an embeddable dumb heartbeat daemon in 260 bytes of RAM and ≈350 bytes of code
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Dumpulse: an embeddable dumb heartbeat daemon in 260 bytes of RAM and ≈350 bytes of code

Dumpulse aggregates network monitoring information in extremely constrained environments; it can handle up to a few million heartbeat messages per second, returning the latest heartbeat value from each sender upon request in a 260-byte health-report message. It needs about 3% of the RAM found in a traditional Arduino like the Duemilanove, and it processes each heartbeat message in about 256 instruction executions (about 30 nanoseconds on a 1.6GHz N3700). It’s designed to work reliably even in unreliable environments.

Dumpulse is 200–400 bytes of code and 75–200 machine instructions.

Quick start

Getting it running and trying it out; basically any Unix with a C compiler and a recent Python 2 or 3 should work:

$ git clone …dumpulse
Cloning into 'dumpulse'...
$ cd dumpulse/
$ make
cc -fPIC -g -Os -Wall -std=c89 -o dumpulse.o -c dumpulse.c
cc -g -Os -Wall -std=c89   -c -o udpserver.o udpserver.c
cc   udpserver.o dumpulse.o   -o udpserver
cc -fPIC -g -Os -Wall -std=c89 -o dumpulse_so.o -c dumpulse_so.c
cc -shared dumpulse_so.o dumpulse.o -o
$ ./udpserver 9060 &
[1] 10560
$ Waiting for UDPv4 packets on port 9060.

$ python localhost 9060
Health report of 260 bytes:
checksum 01000001 checks OK
v0 = 0 at 0 from 0
v1 = 0 at 0 from 0
v2 = 0 at 0 from 0
v63 = 0 at 0 from 0
$ python localhost 9060 -v 45  # set a value
$ python localhost 9060
Health report of 260 bytes:
checksum 7fb80181 checks OK
v0 = 45 at 14543 from 76
v1 = 0 at 0 from 0
v2 = 0 at 0 from 0
v63 = 0 at 0 from 0
$ python localhost 9060 -v 46 -n 1
$ python localhost 9060
Health report of 260 bytes:
checksum 005c0309 checks OK
v0 = 45 at 14543 from 76
v1 = 46 at 14550 from 76
v2 = 0 at 0 from 0
v63 = 0 at 0 from 0
$ make test
============================= test session starts ==============================
platform linux -- Python 3.5.2, pytest-2.8.7, py-1.4.31, pluggy-0.3.1
rootdir: /home/user/Downloads/dumpulse, inifile: 
plugins: hypothesis-3.0.1
collected 1 items .

=========================== 1 passed in 5.42 seconds ===========================

Alternatively, to not install the test prerequisites outside of Docker:

$ make dockertest
docker build -t dumpulse .
Sending build context to Docker daemon 609.3 kB
Step 1 : FROM python:3.6
 ---> 01fd71a97c19
Step 2 : RUN pip install pytest hypothesis
 ---> Using cache
 ---> ea9af75c12eb
Step 3 : ADD . /dumpulse
 ---> 132cf83efdc1
Removing intermediate container 7989f2797eb5
Step 4 : WORKDIR /dumpulse
 ---> Running in ebf0ca8f7659
 ---> d9c5fcef4fb0
Removing intermediate container ebf0ca8f7659
Successfully built d9c5fcef4fb0
docker run dumpulse py.test
============================= test session starts ==============================
platform linux -- Python 3.6.3, pytest-3.2.3, py-1.4.34, pluggy-0.4.0
rootdir: /dumpulse, inifile:
plugins: hypothesis-3.32.2
collected 1 item .

=========================== 1 passed in 5.42 seconds ===========================

What? Why? What is this good for?

The problem this solves is the following: you have a distributed system of microcontrollers that talk to each other over a network — for example, the CAN network of an automobile — and you want to monitor the health of all of its subsystems over a much-lower-bandwidth link, such as a nominally 8kbps Mobitex link.

It is desirable in such a situation to have some kind of heartbeat-aggregation agent instead of communicating individually with each subsystem, for the following reasons:

  1. The heartbeat-aggregation agent can send a single packet reporting the health of the whole system, rather than one packet per microcontroller. If there are, say, 64 microcontrollers, and the per-packet overhead is 64 bytes’ worth (roughly correct for Mobitex MPAK and link-layer overhead), the entire health report will require at least 4096 bytes, which is probably about 8 seconds of continuous Mobitex transmission. By contrast, a single packet containing, say, 4 bytes of status data per service will be only 320 bytes including the overhead, which works out to 640 milliseconds of airtime, more than an order of magnitude improvement.

  2. A particular microcontroller may be failed at the time that the remote monitoring system attempts to conduct the health check. But, to diagnose the problem, it may be desirable to determine with more precision when the failure happened. A heartbeat-aggregation agent can store the last-known-good heartbeat information from the failed component and report it on request.

  3. Any network can lose or corrupt data being transmitted, but high-bandwidth, low-latency controller-area networks are many orders of magnitude more reliable than low-bandwidth, high-latency radio networks, and the higher rate of retransmissions that is feasible over the faster networks works to reduce the impact of isolated packet loss or corruption. A remote monitoring system that successfully gets a response from a heartbeat-aggregation agent knows that any missing data is missing because of a fault local to the controller-area network, not due to a radio-network failure. By contrast, if the remote monitoring system expects to receive a status report from each controller over the radio network, a missing status report may be due to a subsystem failure or merely a lost over-the-air packet.

