The inception of embedded systems began over 50 years ago. Currently, the system is broadly prevalent due to the advancement of machine learning and AI. Most devices equipped with computer chips and circuit boards include a system that operates embedded software. There are various aspects to consider if you want to learn in-depth about embedded software development. The following comprehensive guide discusses all aspects you must know to thoroughly understand embedded software development.
What is embedded software?
The software used to control devices or machines that are not conventional computers is called embedded software. Explicitly, it is written for the hardware that it operates on and typically includes limited memory resources and processing power. This kind of software can be part of an application or a microchip that is embedded on the top of the chip. Occasionally, embedded software is known as firmware.
Alternatively, it is a customized code saved either on the firmware or a chip of an embedded device. It intends to control the particular device’s functions. Typically, hardware manufacturers use this software to regulate the functionality of different systems and devices.
One of the unique traits is that all functions of embedded software are not introduced or controlled through a human interface. Rather they are controlled through machine interfaces.
The working of embedded software requires the use of all the required device drivers during manufacturing time. The corresponding device drivers are written for different hardware devices.
It is important to note that this kind of software is developed for a specific kind of device. The device type is far different from PC applications that can be commonly installed on multiple kinds of computer systems and adapted as needed.
Hardware manufacturers use embedded software to govern the functions of different hardware devices and systems. The way this software governs device functions is identical to how a computer’s OS regulates various functions of software applications.
Commonly used devices like light bulbs, toasters, complex tracking systems used in missiles, etc. can contain embedded software.
What makes embedded software unique compared to other types of software is that they don’t usually require input. Usually, it is not handled directly by users. External controls (either remote input or the device’s external actions) activate its functions. The corresponding device may support communication links to other devices to enable functionality or if the device has to be adjusted or diagnosed.
The embedded software market size has crossed $15 billion in 2022. It is forecasted to rise at a 9% CAGR by 2032. Various factors impact its growth. They are the swift development of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, and the rising demand for embedded solutions and systems during the post-pandemic years.
Business owners or entrepreneurs aiming to explore the power of embedded software development must first understand the fundamentals. Subsequently, they can hire a software development company. Now let’s understand what embedded software development is:
Embedded Software Development:
Embedded software development is the process of developing software that is explicitly intended to operate in embedded systems. Various types of devices can exist in these systems. They can be mobile phones, household appliances, industrial machinery, and medical equipment.
The traditional software applications operate on general-purpose computers. On the other hand, embedded software is personalized to fulfill the unique requirements of the host device/system.
It is rightly said that embedded software is one of the pillars of modern-day technology. It facilitates efficient control and seamless communication between hardware components. So, it ensures seamless working of different functions.
The embedded software development endows devices to provide the best possible outcomes while also optimizing resource usage. The processes covered in the development phase may range from regulating the temperature in smart homes to handling complicated industrial processes.
Key types of embedded software development:
The major types of embedded software are discussed below:
It is software written to help a particular component of hardware interact with other devices or accomplish fundamental functions. Those functions are performed without an operating system, API, or device drivers.
Operating System (OS):
This type of software manages the hardware resources of a processor. It lets other applications operate on a computing device.
It is a software layer present between operating systems and applications. It streamlines the software development process.
Embedded systems like digital cameras and calculators that work independently from the remaining web are called “stand-alone.” They accomplish all tasks independently.
This type of software directly performs the system’s functions and communicates with end users.
Real-time embedded devices perform their operations with quick response and a minimal lag (measured in milliseconds, microseconds, or seconds). They seamlessly integrate into operational workflows. Examples of this type of embedded software development include surgical robots, factory devices, and other medical devices.
The networked embedded software systems function as components of a bigger network. Plenty of embedded systems create interconnected networks. Examples include traffic lights, IoT gadgets, etc.
What is an embedded system?
Typically, embedded software operates on single-purpose non-computer devices. In these devices, there are some hardware components. The embedded system is the integration of hardware components like CPUs, flash memory devices, a power supply circuit, timers (in certain devices), flash memory devices, and communication ports.
The majority of embedded systems merge software and hardware with a real-time operating system that controls the software. After determining the hardware, the customized software intended to operate on it is planned, developed, and tested.
Major components of embedded software development system:
Various software and hardware components create an embedded system. Let’s look at the details of these components.
Without a power source, no embedded software systems can work. Typically, the voltage ranges from 1.7V to 3.2V. This component feeds energy to a designed circuit within the embedded system. An effective power supply must meet the requirements of the applications. It is recommended to use a power supply that is efficient and stable.
It is the embedded software system’s brain and it determines the efficiency of the overall system. A processing unit may have 8, 16, or 32 bits.
