IoT Design: Key Software Challenges and Ways Around Them

May 10, 2016

Henrik.Flodell-May 10, 2016

It's never been easier to start a hardware company. The Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon—touted by many as the future of embedded computing—is now seen as an amalgam of affordable hardware and software platforms. At the same time, however, software complexity makes the IoT design process a classical case of survival of the fittest.

The IoT design is not a one-size-fits-all premise because the diversity of sensors and connectivity solutions require a new design thinking. Moreover, the IoT projects are typically known to be high-performance, low-cost and low-power, and all of these characteristics are intertwined with the embedded software work one way or the other.

Take the high-performance and low-cost factors, for instance, which imply that the reuse from the previous projects is limited and software engineering teams won't expand proportionately. So, instead of growing the software team and expanding the project cost, IoT product developers are looking to a new generation of tool-chains that help them accomplish greater software productivity.

Figure 1: Across-the-board software tool-chain is crucial in the heterogeneous IoT designs. (Source: Atmel)

The IoT design work is a walk on the tightrope also because there are so many moving parts, and design engineers can't afford to build a subsystem and see later if it works. The start-overs not only add to project cost, they also bring severe time-to-market constraints to the heterogeneous world of IoT design.

So the IoT design recipe—starting with data capture from sensors to data analytics inside the cloud—requires design validation long before engineers commit silicon to an IoT product. Not surprisingly, therefore, an end-to-end hardware and software platform along with a suite of connectivity solutions is critical in dealing with complexities that come with the challenge of connecting a large number of devices in a seamless manner.

The article delves into major software challenges in the IoT design realm and shows how the right choice of tool-chains can help deal with the embedded design challenges. It focuses on three key areas of the IoT software ecosystem and offers insight on how to execute the software work in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

1. Software Complexity
The hardware-software work allocation generally comes down to a 40:60 split in the embedded design projects. However, in the IoT design projects, there is even a greater tilt toward software ecosystem.

The IoT developers are migrating from 8-bit and 16-bit microcontrollers to 32-bit devices in order to accomplish higher performance and enhanced functionality in areas such as connectivity, graphic display and cloud computing.

And that calls for a new software playing field that can efficiently execute communication and cloud computing protocol stacks. Then, there are tasks like the real-time sampling of sensor data, device configuration, security keys, apps, data analytics and more.

Furthermore, a lot of software in the IoT designs is related to communication stacks like TCP/IP and security libraries such as SSL and TLS; these software components are written to comply with specific standards. These software components have been written before, time and time again, and it makes little sense for an IoT developer on a tight deadline to re-implement them instead of using the existing software.

In fact, creating this software from scratch risks introducing issues that have already been found and fixed in the existing implementations.

Figure 2: A complete software ecosystem is vital in confronting the complexity of IoT designs. (Source: Atmel)

Tips and Tricks:

  • Integrated development environments (IDEs) are the first line of defense in coping with the software complexity that comes with ever more functionality implemented in the IoT applications.
  • When an IoT designer adds services to his application, the dependant software components and drivers are added to the IoT design automatically. For instance, if an embedded developer adds a USB device to his design, ASF will automatically add low-level USB drivers to the design.
  • You can use tools such as Atmel START, an online software configuration and deployment engine capable of speeding up the creation of embedded software even further. It is a web-based tool that allows developers to graphically select and configure software components and automatically integrate them with hardware and middleware resources needed. It’s a web-based tool is completely OS independent; it doesn't require anything to be installed on the user’s PC before use. In addition, the generated projects can be targeted to any embedded IDE, offering unparalleled flexibility.


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