Everything You Need to Know About Embedded Software Development

Milo Team

Milo Team


If you’re looking to develop software to control the specific functions of any device other than a computer, you’re probably looking at an embedded system.

In this article:

These systems first saw the light of day over 50 years ago. Today, they’re all around us and are only becoming more prominent with the advance of AI and machine learning. In fact, most devices containing circuit boards and computer chips now incorporate a system that runs embedded software.

However, embedded software development throws up some additional challenges in the development life cycle.

Solutions to these challenges require expertise and specialist knowledge in programming — with knowledge of hardware components as well as coding skills.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning an embedded software project…

What is embedded software?

Embedded software is specialized programming that lives inside standalone devices (other than computers), acting as the “brains” of the devices.

This type of software is created for a specific type of device. That’s very different from PC applications, which can usually be installed on multiple types of computer systems and modified as required.

Because of the limitations posed by the devices, there are usually processing and memory restrictions for software developers to deal with. These depend on the specifications of the device, which must be known and accommodated at the software design stage, well before the development phase commences.

There are four main types of embedded software:

  1. Firmware: software that is written to help a specific piece of hardware communicate with other devices or perform basic functions (without an API, operating system or device drivers)
  2. Operating System (OS): software that manages a processor's hardware resources and allows other applications to run on a computing device.
  3. Middleware: a software layer situated between applications and operating systems, simplifying the software development process.
  4. Application: software that directly performs the system’s functions and interacts with end users.

These four types of software are hosted by the devices and based on microcontrollers and microprocessors, helping them perform a dedicated function or a limited set of functions.

Large, complex embedded systems may incorporate all four components but simpler solutions may exclude an operating system, for instance.

What is an embedded system?

Embedded software usually runs on single-purpose non-computer devices. An “embedded system” refers to the hardware components within such devices: a power supply circuit, central processing units (CPUs) and flash memory devices, as well as timers (in some devices) and communication ports.

Most embedded systems combine hardware and software with a real-time operating system, which controls the software.

Once the hardware is decided, the customized software that will run on it is designed, developed, and tested.

There are five primary types of embedded systems:

  1. Real-time embedded systems, which complete tasks in a repeatable manner within determined time limits, e.g., life-saving medical equipment.
  2. General-purpose embedded systems, with no real-time requirement and able to manage interrupts or branching without depending on a completion time, e.g., keyboards and mouses.
  3. Mobile embedded systems, which are compact and portable devices, e.g., smartphones.
  4. Standalone embedded systems, which have no host system or external processing resources and perform one or several simple tasks independently on other systems (e.g., a digital alarm clock).
  5. Networked embedded systems, which depend on a wired or wireless network to share data and perform tasks, e.g., smart home systems.

During the development stage, machine code is generated using specific programming languages such as C and C++.

Key embedded software development challenges

The key challenges when developing embedded software solutions centre around stability, safety and security.

Devices hosting embedded software may pose a risk for users or lives may depend on a device performing to the standard expected of it. Automotive and medical systems are good examples.

There is no room for error when this is the case so it is critical for the three components (hardware, software and OS) to work seamlessly together and operate error-free.

The solution must also be secure from external hacks and protect against the possibility of data hijacking.

With devices increasingly becoming smaller but more powerful, software engineers must also rise to the challenge of increasing computing capability in smaller pieces of hardware.

Embedded software development tools

After consultation with the client, embedded software engineers use a variety of tools to design and program their solutions.

● An editor creates code in C or C++.

● A compiler and/or assembler transform code into low-level machine code.

● A debugger removes bugs and errors.

● A linker combines code pieces and modules to create an executable program.

● An emulator helps engineers test and improve performance in a simulated real-life environment.

Design advantages of embedded systems

All embedded systems enjoy the following design benefits:

High-performance: software is written to execute the same specific pre-programmed task on a certain device without alteration.

High-efficiency: the hardware spec matches only the minimum requirements of the embedded software and usually limits resource requirements (low power consumption).

Small size: embedded systems are much smaller than standard computers — compact, portable and ideal for mass production.

Reliability and stability: consistent response times and function throughout the lifetime of the “host” device.

Embedded systems are all around us…

Embedded software systems are now found in nearly all walks of life, including:

● Domestic appliances (e.g., smart fridges, digital smart cameras, gaming consoles, wearable devices).

● Industrial and commercial technology (e.g., manufacturing equipment, motion sensors, factory floor management systems).

● Automotive industry (e.g., autonomous driving systems, connected cars).

● Aerospace (e.g., aircraft control systems).

● Medical technology (e.g., in medical imaging devices).

● Telecommunications (e.g., in network management applications).

● Military hardware (e.g., satellite systems, defence systems, drone vision systems).

With the Internet of Things expanding even as we speak, the trend towards such systems is gathering pace and momentum.

Sometimes, multiple embedded systems operate together, such as in many automotive environments (controlling braking, steering, suspension, etc.)

Embedded software in space

As they are such a specialist area of software development, embedded software projects must be managed with expertise from start to finish.

The team at Milo Solutions started as desktop/embedded software developers over a decade ago. One of our embedded devices even went to the NASA space station.

We provide end-to-end embedded development services from ideation to testing and deployment and can design embedded systems for larger software projects.

Whether you’re a manufacturer in the automotive, healthcare or another sector, start by contacting our experienced, reliable and approachable team.

As your embedded software development partners, we’ll help you make the right choices for your business and manage the entire project life cycle.





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