What Is Embedded Software Development?

Embedded software development involves designing, developing, testing, and maintaining the software that is found in many of the smart devices we use on a daily basis, from smartwatches to fridges to cars and security cameras. The software that is created for this purpose has to run seamlessly with the hardware and the system requirements of the device/system.

Embedded SW development usually involves a large, cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team of software engineers, hardware engineers and other important stakeholders responsible for QA testing and assurance and project management. 

What is embedded software development, and why is embedded software development so complex?

Embedded software engineering comes with a number of challenges, which is why many companies choose to build with a reliable software team with dedicated resources of proven quality; allowing them to concentrate on other important areas of the business instead. The software used needs the ability to run on small, resource-constrained devices that have limited processing power and memory. Battery life needs to be conserved, so the software used has to be highly efficient and use as few resources as possible – while retaining the ability to execute quickly. 

The engineers involved in embedded development have to have a solid understanding of the underlying hardware and a solid knowledge of low-level programming languages like Assembly and C, along with knowledge of C++ that can add the necessary object-oriented programming features required, especially in complex systems. 

They also need to understand development tools, including compilers, debuggers, IDEs, tools used for documentation and version controls, and a variety of tools used to create and test embedded software. The tools are often highly specific to the system that is being controlled, e.g., ARM-based embedded systems are very different from the toolchains used for x86 embedded systems. 

Embedded software development services also require rigorous testing after it’s written to ensure it keeps functioning correctly:

  • Unit testing tests individual components/modules of the software;
  • Integration testing tests how different components and modules work together; 
  • System testing is used to test the system as a whole, including the hardware and software. 

After the software undergoes various testing phases, it is optimized to improve performance even further and reduce memory usage. This requires a large team of hardware engineers, project managers, and product managers to ensure that the system is as efficient as possible.

Once that stage is complete, the team will deploy the software on the system. They will create a firmware image, configure the whole system and test the deployed software. After deployment, the software team will update and maintain the software or add new features in an ongoing process. 

Which devices use embedded systems to run?

There are a number of use cases for embedded software. You can usually find embedded software in the following:

  • Automobile Engine Control Units (ECU), e.g., infotainment systems
  • Smartphones and smart TVs
  • Smart washing machines, toasters, and refrigerators
  • Industrial robots and assembly lines
  • Medical devices, like heart rate monitors
  • Drones
  • Network routers and modems 
  • Thermostats 
  • Security cameras. 

Why is security so important for embedded software?

Embedded software comes with unique security risks. Many embedded systems require the use of hard-coded credentials, e.g. login information, like a username and password programmed into the software itself. This information is easy to extract and can then be used by attackers to gain unauthorized access to a network or device. Some hackers use smart printers and televisions to gain access to office networks. Many default credentials can be found with a simple Google search, enabling any hacker to take over the system. 

Embedded systems are often connected to the Internet, leaving them vulnerable to remote attacks such as the Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. The software may also have hidden bugs or vulnerabilities that can be exploited to cause disruption or access the system. 

Embedded software developers have to avoid these issues through secure coding practices, like input validation and error handling, that can prevent vulnerabilities from creeping into the software itself. They must use secure communication protocols to protect data as it’s being transmitted over networks, encryption to protect sensitive data stored on the device, and secure boot and firmware update processes to prevent unauthorized software from running. 

The team should also conduct regular security assessments and penetration testing to identify and address bugs and vulnerabilities that could be exploited. 

Final Thoughts

​​Embedded software development is becoming more ubiquitous than ever. It’s important to be aware of the advantages as well as the vulnerabilities of this important technology.