Archive for January, 2009

Multi-Core in Embedded Systems

Thursday, January 29th, 2009 Michael Barr

Hey Michael,

We met about a year ago at a class that you presented.

I was wondering if you have noticed any movement in the embedded software community to consider multi-core chips and, if so, what OS?

I ask because I noticed ARM has a multi-core chip, Cortex A9, which is rumored to be in the next edition of the iPhone.

Do you see multi-core being valuable, or too expensive for most embedded products? Do you see any problems with going with a multi-core system?


Dear Greg,

The technology trend that’s driving all the talk about multi-core is that two or more slow processors on one die is becoming more cost effective to produce than a single “faster” processor.

Multi-core processors are thus of most interest toward the end of embedded systems with severe computational demands. Multi-core hardware brings challenges, especially for the software architectures and compilers and operating systems we mostly use. Thus it is unlikely that multi-core will be widely used in the near term by the majority of embedded developers.

Hope this helps!


The End of a (Print) Era

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 Michael Barr

With Dr. Dobb’s Journal going printless, the writing is on the (paperless) wall for other trade journals. This prompts me to reflect on the state of technical magazines and their web-based counterparts.

The thickest-ever print edition of Embedded Systems Design magazine (then Embedded Systems Programming) was published in September 2000. That issue had about 120 pages. I was the editor-in-chief at the time, and I distinctly remember the struggle to find enough high quality content for that issue and the impact that doing so had on my backlog of good articles.

In 2000, a full page ad in the magazine sold for about $10,000. And the formula for free-for-registered-subscribers trade journals was simple: publish one page of editorial content for each page of advertising sold. Some quick math shows that the 120 page issue probably generated about $600,000 of revenue. Of course it costs more to print and mail each additional page, but above a certain fixed break-even page count (say, 50 page issues), each additional ad dollar flowed mostly to the bottom line. I think it’s fair to say that the current 40 page print issues of Embedded Systems Design, with ads sold at much lower per page rates, is below that break-even.

By and large, we paid generously for the technical articles and columns we published in that more prosperous era. That incentive to authors plus the editorial funneling process meant that Embedded Systems Programming published lots of high quality articles over the years. Maintaining a reputation for quality content contributed to the publisher’s ability to add qualified subscribers and charge a premium for the ads.

But the online model is different. Because the per-eyeball ad revenue is far lower online, the editorial game has shifted from high quality content to a large quantity content. Even a poorly written technical article with bad advice can earn the publisher some money–if it the editor applies the right keywords.

As Jack Ganssle put it in the above article:

the publication will have more content than ever, no longer restricted by the physical constraints of printing

(To be clear: Embedded Systems Design and its sister website maintain a high standard for content to this day. The preceding comments concern the risks of a move from print to online publishing on any website.)

The move to online publishing is unstoppable, for obvious economic reasons. There are simply more cost effective ways for vendors to reach a large audience and engineers to search for information than the printing and mailing of periodicals.

It is unfortunate that a move toward a higher quantity of lower quality material is becoming the norm within the online editions.

Resume Inflation

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 Michael Barr

Like many companies, Netrino is perpetually interviewing candidates for software engineering positions. However, since our work is primarily in the area of embedded systems design we tend to meet many software candidates who come originally from electrical engineering backgrounds. Among this group of candidates there is a prevalent bias toward a kind of resume inflation, in the technical skills section.

Almost all of the resumes we receive for firmware engineering positions contain one of the strings “C, C++” or “C/C++” at or near the front of a longer list of programming language skills (e.g., “C/C++, Fortran, Assembly (various), Forth”). C is generally at the front of that language list for good reason–because it is the one programming language with which the candidate has the most hands-on experience. Too often, though, our interviews have revealed that C++ is listed second for no good reason.

C and C++ are fundamentally different languages. Many of these “resume inflation” job candidates don’t even realize that C++ is as different as it is from C. Often, their actual experience with C++ turns out to be that they’ve used C++ compilers to build C programs. And when they really have used C++, their practical experience usually ends at the use of classes.

Object-oriented C++ has three important aspects: encapsulation, inheritance, and polymorphism. Mere use of encapsulation is insufficient to claim you have C++ programming skills. When we include C++ in a job listing it is because the work may involve the use of every part of C++. To get the job, you must be knowledgeable in all of C++.

What can you do if you are submitting your resume and know some C++ rather than a lot? Be clear and humble. If you merely worked with C++ in school or on a single project, list it in a separate section. Or put C++ apart from C in your language list.

Interviewers (as well as resume reviewers) are impressed by modesty and clear communication.

Programming as Profession

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 Michael Barr

Doing my daily reading around the embedded systems press, I happened across this gem in an article by Jim Turley:

Programming is often treated as a creative endeavor, undertaken by spirited and talented artistes who cannot or should not be shackled to convention, regulations, or reasonable hygiene. Get over it. Programming is a job like any other, and an employer’s responsibility is to ship a profitable product, not coddle and babysit self-indulgent hackers.

I couldn’t agree with Jim more. It is especially unfortunate when a lack of professionalism shows itself in the realm of embedded systems, such as medical devices, that put human lives at risk. I regret to inform the reader that from Netrino‘s vantage point as consultants we see everyday the train wreck that results from poorly managed and unprofessional programmers working in the embedded systems space.

You need a license from the state to to be a barber. To write embedded software, you simply need to be able to spell ‘C’. But I’m on a mission to change that.