Posts Tagged ‘outsourcing’

Trends in Embedded Software Design

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 Michael Barr

In many ways, the story of my career as an embedded software developer is intertwined with the history of the magazine Embedded Systems Design. When it was launched in 1988, under the original title Embedded Systems Programming (ESP), I was finishing high school. Like the vast majority of people at that time, I had never heard the term “embedded system” or thought much about the computers hidden away inside other kinds of products. Six years later I was a degreed electrical engineer who, like many EEs by that time in the mid-90’s, had a job designing embedded software rather than hardware. Shortly thereafter I discovered the magazine on a colleague’s desk, and became a subscriber and devotee.

The Early Days

In the early 1990s, as now, the specialized knowledge needed to write reliable embedded software was mostly not taught in universities. The only class I’d had in programming was in FORTRAN; I’d taught myself to program in assembly and C through a pair of hands-on labs that were, in hindsight, my only formal education in writing embedded software. It was on the job and from the pages of the magazine, then, that I first learned the practical skills of writing device drivers, porting and using operating systems, meeting real-time deadlines, implementing finite state machines, the pros and cons of languages other than C and assembly, remote debugging and JTAG, and so much more.

In that era, my work as a firmware developer involved daily interactions with Intel hex files, device programmers, tubes of EPROMs with mangled pins, UV erasers, mere kilobytes of memory, 8- and 16-bit processors, in-circuit emulators, and ROM monitors. Databooks were actual books; collectively, they took up whole bookshelves. I wrote and compiled my firmware programs on an HP-UX workstation on my desk, but then had to go downstairs to a lab to burn the chips, insert them into the prototype board, and test and debug via an attached ICE. I remember that on one especially daunting project eight miles separated my compiler and device programmer from the only instance of the target hardware; a single red LED and a dusty oscilloscope were the extent of my debugging toolbox.

Like you I had the Internet at my desk in the mid-90s, but it did not yet provide much useful or relevant information to my work other than via certain FTP sites (does anyone else remember FTPing into or Gopher?). The rest was mostly blinking headlines and dancing hamster; and Amazon was merely the world’s biggest river. There was not yet an or To learn about software and hardware best practices, I pursued an MSEE and CS classes at night and traveled to the Embedded Systems Conferences.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of any books about embedded programming. And every book that I had found on C started with “Hello, World”, only went up in abstraction from there, and ended without ever once addressing peripheral control, interrupt service routines, interfacing to assembly language routines, and operating systems (real-time or other). For reasons I couldn’t explain years later when Jack Ganssle asked me, I had the gumption to think I could write that missing book for embedded C programmers, got a contract from O’Reilly, and did–ending, rather than starting, mine with “Hello, World” (via an RS-232 port).

In 1998, a series of at least three twists of fate spanning four years found me taking a seat next to an empty chair at the speaker’s lunch at an Embedded Systems Conference. The chair’s occupant turned out to be Lindsey Vereen, who was then well into his term as the second editor-in-chief of the magazine. In addition to the book, I’d written an article or two for ESP by that time and Lindsey had been impressed with my ability to explain technical nuances. When he told me that he was looking for someone to serve as a technical editor, I didn’t realize it was the first step towards my role in that position.

Future Trends

Becoming and then staying involved with the magazine, first as technical editor and later as editor-in-chief and contributing editor, has been a highlight of my professional life. I had been a huge fan of ESP and of its many great columnists and other contributors in its first decade. And now, looking back, I believe my work helped make it an even more valuable forum for the exchange of key design ideas, best practices, and industry learning in its second decade. And, though I understand the move away from print towards online publishing and advertising, I am nonetheless saddened to see the magazine come to an end.

Reflecting back on these days long past reminds me that a lot truly has changed about embedded software design. Assembly language is used far less frequently today; C and C++ much more. EPROMs with their device programmers and UV erasers have been supplanted by flash memory and bootloaders. Bus widths and memory sizes have increased dramatically. Expensive in-circuit emulators and ROM monitors have morphed into inexpensive JTAG debug ports. ROM-DOS has been replaced with whatever Microsoft is branding embedded Windows this year. And open-source Linux has done so well that it has limited the growth of the RTOS industry as a whole–and become a piece of technology we all want to master if only for our resumes.

