Tag Archives: C Code

Z-Wave Watchdog Timer Best Practices

WatchDogVirtually all embedded systems must run 24 x 7 x 365 x many many years without ever being rebooted. Since there is no one there to “press the reset button” if the device fails, the watchdog timer is there to do just that. The 500 series Z-Wave chips from Silicon Labs have a watchdog timer and the example code provides a very minimal use of the watchdog timer. However, the minimal use in the example code is not sufficient to provide a robust watchdog for embedded Z-Wave devices. This post explains some rules and methods to code a robust watchdog timer.

Long time embedded expert Jack Ganssle has a great article on Watchdog timers. He describes the use of a watchdog timer on the Clementine spacecraft where a fault in the system caused the spacecraft to dump virtually of its fuel resulting in the loss of the mission. The lead software engineer had wanted a watchdog but the designers decided not to include it. Jacks example shows how important it is to spend at least some time coding a robust watchdog for our IoT devices. While our devices aren’t controlling multi-million dollar spacecraft, we are coding light switches that are hardwired into the wall and cannot be easily rebooted. Try telling the customer to go into the basement and toggle the power to his entire house to reboot the light switches!

What is a Watchdog?

A watchdog timer is a timer that runs constantly. Typically a complex combination of events resets (or “kicks”) the watchdog timer every now and then, usually every few milliseconds. If the combination of events ever gets stuck, the timer will continue to run. If the watchdog timer “times out”, the system is reset – basically the reset button is pushed! Your embedded system reboots and keeps on running. Generally no one even realizes it has rebooted (I’ll discuss that problem in more detail shortly).

WatchdogTimerThis diagram shows the Watchdog timers value which is constantly counting up. Every time the Watchdog is “kicked”, the counter is reset to zero. Somewhere in your code the ZW_WatchDogKick() routine is called which resets the watchdog timer. Sometimes this reset condition happens on a nice regular basis, sometimes it happens at varying times as shown by the level of the timer. The key is the timeout threshold has to be longer than any normal operating condition. If a fault condition occurs, the timer keeps on counting up until the threshold is reached and then the system is reset. When the watchdog timer fires, the Z-Wave chip goes thru a full reset just as if power had been removed and reapplied. Your embedded system is back up and running as if nothing had happened.

SiLabs Sample Code = Minimal Watchdog

The SiLabs sample code has the following implementation of the watchdog:

BYTE ApplicationInitSW(ZW_NVM_STATUS nvmStatus) {

void ApplicationPoll(void){

The sample code has the good implementation practice of putting the Watchdog code inside #defines so it can be easily enabled/disabled. Unfortunately it blindly kicks the dog every ApplicationPoll without checking any other conditions. ApplicationPoll is called roughly every few hundred microseconds and a lot of fault conditions can exist and ApplicationPoll will still be called. With this implementation the only way the watchdog is going to fire is if there is a catastrophic failure and ApplicationPoll is no longer being called. While this implementation is better than nothing, it won’t reset the system in many cases where the device has become unresponsive. This is where you come in, you have to add more code to the watchdog algorithm. It may be easy to just use what SiLabs provides, but for a robust product you really need to spend some time adding your own conditions to the watchdog algorithm.

A Better Watch Dog Example

Writing good watchdog code requires some significant thought and testing. The possible sources of failure need to be discussed with members of the team and with other Z-Wave developers who are fighting the same fight (thus the need for this blog). I can provide a few guidelines to include in your analysis but this is not a complete solution. Only you know all the possible failure modes of your product and that requires some serious thought and analysis.

Mutex Gets Stuck

The most common failure I have seen is the fact that the SiLabs provided Application Framework (AF) mutex can get stuck. When the mutex is stuck, it most often results in the device still able to receive Z-Wave traffic but often can’t respond. If the device is power cycled, then it returns to full operation. So often this failure goes unnoticed both in testing and in actual use.

What is the mutex you ask? The mutex is a simple flag in the AF that prevents the code from overwriting the Send Buffer while a message is currently being sent over the radio. When a GET command comes in, the AF will call a command class handler to handle the GET and build a REPORT frame in memory. When ready to send the frame, the AF will call pTxBuf=GetResponseBuffer() to get a buffer for the radio to send. There is only one buffer so if the buffer is already in use, you get a NULL pointer back and will have to wait and send the frame later.  This in general works fine as long as frames don’t come in too fast. But in a large network with lots of repeated and re-routed frames you will occasionally get a bunch of GETs quickly and it is possible for the REPORTs to get cross wired and end up locking up the mutex for a frame that will never be sent. If the code then doesn’t properly release the buffer, the mutex is stuck. The Application Framework code is known to lock the mutex occasionally so you must code around this problem. The easiest solution to this rare event is to ensure the watchdog is watching the mutex and simply reboot if it gets stuck for too long.

My solution is to have a counter that counts up once per second in ApplicationPoll anytime ActiveJobs() is true (in SDK 6.81.xx its now called ZAF_mutex_isActive()). ActiveJobs is true anytime a buffer is in use and false when all the buffers are free. There are actually two buffers, one for response frames (REPORTs sent as a result of a GET) and a second buffer for request frames (unsolicited notifications).