If the bit size is small, the particular application would be smaller for the embedded software systems. If you aim to use a large application, you must use an embedded software system with a higher-bit processor. The ideal qualities of the processor include fast response, high performance, and affordable price.
Various microcontrollers are used in an embedded software system. So, the memory exists in the microcontroller itself. Two types of memory are RAM and ROM. RAM is a volatile type of memory that temporarily stores data.
Whenever the system is switched off, the data gets lost from the memory. ROM is code memory and is used for storing the program. When the system is in an “on” state, the embedded software system fetches code from the ROM memory.
Particular embedded software programs possess time-based automation potential. Hence, all embedded systems come with a timer.
In certain applications, delay is required to ensure smooth functioning. For instance, in LED display applications, some delay is required to let the LEDs continue blinking. For the same, the counters and timers are used in the embedded software systems.
Inputs / Outputs:
The input part informs the embedded software system to perform some tasks. Either the built-in sensor or the user will offer this information. The output terminal of the system receives the end product.
There must be proper configuration in place to use input and output. All embedded software systems come with fixed input and output ports to let the devices properly connect to the specific ports.
- Communication ports:
The communication ports are the interfaces used to communicate with other kinds of embedded systems. The embedded software systems come with various types of communication ports such as Ethernet, USB, UART, RS-485, and more.
If an embedded software system is used in small-scale applications, the communication ports can be utilized from the microcontroller. Serial protocols can be used for transmitting data from one system board to another.
The circuitry connects various embedded system parts. You must consider the system’s intended use when selecting a circuit for an embedded software system. The choice of the circuitry relies on the application being used for the particular embedded software systems. Let’s understand this with an example. Suppose your system aims to receive temperature readings, so you would require a circuit dedicated to temperature sensors.
The process of implementation in embedded software development:
Embedded software development adopts a methodical process to guarantee efficient and reliable operation. The following section provides you with enough insights into the key stages of this process.
In the initial phase, the project idea is discussed with all stakeholders. It is meticulously analyzed to determine whether it would be worthwhile for embedded software development or not. Subsequently, market data is collated through online research, and interviews with market stakeholders/potential users.
Usually, this phase focuses on the problems the proposed embedded software system aims to solve for the users. All the essential features are classified into particular categories.
Understanding the requirements:
The first phase of the process focuses on collecting and analyzing the specific requirements of the proposed embedded system. It lets you understand the anticipated functionality, performance limitations, and environmental elements that the software will come across.
The team must finalize the in-depth technical specifications. This would facilitate the development of the product’s architecture. Different aspects such as the product’s functions, strategies used to build the product, and the way the framework will work are to be determined in this phase.
In this phase, embedded engineers need to determine all aspects that the product needs to work as planned. Usually, they would ask questions like-“What functions does it intend to accomplish”, “What are the constraints for weight, size, and cost?”, etc. Furthermore, they must determine the specific hardware the product would use.
Document detailed technical specifications:
This phase emphasizes that embedded engineers must prepare detailed documentation mentioning the product’s technical specifications. The documentation will incorporate functions that the product must accomplish, manufacturing requirements, environmental conditions, and any other important specifications.
Develop a prototype:
It is vital to prepare a fundamental prototype to evaluate the hardware, discern essential components, and the way the components would work collectively.
Designing the software architecture:
According to the analyzed requirements, the second phase focuses on designing the software architecture. It considers factors like memory limitations, real-time processing, security, and power consumption. This phase serves as a basis for the succeeding development process.
After designing the architecture, the product engineers consider all aspects of the system, choose the components, and finalize the design. This phase deals with the overall product design, considers requirements, and focuses on the way the product can fulfill the proposed functionalities.
Usually, the engineers may need to address questions like –how will power be input into the system, how to connect the product to the Internet, and would the operating system is required to be embedded.
In this phase, the proficient software engineers do coding in a high-level programming language like Python, C, or C++. The purpose is to make the software design lifelike. They optimize the code to fulfill performance and resource usage objectives.
This phase transforms the plan into a viable product. So, it is called the heart of the embedded software product development process. It commences the development of a documented product into an actual product. Since it is the core of the overall process, it usually takes the highest time to develop.
The embedded software developers utilize programming languages like Python, C, and C++. They aim to make the most of the hardware’s capabilities and develop principles and algorithms that are customized to the software. Moreover, they ascertain that the developed code is succinct, efficient, and well-documents. This kind of code is flexible to adapt to changes and find bugs later on.