So what does the future hold? What will the everyday experiences of embedded programmers be like in 2020, 2030, or 2040? I see three big trends that will affect us all over those timeframes, each of which has already begun to unfold.

Trend 1: Volumes Finally Shift to 32-bit CPUs

My first prediction is that inexpensive, low-power, highly-integrated microcontrollers–as best exemplified by today’s ARM Cortex-M family–will bring 32-bit CPUs into even the highest volume application domains. The volumes of 8- and 16-bit CPUs will finally decline as these parts become truly obsolete.

Though you may be programming for a 32-bit processor already, it’s still true that 8- and 16-bit processors still drive CPU chip sales volumes. I’m referring, of course, to microcontrollers such as those based on 8051, PIC, and other instruction set architectures dating back 30-40 years. These older architectures remain popular today only because certain low-margin, high-volume applications of embedded processing demand squeezing every penny out of BOM cost.

The limitations of 8- and 16-bit architectures impact the embedded programmers in a number of ways. First, there are the awkward memory limitations resulting from limited address bus widths–and the memory banks, segmenting techniques, and other workarounds to going beyond those limitations. Second, these CPUs are much better at decision making than mathematics–they lack the ability to manipulate large integers efficiently and have no floating-point capability. Finally, these older processors frequently lack modern development tools, are unable to run larger Internet-enabled operating systems, such as Linux, and don’t feature the security and reliabiltiy protections afforded by an MMU.

There will, of course, always be many applications that are extremely cost-conscious, so my prediction is not that they will disappear completely, but that the overall price (including BOM cost as well as power consumption) of 32-bit micro controllers, with their improved instruction set architectures and transistor geometries, will win on price. That will put the necessary amount of computing power into the hands of some designers and make our work easier for all of us. It also helps programmers accomplish more in less time.

Trend 2: Complexity Forces Programmers Beyond C

My second prediction is that the days of the C programming language’s dominance in embedded systems are numbered.

Don’t get me wrong, C is a language I know and love. But, as you may know firsthand, C is simply not up to the task of building systems requiring over a million lines of code. Nonetheless, the demanded complexity of embedded software has been driving our systems towards more than a million lines of code. At this level of complexity, something has to give.

Additionally, our industry is facing a crisis: the average age of an embedded developer is rapidly increasing and C is generally not taught in universities anymore. Thus, even as the demand for embedded intelligence in every industry continues to increase, the population of skilled and experienced C programmers is on the decline. Something has to give on this front too.

But what alternative language can be used to build real-time software, manipulate hardware directly, and be quickly ported to numerous instruction set architectures? It’s not going to be C++ or Ada or Java, for sure–as those have already been tried and found lacking. A new programming language is probably not the answer either, across so many CPU families and with so many other languages already tried.

Thus I predict that tools that are able to reliably generate those millions of lines of C code automatically for us, based on system specifications, will ultimately take over. As an example of a current tool of this sort that could be part of the trend, I direct your attention to Miro Samek’s dandy open source Quantum Platform (QP) framework for event-driven programs and his (optional) free Quantum Modeler (QM) graphical modeling tool. You may not like the idea of auto-generated code today, but I guarantee that once you push a button to generate consistent and correct code from an already expressive statechart diagram, you will see the benefits of the overall structure and be ready to move up a level in programming efficiency.

I view C as a reasonable common output language for such tools (given that C can manipulate hardware registers directly and that every processor ever invented has a C compiler). Note that I do expect there to be continued demand for those of us with the skills and interest to fine tune the performance of the generated code or write device drivers to integrate it more closely to the hardware.

