What Is Embedded Software Development?
You can hardly imagine our society without electronic equipment and all kinds of gadgets with which users interact daily to perform various tasks. Household appliances, mobile and telecom devices, industrial automation equipment and other innovations simplify our lives to a great extent. How do they function? The operation of such devices is possible due to microchips and circuits with built-in or embedded software.
An embedded systems development company can create firmware, middleware, device drivers, embedded and IoT applications, or provide full-cycle embedded software development services.
This article is a comprehensive overview of embedded software development and related concepts.
What Is an Embedded System?
Let’s begin with the definition. An embedded system is a device made up of hardware components and software based on a microprocessor (or microcontroller), which is programmed to perform a targeted function or a limited number of tasks. Embedded systems can work either independently or as a part of larger computing structures.
Since a built-in system must comply with strict requirements (e.g., limited power supply or memory), it cannot be called a typical multifunctional personal computer.
It should be noted that there are embedded systems of various complexity, so their structure can be primitive or highly complicated.
The physical layer of an embedded system includes hardware components, such as:
- a central processing unit (CPU)
- memory devices (RAM, ROM, flash)
- connectivity devices (USB, ethernet devices, wireless modems)
- converters to transform analog signals into digital ones
- computer buses as means of communication between hardware components
- input/output devices
- sensors to convert physical parameters into electrical signals
- actuators to convert signals into physical actions
- peripherals to enable user interaction with devices (timers, keyboards, displays, cameras, gamepads, barcode scanners, etc.).
The programmable layer of an embedded system includes software components, such as:
- operating systems
- application software.
What Is Embedded Software?
To make hardware components function as they are supposed to, embedded software is needed. This is a special program developed for a specific device or group of devices.
Integrated software is divided into four types:
- Firmware is a compulsory software component of any built-in solution. This program is written for a particular piece of hardware and contains instructions to make this hardware operate. All IT companies engaged in embedded software development should offer firmware development services.
- OS, or an operating system, is a more complex standardized software solution that can be installed on various devices. Its task is to run the embedded code and ensure its interaction with hardware parts to enable the device to function.
- Middleware is an intermediary between upper and lower software levels. In combination with other types of software, it helps developers implement the needed functions.
- Application software provides a user interface and enables the actual interaction between users and a device.
We should say that there are embedded devices with a primitive software structure (they don’t need an operating system or app software and contain only firmware) and complex solutions comprising all the software components as mentioned above.
Embedded Software Development Tools
To create embedded projects, you need to integrate a hardware level with the corresponding software. Hence, the team should include various specialists: hardware engineers will deal with physical components and tools while software engineers will need special software development tools, including languages, operating systems, integrated development environments (IDE).
Low-level languages such as C/C++, Assembly, Rust, MicroPython are used to develop firmware solutions. Programs written in these languages are compiled into binary code so that machines can understand them. The Assembly language is considered obsolete; C and C++ are the most popular tools due to their speed and low memory consumption; MicroPython and Rust are gaining popularity.
High-level languages such as C#, Java, Python provide a higher level of abstraction and allow developers to create complex built-in application software. These languages are used to develop software for real-time embedded systems with strict response and execution timing requirements.
The most popular OS for creating built-in solutions is Linux — an open-source OS serving as the basis for various smart and mobile solutions. Other widely-used general-purpose operating systems (GPOS) are Android, Windows 10 IoT, Windows CE (this one is obsolete, and it’s recommended to migrate from Windows CE). There are also real-time operating systems (RTOS) for built-in software, including ThreadX and FreeRTOS.
Integrated Development Environments (IDE)
These are tool packages that combine everything you need to create built-in software in one place. For example, IDEs may offer automated refactoring, debugging, autocompletion, convenient code navigation, syntax highlighting, testing, and many more features.
Moreover, integrated development environments contain powerful libraries (often industry-specific) with ready-to-use mechanisms and functions that facilitate application development and testing.
Top IDEs for embedded software creation are PyCharm, Qt, Eclipse, WebStorm, MPLAB X, and more.
Examples of Embedded Systems
Built-in solutions are used in many areas of life, and their field of application is constantly expanding under the influence of technical progress. The solutions vary from simple consumer systems based on low-power microcontrollers to multiprocessor distributed systems used in industrial enterprises.
Following are the most typical application examples:
- Automotive industry (on-board computers, fuel and emission control systems)
- Telecommunications (phones, radio, television, satellite communications)
- Healthcare (biomedical sensors, CT scans, blood glucose meters, electronic stethoscopes)
- Manufacturing (CNC machines, industrial robots, automated assembly lines)
- Finance industry (cash machines, info kiosks)
- Aircraft (flight control systems, satellite navigation systems)
- Entertainment (game consoles, slot machines, players)
- Security (traffic lights, fire-alarm systems, burglar alarms)
Embedded Software Market Trends
In the near future, embedded systems will be driven by the trends of lower power consumption and increased security for devices. Safety and stability remain the core challenges for built-in systems, especially those impacting people’s life and health (flight navigation, healthcare). They should be resilient to various environmental conditions, electromagnetic interference, hardware failures, and implementation errors.
According to the specialists from Global Market Insights, the embedded software market size is predicted to exceed $21.5 billion by 2027. The market is growing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing demand for innovative medical devices with built-in software, such as pulse oximetry devices, CT scanners, advanced lung ventilators, etc.
The industry is also expected to continue to proliferate under the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), machine learning, deep learning applications, the Internet of Things (IoT), the active use of cloud technology and real-time data visualization tools.