Application Specific Reasons

Beyond the mutex you must think long and hard about application specific failure conditions. The most obvious is that the device has not received or sent a frame in 25 hours. Most hubs will poll a device at least a couple of times per day to make sure it is still alive. So if there has been no traffic in a day, maybe something is stuck and a reboot is in order. Plus if nothing has happened in a day then probably no one will notice the reboot (which only takes 1.5 seconds). You do have to be careful that some other part of the application isn’t impacted as a result of the reboot. For example, if you are a light switch and by default you turn the light off on a reboot, then people will be really annoyed if the light randomly turns off because your hub hasn’t polled it in day. There are lots of potential checks you can make here but every application will have different requirements so you will have to think hard about all the possible conditions for your specific case.

Sample good watchdog:

E_APPLICATION_STATE ApplicationPoll( E_PROTOCOL_STATE bProtocolState ) {
if (ActiveJobs()) {              // Mutex buffer is busy
    if (OneSecondTimer) ActiveJobsCounter++;  // Once/sec increment
} else {
    ActiveJobsCounter=0;         // When buffer is free clear counter
if ((ActiveJobsCounter<30) &&       // Mutex isn't stuck 
    (LastCommsHours<25) &&          // Got a frame in the last 24 hrs
    ApplicationSpecificReasons) {   // Other reasons
    ZW_WatchDogKick();              // Everything is OK so reset WDOG

In the example code above we do have a major issue in that if the counters stop counting for some reason, the watchdog will never fire! But that’s easy to check for in ApplicationPoll and if ApplicationPoll itself isn’t running then the WatchDog is no longer being kicked so it will reset.

Doesn’t Work If Not Tested

The old coding adage (proven totally true by me many many times) goes “If the code hasn’t been tested, it doesn’t work”. Same thing applies to your Watchdog code. So how do you test the watchdog? The first thing to do is to log the number of times the watchdog has triggered. This has to be stored in NVM since RAM will be lost when you reboot. Fortunately ApplicationInitHW is called with the bWakeupReason parameter which lets you know the watchdog fired when equal to ZW_WAKEUP_WATCHDOG. Note that usually ApplicationInitHW just stores the bWakeupReason and later in ApplicationInitSW we check it as the NVM isn’t available in InitHW.

ApplicationInitSW(...) {
if (wakeupReason==ZW_WAKEUP_WATCHDOG) { // Increment WDOG counter with max 255
    if (i<255) MemoryPutByte((WORD)&EEOFFSET_NumberWatchDogResets_far, i+1);

Use a Configuration Command Class parameter to read or update this value for testing purposes. I also like to put in a small block of code wrapped in #ifdef WATCHDOG_TESTING_ENABLED that upon receiving a BASIC_SET with a value of 0xDE (not a valid value) calls GetResponseBuffer() which locks up the mutex and in 30 seconds the chip should reboot. If not, then you have a bug in the watchdog code! You can test all the branches in your watchdog code with various values of a BASIC_SET.

When to Enable Watchdog

Perhaps a better question is when NOT to enable the watchdog since ALL production builds absolutely must have the watchdog enabled! My recommendation is to disable the watchdog during development. You want the chip to lock up if you have a bug. The watchdog is really good at masking major bugs since things just keep on working. If the device locks up, then you know something is wrong and you need to chase it down. If you power cycle and the device is fine again, IT IS NOT FINE! You have a bug in your code! During production testing I usually turn the watchdog back on but I also have the testing scripts check the watchdog counter and if it increments then the test fails.

Watchdog Best Practices for Z-Wave Developers

  1. Disable Watchdog during development using #defines
  2. Only kick the watchdog when everything is idle
    1. Kicking every ApplicationPoll is INSUFFICIENT
    2. Check the ActiveJobs() being stuck (aka Mutex)
    3. Check other conditions within your product
  3. Check that the RF has received something every X minutes or hours
  4. Have a way to test the Watchdog during development
  5. Store the number of Watchdog resets in NVM and retrieve them via a configuration parameter


10 Questions when Reviewing Embedded Code

Design News posted a great article “10 Questions to Consider When Reviewing Code” and I’m just posting the list here. Follow the link for the full article with the details behind each question.

  1. Does the Program build without warnings?
  2. Are there any blocking functions?
  3. Are there any potential infinite loops?
  4. Should this function parameter be a const?
  5. Is the code’s cyclomatic complexity less than 10?
  6. Has extern been limited with a liberal use of static?
  7. Do all if…else if… conditionals end with an else? And all switch statements have a default?
  8. Are assertions and/or input/output checks present?
  9. Are header guards present?
  10. Is floating point mathematics being used?

My personal pet peeve is #3 – I am constantly reviewing that uses WHILE loops waiting for a hardware bit to change state. But what if the hardware bit is broken? Then the device is DEAD. Always have some sort of timeout and use a FOR loop instead of a WHILE loop. At least the code will move on and won’t be dead. Maybe it won’t work properly because of the broken hardware but at least the device can limp along.