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What Is Embedded Software Development?
Technology

What Is Embedded Software Development?

In the modern world, computerization is penetrating deeper into all spheres of life, making processes faster and more convenient. An enormous amount of devices today are somehow related to electronics. Software built into electronic devices allows you to set certain tasks for these devices and get the desired result. Hence, the embedded application development segment is gaining traction.

Recently, the devices with built-in software have been especially trending in the IoT industry, automotive, manufacturing, healthcare, and other domains. Meanwhile, the requirements for such devices are constantly growing, hence their complexity and power are increasing.

The process of developing embedded software requires an integrated approach: software should be compliant with hardware elements, so their capabilities and parameters should be considered jointly. Embedded engineers need well-prepared work specifications and thorough control at each stage.

Terminology

Following are the explanations of main terms related to embedded programming.

  • Embedded (built-in) software — a program written specifically for a machine or hardware device other than a traditional computer. As a rule, embedded software is controlled via machine interfaces.
  • Embedded system — the merge of a physical device and a programmable part aimed to perform a determined function or several functions.
  • Bare-metal programming — the approach when the source code runs on the hardware directly.
  • Real-time system — a solution that guarantees a response within given time limits, or deadlines. In short, the running time of such systems is strictly determined.
  • Microcontroller — the main hardware part of a built-in system. This is a small computer containing ROM, RAM, CPU on a single chip, and integrated with various peripherals.
  • Peripherals — external devices such as scanners, cameras, keyboards, etc., used to interact with users or other external machines.

Types of Embedded Software

Since built-in systems can be of various size and complexity, they need various types of software for correct operation.

  • Firmware — software of the lowest level that interacts directly with hardware. No device drivers, APIs or operating systems are needed. Simple embedded devices work with firmware only and perform basic tasks.
  • Operating system (OS) — a more complicated piece of software designed to perform numerous functions. Particularly, an OS deals with hardware resources (e.g., allocates memory), making the upper software elements interact with hardware parts. As a rule, the operating system requires a fairly large amount of power supply, RAM and internal memory, so it is installed on a hard drive or other memory module.
  • Application — a program end users directly engage with. All embedded projects have unique applications, while they may use standard OS or firmware.
  • Middleware — an additional software layer between applications and OS. Middleware is needed for distributed systems to smooth their complexity, ensure interoperability of modules and streamline the development.

Development Tools

Embedded software companies use various programming languages, operating systems, communication protocols and IDEs to create their products. The choice depends on what kind of device is in production, what components are used in it, and what functions the device is supposed to perform.

The terms of reference and other documentation should contain all the requirements for the future software product. Based on such documents, developers and managers decide on the appropriate tools.

Languages

C, though it’s an old language, is widely used for built-in applications today. With the C language, you can create both the high-level application code and low-level hardware abstraction layers. It’s especially good for simple devices based on microcontrollers with minimal memory.

C++ is an advanced version of C. It works well in embedded systems based on powerful processors and having a graphical user interface, for example, digital signage solutions.

Java is also used for writing embedded code. With this language, you can create portable programs that will be compatible with various platforms.

Python is still young, but already popular in the world of embedded programming. Due to its simplicity and conciseness, Python is well suited for complicated systems, e.g., with neural networks.

Rust is another popular language for programming embedded software. It ensures the efficient memory usage, security, and high performance of your device.

There are other languages that are not on everyone’s lips, but still can be a good choice for built-in solutions. These are Ada, Lua, Verilog, VHDL, and more.

Protocols

Communication protocols play a crucial role in distributed embedded systems because they enable data exchange between devices. Among the most popular protocols are:

  • USB (Universal Serial Bus) Protocol
  • Ethernet Protocol
  • CAN (Control Area Network) Protocol
  • SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) Protocol
  • USART (Universal Synchronous/Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter) Protocol
  • I2C (Inter-Integrated Circuit) Protocol

Operating systems

The most popular operating systems for built-in solutions come from the Linux family:

  • Ubuntu Core — a version optimized for IoT devices (robots, gateways, digital signs).
  • Yocto — a customized OS with a powerful set of tools that allows developers to create tailored IoT and embedded solutions.
  • Buildroot — a tool for generating Linux distributions for any embedded devices.
  • Raspberry Pi OS — a Debian-based operating system for Raspberry Pi devices.

Android is a widely used OS with great user interface capabilities for mobile devices.

ThreadX is an RTOS with numerous advanced features by Microsoft Azure.

Integrated Development Environments (IDEs)

To create an embedded software program, you need a set of tools, including an editor, a compiler, an assembler, a debugger, a linker and an emulator. It is a challenging task to take such tools separately and make them work as a coherent system for one project. A much easier and convenient option is to utilize an integrated development environment (IDE), which comprises all the needed tools, libraries and APIs in one package.

Following is the list of the most popular IDEs for embedded projects.

  • Arduino
  • WebStorm
  • PyCharm
  • MPLAB X
  • Qt
  • Visual Studio
  • MATLAB
  • NetBeans
  • Eclipse
  • ARM Keil

Best Hardware for Embedded Programming

A successful embedded project needs not only impeccable software but appropriate hardware as well. There are numerous hardware solutions (boards, microcontrollers, development kits, SoC, SoM, etc.) available on the market, so you can face a tough choice. We’ve compiled a list of the best hardware vendors.

  • Arduino
  • Raspberry Pi
  • Toradex
  • Intel
  • Beagleboard
  • Nvidia Jetson

Maintenance and Support

Besides the development itself, the company that created an embedded software product should provide its full after-production support. Firmware or an embedded application may require updates: periodical or at the request of customers.

Moreover, some errors can be found during operation, and the development company should take responsibility for fixing them.

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