embedded software boot camp

Minimizing memory use in embedded systems Tip #1 – Eliminate unnecessary strings

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 by Nigel Jones

I already have a series of tips on efficient C, another on effective C and a third on lowering the power consumption of embedded systems. Today I’m introducing a fourth series of tips related to minimizing memory usage in embedded systems. Now back when I was a lad the single biggest issue in an embedded system was nearly always a lack of memory, and as a result one had to quickly learn how to husband this resource with great care. Fast forward 20 years and this notion probably seems quite quaint to those of you programming ARM system with 16 Mbytes of Flash and 64 Mbytes of RAM. So what’s the motivation for this post then? Well, despite the presence of gigantic memory systems in many embedded systems, it’s still surprisingly common for one to find oneself in a situation where memory is being gobbled up at an alarming rate. Anyone that has programmed an 8051 or an 8 bit PIC recently will know exactly what I’m talking about. So for those of you out there that find yourself in this situation, I hope that you’ll find this series informative. Enough preamble – on to business. The first tip is quite simple – eliminate unnecessary strings. Even if your reaction is ‘well that’s useless – I don’t have any strings in my code’, then I still suggest you read on. In order to eliminate unnecessary strings, the first step is to determine the list of strings in your code. You can of course pore over your source code. However a far better approach is to scan the binary image looking for strings. Somewhat amazingly I actually use a utility called ‘strings.exe’ that is supplied by Microsoft. It’s available here. I like this program because you can search for ASCII and/or Unicode strings, while also controlling the minimum number of matching characters. (Please note that this utility is intended to scan a pure binary file. Intel Hex, S records etc don’t cut it). If you do this, then you may of course find no strings – and I apologize for wasting your time. However, even if your program is supposed to be string free, you may well find things such as:

  • Copyright notices
  • Strings associated with assert statements.
  • Other compiler artifacts such as path names.

The latter two tend to arise if any code references the __FILE__ macro or its brethren.Of course working out how to eliminate these strings can be challenging – and in the case of copyright notices may violate the terms of a license agreement – so don’t get too aggressive.If your code does contain intentional strings, then you have several opportunities to reduce their footprint. The obvious method of making the strings more terse is of course an excellent thing to do. Less obvious is that you may find that you have multiple strings that are very similar – particularly if multiple people are working on a project. For example, I’ve recently seen code that contained a dozen variations on the string “Malloc failed”. For example:

  • Malloc failed
  • Malloc Failed
  • Malloc error
  • Etc

Now, the robust way to handle this is of course to ban inline strings and instead place them all in a string file, so that someone needing to use a string can simply reuse one that already exists. If this strikes you as too much work, then you may be interested to know that there are some linkers out there that will recognize duplicate strings and collapse them down to a single entry. However, to get this benefit, the strings need to be absolutely identical. Searching the binary image as I have described is a great way of identifying strings which will benefit from this manual optimization.Next Tip Home

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2 Responses to “Minimizing memory use in embedded systems Tip #1 – Eliminate unnecessary strings”

  1. Kyle Bostian says:

    I've never used the strings utility you mentioned, but I've used other utilities from sysinternals, which used to be an independent web site, but was purchased by Microsoft. Their web page is here. This is a handy link to keep in your bookmarks.

  2. Uhmmmm says:

    For those working under UNIX, this is probably common knowledge, but I guess it's worth mentioning that strings is a standard UNIX utility as well (the GNU version, for example, has been around since at least 1991, judging by its manpage).

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