Ontop of FreeRTOS, we have our own mutex implementation. Never use the FreeRTOS mutexes directly! Always use this abstraction layer instead. This mutex implementation tries to make reasoning about program flow and locking behavior easier. And most importantly tries to help with debugging possible dead-locks.


There are a few guiding design principles:

  • Mutexes can only be used from tasks, never from interrupts!

  • Timers can use mutexes, but only with mutex_trylock(), never with mutex_lock() (Because they are not allowed to block).

  • Locking can never fail (if it does, we consider this a fatal error ⇒ panic).

  • No recursive locking.

  • An unlock can only occur from the task which previously acquired the mutex.

  • An unlock is only allowed if the mutex was previously acquired.

For a more elaborate explanation of the rationale behind these rules take a look at the Reasons for this Design.


struct mutex

Mutex data type.


Create a new mutex.

Call this function as early as possible, in an obvious location so it is easy to find. Mutexes should be defined statically so they stay alive for the entire run-time of the firmware.

void mutex_lock(struct mutex * m)

Lock a mutex.

If the mutex is held by another task, mutex_lock() will block the current task until the mutex is unlocked.


This function is not safe to use in a timer!

bool mutex_trylock(struct mutex * m)

Try locking a mutex.

If the mutex is currently locked by another task, mutex_trylock() will return false immediately. If the attmept to lock was successful, it will return true.

This funciton is safe for use in timers.

void mutex_unlock(struct mutex * m)

Unlock a mutex.

You must call this function from the same task which originally locked the mutex.

TaskHandle_t mutex_get_owner(struct mutex * m)

Get the current owner of the mutex.

Returns the task-handle of the task currently holding the mutex. If the mutex is unlocked, NULL is returned.

Reasons for this Design

Locking can never fail

This might seem like a bold claim at first but in the end, it is just a matter of definition and shifting responsibilities. Instead of requiring all code to be robust against a locking attempt failing, we require all code to properly lock and unlock their mutexes and thus never producing a situation where locking would fail.

Because all code using any of the mutexes is contained in the Epicardium code-base, we can - hopefully - audit it properly behaving ahead of time and thus don’t need to add code to ensure correctness at runtime. This makes downstream code easier to read and easier to reason about.

History of this project has shown that most code does not properly deal with locking failures anyway: There was code simply skipping the mutexed action on failure, code blocking a module entirely until reboot, and worst of all: Code exposing the locking failure to ‘user-space’ (Pycardium) instead of retrying. This has lead to spurious errors where technically there would not need to be any.

Only from tasks

Locking a mutex from an ISR, a FreeRTOS software timer or any other context which does not allow blocking is complicated to do right. The biggest difficulty is that a task might be holding the mutex during execution of such a context and there is no way to wait for it to release the mutex. This requires careful design of the program flow to choose an alternative option in such a case. A common approach is to ‘outsource’ the relevant parts of the code into an ‘IRQ worker’ which is essentially just a task waiting for the IRQ to wake it up and then attempts to lock the mutex.

If you absolutely do need it (and for legacy reasons), software timers can lock a mutex using mutex_trylock() (which never blocks). I strongly recommend not doing that, though. As shown above, you will have to deal with the case of the mutex being held by another task and it is very well possible that your timer will get starved of the mutex because the scheduler has no knowledge of its intentions. In most cases, it is a better idea to use a task and attempt locking using mutex_lock().


We might introduce a generic IRQ worker queue system at some point.

No recursive locking

Recursive locking refers to the ability to ‘reacquire’ a mutex already held by the current task, deeper down in the call-chain. Only the outermost unlock will actually release the mutex. This feature is sometimes implemented to allow more elegant abstractions where downstream code does not need to know about the mutexes upstream code uses and can still also create a larger region where the same mutex is held.

But exactly by hiding the locking done by a function, these abstractions make it hard to trace locking chains and in some cases even make it impossible to create provably correct behavior. As an alternative, I would suggest using different mutexes for the different levels of abstraction. This also helps keeping each mutex separated and ‘local’ to its purpose.

Only unlock from the acquiring task

Because of the above mentioned mutex locking semantics, there should never be a need to force-unlock a forgein mutex. Even in cases of failures, all code should still properly release all mutexes it holds. One notable exceptions is panic()s which will abort all ongoing operations anyway.

Only unlock once after acquisition

Justified with an argument of robustness, sometimes the mutex_unlock() call is written in a way that allows unlocking an already unlocked mutex. But robustness of downstream code will not really be improved by the upstream API dealing with arguably invalid usage. For example, this could encourage practices like unlocking everything again at the end of a function “just to be sure”.

Instead, code should be written in a way where the lock/unlock pair is immediately recognizable as belonging together and is thus easily auditable to have correct locking behavior. A common pattern to help with readability in this regard is the Single Function Exit which looks like this:

int function()
        int ret;

        ret = foo();
        if (ret) {
                /* Return with an error code */
                ret = -ENODEV;
                goto out_unlock;

        ret = bar();
        if (ret) {
                /* Return the return value from foo */
                goto out_unlock;

        ret = 0;
        return ret;