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USB (Universal Serial Bus) is a standard for connecting devices to a computer system. It supports an immense range of devices, including (but not limited to) keyboards, mice, flash drives, microphones, and network adapters.

Although USB is ubiquitous in modern computer systems, even in some "embedded" devices, it is very challenging to implement software support for USB. This is primarily a result of the high complexity of USB, which arises from several factors, including support for virtually any arbitrary device, support for dynamic device attachment and detachment, backwards compatibility with multiple versions of the USB specification, and multiple supported speeds and transfer types. The USB 2.0 specification is 650 pages long, yet only covers a fraction of the information needed to implement, from scratch, a USB software stack and a driver controlling a specific USB device.

Due to the high complexity of USB, this article cannot fully explain USB, nor can it even fully explain Embedded Xinu's implementation of USB. Instead, it gives an overview of USB in the context of Embedded Xinu's implementation. For full details about USB, the reader will inevitably need to read the USB specification itself, as well as other relevant specifications and webpages. For full details specifically about Embedded Xinu's implementation, the reader will inevitably need to read the source code.

Bus Topology

Fundamentally, USB is just a way to connect devices to a computer system. A USB bus accomplishes this by arranging devices in a tree. Each node of the tree is a USB device. There are two fundamental types of USB devices: hubs and functions. USB hubs can have "child" devices in the tree, while functions cannot. Hubs can be "children" of other hubs, up to a depth of 7 levels.

The root node of the tree is the root hub, and every USB bus has one (although it may be faked by the Host Controller Driver, described later).

A USB hub provides a fixed number of attachment points for additional devices called ports. A USB port may be either completely internal or exposed to the "outside" as a place to plug in a USB cable. From the user's point of view there is certainly a difference between these two manifestations of a USB port, but from the software's point of view there is no difference. On a similar note, it is also possible that a single physical package, which a naive user might refer to as a "USB device", actually contains an integrated USB hub onto which one or more USB devices (as defined above) are attached. Such physical packages are referred to as compound devices. An example of a compound device is one of Apple's USB keyboards that provides a USB port to attach a mouse.

Since USB is a dynamic bus, USB devices can be attached or detached from the USB at any arbitrary time. Detaching a hub implies detaching all child devices.

For its part, Embedded Xinu's USB implementation fully supports the dynamic tree topology of a USB bus.


Due to the generality of USB a USB device that is not a hub can be virtually anything at all. This is made possible in part by a highly nested design:

  • A USB device has one or more configurations.
  • A configuration has one or more interfaces.
  • An interface has one or more alternate settings.
  • An alternate setting has one or more endpoints.

Every device, configuration, interface, and endpoint has a corresponding descriptor that can be read by the USB software to retrieve information about the described entity in a standard format.

Although this format allows for highly complex devices, most devices are relatively simple and have just one configuration. Furthermore, common devices only have one interface. In fact, as of this writing, Embedded Xinu's USB subsystem aims to support the common case only; it therefore always sets the device to its first listed configuration, then attempts to bind a device driver to the entire device rather than examining individual interfaces to see if they need separate "interface drivers".

Host Controllers

USB is a polled bus, so all transfers over the USB are initiated by the host. The term "host" in this context means the USB software as well as the USB Host Controller, which is the hardware responsible for actually sending and receiving data over the USB and maintaining the root hub. This is actually one of the trickier parts of USB. Since the USB specification itself does not standardize the exact division of tasks between software and hardware, it's often not clear who is responsible when the specification says "host".

The essential thing to know is that the place where the USB software directly meets the USB hardware is in the USB Host Controller Driver, which operates the USB Host Controller. Some USB Host Controllers present standard interfaces (such as UHCI, OHCI, or EHCI--- all defined in specifications separate from the USB specification itself) to software. Others do not present a standard interface, but instead have vendor-provided documentation and/or a vendor-provided driver; an example of this is the Synopsys DesignWare High-Speed USB 2.0 On-The-Go Controller used on the Raspberry Pi. Obviously, a standard interface is highly preferred when independently implementing a Host Controller Driver.


