Without embedded software engineering services, our increasingly interconnected digital world would not be possible. In embedded software, precision meets innovation to deliver seamless integration and unique gadget-enabled experiences. Whether you’re an aspiring technologist, an entrepreneur disrupting your market or simply a curious mind, understanding how embedded software works can ignite your imagination and broaden your horizons.
This blog post unravels the mysteries behind designing, constructing and testing embedded software. Join us in exploring how embedded software engineering services enable the development of the next-generation innovations that define our world.
What is Embedded Software Engineering?
Embedded software engineering is the design, construction and testing of software specifically designed for a single, unified purpose to be deployed alongside hardware that together make up an embedded system.
Embedded software engineering services play a vital role in modern technology, enabling the seamless functioning of numerous devices and systems we rely on daily. By powering the ever-expanding world of interconnected devices and intelligent technology, embedded software engineering demands a thorough understanding of the specific requirements of the hardware and the end use case — and then designing the software to work harmoniously within the system.
What is Embedded Software?
Embedded software is the computer program or code specifically attached to a single unit of hardware deployed to perform a specific function or set of functions. From consumer electronics to automotive systems, defense and aerospace applications to health care devices and everything in between, embedded software can be found in a diverse range of everyday products and industries, controlling how systems and devices function.
The design and development of embedded software require expertise in low-level programming languages and operating systems to meet the specific constraints of the embedded system and unlock valuable user experiences.
Unlike general software that runs on various platforms and devices, embedded software is tightly coupled with the hardware it operates on, serving a singular purpose. Consequently, an embedded system — code flashed to a device and placed in an enclosure — often can’t be replaced by the end user.
Consider a Wi-Fi router vs. a laptop as an example. Running general software on a Wi-Fi router is incredibly challenging, but running specific Wi-Fi router software is easy. With a computer, an integrated screen, mouse, powerful CPU, fans, battery, etc. allow you to run a wide variety of software.
Embedded systems can forego or replace any number of the integrated elements that you would see in a laptop because a keyboard or screen, for example, might distract from the devices’ intended dedicated function. General systems, on the other hand, have to be as broad as possible to support myriad use cases.
Now that we know what embedded software is, let’s see how it differs from application software.
What is the Difference Between Embedded Software and Application Software?
The primary divergences between embedded software and application software lie in their deployment, intended use and platforms on which they run.
As noted, embedded software is explicitly designed for integration into a larger dedicated system or device. Preinstalled on devices during manufacturing, embedded software is not intended for users to modify or install. On the other hand, application software runs on general computing devices — smartphones, computers and tablets — and end-users can install and remove it.
Embedded software runs on embedded systems integrated into larger systems or devices with resource constraints. But application software runs on general-purpose computing platforms with fewer resource constrictions, like desktop and mobile operating systems (Windows, macOS, Linus, Android, iOS) that offer a wide range of capabilities and support diverse applications.
While application software is more generic and can be easily customized through settings, configurations and user preferences, embedded software is tightly coupled with the hardware it operates on and is optimized to meet the unique requirements of the embedded system — whether a microwave oven or an in-car entertainment dashboard.
What is the Difference Between Embedded Software and Firmware?
The terms “embedded software” and “firmware” often refer to the same thing: software intended to run as-is (unmodified) on a single piece of hardware.
Embedded software is designed to run on embedded systems, dedicated computing devices or microcontrollers integrated into a more extensive system to perform specific functions. Firmware typically refers to permanent software specifically designed to operate a particular, single-purpose device. For example, a Wi-Fi card is an embedded system but it lives within the whole laptop to help with general computing. The firmware can either live on a ROM or be loaded by the operating system on boot, depending on which vendor made the card, how old it is and what Wi-Fi versions it supports.
As such, embedded software engineering can produce firmware! It is arguable that all firmware is embedded software, as even the small things like CPU microcode updates are still data supporting the proper functioning of the CPU. (Whether the CPU is embedded in a laptop, a phone or a Wi-Fi-connected light switch is inconsequential because the CPU can be considered a small embedded system of its own.)
Where is Embedded Software Used?
Embedded software is used across industries and products for which dedicated computing capabilities are required to perform specific functions. As noted, consumer electronics like smartphones, smart TVs, digital cameras, wearable devices, smart home systems and video game consoles leverage embedded software.
Modern vehicles also heavily rely on embedded software for various functions, including engine control, infotainment, advanced driver assistance and in-vehicle communication. Since embedded software enables precise, accurate operations, new medical equipment — implantable devices, diagnostic instruments and monitoring systems — harnesses the power of embedded software to enable better care outcomes.
Additional common areas where embedded software is used include the following:
- Internet of Things: IoT devices, such as smart thermostats, security systems, home assistants and connected appliances, rely on embedded software to communicate and facilitate intelligent decision-making.
- Industrial Equipment: Prevalent in industrial control systems, programmable logic controllers, robotic systems and process automation equipment, embedded software enables precise control and monitoring to help boost manufacturing safety and efficiency.
- Aerospace and Defense: Embedded systems can be more easily developed to resist hacking through techniques such as software hardening and minimized network access, and are thus used extensively in avionics and astrionics systems, military equipment, navigation systems, and other safety-critical systems.
- Telecommunications: From switches to routers to networking equipment to cell phones, embedded software helps manage the flow of data, signal processing and network communication in telecommunications systems.
- Smart Homes and Buildings: Whether helping control lighting, HVAC systems, security or energy management, embedded software systems help more accurately and efficiently control indoor environments.
- Transportation and Logistics: Everything from GPS systems to various electric motors increasingly utilize embedded software to maximize efficiency, reduce pollution and manage navigation, fleet tracking and logistics operations.
As its ability to deliver specialized functionality, real-time responses and greater efficiencies improve, embedded software’s versatility and scalability make it indispensable in an ever-expanding range of devices and systems.
The Embedded Software Development Process
Since limited processing power, memory and energy resources restrict the design and development of embedded software systems, engineers must focus on optimizing code to meet strict system constraints at each step of the process: design, construction and testing.
The Embedded Software Development Process
- Design: In this phase, developers partner with hardware engineers to understand the system’s requirements, define functionality, identify the interacting components and outline the overall architecture before designing the hardware and embedded software.
- Construction: With the design in place, the construction phase begins. Engineers write the code to ensure precise control and implement the functionality defined during the design phase.
- Testing: Testing is the final — and arguably most crucial — step of the embedded software development process. Without testing, ensuring the software operates flawlessly in the intended environment would be impossible.
While not linear, each step of this general three-step process feeds into the others, enabling embedded software developers to seamlessly integrate efficient software with hardware, powering the intelligent devices and systems that drive innovation across various industries.
Cardinal Peak: Embedded Software Engineering Experts
Embedded software engineering is vital to innovation. By understanding the nuances of embedded software engineering and the development process, you can make informed decisions when seeking embedded software engineering services for your product engineering needs.
When unleashing the full potential of your embedded projects, partnering with an outsourced engineering company specializing in embedded software development can make all the difference. Our talented team of embedded software engineers brings a wealth of experience designing, constructing and testing cutting-edge embedded software solutions. Connect with our embedded software experts to discuss your next embedded project.