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1.1 Real Life Examples of Embedded Systems

Even though often nearly invisible, embedded systems are ubiquitous. Embedded systems are present in many industries, including industrial automation, defense, transportation, and aerospace. For example, NASA’s Mars Path Finder, Lockheed Martin’s missile guidance system, and the Ford automobile all contain numerous embedded systems.

Every day, people throughout the world use embedded systems without even knowing it. In fact, the embedded system’s invisibility is its very beauty: users reap the advantages without having to understand the intricacies of the technology.

Remarkably adaptable and versatile, embedded systems can be found at home, at work, and even in recreational devices. Indeed, it is difficult to find a segment of daily life that does not involve embedded systems in some way. Some of the more visible examples of embedded systems are provided in the next sections.

1.1.1 Embedded Systems in the Home Environment

Hidden conveniently within numerous household appliances, embedded systems are found all over the house. Consumers enjoy the effort-saving advanced features and benefits provided by these embedded technologies.

As shown in Figure 1.1 embedded systems in the home assume many forms, including security systems, cable and satellite boxes for televisions, home theater systems, and telephone answering machines. As advances in microprocessors continue to improve the functionality of ordinary products, embedded systems are helping drive the development of additional home-based innovations.

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Figure 1.1: Embedded systems at home.

1.1.2 Embedded Systems in the Work Environment

Embedded systems have also changed the way people conduct business. Perhaps the most significant example is the Internet, which is really just a very large collection of embedded systems that are interconnected using various networking technologies. Figure 1.2 illustrates what a small segment of the Internet might look like.

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Figure 1.2: Embedded systems at work.

From various individual network end-points (for example, printers, cable modems, and enterprise network routers) to the backbone gigabit switches, embedded technology has helped make use of the Internet necessary to any business model. The network routers and the backbone gigabit switches are examples of real-time embedded systems. Advancements in real-time embedded technology are making Internet connectivity both reliable and responsive, despite the enormous amount of voice and data traffic carried over the network.

1.1.3 Embedded Systems in Leisure Activities

At home, at work, even at play, embedded systems are flourishing. A child’s toy unexpectedly springs to life with unabashed liveliness. Automobiles equipped with in-car navigation systems transport people to destinations safely and efficiently. Listening to favorite tunes with anytime-anywhere freedom is readily achievable, thanks to embedded systems buried deep within sophisticated portable music players, as shown in Figure 1.3.

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Figure 1.3: Navigation system and portable music player.

Even the portable computing device, called a web tablet, shown in Figure 1.4, is an embedded system.

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Figure 1.4: A web tablet.

Embedded systems also have teamed with other technologies to deliver benefits to the traditionally low-tech world. GPS technology, for example, uses satellites to pinpoint locations to centimeter-level accuracy, which allows hikers, cyclists, and other outdoor enthusiasts to use GPS handheld devices to enjoy vast spaces without getting lost. Even fishermen use GPS devices to store the locations of their favorite fishing holes.

Embedded systems also have taken traditional radio-controlled airplanes, racecars, and boats to new heights…and speeds. As complex embedded systems in disguise, these devices take command inputs from joysticks and pass them wirelessly to the device’s receiver, enabling the model airplane, racecar, or boat to engage in speedy and complex maneuvers. In fact, the introduction of embedded technology has rendered these sports safer and more enjoyable for model owners by virtually eliminating the once-common threat of crashing due to signal interference.

1.1.4 Defining the Embedded System

Some texts define embedded systems as computing systems or devices without a keyboard, display, or mouse. These texts use the “look” characteristic as the differentiating factor by saying, “embedded systems do not look like ordinary personal computers; they look like digital cameras or smart toasters.” These statements are all misleading.

A general definition of embedded systems is: embedded systems are computing systems with tightly coupled hardware and software integration, that are designed to perform a dedicated function. The word embedded reflects the fact that these systems are usually an integral part of a larger system, known as the embedding system. Multiple embedded systems can coexist in an embedding system.

This definition is good but subjective. In the majority of cases, embedded systems are truly embedded, i.e., they are “systems within systems.” They either cannot or do not function on their own. Take, for example, the digital set-top box (DST) found in many home entertainment systems nowadays. The digital audio/video decoding system, called the A/V decoder, which is an integral part of the DST, is an embedded system. The A/V decoder accepts a single multimedia stream and produces sound and video frames as output. The signals received from the satellite by the DST contain multiple streams or channels. Therefore, the A/V decoder works in conjunction with the transport stream decoder, which is yet another embedded system. The transport stream decoder de-multiplexes the incoming multimedia streams into separate channels and feeds only the selected channel to the A/V decoder.

In some cases, embedded systems can function as standalone systems. The network router illustrated in Figure 1.2 is a standalone embedded system. It is built using a specialized communication processor, memory, a number of network access interfaces (known as network ports), and special software that implements packet routing algorithms. In other words, the network router is a standalone embedded system that routes packets coming from one port to another, based on a programmed routing algorithm.

