) doesn't seem to support it. FIFO stand for "First In, First Out" which is the way it handles bytes in a queue. All the 3 buffers use the FIFO rule but only the one in the UART is named "FIFO". This is the essence of flow control but there are still some more details.

Symptoms of No Flow Control

Understanding flow-control theory can be of practical use. The symptom of no flow control is that chunks of data missing from files sent without the benefit of flow control. When overflow happens, often hundreds or even thousands of bytes get lost, and all in contiguous chunks.

Hardware vs. Software Flow Control

If feasible, it's best to use "hardware" flow control that uses two dedicated "modem control" wires to send the "stop" and "start" signals. Hardware flow control at the serial port works like this: The two pins, RTS (Request to send) and CTS (Clear to send) are used. When the computer is ready to receive data it asserts RTS by putting a positive voltage on the RTS pin (meaning "Request To Send to me"). When the computer is not able to receive any more bytes, it negates RTS by putting a negative voltage on the pin saying: "stop sending to me". The RTS pin is connected by the serial cable to another pin on the modem, printer, terminal, etc. This other pin's only function is to receive this signal.

For the case of a modem, this "other" pin will be the modem's RTS pin. But for a printer, another PC, or a non-modem device, it's usually a CTS pin so a "crossover" or "null modem" cable is required. This cable connects the CTS pin at one end with the RTS pin at the other end (two wires since each end of the cable has a CTS pin). For a modem, a straight-thru cable is used.

For the opposite direction of flow a similar scheme is used. For a modem, the CTS pin is used to send the flow control signal to the CTS pin on the PC. For a non-modem, the RTS pin sends the signal. Thus modems and non-modems have the roles of their RTS and CTS pins interchanged. Some non-modems such as dumb terminals may use other pins for flow control such as the DTR pin instead of RTS.

Software flow control uses the main receive and transmit data wires to send the start and stop signals. It uses the ASCII control characters DC1 (start) and DC3 (stop) for this purpose. They are just inserted into the regular stream of data. Software flow control is not only slower in reacting but also does not allow the sending of binary data unless special precautions are taken. Since binary data will likely contain DC1 and DC3 characters, special means must be taken to distinguish between a DC3 that means a flow control stop and a DC3 that is part of the binary code. Likewise for DC1.

4.7 Data Flow Path; Buffers

It's been mentioned that there are 3 buffers for each direction of flow (3 pairs altogether): 16-byte FIFO buffers (in the UART), a pair of larger buffers inside a device connected to the serial port (such as a modem), and a pair of buffers (say 8k) in main memory. When an application program sends bytes to the serial port they first get stashed in the transmit serial port buffer in main memory. The other member of this pair consists of a receive buffer for the opposite direction of byte-flow. Here's an example diagram for the case of browsing the Internet with a browser. Transmit data flow is left to right while receive flow is right to left. There is a separate buffer for each direction of flow.

application     8k-byte         16-byte        1k-byte        tele-     
BROWSER ------- MEMORY -------- FIFO --------- MODEM -------- phone
program         buffer          buffer         buffer         line

For the transmit case, the serial device driver takes out say 15 bytes from this transmit buffer (in main memory), one byte at a time and puts them into the 16-byte transmit buffer in the serial UART for transmission. Once in that transmit buffer, there is no way to stop them from being transmitted. They are then transmitted to the modem or (other device connected to the serial port) which also has a fair sized (say 1k) buffer. When the device driver (on orders from flow control sent from the modem) stops the flow of outgoing bytes from the computer, what it actually stops is the flow of outgoing bytes from the large transmit buffer in main memory. Even after this has happened and the flow to the modem has stopped, an application program may keep sending bytes to the 8k transmit buffer until it becomes full. At the same time, the bytes stored in the FIFO continue to be sent out. Bytes stored in the modem will continue to be sent out the phone line unless the modem has gotten a modem-to-modem flow control stop from the modem at the other end of the phone line.

When the memory buffer gets full, the application program can't send any more bytes to it (a "write" statement in a C-program blocks) and the application program temporarily stops running and waits until some buffer space becomes available. Thus a flow control "stop" is ultimately able to stop the program that is sending the bytes. Even though this program stops, the computer does not necessarily stop computing since it may switch to running other processes while it's waiting at a flow control stop.

The above was a little oversimplified in three ways. First, some UARTs can do automatic hardware flow control which can stop the transmission out of the FIFO buffers if needed (not yet supported by Linux). Second, while an application process is waiting to write to the transmit buffer, it could possibly perform other tasks. Third, the serial driver (located between the memory buffer and the FIFO) has it's own small buffer (in main memory) used to process characters.