To communicate with USB devices, the host sends and receives data over the USB using USB transfers. A USB transfer occurs to or from a particular endpoint on a particular device. Every endpoint is associated with a specific type of USB transfer, which can be one of the following:

  • Control transfers. These are typically used for device configuration. There are two main unique features of these transfers. First, a special packet called SETUP is always sent over the USB before the actual data of the control transfer, and software needs to specify the contents of this packet. Second, every device has an endpoint over which control transfers in either direction can be made, and this endpoint is never explicitly listed in the endpoint descriptors.
  • Interrupt transfers. These are used for time-bounded transmission of small quantities of data (e.g. data from a keyboard or mouse).
  • Bulk transfers. These are used for reliable (with error detection) transmission of large quantities of data with no particular time guarantees (e.g. reading and writing data on mass storage devices).
  • Isochronous transfers. These are used for regular transmission of data with no error detecting (e.g. video capture).

Embedded Xinu currently supports control, interrupt, and bulk transfers. Isochronous transfers have not yet been tested. Although currently functional, interrupt transfers may require some more work to guarantee, in all cases, the time-bounded transmission required by the USB specification.


USB supports multiple transfer speeds:

  • 1.5 Mbit/s (Low Speed) (USB 1+)
  • 12 Mbit/s (Full Speed) (USB 1+)
  • 480 Mbit/s (High Speed) (USB 2.0+)
  • 5000 Mbit/s (Super Speed) (USB 3.0+)

Yes, Full Speed is in fact the second lowest speed. Well I think we all know that 12 Mbit/s ought to be enough for anyone. But anyway, due to the need to maintain backwards compatibility with legacy devices, the USB software (mainly the host controller driver) unfortunately needs to take into account transfer speeds. At minimum, it must be aware that transfers to or from devices attached at Low Speed or Full Speed are performed as a series of split transactions, which allow Low Speed or Full Speed transfers to occur without significantly slowing down the portion of the USB bus operating at a higher speed.

As of this writing, Embedded Xinu's USB subsystem supports USB 2.0, so it supports devices operating at Low Speed, Full Speed, or High Speed. USB 3.0 Super Speed is not supported.

Software Architecture

Now that some general information about USB has been presented, it should be easier to understand the basic design of a USB software stack. The description that follows is certainly not the only way to organize the code, but it is the way that is used in most operating systems and makes the most sense based on how USB was designed. In terms of Embedded Xinu, perhaps the main question is why USB devices and/or the USB controller do not show up as device(s) in 'devtab' like other Embedded Xinu devices. The reasons are that USB is a dynamic bus, so it cannot be described by a static table, and also because the highly nested structure of USB devices, as well as multiple supported transfer types, is too complicated for the simple "read() and write() from a device" paradigm.

  • The USB Host Controller Driver is responsible for actually sending and receiving data over the USB by making use of the platform-dependent host controller hardware. The purpose of this driver is to isolate differences in USB host controllers from all other code dealing with USB. In Embedded Xinu, USB Host Controller Drivers must implement the interface declared in include/usb_hcdi.h. However, as of this writing, there is only one Host USB Controller Driver implemented and it controls the Synopsys DesignWare High-Speed USB 2.0 On-The-Go Controller used on the Raspberry Pi).
  • The USB Core Driver is responsible for maintaining the USB device model, including the tree structure, and providing a framework in which USB device drivers can be written. It provides many convenience functions that simplify USB device driver development over using the Host Controller Driver directly; this can be viewed as an attempt to isolate the platform-dependent Host Controller Driver as much as possible. It also handles configuration that is common to all USB devices, such as setting a device configuration and address, and reading descriptors. In Embedded Xinu, the USB Core Driver can be found in device/usb/usbcore.c.
  • USB device drivers are responsible for controlling specific USB devices. Since USB is a dynamic bus, USB device drivers are bound to actual USB devices at runtime with the help of USB Core Driver. A very important USB device driver that must always be implemented in any USB software stack is the USB hub driver, which is responsible for monitoring the status of a USB hub and reporting to the USB Core Driver when devices have been attached or detached. Embedded Xinu's USB hub driver can be found in device/usb/usbhub.c. Other USB device drivers can be found in device/; e.g. device/smsc9512/.

Note: more complete (and complicated) USB software stacks, such as Linux's, also support USB interface drivers, which are associated with USB interfaces rather than USB devices.

Further reading