ACRN Real-Time VM Performance Tips


The ACRN real-time VM (RTVM) is a special type of ACRN post-launched VM. This document shows how you can configure RTVMs to potentially achieve near bare-metal performance by configuring certain key technologies and eliminating use of a VM-exit within RT tasks, thereby avoiding this common virtualization overhead issue.

Neighbor VMs such as Service VMs, Human-Machine-Interface (HMI) VMs, or other real-time VMs, may negatively affect the execution of real-time tasks on an RTVM. This document also shows technologies used to isolate potential runtime noise from neighbor VMs.

Here are some key technologies that can significantly improve RTVM performance:

  • LAPIC passthrough with core partitioning.
  • PCIe Device Passthrough: Only MSI interrupt-capable PCI devices are supported for the RTVM.
  • Enable CAT (Cache Allocation Technology)-based cache isolation: RTVM uses a dedicated CLOS (Class of Service). While others may share CLOS, the GPU uses a CLOS that will not overlap with the RTVM CLOS.
  • PMD virtio: Both virtio BE and FE work in polling mode so interrupts and notification between the Service VM and RTVM are not needed. All RTVM guest memory is hidden from the Service VM except for the virtio queue memory.

This document summarizes tips from issues encountered and resolved during real-time development and performance tuning.

Mandatory options for an RTVM

An RTVM is a post-launched VM with LAPIC passthrough. Pay attention to these options when you launch an ACRN RTVM:

Tip: Apply the acrn-dm option --lapic_pt
The LAPIC passthrough feature of ACRN is configured via the --lapic_pt option, but the feature is actually enabled when LAPIC is switched to X2APIC mode. Both conditions should be met to enable an RTVM. The --rtvm option will be automatically attached once --lapic_pt is applied.
Tip: Use virtio polling mode
Polling mode prevents the frontend of the VM-exit from sending a notification to the backend. We recommend that you passthrough a physical peripheral device (such as block or an ethernet device), to an RTVM. If no physical device is available, ACRN supports virtio devices and enables polling mode to avoid a VM-exit at the frontend. Enable virtio polling mode via the option --virtio_poll [polling interval].

Avoid VM-exit latency

VM-exit has a significant negative impact on virtualization performance. A single VM-exit causes a several micro-second or longer latency, depending on what’s done in VMX-root mode. VM-exit is classified into two types: triggered by external CPU events or triggered by operations initiated by the vCPU.

ACRN eliminates almost all VM-exits triggered by external events by using LAPIC passthrough. A few exceptions exist:

  • SMI - This brings the processor into the SMM, causing a much longer performance impact. The SMI should be handled in the BIOS.
  • NMI - ACRN uses NMI for system-level notification.

You should avoid VM-exits triggered by operations initiated by the vCPU. Refer to the Intel Software Developer Manuals (SDM) “Instructions Cause VM-exits Unconditionally” (SDM V3, 25.1.2) and “Instructions That Cause VM-exits Conditionally” (SDM V3, 25.1.3).

Tip: Do not use CPUID in a real-time critical section.

The CPUID instruction causes VM-exits unconditionally. You should detect CPU capability before entering a RT-critical section. CPUID can be executed at any privilege level to serialize instruction execution and its high efficiency of execution. It’s commonly used as a serializing instruction in an application by using CPUID immediately before and after RDTSC. Remove use of CPUID in this case by using RDTSCP instead of RDTSC. RDTSCP waits until all previous instructions have been executed before reading the counter, and the subsequent instructions after the RDTSCP normally have data dependency on it, so they must wait until the RDTSCP has been executed.

RDMSR or WRMSR are instructions that cause VM-exits conditionally. On the ACRN RTVM, most MSRs are not intercepted by the HV, so they won’t cause a VM-exit. But there are exceptions for security consideration:

