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SONIC & TAILS are two runtime systems for doing inference on intermittent embedded devices. SONIC is software only, while TAILS relies on hardware acceleration available on MSP430 devices with support for the Low-energy Accelerator (LEA). Both systems are built upon a task-based model (Alpaca) and target the MSP430 platform. This repository is a top-level repository, containing two example applications that utilize SONIC & TAILS.

Please cite/refer to this paper for more information.


This repository is a top-level repository that relies on git submodules for dependencies; when cloning please do the following:

git clone --recursive

Directory/File Structure

We utilize a custom build system that builds all library dependencies as well as example applications. Below is an explanation of the directories/files found in this repo.


app/ contains the mnist/ and test/ example applications. MNIST is an implementation of LeNet while test contains a series of unit tests. Source files can be found in their respective src/ directories. Weights can be found in their respective src/headers/ directories.

ext/ contains libraries. libdnn, libfixed, and libmat are the relevant libraries for SONIC and TAILS (the rest provide additional functionality required to run on MSP430; i.e. console printing, access to pins, etc.). libdnn contains source code for the linear algebra and neural network operations for both SONIC & TAILS. libfixed is a fixed point math library. libmat is a matrix data structure library.

params contains raw parameters from tensorflow (in the case of MNIST) and for the unit tests.

scripts contains several helpful python scripts for testing.,, and are testing scripts for comparison with output from MSP430. and are for MNIST (both are full precision, but can be made to reflect fixed point arithmetic). is for the test application and prints out a series of unit test results. can be used to generate headers from dumps of raw parameters from Tensorflow. Please refer to the main function in that file for an example of how to utilize it.

tools contains the maker build system.


The following list of commands summarizes how to build the two example applications and how to change build parameters in order to utilize TAILS or SONIC for various contexts. Replace with the target application, so for mnist <APP> is mnist and for test <APP> is test.

  1. Clean dependencies: make apps/<APP>/bld/gcc/depclean
  2. Build dependencies: make apps/<APP>/bld/gcc/dep
  3. Build target: make apps/<APP>/bld/gcc/all BACKEND=sonic
    • BACKEND determines which backend to use. Set to sonic for SONIC, tails for TAILS.
    • CONSOLE set to one to enable printf debugging.
    • CONT set to one if running on continuous power
    • INTERMITTENT set to one if running on intermittent power.
    • NOTE: when changing build arguments remember to run commands 1 and 2. Since build arguments only change what is valid code in the files, make will not see any changes to dependencies, so a full clean must be done in order for the build arguments to take effect.


Executables will appear in the bld directory of the respective application (e.g. apps/mnist/bld/gcc/mnist.out). In order to run on the device use mspdebug. Run,

  1. mspdebug -v 3300 -d /dev/ttyACM0 tilib
  2. > prog apps/mnist/bld/gcc/mnist.out
  3. > run


Please refer to main.c for the mnist example application for a full example of how to use SONIC and TAILS. The following briefly describes how to construct an application that utilizes SONIC or TAILS.

SONIC and TAILS provide a unified interface with a set of common linear algebra and neural-network operations. Specifically the following operations are supported:

  1. Nonlinear: Relu, Norm, MaxPool
  2. Dense Scalar: addition, multiplication, division
  3. Dense Matrix: matrix-vector multiplication, matrix-matrix addition, matrix-matrix 3D convolution.
  4. Sparse Matrix: matrix-vector multiplication, matrix-matrix addition, matrix-matrix 3D convolution.
  5. Other: dense zeroing of a matrix

The above functions operate on matrices and utilized fixed-point (Q10.5) math. The matrix data structure contains matrix data and metadata.

__ro_fram mat_t  mat_conv2_w = { // __ro_fram is a macro that places matrix in nvm
  .dims = {CONV2_WM_LEN}, // dense dimensions
  .len_dims = 1, // dimensionality (i.e. 3 for 3D, 1 if sparse)
  .strides = {1}, // offsets between dimensions (i.e. if dimension are 100x5x5 strides are 25, 5, 1)
  .data = conv2_wm, // data
  .sparse = { // sparse metadata
    .dims = {100, 20, 5, 5}, // sparse dimensions
    .len_dims = 4, // dimensionality
    .sizes = conv2_wm_sizes, // filter sizes (count of nonzero elements in filters)
    .offsets = conv2_wm_offsets, // column offsets

To call a particular operation do the following:

  Assumes b, w, dest, src in that order
  b_ptr is the biases
  w_ptr is the weights
  b1 destination matrix
  b2 source matrix 
PUSH_STACK(mat_stack, b_ptr, w_ptr, b1, b2);

// Set a task to return to after the operation is completed
TASK_REF(task_s_conv)->info.return_task = TASK_REF(task_compute);

SONIC and TAILS uses a stack to pass arguments. Please pass arguments in the order specified by the comments. Not all operations take biases or weights and can be omitted from PUSH_STACK in those cases.

