Introduction to Embedded C Programming

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Have you ever wondered how does the electronic gadgets we use in our daily life works?

Almost all the electronic gadgets we come across in our daily lives are various types of embedded systems. Be it a digital camera or a mobile phone or a washing machine, all of them has some kind of processor functioning inside it. Combination of several processors is the embedded software. If hardware forms the body of an embedded system, embedded processor acts as the brain, and embedded software forms its soul. It is the embedded software which primarily governs the functioning of embedded systems.

C was developed by Kernighan and Ritchie to fit into the space of 8K and to write (portable) operating systems. Originally it was implemented on UNIX operating systems. As it was intended for operating systems development, it can manipulate memory addresses. Also, it allowed programmers to write very compact codes. This has given it the reputation as the language of choice for hackers too.

Embedded systems programming is different from developing applications on a desktop computers. Key characteristics of an embedded system, when compared to PCs, are as follows:

  •  Embedded devices have resource constraints(limited ROM, limited RAM, limited stack space, less processing power)
  • Components used in embedded system and PCs are different; embedded systems typically uses smaller, less power consuming components. Embedded systems are more tied to the hardware.

 Two salient features of Embedded Programming are code speed and code size. Code speed is governed by the processing power, timing constraints, whereas code size is governed by available program memory and use of programming language.  Goal of embedded system programming is to get maximum features in minimum space and minimum time.

Use of C in embedded systems is driven by following advantages

  • It is small and reasonably simpler to learn, understand, program and debug.
  •    C Compilers are available for almost all embedded devices in use today, and there is a large pool of experienced C programmers.
  •  Unlike assembly, C has advantage of processor-independence and is not specific to any particular microprocessor/ microcontroller or any system. This makes it convenient for a user to develop programs that can run on most of the systems.
  •    As C combines functionality of assembly language and features of high level languages, C is treated as a ‘middle-level computer language’ or ‘high level assembly language’
  •   It is fairly efficient
  •   It supports access to I/O and provides ease of management of large embedded projects.
What is the Difference between C & Embedded C?

  1. Though C and embedded C appear different and are used in different contexts, they have more similarities than the differences. Most of the constructs are same; the difference lies in their applications.
  2. C is used for desktop computers, while embedded C is for microcontroller based applications. Accordingly, C has the luxury to use resources of a desktop PC like memory, OS, etc. While programming on desktop systems, we need not bother about memory. However, embedded C has to use with the limited resources (RAM, ROM, I/Os) on an embedded processor. Thus, program code must fit into the available program memory. If code exceeds the limit, the system is likely to crash.
  3. Compilers for C (ANSI C) typically generate OS dependant executables. Embedded C requires compilers to create files to be downloaded to the microcontrollers/microprocessors where it needs to run. Embedded compilers give access to all resources which is not provided in compilers for desktop computer applications.
  4. Embedded systems often have the real-time constraints, which is usually not there with desktop computer applications.
  5. Embedded systems often do not have a console, which is available in case of desktop applications.
  6. So, what basically is different while programming with embedded C is the mindset; for embedded applications, we need to optimally use the resources, make the program code efficient, and satisfy real time constraints, if any. All this is done using the basic constructs, syntaxes, and function libraries of ‘C’.

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