However, the heartbeat-aggregation agent is itself a potential single point of failure in the monitoring system, so it’s desirable to keep it as simple and robust as possible and to run it on a reliable platform. For example, if you run it from Flash ROM on a bare microcontroller, only hardware failures or failures in the agent software itself can cause it to fail; if, instead, you run it on Linux, then kernel memory corruption, system overload, filesystem corruption, bootloader failure, and the like all come into play.

It’s also important for the agent to have little or no configuration of its own, because any configuration data is a potential point of failure, and if it’s baked into the firmware for a processor that also does other things, updating the configuration data poses the risk of breaking whatever else you’re running on that processor.

So this program, Dumpulse, implements a simple protocol suitable for aggregating heartbeat data sent over a physically secured network like I²C or CAN, running on bare metal or under a minimal real-time operating system like eCos, FreeRTOS, or RTEMS, although it also works on Linux. It provides no authentication and only minimal data integrity checking. All the packets except the 260-byte health report are 8 bytes, so they can be sent as single CAN bus frames, although the example Linux implementation uses UDP. It takes no configuration data.

Calling interface

There are two calling interfaces: the embedding interface provided by dumpulse.o, intended for actual use, and the dynamic-linking interface provided by, which wraps it and is used for testing.

Embedding interface

As documented in dumpulse.h, dumpulse.o exposes one data type, dumpulse, which can be allocated where you like and needs no finalization but should be initialized to all zero bytes, and one function:

uint8_t dumpulse_process_packet(dumpulse *p, char *data, void *context);

It returns nonzero if it successfully processed the packet and zero if it did not, but generally speaking you don’t need to care.

For embedding, it requires you to provide two handler functions:

uint16_t dumpulse_get_timestamp(void);
void dumpulse_send_packet(void *context, char *data, size_t len);

If it is necessary to send a reply packet, the context provided to dumpulse_process_packet will be provided to your dumpulse_send_packet function before dumpulse_process_packet returns. You can use it, for example, to store the address to which to send the reply packet. Because it’s only used before dumpulse_process_packet returns, it is okay for it to be a stack-allocated data structure. dumpulse_send_packet should make a copy of the data it is provided, or transmit it over the network, before returning; just saving a pointer to it is not okay, because that data will be mutated when the next heartbeat packet arrives.

Because dumpulse_send_packet has no return value, Dumpulse cannot tell if the response packet was successfully sent or not, and so it always considers a health report request message to have been successfully handled.

Dumpulse does not allocate memory and can only fail in the sense of not being able to process a packet because it is ill-formed.

There is an example of hooking it up to UDP on Linux in udpserver.c.

Dynamic-linking interface

A more modern, but less efficient, dynamically-linkable interface is provided in dumpulse_so.c, mostly for testing. This requires you to define a dumpulse_so struct with your function pointers and invoke the dumpulse_process_packet_so function with it. At least with GCC, it uses thread-local storage so that you should be able to simultaneously invoke dumpulse_process_packet_so with different handlers on different threads.

A is provided which uses the dynamically-linkable interface via the standard, if awkward, Python ctypes module. This is used for property-based generative testing in



The heartbeat message consists of 8 bytes: a four-byte big-endian Adler-32 checksum of the other four bytes, a single byte with the constant value 241, a single-byte variable ID identifying the variable to update (from 0 to 63), a byte indicating the ostensible identity of the packet sender, and a final byte containing the value of the variable, in that order with no padding.


The health report request message is the fixed 8 ASCII bytes “AreyouOK”, and will be responded to with a 260-byte response consisting of a four-byte big-endian Adler-32 of the rest of the message, followed by 64 four-byte triples (16-bit timestamp, sender ID, value).

The 16-bit timestamp has a resolution determined by the application; there’s a tradeoff between wraparound time and precision. Taking the low 16 bits of a time_t is adequate for many applications, giving a wraparound time of 18.2 hours and a precision of 1 second.

Performance and code weight

For details on performance measurements, see

Testing and prerequisites

Dumpulse is somewhat exhaustively tested using the Hypothesis property-based generative testing framework.

The only prerequisite for compiling Dumpulse itself is an ANSI C compiler and Make. To build the example UDP server, you probably need some kind of Unix. and require a relatively recent Python, either 2 or 3., and the test target in the Makefile, additionally requires Hypothesis and py.test. This is used to feed a few thousand random packets to the server and verify its behavior against a Python model, and it found an off-by-one bounds-checking bug when I introduced it.

I’ve hacked together a Dockerfile that installs Hypothesis and py.test inside a Docker container to run the tests inside of.

Reliability and security

This protocol is not designed to be operated in an environment, such as a LAN or the public internet, where malicious actors can inject packets. Anyone who can send crafted packets to Dumpulse can do the following:

  • overwrite the whole heartbeat table with arbitrary data;
  • cause Dumpulse to send many times more data than they are themselves sending;
  • cause Dumpulse to send almost arbitrary data in the health report, limited only by timestamp control and the minor restrictions of Adler-32.

However, they cannot do the following, unless it has bugs:

  • crash Dumpulse;
  • cause Dumpulse to use a large amount of CPU time.

However, it should be sufficiently tolerant of random or corrupted data that you can run it over a noisy broadcast network without a separate addressing layer underneath (something such as UDP which ensures it only receives data intended for it). It will spuriously recognize roughly one in 2³² random 8-byte packets.


The ideas came out of discussions with Lucio Torre, Alejandro Cura, Nicolás Demarchi, Ezequiel Alfíe, and others, but Kragen Javier Sitaker wrote Dumpulse, so the deficiencies of the design and implementation are all his.

Dumpulse is copyright Ⓒ 2017 Satellogic.

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