Some operations like convolution take other parameters. These parameters include x stride, y stride, and potentially x size and y size (used for maxpooling). To pass these parameters modify the global parameter data structure.

  params.same_padding = false; // same_padding
  params.size[0] = 1; // z size (not implemented for >1)
  params.size[1] = 2; // y size
  params.size[2] = 2; // x size
  params.stride[0] = 1; // z stride (not implemented for >1)
  params.stride[1] = 1; // y stride
  params.stride[2] = 1; // x stride

Helpful Matrix Operations

  • MAT_RESHAPE reshapes a matrix. Pass matrix (pointer) and series of dimensions to reshape matrix to.
  • MAT_DUMP dumps a slice of 3D matrix. Pass matrix (pointer) and slice index.

Helpful Fixed-point Operations

  • F_LIT(2.34) convert a floating-point number to fixed-point
  • F_TO_FLOAT(345) convert a fixed-point number to floating-point
  • NOTE: see fixed.h in libfixed for a list of all other fixed-point operations supported. Also see Makefile.options in libfixed for more configuration options of the library.


libdnn contains the source of both SONIC and TAILS. The seires of Makefiles handle different options for each backend and also determine the backend being built. The src folder contains shared source files as well as sonic, tails, and include directories. include contains the header files required for linking. sonic contains the SONIC specific files and tails contains the same for the TAILS backend.

  • buffer.c - unified storage buffers
  • cleanup.c - cleans up task variables that need to be reset on transition
  • linalg.c - contains a norm function
  • misc.c
  • nn.c – contains neural network operations such as fully-connected layer and convolution layer
  • state.c – handles arguments passing to libdnn

Both sonic/ and tails/ contain the following files:

  • nonlinear.c – contains relu function
  • task_dm_conv.c – dense matrix-matrix convolution
  • task_ds_add.c – dense scalar addition
  • task_ds_mul.c – dense scalar multiplication
  • task_sm_conv.c – sparse-dense matrix-matrix convolution (weights sparse, activations dense)
  • task_svm_mul.c – sparse matrix-vector multiplication (weights sparse, activation vector dense)
  • task_dm_add.c – dense matrix addition
  • task_dm_mul.c – dense matrix-vector multiplication
  • task_ds_div.c – dense scalar division
  • task_ds_zero.c – dense zeroing function (sets all values in matrix to zero)
  • task_sm_mul.c – sparse matrix-matrix multiplication (partially implemented)

Some of the above implementations are shared between SONIC and TAILS because sometimes it was impossible to efficiently leverage hardware acceleration.

SONIC task_dm_conv overview

All operations written as part of SONIC have a similar form to the commented example below:

// Dense matrix-matrix convolution (3D)
void task_dm_conv() {
        mat_t *src = PEEK_STACK(mat_stack, 0); // Pop source matrix off stack
        mat_t *dest = PEEK_STACK(mat_stack, 1); // Pop destination matrix off stack
        mat_t *inter = buffer; // Secondary buffer
        mat_t *filter = PEEK_STACK(mat_stack, 2); // Pop filter matrix off stack

        uint16_t rows = MAT_GET_DIM(dest, 0); // Get rows
        uint16_t cols = MAT_GET_DIM(dest, 1); // Get columns
        MAT_RESHAPE(inter, rows, cols); // Reshape secondary buffer to match shape of destination

        uint16_t flayers = MAT_GET_DIM(filter, 0); // Get filter layers
        uint16_t frows = MAT_GET_DIM(filter, 1); // Get filter rows
        uint16_t fcols = MAT_GET_DIM(filter, 2); // Get filter columns

        // Test if swap required (double-buffering action)
        mat_t *tmp = dest;
        if(CUR_SCRATCH[3]) { // Swap buffers
                dest = inter;
                inter = tmp;