Trend 3: Connectivity Drives Importance of Security

We’re increasingly connecting embedded systems–to each other and to the Internet. You’ve heard the hype (e.g., “Internet of things” and “ubiquitous computing”) and you’ve probably already also put TCP/IP into one or more of your designs. But connectivity has a lot of implications that we are only starting to come to terms with. The most obvious of these is security.

A connected device cannot hide for long behind “security through obscurity” and, so, we must design security into our connected devices from the start. In my travels around our industry I’ve observed that the majority of embedded designers are largely unfamiliar with security. Sure some of you have read about encryption algorithms and know the names of a few. But mostly the embedded community is shooting in the dark as security designers, within organizations that aren’t of much help. And security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.

This situation must change. Just as Flash memory has supplanted UV-erasable EPROM, so too will over-the-net patches and upgrades take center stage as a download mechanism in coming years and decades. We must architect our systems first to be secure and then to accepted trusted downloads so that our products can keep up in the inevitable arms race against hackers and attackers.

And That’s a Wrap

Whatever the future holds, I am certain that embedded software development will remain an engaging and challenging career. And you’ll still find me writing about the field at and

Unintended Acceleration and Other Embedded Software Bugs

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 Michael Barr

Last month, NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) published reports of their joint investigation into the causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. NASA’s multi-disciplinary NESC technical team was asked, by Congress, to assist NHTSA by performing a review of Toyota’s electronic throttle control and the associated embedded software. In carefully worded concluding statement, NASA stated that it “found no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents.” (The official reports and a number of supporting files are available for download at

The first thing you will notice if you join me in trying to judge the technical issues for yourself are the redactions: pages and pages of them. In parts and entirely for unexplained reasons, this report on automotive electronics reads like the public version of a CIA Training Manual. I’ve observed that approximately 193 of the 1,061 pages released so far feature some level of redaction (via black boxes, which obscure from a single number, word, or phrase to a full table, page, or section). The redactions are at their worst in NASA’s Appendix A, which describes NASA’s review of Toyota’s embedded software in detail. More than half of all the pages with redactions (including the vast majority of fully redacted tables, pages, and sections) are in that Appendix.

Despite the redactions, we can still learn some interesting facts about Toyota’s embedded software and NASA’s technical review of the same. The bulk of the below outlines what I’ve been able to make sense of in about two days of reading. Throughout, my focus is on embedded software inside the electronic throttle control, so I’m leaving out considerations of other potential causes, including EMI (which NASA also investigated). First a little background on the investigation.


Although the inquiry was taken to examine unintended acceleration reports across all Toyota, Scion, and Lexus models, NASA focused its technical inquiry almost entirely on Toyota Camry models equipped with the Electronic Throttle Control System, Intelligent (ETCS-i). The Camry has long been among the top cars bought in the U.S., so this choice probably made finding relevant complaint data and affected vehicles easier for NHTSA. (BTW, NASA says the voluntary complaint database shows both that unintended accelerations were reported before the introduction of electronic throttle control and that press coverage and Congressional hearings can increase the volume of complaints.)

According to a press release by the company made upon publication of the NHTSA and NASA reports, Toyota’s ETCS-i has been installed in “more than 40 million cars and trucks sold around the world, including more than 16 million in the United States.” Undoubtedly, ETCS-i has also “made possible significant safety advances such as vehicle stability control and traction control.” But as with any other embedded system there have been refinements made through the years to both the electronics and the embedded software.

Though Toyota apparently made available, under agreed terms and via its attorneys, schematics, design documents, and source code “for multiple Camry years and versions” (Appendix A, p. 9) as well as many of the Japanese engineers involved in its design and evolution, NASA only closely examined one version. In NASA’s words, “The area of emphasis will be the 2005 Toyota Camry because this vehicle has a consistently high rate of reported ‘UA events’ over all Toyota models and all years, when normalized to the number of each model and year, according to NHTSA data.” (p. 7) Except as otherwise stated, everything else in this column concerns the electronics and firmware found in that year, make, and model.

