Extreme programming without fear

Dan Pierce

February 05, 2004

Dan PierceFebruary 05, 2004

Despite the controversy surrounding it, eXtreme Programming can be your friend. With a little tweaking, XP translates to the world of embedded systems programming. The author shares some techniques that have served him well.

Have you ever had a heated debate with a colleague about whether eXtreme Programming (XP)—the most popular of agile methodologies—is a good fit for embedded programming? XP, agile, and indeed the whole topic of software process can be controversial because participants often have deep feelings, beliefs, and prejudices, which proves the topic is consequential to our craft. Open-minded objectivity, however, can be hard to come by and discussions about this topic can get very intense very fast—all of which is quite fulfilling and even fun as long as everyone is respectful and mindful of their manners.

So here's my methodical attempt to guide you through the controversial question: Is XP suitable for embedded systems programming? I find XP a useful method if it's adapted properly to fit the realities of embedded systems programming. Let's look at those realities and then examine if the main XP activities—planning, designing, coding, and testing—are compatible with embedded systems programming.

Embedded reality
Embedded systems programming has specific characteristics you should keep in mind when applying the practices of XP. For various reasons, XP is only now becoming the buzz around water coolers frequented by embedded systems developers. First of all, when the software effort on embedded systems went from an afterthought to the critical path practically overnight, the methodologies in place (in other words, no methodology) and the management de-emphasis on its importance was a situation ripe for disaster. Most embedded developers, including myself, were trained in some other field, usually electrical engineering. There are no degrees in embedded programming. We became embedded systems programmers because of interest or need. Further, only recently embedded systems programs have become large enough to routinely require more than one developer.

Historically, the majority of embedded systems were developed by one developer who learned programming second hand. We were islands who had each read exactly one book about C. This culture was problematic when projects became large and complex and required a team of programmers to produce the code in a timely manner. Simple things that PC-applications developers had been using for years, such as version control, object-oriented techniques, partitioning, and so on, were now essential if the embedded world was going to evolve. Embedded firmware has always lagged behind application software development in this way. Note that it's still fairly easy to find an embedded developer who prefers assembly!

It's no surprise then that as application developers immerse themselves in implementing and debating the new agile or lightweight methodologies, some embedded systems programmers are still debating the merits of C versus C++. Thus the discussion on how agile might fit into the embedded world has really not begun in earnest. We started discussing this at my company almost two years ago, and we now have enough battle scars and experience to provide a few insights.

In the interest of full disclosure let it be said that we're now proponents of agile methodologies and believe it has great potential in this field. We decided that an article describing how XP might fit into an embedded environment, specifically our embedded systems environment, might be helpful to others trying to find their way through the debate.

So, let's examine the four main XP activities (planning, design, coding, and testing) and see if they're compatible with embedded systems programming.

"Do only the planning you need for the next horizon—At any given level of detail, only plan to the next horizon —that is, the next release, the end of the next iteration," Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained, p. 85.1

XPers and agile proponents believe that project requirements are the most fluid part of any project. Gathering requirements is considered a regular and periodic activity that's done throughout the project.

Traditional process models, on the other hand, gather and freeze requirements at the beginning of a project. Afterwards, engineers treat changes to requirements as unhealthy disruptions and indications of incomplete work in previous phases. In contrast, the XPer assumes it's impractical to discern a complete and accurate set of requirements in an isolated first phase of a project. (Many studies of software projects strongly back up this claim; two are mentioned at the end of this article.)2,3 What is needed, then, is a process that allows the complete and accurate set of requirements to emerge as the project proceeds.

This brings up an important feature of XP and all other agile methodologies—their iterative nature. Iteration is one of the most powerful features of agile and should be implemented immediately by everyone who writes software even if you adopt nothing else. Software process models that are founded on an iterative or evolutionary approach are now literally everywhere, including all of the agile methodologies (, the Rational Unified Process, and the Microsoft Solutions Framework.

The iterative principle is simple. The project is broken up into small, meaningful subprojects where all the activities are performed: planning, design, code, and test. This gets working, bug-free software into the hands of the customer as early as possible so that the clarity of vision that can only come from watching the code run is available soon. The operative word here is feedback. Feedback with actual working code that represents a subset of the system is obtained early and regularly on an XP project.

The customer should be encouraged to use this feedback to refine and verify his vision and thus the requirements. The developers also become an important source of insight as they begin to see the system take shape. This technique exploits the fact that software is soft. That is, software is relatively easy to change (when written properly).

However, in the embedded world it's common to develop the hardware along with the software. Remember, XP evolved in the context of personal computer applications where the hardware and associated device drivers are a given. So with great caution we must discern the difference between a hardware requirement and a software requirement.

Hardware requirements are very difficult to change at a later date. For example, if the platform requires sound, and you place a buzzer on the board, the customer can't change his mind to something more sophisticated such as modulating tones because the equipment for this is not on the board. So the customer must think this requirement through ahead of time. Once the customer has chosen the hardware capabilities, XP dictates that the particular requirements for the sounds themselves should be put off until we can hear something and the customer can sit with us to get the sounds just right.

Another edict of XP maintains that you should prioritize iterations in the order of criticality, that is, develop the most critical items first. Quite often in embedded systems development, this results in a lot of "bottom up" coding. For various good reasons, you almost always have to develop some of the device drivers first. Here are some of those good reasons:

  • The real-time requirements of the system depend almost completely on the performance of these drivers, and the team is most worried about meeting these requirements.
  • Never-used-before hardware that's present in the system (such as EEPROMs or LCD displays) needs to be verified so that the hardware design can be blessed for production.
  • The rigorous testing required by XP will require some input and output to the system (more on this later).