4.8 Complex Flow Control Example

For many situations, there is a transmit path involving several links, each with its own flow control. For example, I type at a text-terminal connected to a PC and the PC (under my control) dials out to another computer using a modem. Today, a "text-terminal" is likely to be just another PC emulating a text-terminal. The main (server) PC, in addition to serving my text-terminal, could also have someone else sitting at it doing something else. Note that calling this PC a "server" is not technically correct but it does serve the terminal.

The text-terminal uses a command-line interface with no graphical display. Every letter I type at the text-terminal goes over the serial cable to my main PC and then over the phone line to the computer that I've dialed out to. To dial out, I've used the communication software: "minicom" which runs on my PC.

This sounds like a simple data path. I hit a key and the byte that key generates flows over just two cables (besides the keyboard cable): 1. the cable from my text-terminal to my PC and 2. the telephone line cable to some other computer. Of course, the telephone cable is actually a number of telephone system cables and includes switches and electronics so that a single physical cable can transmit many phone calls. But I can think of it like one cable (or one link).

Now, let's count the number and type of electronic devices each keystroke-byte has to pass thru. The terminal-to-PC cable has a serial port at each end. The telephone cable has both a serial port and a modem at each end. This adds up to 4 serial ports and 2 modems. Since each serial port has 2 buffers, and each modem one buffer, that adds up to 10 buffers. And that's just for one direction of flow. Each byte also must pass thru the minicom software as well.

While there's just 2 cables in the above scenario, if external modems were used there would be an additional cable between each modem and it's serial port. This makes 4 cables in all. Even with internal modems it's like there is a "virtual cable" between the modem and its serial port. On all these 4 links (or cables), flow control takes place.

Now lets consider an example of the operation of flow control. Consider the flow of bytes from the remote computer at the other end of the phone line to the screen on the text-terminal that I'm sitting at. A real text-terminal has a limit to the speed at which bytes can be displayed on its screen and issues a flow control "stop" from time to time to slow down the flow. This "stop" propagates in a direction opposite to the flow of bytes it controls. What happens when such a "stop" is issued? Let's consider a case where the "stop" waits long enough before canceling it with a "start", so that it gets thru to the remote computer at the other end of the phone line. When it gets there it will stop the program at the remote computer which is sending out the bytes.

Let's trace out the flow of this "stop" (which may be "hardware" on some links and "software" on others). First, suppose I'm "capturing" a long file from the remote computer which is being sent simultaneously to both my text-terminal and to a file on my hard-disk. The bytes are coming in faster than the terminal can handle them so it sends a "stop" out its serial port to a serial port on my PC. The device driver detects it and stops sending bytes from the 8k PC serial buffer (in main memory) to the terminal. But minicom still keeps sending out bytes for the terminal into this 8k buffer.

When this 8k transmit buffer (on the first serial port) is full, minicom must stop writing to it. Minicom stops and waits. But this also causes minicom to stop reading from the 8k receive buffer on the 2nd serial port connected to the modem. Flow from the modem continues until this 8k buffer too fills up and sends a different "stop" to the modem. Now the modem's buffer ceases to send to the serial port and also fills up. The modem (assuming error correction is enabled) sends a "stop signal" to the other modem at the remote computer. This modem stops sending bytes out of its buffer and when its buffer gets full, another stop signal is sent to the serial port of the remote computer. At the remote computer, the 8-k (or whatever) buffer fills up and the program at the remote computer can't write to it anymore and thus temporarily halts.

Thus a stop signal from a text terminal has halted a program on a remote computer computer. What a long sequence of events! Note that the stop signal passed thru 4 serial ports, 2 modems, and one application program (minicom). Each serial port has 2 buffers (in one direction of flow): the 8k one and the hardware 16-byte one. The application program may have a buffer in its C_code. This adds up to 11 different buffers the data is passing thru. Note that the small serial hardware buffers do not participate directly in flow control. Also note that the two buffers associated with the text-terminal's serial port are going to be dumping their contents to the screen during this flow control halt. This leaves 9 other buffers that may be getting filled up during the flow control halt.

If the terminal speed limitation is the bottleneck in the flow from the remote computer to the terminal, then its flow control "stop" is actually stopping the program that is sending from the remote computer as explained above. But you may ask: How can a "stop" last so long that 9 buffers (some of them large) all get filled up? It seldom happens, but it can actually happen this way if all the buffers were near their upper limits when the terminal sent out the "stop".