Event Data Recorders

Event Data Recorder (EDR) is the generic term for the automotive equivalent of an aircraft black box flight data recorder. EDRs were first installed in cars in the early 1990s and have increased in use as well as sophistication in the years since. Generally speaking, the event data recorder is an embedded system residing within the airbag control module located in the front center of the engine compartment. The event data recorder is connected to other parts of the car’s electronics via the CAN bus and is always monitoring vehicle speed, the position of the brake and accelerator pedals, and other key parameters.

In the event of an impossibly high (for the vehicle operating normally) acceleration or deceleration sensor reading, Toyota’s latest event data recorders save the prior five 1Hz samples of these parameters in a non-volatile memory area. Once saved, an event record can be read over the car’s On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port (or, in the event of a more severe accident, directly from the airbag control module) via a special cable and PC software. If the airbag actually deploys, the event record will be permanently locked. The last 2 or 3 (depending on version) lesser “bump” records are also stored, but may be overwritten in a FIFO manner.

This investigation of Toyota’s unintended acceleration marked the first time that anyone from NHTSA had ever read data from a Toyota event data recorder. (Toyota representatives apparently testified in Congress that there had previously just been one copy of the necessary PC software in the U.S.) As part of this study, NHTSA validated and used tools provided by Toyota to extract historical data from 52 vehicles involved in incidents of unintended acceleration, with acknowledged bias toward geographically reachable recent events. After reviewing driver and other witness statements and examining said black box data, NHTSA concluded that 39 of these 52 events were explainable as “pedal misapplications.” That’s a very nice way of saying that whenever the driver reported “stepping on the brake” he or she had pressed the accelerator pedal by mistake. Figure 5 of a supplemental report describing these facts portrays an increasing likelihood of such incidents with driver age vs. the bell curve of Camry ownership by age.

Note that no record is apparently ever made, in the event data recorder or elsewhere, of any events or state changes within the ETCS-i firmware. So-called “Diagnostic Trouble Codes” concerning sensor and other hardware failures are recorded in non-volatile memory and the presence of one or more such codes enables the “Check Engine” light on the dashboard. But no logging is done of significant software faults, including but not limited to watchdog-initiated resets.

Engine Control Module

ETCS-i is a collection of components and features that was changed in the basic engine design when Toyota switched from mechanical to electronic throttle control. (Electronic throttle control is also known as “throttle-by-wire”.) Toyota has used two different types of pedal sensors in the ETCS-i system, always in a redundant fashion. The earlier design, pre-2007, using potentiometers was susceptible to current leakage via growth of tin whiskers. Though this type of failure was not known to cause sudden high-speed behaviors, it did seem to be associated with a higher number of warranty claims. The newer pedal sensor design uses Hall effect sensors.

Importantly, the brakes are not a part of the ETCS-i system. In the 2005 Camry, Toyota’s brake pedal was mechanically controlled. (It may still be.) It appears this is one of the reasons the NASA team felt comfortable with their conclusion that driver reports of wide open throttle behavior that could not be stopped with the brakes were not caused by software failures (alone). “The NESC team did not find an electrical path from the ETCS-i that could disable braking.” (NASA Report, p. 15) It is clear, though, that power assisted brakes lose the enabling vacuum pressure when the throttle is wide open and the driver subsequently pumps the brakes; thus any system failure that opened the throttle could indirectly make bringing the vehicle to a stop considerably harder.

The Engine Control Module at the heart of the ETCS-i consists of a Main-CPU and a Sub-CPU located within a pair of ASICs. The Sub-CPU contains a set of A/D converters that translates raw sensor inputs, such as voltages VPA and VPA1 from the accelerator pedal, into digital position values and sends them to the Main-CPU via a serial interface. In addition, the Sub-CPU monitors the outputs of the Main-CPU and is able to reset (in the manner of a watchdog timer) the Main-CPU.

