The "Buzz" on Embedded
© Doug Johnson WRD 7/31/02
Any embedded development discussion, is going to be a discussion about
the "process": How does the programmer define the sequence
of operation; how does the CPU interpret the definition for execution;
what hardware architecture will be chosen; what pre-existing aids,
i.e. hardware/software tools are available; and how do you manage
it all, and deliver a well-executed, properly operating target. All
of this is what I mean by the “process” i.e. “what is used, and how
"The search for the Holy Grail" in
embedded development is a search for a more productive process. Recently,
the buzz about this issue has been about as subtle as a F-14 on full
after-burner. Everyone is looking for a way to improve the process,
and there's been a lot of press on the subject.
Historically, most process improvements have fallen into one of the
- Language: higher levels of abstraction such as C, C++,
JAVA; industry specific such as Relay Ladder programming; ease
of use for "normal" people such as BASIC or functional
block (flow chart) type programming
- Target hardware: memory density; flash memory; higher
throughput; lower cost; improved functionality (peripherals);
increased integration; etc.
- Development tools: assemblers; compilers; emulators;
simulators; debuggers; integrated development environments; etc.
- Methodology: this has to do with the definition, and
implementation of methods shown to provide productivity gains
A discussion on the virtue of these “improvements” is difficult
because, among other things, the word improvement implies the “newer”
thing is “better”. For example I’ve almost never seen an article
that says that C is better than C++, yet on small, cost constrained
systems, this might likely be the case. Frequently people using
the “latest” technology feel that the improvement is universal,
and should be applied universally. This is a source of some of the
zeal that sneaks into discussions concerning language and processors.
The truth is more complicated, and requires a broader view of the
Recently there’s been some buzz on a couple of "new ideas"
that are significant: System on Chip (SoC); and Platform Development.
(SoC implies a single chip implementation, platforms are more general
and aren't necessarily single chip) With both, you start with a
known, pre-determined hardware/software base. You then make changes
and additions required for the intended application. The improvement
in productivity comes from the fact that your starting point is
pre-done, and is (hopefully) trouble free. Also, as the platform
is reused repeatedly, the developer gains familiarity (productivity).
And finally, if the platform covers a wide application base, and
is low enough in cost, it is possible to use the platform to cover
an entire range of product offerings. This "single processor,
single platform" approach provides a huge productivity opportunity,
as it makes it possible for a single embedded engineer to design
and support a wide range of products. (The alternative is having
the developer support multiple products using multiple processors,
a tall order, or having an embedded team, which is costly)
The “platform” concept is not really new. Many will recognize that
a PC (embedded or not), with any commercial OS, is a platform. The
difference is that neither the PC hardware, nor most OS's, were
originally designed for the purpose of embedded controls. These
newest SoC and Platform architectures are being designed from the
ground up for embedded use. (See Tab-B for a presentation on platform
development, reusability, and relevant article reprints from major
The WRD ProductMaker is a development
platform designed specifically for the embedded controls market.
Having spent an entire career designing embedded control systems,
its clear how important reusability and system architecture is.
The ProductMaker is a highly flexible
hardware/firmware platform based on a powerful yet inexpensive 8
bit microprocessor (Z180), pre-engineered schematics (which cover
most embedded control requirements), and an automated firmware configuration
process which not only contains all peripheral drivers, task scheduler,
floating point routines, & ISR's, keyboard scanning, LCD/LED
displays, Rom monitor, etc., but integrates these into a seamless
custom control engine that lets the system designed concentrate
on the application instead of the integration details.
This platform is used extensively at WRD, and is key to WRD's ability
to provide high quality, high functionality, low cost custom
embedded controls, with short development times and low NRE.