The definition also does not necessarily provide answers to some often-asked questions. For example: “Can a personal computer be classified as an embedded system? Why? Can an Apple iBook that is used only as a DVD player be called an embedded system?”

A single comprehensive definition does not exist. Therefore, we need to focus on the char-acteristics of embedded systems from many different perspectives to gain a real under-standing of what embedded systems are and what makes embedded systems special.

1.1.5 Embedded Processor and Application Awareness

The processors found in common personal computers (PC) are general-purpose or universal processors. They are complex in design because these processors provide a full scale of features and a wide spectrum of functionalities. They are designed to be suitable for a variety of applications. The systems using these universal processors are programmed with a multitude of applications. For example, modern processors have a built-in memory management unit (MMU) to provide memory protection and virtual memory for multitasking-capable, general-purpose operating systems. These universal processors have advanced cache logic. Many of these processors have a built-in math co-processor capable of performing fast floating-point operations. These processors provide interfaces to support a variety of external peripheral devices. These processors result in large power consumption, heat production, and size. The complexity means these processors are also expensive to fabricate. In the early days, embedded systems were commonly built using general-purpose processors.

Because of the quantum leap in advancements made in microprocessor technology in recent years, embedded systems are increasingly being built using embedded processors instead of general-purpose processors. These embedded processors are special-purpose processors designed for a specific class of applications. The key is application awareness, i.e., knowing the nature of the applications and meeting the requirement for those applications that it is designed to run.

One class of embedded processors focuses on size, power consumption, and price. Therefore, some embedded processors are limited in functionality, i.e., a processor is good enough for the class of applications for which it was designed but is likely inadequate for other classes of applications. This is one reason why many embedded processors do not have fast CPU speeds. For example, the processor chosen for a personal digital assistant (PDA) device does not have a floating-point co-processor because floating-point operations are either not needed or software emulation is sufficient. The processor might have a 16-bit addressing architecture instead of 32-bit, due to its limited memory storage capacity. It might have a 200MHz CPU speed because the majority of the applications are interactive and display-intensive, rather than computation-intensive. This class of embedded processors is small because the overall PDA device is slim and fits in the palm of your hand. The limited functionality means reduced power consumption and long-lasting battery life. The smaller size reduces the overall cost of processor fabrication.

On the other hand, another class of embedded processors focuses on performance. These embedded processors are powerful and packed with advanced chip-design technologies, such as advanced pipeline and parallel processing architecture. These processors are designed to satisfy those applications with intensive computing requirements not achievable with general-purpose processors. An emerging class of highly specialized and high-performance embedded processors includes network processors developed for the network equipment and telecommunications industry. Overall, system and application speeds are the main concerns.

Yet another class of embedded processors focuses on all four requirements—performance, size, power consumption, and price. Take, for example, the embedded digital signal processor (DSP) used in cell phones. Real-time voice communication involves digital signal processing and cannot tolerate delays. A DSP has specialized arithmetic units, optimized design in the memory, and addressing and bus architectures with multiprocessing capability that allow the DSP to perform complex calculations extremely fast in real time. A DSP outperforms a general-purpose processor running at the same clock speed many times over comes to digital signal processing. These reasons are why DSPs, instead of general-purpose processors, are chosen for cell phone designs. Even though DSPs are incredibly fast and powerful embedded processors, they are reasonably priced, which keeps the overall prices of cell phones competitive. The battery from which the DSP draws power lasts for hours and hours. A cell phone under $100 fits in half the palm-size of an average person at the time this book was written.

System-on-a-chip (SoC) processors are especially attractive for embedded systems. The SoC processor is comprised of a CPU core with built-in peripheral modules, such as a programmable general-purpose timer, programmable interrupt controller, DMA controller, and possibly Ethernet interfaces. Such a self-contained design allows these embedded processors to be used to build a variety of embedded applications without needing additional external peripheral devices, again reducing the overall cost and size of the final product.

Sometimes a gray area exists when using processor type to differentiate between embedded and non-embedded systems. It is worth noting that, in large-scale, high-performance embedded systems, the choice between embedded processors and universal microprocessors is a difficult one.

In high-end embedded systems, system performance in a predefined context outweighs power consumption and cost. The choice of a high-end, general purpose processor is as good as the choice of a high-end, specialized embedded processor in some designs. Therefore, using processor type alone to classify embedded systems may result in wrong classifications.

1.1.6 Hardware and Software Co-Design Model

Commonly both the hardware and the software for an embedded system are developed in parallel. Constant design feedback between the two design teams should occur in this development model. The result is that each side can take advantage of what the other can do. The software component can take advantage of special hardware features to gain performance. The hardware component can simplify module design if functionality can be achieved in software that reduces overall hardware complexity and cost. Often design flaws, in both the hardware and software, are uncovered during this close collaboration.

