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Streamlining Strategies for Embedded Software Development

Developing embedded software is notoriously difficult – how can we simplify the process? Fortunately, there are lots of techniques you can use daily to help streamline your development.

Embracing Automation

The specialized nature of embedded systems extends the ramp-up time for developers and necessitates a higher level of expertise. Automating hardware-specific tasks, such as deploying applications to boards, initializing debuggers, and resetting systems, can significantly reduce the time penalties that embedded developers face. Using automation to streamline setup for new engineers, everyday development routines, and testing workflows not only speeds up development but also ensures consistency.

Prototyping is Vital

Prototyping is an indispensable part of embedded software development. Given the high cost and complexity associated with changes to software and hardware later in a project, early detection of potential issues is invaluable. Embedded prototypes need not be elaborate; rather, they should precisely address specific aspects such as hardware selection, software performance, integration strategies, and user interface design.

Prototyping serves multiple purposes, from assessing hardware performance metrics to conducting preliminary user-interface tests. Importantly, prototypes can also help pre-empt critical issues, form the basis of future test scaffolding, avoid the need to discard early code iterations, and even lay the groundwork for initial development.

Integrate Early and Often

Integration represents a critical phase in development, one that brings together disparate pieces of the software puzzle. This includes various internal components developed by separate teams — like the middleware stack, user interface, and backend services — as well as third-party software. While the temptation might be to delay this challenging step, early and regular integration is the wiser approach. This proactive strategy facilitates the early identification and resolution of issues that are not evident in unit testing, helping to avoid last-minute crises.

Optimize, but Carefully

The famous caution against premature optimization, coined by Donald Knuth in the 1960s, remains relevant today, especially where the interplay between hardware and software leads to complex performance issues in embedded systems. The key is not to avoid optimization but rather approach it with a thorough understanding of your application’s specific performance bottlenecks. Optimizing is both a time-consuming activity and a source of potential bugs, so optimize only when you need to and when you can show it can have a substantial impact. Use tools like perf, hotspot, and various other memory profilers to accurately diagnose performance problems. Once you have a clear understanding of the issues at hand, you can formulate an effective optimization strategy and establish benchmarks to maintain performance standards.

Byte-Wise, Megabyte-Foolish: A Cautionary Tale

It’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. We learned this firsthand when helping a client who optimized their application’s search functionality to an impressive degree, only to overlook a major memory drain caused by an inefficient background image file format. This oversight led to unnecessary memory consumption that eclipsed the benefits gained by optimizing their search feature’s memory use – a reminder to consider the broader implications before optimizing.

Best Practices

For those looking to delve deeper into the intricacies of embedded system design, our guides, Designing Your First Embedded Linux Device and Best Practices: Embedded Development provide insights and a wealth of detailed best practices to ensure your project begins and stays on a solid foundation.

If you want to learn more about embedded Linux, come talk to us at Embedded World 2024 (9th-11th April) in Nürnberg: KDAB at EW24.

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