Security standard adherence:
During embedded software development, the developers need to manage critical tasks and handle sensitive information. So, the developed embedded software systems must comply with the highest security standards. Typically, the development team implements robust security methods and authentic boot procedures to alleviate risks.
Testing and debugging:
This phase carries out severe testing to ensure the software works as intended and fulfills the stipulated requirements. The reason why this phase is one of the most significant ones is that it identifies issues and bugs. Subsequently, it addresses and resolves them to improve the software’s stability and reliability.
Software and hardware testing is inevitable to determine the product’s reliability. Defining the testing plan is important for any embedded product testing. Once the product is tested, you can precisely know its performance. The plan must have the components like software design validation, hardware design validation, and product testing.
Software integration and deployment:
The developed embedded software is integrated into the focused embedded system. It then undertakes exhaustive testing to authenticate its interoperability and compatibility. After successfully integrating the software, it is deployed and is accessible for use.
Several aspects are important to consider before releasing the product in the market. This phase involves testing different industry standards and establishing the support channel to ensure a smooth launch of product. After the product release, any changes can be deployed.
The product sustainability guarantees the software is made available in the future, on newly launched platforms and fulfills requirements. Re-engineering/sustainability delivers the embedded product that is easy to grow, fulfills the purpose, subsists uncertainty, and solves users’ concerns.
Embedded software development lifecycle
This lifecycle guarantees superior quality products, minimizes faults, and boosts return on investment.
Here’s an overview of what’s covered in an embedded software development life cycle:
- Understanding requirements
- Operations and maintenance
- Error correction
The following section describes various phases involved in this lifecycle.
This phase is valid for newly launched products or updating/re-engineering an existing product.
Product conceptualization phase:
In this phase, the embedded developers may undertake a cost-benefit analysis, project management, risk management, and other steps required for product development.
Product analysis phase:
This phase involves outlining the business requirements for the product as well as the requirements for developing it.
Product design phase:
The embedded engineers develop an introductory design document that specifies the overall architecture for the proposed product.
Implementation and testing phase:
In this phase, the embedded engineers implement the product into real hardware and software. Moreover, they test the product to check its performance and make amendments to ensure its smooth functioning.
In this phase, the product manufacturer releases the developed embedded product in the market.
The embedded engineers and manufacturer monitor that it’s functioning correctly. They rapidly make fixes where required.
Both the engineering team and the manufacturer continue to work on potential versions of the product that could perform better.
This concluding phase of the embedded software development lifecycle involves the removal of the product from the market if it becomes obsolete. It is vital to note that this phase comes into the picture as technology progresses, and users expect upgradation.
Tips to have an effective embedded software development:
When working on programming and development of embedded software, code reliability, and efficiency are vital aspects to consider. Adhering to the following aspects can help ensure reliable and valuable embedded software development.
Many times, embedded systems may face resource constraints. So, it is vital to efficiently write code. To deliver optimal performance, the programmers must customize the code to the embedded software system’s software and hardware.
Before releasing the embedded software product into the market, it is vital to ensure it’s bug-free. Determining and correcting software bugs are possible by implementing various debugging strategies. Different debugging strategies recommended for use are creating breakpoints, stepping through code, and inspecting variables.
Testing and system evaluation:
To ensure worthwhile and stable embedded software, testing and system evaluation are crucial. The developers must employ various strategies like unit testing and system evaluation.
Embedded software development tools
Consultation with the client is inevitable before using an embedded software development tool. After that, the embedded software engineers use a wide range of tools to design and code their solutions.
To manage tight timelines and multiple iterations, teams utilize some of the following tools:
- An editor develops code in C or C++
- An assembler and/or compiler transforms code into low-level machine code
- A debugger eliminates errors and bugs
- A linker integrates code modules and pieces to develop an executable program
- An emulator assists engineers in testing and enhancing performance in a simulated environment
The teams can use some of the below embedded software development tools. these tools help manage tight deadlines and allow multiple iterations.
Version Control Software (VCS):
It helps track code changes between versions. It allows various developers to work on a project. Specifically, version control is significant in those industries that need to depict older versions of software for reviews.
An Automation tool:
It automates the parts of software development associated with building, testing, and implementing through a CI/CD process.
Static Code Analysis tool:
It detects faults, vulnerabilities, and compliance concerns as code is written. Static code analysis can help enhance code quality and developer’s productivity.
They help transform the code into a machine language code.
Hiring the appropriate type of development team boosts the odds of success in embedded software development. The prospects embedded systems offer are nearly infinite. Embedded software development is a dynamic field that supports the smooth operation of several systems and devices in the world. Embedded engineers can guarantee efficient control, automation, and communication by adapting software to the explicit requirements of embedded systems.
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