The hardware and software co-design model reemphasizes the fundamental characteristic of embedded systems—they are application-specific. An embedded system is usually built on custom hardware and software. Therefore, using this development model is both permissible and beneficial.

1.1.7 Cross-Platform Development

Another typical characteristic of embedded systems is its method of software development, called cross-platform development, for both system and application software. Software for an embedded system is developed on one platform but runs on another. In this context, the platform is the combination of hardware (such as particular type of processor), operating system, and software development tools used for further development.

The host system is the system on which the embedded software is developed. The target system is the embedded system under development.

The main software tool that makes cross-platform development possible is a cross compiler. A cross compiler is a compiler that runs on one type of processor architecture but produces object code for a different type of processor architecture. A cross compiler is used because the target system cannot host its own compiler. For example, the DIAB compiler from Wind River Systems is such a cross compiler. The DIAB compiler runs on the Microsoft Windows operating system (OS) on the IA-32 architecture and runs on various UNIX operating systems, such as the Solaris OS on the SPARC architecture. The compiler can produce object code for numerous processor types, such as Motorola’s 68000, MIPS, and ARM. We discuss more cross-development tools in Chapter 2.

1.1.8 Software Storage and Upgradeability

Code for embedded systems (such as the real-time embedded operating system, the system software, and the application software) is commonly stored in ROM and NVRAM memory devices. In Chapter 3, we discuss the embedded system booting process and the steps involved in extracting code from these storage devices. Upgrading an embedded system can mean building new PROM, deploying special equipment and/or a special method to reprogram the EPROM, or reprogramming the flash memory.

The choice of software storage device has an impact on development. The process to reprogram an EPROM when small changes are made in the software can be tedious and time-consuming, and this occurrence is common during development. Removing an EPROM device from its socket can damage the EPROM; worse yet, the system itself can be damaged if careful handling is not exercised.

The choice of the storage device can also have an impact on the overall cost of maintenance. Although PROM and EPROM devices are inexpensive, the cost can add up if a large volume of shipped systems is in the field. Upgrading an embedded system in these cases means shipping replacement PROM and EPROM chips. The embedded system can be upgraded without the need for chip replacement and can be upgraded dynamically over a network if flash memory or EEPROM is used as the code storage device (see the following sidebar).

Armed with the information presented in the previous sections, we can now attempt to answer the questions raised earlier. A personal computer is not an embedded system because it is built using a general-purpose processor and is built independently from the software that runs on it. The software applications developed for personal computers, which run operating systems such as FreeBSD or Windows, are developed natively (as opposed to cross-developed) on those operating systems. For the same reasons, an Apple iBook used only as a DVD player is used like an embedded system but is not an embedded system.

Read Only Memory (ROM)

With non-volatile content and without the need for an external power source.

  • Mask Programmed ROM—the memory content is programmed during the manufacturing process. Once programmed, the content cannot be changed. It cannot be reprogrammed.

  • Field Programmable ROM (PROM)—the memory content can be custom-programmed one time. The memory content cannot change once programmed.

  • Erasable Programmable ROM (EPROM)—an EPROM device can be custom-programmed, erased, and reprogrammed as often as required within its lifetime (hundreds or even thousands of times). The memory content is non-volatile once programmed. Traditional EPROM devices are erased by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. An EPROM device must be removed from its housing unit first. It is then reprogrammed using a special hardware device called an EPROM programmer.

  • Electrically Erasable Programmable ROM (EEPROM or E2PROM)—modern EPROM devices are erased electrically and are thus called EEPROM. One important difference between an EPROM and an EEPROM device is that with the EEPROM device, memory content of a single byte can be selectively erased and reprogrammed. Therefore, with an EEPROM device, incremental changes can be made. Another difference is the EEPROM can be reprogrammed without a special programmer and can stay in the device while being reprogrammed. The versatility of byte-level programmability of the EEPROM comes at a price, however, as programming an EEPROM device is a slow process.

  • Flash Memory—the flash memory is a variation of EEPROM, which allows for block-level (e.g., 512-byte) programmability that is much faster than EEPROM.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

Also called Read/Write Memory, requires external power to maintain memory content. The term random access refers to the ability to access any memory cell directly. RAM is much faster than ROM. Two types of RAM that are of interest:

  • Dynamic RAM (DRAM)—DRAM is a RAM device that requires periodic refreshing to retain its content.

  • Static RAM (SRAM)—SRAM is a RAM device that retains its content as long as power is supplied by an external power source. SRAM does not require periodic refreshing and it is faster than DRAM.

  • Non-Volatile RAM (NVRAM)—NVRAM is a special type of SRAM that has backup battery power so it can retain its content after the main system power is shut off. Another variation of NVARM combines SRAM and EEPROM so that its content is written into the EEPROM when power is shut off and is read back from the EEPROM when power is restored.


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