        // Restore variables that control place in computation
        uint16_t k = CUR_SCRATCH[0]; // Current filter layer
        uint16_t l = CUR_SCRATCH[1]; // Current filter row
        uint16_t n = CUR_SCRATCH[2]; // Current filter column
        uint16_t i_stride = CUR_SCRATCH[4] / params.stride[1]; // y stride
        uint16_t j_stride = CUR_SCRATCH[5] / params.stride[2]; // x stride
        // Apply filter weight to entire matrix update destination
        for(uint16_t i = CUR_SCRATCH[4];
                i < rows * params.stride[1]; i = (CUR_SCRATCH[4] += params.stride[1])){ // Loop continuation
                for(uint16_t j = CUR_SCRATCH[5];
                        j < cols * params.stride[2]; j = (CUR_SCRATCH[5] += params.stride[2])){  // Loop continuation
                        fixed w = 0;
                        // Check if same padding or current place in computation valid under valid padding
                        if(!params.same_padding || (i + l < MAT_GET_DIM(src, 1) &&
                                j + n < MAT_GET_DIM(src, 2))) {
                                // Do multiplication of filter and source
                                w = F_MUL(MAT_GET(filter, k, l, n),
                                        MAT_GET(src, k, i + l, j + n));
                        // If first value being applied, then don't add to previous value 
                        if(k == 0 && l == 0 && n == 0) { // Zero
                                MAT_SET(dest, w, i_stride, j_stride);
                        // Get intermediate value, update destination
                        w = F_ADD(w, MAT_GET(inter, i_stride, j_stride));
                        MAT_SET(dest, w, i_stride, j_stride);
                j_stride = 0;
                // Reset inner-loop
                CUR_SCRATCH[5] = 0;

        scratch_bak[0] = k;
        scratch_bak[1] = l;
        // Update current place in computation (i.e. go to next filter value)
        // Increment current filter layers
        if(n + 1 == fcols && l + 1 == frows) {
                scratch_bak[0] = k + 1;
                scratch_bak[1] = 0;
        } else if(n + 1 == fcols) { // Increment current filter rows
                scratch_bak[1] = l + 1;
        // Increment current filter columns
        scratch_bak[2] = (n + 1 == fcols) ? 0 : n + 1;
        // Switch buffers (determines which buffer writing to during next iteration)
        scratch_bak[3] = CUR_SCRATCH[3] ^ 0x01;
        scratch_bak[4] = 0; // Reset loop index
        // Do the commits
        write_to_gbuf((uint8_t *)(scratch_bak),
                (uint8_t *)(CUR_SCRATCH), sizeof(uint16_t));
        write_to_gbuf((uint8_t *)(scratch_bak + 1),
                (uint8_t *)(CUR_SCRATCH + 1), sizeof(uint16_t));
        write_to_gbuf((uint8_t *)(scratch_bak + 2),
                (uint8_t *)(CUR_SCRATCH + 2), sizeof(uint16_t));
        write_to_gbuf((uint8_t *)(scratch_bak + 4),
                (uint8_t *)(CUR_SCRATCH + 4), sizeof(uint16_t));
        if(!(k + 1 == flayers && l + 1 == frows && n + 1 == fcols)) {
                write_to_gbuf((uint8_t *)(scratch_bak + 3),
                        (uint8_t *)(CUR_SCRATCH + 3), sizeof(uint16_t));
        // Test to see if final result written to secondary buffer
        if(CUR_SCRATCH[3]) { // Copy secondary buffer to destination matrix
                for(uint16_t i = CUR_SCRATCH[6]; i < rows; i = (++CUR_SCRATCH[6])){
                        for(uint16_t j = CUR_SCRATCH[7]; j < cols; j = (++CUR_SCRATCH[7])){
                                MAT_SET(inter, MAT_GET(dest, i, j), i, j);
                        CUR_SCRATCH[7] = 0;
        // Remove items from stack (safe operation)
        POP_STACK(mat_stack, 3);
        // Setup clean (i.e. resetting scratch_bak and CUR_SCRATCH control variables)
        // Transition to cleanup and then to return_task

Brief Intuition behind code

All operations have roughly the same structure and follow:

  1. Get variables from stack and get required dimensions
  2. Do any other sort of setup required (e.g. setup position and index for sparse operations)
  3. Check and swap buffers if required
  4. Do a partial computation
  5. Update control variables
  6. Check stopping condition and transition to same task if not finished
  7. Copy secondary buffer into destination if required
  8. Cleanup and transition back

Note: whenever a commit is required we utilize write_to_gbuf (from libalpaca) and transition to the current task to trigger Alpaca to commit.


Release repo for SONIC and TAILS






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