The Main-CPU is reported to be a V850E1 microcontroller, which is “a 32-bit RISC CPU core for ASIC” designed by Renesas (nee NEC). The V850E1 processor has a 64MB program address space, which is part of an overall 4GB linear address space. The Main-CPU also keeps tabs on the Sub-CPU and can reset it if anything is found wrong.

NASA reports that the embedded software in the Main-CPU is written (mostly) in ANSI C and compiled using a GreenHills C compiler (Appendix A, p. 14). Furthermore, an OSEK-compliant real-time operating system with fixed-priority preemptive scheduling is used to manage a redacted (but apparently larger than ten, based on the size of the redaction) number of real-time tasks. The actual firmware development (design, coding and unit testing) was outsourced to Denso (p. 19). Toyota apparently performed integration testing and ran several commercial and in-house static analysis tools, including QAC (p. 20). The code was written in English, with Japanese comments and design documents, and follows a proprietary Toyota naming convention/coding standard that predates but half overlaps with the 1998 version of MISRA-C.

Are There Bugs in Toyota’s Firmware?

In the NASA Report’s executive summary it is made clear that “because proof that the ETCS-i caused the reported UAs was not found does not mean it could not occur.” (NASA Report, p. 17) The report also states that NASA’s analysis was time-limited and top-down, remarking “The Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) was far more complex than expected involving hundreds of thousands of lines of software code” and that this affected the quality of a planned peer review.

It’s stated that “Reported [Unintended Accelerations (UAs)] are rare events. Typically, the reporting of UAs is about 1/100,000 vehicles/year.” But there are millions of cars on the road, and so NHTSA has collected some “831 UA reports for Camry” alone. “Over one-half of the reported events described large (greater than 25 degrees) high-throttle opening UAs of unknown cause” (NASA Report, p. 14), the causes of which are never fully explained in these reports.

The NASA apparently identified some lesser firmware bugs themselves, saying “[our] logic model verifications identified a number of potential issues. All of these issues involved unrealistic timing delays in the multiprocessing, asynchronous software control flow.” (Appendix A, p. 11) NASA also spent time simulating possible race conditions due to worrisome “recursively nested interrupt masking” (pp, 44-46); note, though, that simulation success is not a sufficient proof of lack of races. As well, the NASA team seems to recommend “reducing the amount of global data” (p. 38) and eliminating “dead code” (p. 40).

Additionally, the redacted text in other parts of Appendix A seems to be obscuring that:

  • The standard gcc compiler version 4″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 100) about the code, in 11 different warning categories. (p. 25)
  • Coverity version 4.2″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 154) about the code, in 10 different warning categories. (p. 27)
  • Codesonar version 3.6p1″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 136) about the code, in 10 different warning categories.
  • Uno version 2.12″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 72) about the code, in 9 different warning categories.
  • The code contained at least 347 deviations from a subset of 14 of the MISRA-C rules.
  • The code contained at least 243 violations of a subset of 9 of the 10 “Power of 10–Rules for Developing Safety Critical Code,” which was published in IEEE Computer in 2006 by NASA team member Gerard Holzmann.

It looks to me like Figure 6.2.3-1 of the NASA Report (p. 30) shows that UA complaints filed with NHTSA increased in the year of introduction of electronic throttle control for the vast majority of Toyota, Scion, and Lexus models–and that complaint counts have remained higher but generally declined over time since those transitions years. Such a complaint data pattern is perhaps consistent with firmware bugs. (Note to NHTSA: It would be helpful to see this same chart normalized by number of vehicles sold by model year and with the rows sorted by the year of ETC introduction. It would also be nice to see a chart of ETCS-i firmware versions and updates, which vehicles they apply to, and the dates on which each was put into new production vehicles or distributed through dealers.)

Final Thoughts

I am not privy to all of the facts considered by the NHTSA or NASA review teams and thus cannot say if I agree or disagree with their overall conclusion that embedded software bugs are not to blame for reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. How about you? If you’ve spotted something I missed in the reports from NHTSA or NASA, please send me an e-mail or leave a comment below. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Embedded Programmers Worldwide Earn Failing Grades in C and C++

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 Michael Barr

In industry surveys, over 80% of embedded software developers report using C or C++ as their primary programming language. Yet as a group, these programmers earned a failing grade on a multiple-choice quiz testing firmware-related C programming skills. A scary result, considering that embedded software inside medical devices, industrial controls, anti-lock brakes, and cockpits place human lives at risk every day.