But if you were to run a simulation on this you would discover that it's usually more complicated than this. At an instant of time some links are flowing and others are stopped (due to flow control). A "stop" from the terminal seldom propagates back to the remote computer neatly as described above. It may take a few "stops" from the terminal to result in one "stop" at the remote computer, etc. To understand what is going on you really need to observe a simulation which can be done for a simple case with coins on a table. Use only a few buffers and set the upper level for each buffer at only a few coins.

Does one really need to understand all this? Well, understanding this explained to me why capturing text from a remote computer was loosing text. The situation was exactly the above example but modem-to-modem flow control was disabled. Chunks of captured text that were supposed to also get to my hard-disk never got there because of an overflow at my modem buffer due to flow control "stops" from the terminal. Even though the remote computer had a flow path to the hard-disk without bottlenecks, the same flow also went to a terminal which issued flow control "stops" with disastrous results for the branch of the flow going to a file on the hard-disk. The flow to the hard-disk passed thru my modem and since the overflow happened at the modem, bytes intended for the hard-disk were lost.

4.9 Serial Driver Module

The device driver for the serial port is the software that operates the serial port. It is now provided as a serial module. From kernel 2.2 on, this module will normally get loaded automatically if it's needed. In earlier kernels, you had to have kerneld running in order to do auto-load modules on demand. Otherwise the serial module needed to be explicitly listed in /etc/modules. Before modules became popular with Linux, the serial driver was usually built into the kernel (and sometimes still is). If it's built-in don't let the serial module load or else you will have two serial drivers running at the same time. With 2 drivers there are all sorts of errors including a possible "I/O error" when attempting to open a serial port. Use "lsmod" to see if the module is loaded.

When the serial module is loaded it displays a message on the screen about the existing serial ports (often showing a wrong IRQ). But once the module is used by setserial to tell the device driver the (hopefully) correct IRQ then you should see a second display similar to the first but with the correct IRQ, etc. See Serial Module See What is Setserial for more info on setserial.

4.10 The Serial Port is Now Obsolete on PCs

The serial port is today (2011) sort of obsolete on PCs (and often called a "legacy" device) but it is still in use on some older computers and is used in imbedded systems, for communication with routers and point-of-sale equipment, etc. The serial port is slow and after about 2005 most new PC's no longer had them. Most laptops and Macs discontinued them even earlier. During the era when some new PC's came with serial ports and others didn't, the PC's that didn't have serial ports were euphemistically called "legacy-free". However, while PC's today no longer have serial ports, some do have them built into a "legacy" modem (which plugs into a telephone line). Such a serial port only works with the modem and can't be used for any other device. The reason they have such a "built in" serial port is that analog modems are designed to only work thru a serial port.

The physical serial port on the back of a PC (including the chip its connected to inside the PC), must pass data between the computer and an external cable. Thus it has two interfaces: the serial-port-to cable and the serial-port-to-computer-bus. Both of these interfaces are slow. First we'll consider the interface via external cable to the outside world.

4.11 RS-232 Cable Is Low Speed & Short Distance

The conventional RS-232 serial port is inherently low speed and is severely limited in distance. Ads often read "high speed" but it can only work at "high speed" over very short distances such as to a modem located right next to the computer. Compared to a network card, even this "high speed" is actually low speed. All of the RS-232 serial cable wires use a common ground return wire so that twisted-pair technology (needed for high speeds) can't be used without additional hardware. More modern interfaces for serial ports exist but they are not standard on PC's like the RS-232 is. See Successors to RS-232. Some multiport serial cards support them.

It is somewhat tragic that the RS-232 standard from 1969 did not use twisted pair technology which could operate about a hundred times faster. Twisted pairs have been used in telephone cables since the late 1800's. In 1888 (over 120 years ago) the "Cable Conference" reported its support of twisted-pair (for telephone systems) and pointed out its advantages. But over 80 years after this approval by the "Cable Conference", RS-232 failed to utilize it. Since RS-232 was originally designed for connecting a terminal to a low speed modem located nearby, the need for high speed and longer distance transmission was apparently not recognized. The result was that since the serial port couldn't handle high speeds, new types of serial interfaces were devised that could: Ethernet, USB, Firewire, etc. The final outcome was the demise of the serial port which due to it's ancient technology became obsolete for high speed uses.

4.12 Inefficient PCI Interface to the Computer (in some cases)

The serial port communicates with the computer via the PCI bus, the LPC bus, X-bus, or ISA bus. The PCI bus is now 32 or 64 bits wide, but the serial port only sends a byte at a time (8 bits wide) which is a waste of PCI bus bandwidth. Not so for the LPC bus which has only a 4-bit wide bus and thus provides an efficient interface. The ISA bus is usually 16-bits wide and the efficiency is intermediate as compared to efficient LPC and inefficient PCI.


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