  1. read from APICID and LDR;
  2. write to TSC_ADJUST if VMX_TSC_OFFSET_FULL is zero; otherwise, read and write to TSC_ADJUST and TSC_DEADLINE;
  3. write to ICR.
Tip: Do not use RDMSR to access APICID and LDR in an RT critical section.
ACRN does not present a physical APICID to a guest, so APICID and LDR are virtualized even though LAPIC is passthrough. As a result, access to APICID and LDR can cause a VM-exit.
Tip: Guarantee that VMX_TSC_OFFSET_FULL is zero; otherwise, do not access TSC_ADJUST and TSC_DEADLINE in the RT critical section.
ACRN uses VMX_TSC_OFFSET_FULL as the offset between vTSC_ADJUST and pTSC_ADJUST. If VMX_TSC_OFFSET_FULL is zero, intercepting TSC_ADJUST and TSC_DEADLINE is not necessary. Otherwise, they should be intercepted to guarantee functionality.
Tip: Utilize Preempt-RT Linux mechanisms to reduce the access of ICR from the RT core.
  1. Add domain to isolcpus ( isolcpus=nohz,domain,1 ) to the kernel parameters.
  2. Add idle=poll to the kernel parameters.
  3. Add rcu_nocb_poll along with rcu_nocbs=1 to the kernel parameters.
  4. Disable the logging service like journald, syslogd if possible.

The parameters shown above are recommended for the guest Preempt-RT Linux. For an UP RTVM, ICR interception is not a problem. But for an SMP RTVM, IPI may be needed between vCPUs. These tips are about reducing ICR access. The example above assumes it is a dual-core RTVM, while core 0 is a housekeeping core and core 1 is a real-time core. The domain flag makes strong isolation of the RT core from the general SMP balancing and scheduling algorithms. The parameters idle=poll and rcu_nocb_poll could prevent the RT core from sending reschedule IPI to wakeup tasks on core 0 in most cases. The logging service is disabled because an IPI may be issued to the housekeeping core to notify the logging service when there are kernel messages output on the RT core.


If an ICR access is inevitable within the RT critical section, be aware of the extra 3~4 microsecond latency for each access.

Tip: Create and initialize the RT tasks at the beginning to avoid runtime access to control registers.
Accessing Control Registers is another cause of a VM-exit. An ACRN access to CR3 and CR8 does not cause a VM-exit. However, writes to CR0 and CR4 may cause a VM-exit, which would happen at the spawning and initialization of a new task.

Isolating the impact of neighbor VMs

ACRN makes use of several technologies and hardware features to avoid performance impact on the RTVM by neighbor VMs:

Tip: Do not share CPUs allocated to the RTVM with other RT or non-RT VMs.
ACRN enables CPU sharing to improve the utilization of CPU resources. However, for an RT VM, CPUs should be dedicatedly allocated for determinism.
Tip: Use RDT such as CAT and MBA to allocate dedicated resources to the RTVM.
ACRN enables Intel® Resource Director Technology such as CAT, and MBA components such as the GPU via the memory hierarchy. The availability of RDT is hardware-specific. Refer to the Enable RDT Configuration.
Tip: Lock the GPU to a feasible lowest frequency.
A GPU can put a heavy load on the power/memory subsystem. Locking the GPU frequency as low as possible can help improve RT performance determinism. GPU frequency can usually be locked in the BIOS, but such BIOS support is platform-specific.


Tip: Disable timer migration on Preempt-RT Linux.

Because most tasks are set affinitive to the housekeeping core, the timer armed by RT tasks might be migrated to the nearest busy CPU for power saving. But it will hurt RT determinism because the timer interrupts raised on the housekeeping core need to be resent to the RT core. The timer migration can be disabled by the command:

echo 0 > /proc/kernel/timer_migration
Tip: Add mce=off to RT VM kernel parameters.
This parameter disables the mce periodic timer and avoids a VM-exit.
Tip: Disable the Intel processor C-State and P-State of the RTVM.
Power management of a processor could save power, but it could also impact the RT performance because the power state is changing. C-State and P-State PM mechanism can be disabled by adding processor.max_cstate=0 intel_idle.max_cstate=0  intel_pstate=disabled to the kernel parameters.
Tip: Exercise caution when setting /proc/sys/kernel/sched_rt_runtime_us.
Setting /proc/sys/kernel/sched_rt_runtime_us to -1 can be a problem. A value of -1 allows RT tasks to monopolize a CPU, so that a mechanism such as nohz might get no chance to work, which can hurt the RT performance or even (potentially) lock up a system.
Tip: Disable the software workaround for Machine Check Error on Page Size Change.
By default, the software workaround for Machine Check Error on Page Size Change is conditionally applied to the models that may be affected by the issue. However, the software workaround has a negative impact on performance. If all guest OS kernels are trusted, the CONFIG_MCE_ON_PSC_WORKAROUND_DISABLED option could be set for performance.


The tips for preempt-RT Linux are mostly applicable to the Linux-based RT OS as well, such as Xenomai.