In a February 2008 blog post, I examined the first few hundred results from the “Embedded C Quiz” on the Netrino website. That analysis compared the performance of programmers in the U.S. and India with the rest of the world (the only three data sets large enough for meaningful analysis). I concluded that the average embedded programmers in the U.S. and India don’t know C very well, but do know it better than programmers in the rest of the world.

Two years now since launching the quiz, we have collected thousands of data points, so it’s time for an update on programmer performance. In total, 3,870 programmers have taken the short 10-question multiple-choice C skills test. A few (a bit less than 3%) didn’t answer all of the questions; the analysis below is based on just the 3,755 completed quizzes. (Note that each website user can only take the quiz once.)

Across all countries, the mean result was 60.8%–a grade of ‘D-‘ at best. That is to say that the average embedded programmer answered just 6 out of 10 multiple-choice questions correctly. A rather scary fact, given that C is the language of choice for most embedded projects and that C++ is even harder to master.

Programmers in the United States scored slightly above average. But they still earned a failing grade of 61.8%. Programmers in India scored slightly below the worldwide average, at 58.9%. Together, programmers from these two large English-speaking countries accounted for the majority of all quiz takers.

The number of completed quizzes, mean scores, and standard deviations for all countries with more than 20 completed quizzes are shown in the table below, sorted by average score. In general, programmers from European countries scored best.

Country Completed Mean Std Dev
Poland 23 68.7 19.2
Sweden 26 67.7 15.8
Australia 45 67.3 22.3
Germany 57 67.2 17.2
France 35 66.9 24.0
United Kingdom 109 66.1 22.8
Spain 24 65.0 18.3
Canada 114 64.5 19.3
China 51 64.1 23.4
Israel 22 62.3 21.7
United States 1346 61.8 20.4
Egypt 28 59.3 22.8
India 1288 58.9 22.4
Romania 45 58.9 23.0
Singapore 24 58.3 20.1
Italy 44 56.4 20.8
Turkey 57 55.6 23.3
Brazil 47 55.1 24.1
Pakistan 25 44.0 21.7

How are your embedded C programming skills? Test them by taking the Embedded C Quiz yourself now at

P.S.  We recently launched an Embedded C++ Quiz and the results so far look downright abysmal.  I’ll write something about that in a future post.  Do you have a few minutes to take that one too?

Embedded C Quiz Results

Monday, February 11th, 2008 Michael Barr

When we redesigned the website late last year, we thought it’d be fun to challenge our more than 20,000 monthly visitors (mostly embedded software engineers) to a skills test. So we developed a ten question multiple-choice quiz ( And it has been a popular feature of the new site, with a couple hundred participants just in the first two months.

And now the results are starting to come in. We analyzed the early results a couple of ways and discovered something worth talking about: Quiz takers from India did about the same as quiz takers in the U.S. But the rest of the world lagged behind these two groups quite a bit.

There are ten questions in our quiz, and we consider a passing score to be 8 out of 10. A handful of quiz takers have scored 100%, but most score in the 30-90% range, with an overall average at 60.4%. (A little scary, huh?)

Statisically speaking, there were three significant groups of quiz takers by geography. The average score of those taking the quiz from the United States was just shy of 64%. The average for India was not far behind at about 61.2%. However, the rest of the world scored an average of just 55.9%.

What does this say about the state of the profession of embedded software development? Offshoring? The quiz itself?

Japanese Brain Drain

Friday, June 8th, 2007 Michael Barr

I missed this when it was originally published in the New York Times, but apparently Japanese engineers are now exporting themselves to other parts of Asia with more favorable demand for their skills.

Here’s the original story: