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4. Serial Port and Modem Basics

4.1 What is a Serial Port ?

Intro to Serial

The serial port is an I/O (Input/Output) device.

Most PC's have one or two serial ports. 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

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 today most connectors are 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 +12 volts or in the negated state (off) of -12 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 the Serial-HOWTO: Pinout and Signals for more details.

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 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. For the PCI bus it doesn't work exactly this way since the PCI bus has its own system of interrupts. But since the PCI-aware BIOS sets up chips to map these PCI interrupts to IRQs, it seemingly behaves just as described above except that sharing of 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 to see if it matches the device's. If the address matches, then the I/O device reads the data on the data bus.

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 what 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 for 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 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, 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 (1 in old serial ports) 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 16 of its bytes from its small transmit 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 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 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 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 the buffer, the level 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 would be true 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). The compression ratio is 3.43 (115.2/33.6) which is much higher than average. In this case the modem is able to compress and the 115.2 bps PC-to-modem flow and send the same data out on the phone line at 33.6bps. There's no need for flow control here. But such a high compression ratio rarely happens so that most of the time flow control is needed to slow down the flow on the 115.2 bps PC-to-modem cable. The flow is stopped and started so that the average flow is usually well under the "on" flow of 115.2 bps.

In the above example the modem was an external modem. But the same situation exists (as of late 2000) 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 involve 3 buffers: 1. in the modem 2. in the UART chip (called FIFOs) 3. in main memory managed by the serial driver. Flow control protects certain buffers from overflowing. The small UART FIFO buffers are not protected in this way but rely instead on a fast response to the interrupts they issue. FIFO stand for "First In, First Out" which is the way it handles bytes. All the 3 buffers use the FIFO rule but only one of them also uses it as a name. This is the essence of flow control but there are still some more details.

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.

Software flow control uses the main receive and transmit 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, 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.

4.6 Data Flow Path; Buffers

Much has been explained about this including flow control, a pair of 16-byte FIFO buffers (in the UART), and a pair of larger buffers inside a device connected to the serial port (such as a modem. But there is still another pair of buffers. These are large buffers (perhaps 8k) in main memory also known as serial port buffers. When an application program sends bytes to the serial port

they first get stashed in the the transmit serial port buffer in main memory. The pair consists of both this transmit buffer and 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.

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

The serial device driver takes out say 16 bytes from this transmit buffer, 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) 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 device connected to the serial port has stopped, an application program may keep sending bytes to the 8k transmit buffer until it becomes fill.

When it gets fill, 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. It may switch to running other processes while it's waiting at a flow control stop. The above was a little oversimplified since there is another alternative of having the application program itself do something else while it is waiting to "write".

4.7 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" in the Serial-HOWTO. See What is Setserial for more info on setserial.


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