"We will continually refine the design of the system, starting from a very simple beginning. We will remove any flexibility that doesn't prove useful," Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained, p. 103.1

In the design phases, XP strives for a just-in-time approach that stresses simplicity and clarity. Further, XP maintains that we should design and code for today and not tomorrow. Kent Beck correctly observes that this is one of the hardest principles for programmers to learn. When faced with writing a device driver, a lot of programmers try to write a driver that can be used by anyone who ever uses this device. This lofty goal is expensive in terms of up-front development cost, code size, and probably code performance. This investment only pays off if the driver is used on another project in a different way at a later time.

The embedded systems developer should instead opt for clear code with obvious hooks on how to generalize later. For example, I recently wrote a serial peripheral interface port driver and opted not to use interrupts. I noted clearly in the code where I disabled interrupts for this device and stubbed out an interrupt service routine function with a note that if interrupts are needed, this function needed to be written.

Well-designed embedded firmware has a clear demarcation between application-layer code and hardware-specific code. For example, the application should call an abstracted function to turn on an LED; it need not nor should not know how this is actually accomplished. However, this technique is ripe for abuse by those who tend towards over design. Great diligence is needed by managers and developers to keep this type of layering simple and easy to understand.

The first mistake that's made is to put in several layers where only one is needed. For example, an over-designer might put in a display manager that manages the LCD (using a driver) and the LEDs (using another driver). Now the application is two steps removed from control of the LEDs. This additional complexity provides almost no clarity and burdens the system with extra code. Layering, partitioning, encapsulating, and abstracting are all vital to high-quality code, but it's easy to get too much of a good thing.

Besides, requirements aren't the only aspect of the system that's expected to evolve as the XP project progresses. The code design will evolve as well. Evolving from a simple design to something more complex is much easier and natural than evolving from an overly complex system to something simpler. Further, in the former case it is much more likely that the final design will be closer to optimal. The phrase that XP says should drive the designer is "What's the simplest thing that could possibly work?"

Finally, I'm amazed at how often an operating system is thrown into an embedded system without engineers first performing an accurate cost-versus-benefit analysis. XP maintains that any additional code in the system has a cost and burden associated with it that's probably greater than you think. An operating system is generally a lot of additional code. Also, many operating systems are feature rich and flexible. Complexity, size, and cost are always greater with this type of product. Make sure your system needs such an operating system. Engineers opt for the powerful operating system thinking that they're covered for any eventuality. The reality often is they're burdened with a monster whose documentation rivals the New York City white pages.

In sum, include the simplest operating system you can. If a simple foreground/background design will do, by all means use that instead.

"We will carefully craft a solution for today's problem today, and trust that we will be able to solve tomorrow's problem tomorrow," Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained, p. 97.1

XP dictates that code development begin as soon as possible. The embedded developer, however, must often wait for hardware. Most teams in this situation opt just to write code and compile it. I think this is a grave mistake. Compilers routinely come with simulators for the processors they support, and these can provide a great avenue for an early, productive start to coding. Even if the simulator is $1,000 extra, get it. I've never known this investment to fail to pay off. Simulators usually provide a way to get data into and out of the simulated environment so you can test with real data. They also provide ways to measure execution time so you can check performance constraints.

If a simulator isn't available, get an evaluation board. Virtually all embedded processors have evaluation boards available for sale. Even if the hardware folks are telling you that you'll only have to wait two weeks for working hardware (HA!), buy it. The feedback that comes from testing code is the best feedback there is. Why wait? Remember, untested code is practically worthless.

Even after the real hardware is available, a smart strategy is to maintain a dual platform approach where the code can always be run on a known, good platform (simulator or evaluation board) and also the real hardware. This can be invaluable in isolating hardware problems from software problems.

One of XP's more controversial requirements is pair programming. I find the main critics of pair programming usually haven't tried it with an open mind. The world of embedded systems programming, however, presents interesting challenges. A lot of embedded projects only need one or two programmers. In these cases, it's hard to require pair programming for all code development. Still, you can make good compromises that let you take advantage of pair programming. For example, in the case of a single developer, pair programming with another developer on another project can be a regularly scheduled activity. This same developer can then help other developers by pair programming with them. Strict XPers might balk at this compromise, but, as stated earlier, this is a controversial topic. All in all, we've found that productivity gains from pair programming are significant and can't be ignored.

Another XP cornerstone for coding is to integrate often. This works as well in embedded systems development as anywhere else. Most programmers underestimate how long integration takes—often by a lot. By integrating often the programmers understand sooner and get constant reminders of how time consuming this activity can be. Then they can use this lesson to more accurately schedule the next subproject.

Finally, XP proscribes that test code be written first—before the code it will test. Though this is a noble and worthwhile goal, noncompliance with this principle is high. Like pair programming, meeting this goal requires a lot of discipline in an engineering organization.

"We will write tests before we code, minute by minute. We will preserve these tests forever, and run them all together frequently. We will also derive tests from the customer's perspective," Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained, p. 115.1

The XP mantra here is strict. All code is verified through automated unit testing that's kept up to date all the time. Further, all the unit tests must run at a 100% pass rate all the time.

The embedded systems arena presents special challenges when trying to abide by this standard. XP was developed in a field where display devices and hard disks are a given; such components are extremely useful, if not essential, to automated unit testing. The hard disk is used to store scripts and test results. The display is useful as a unit test interface to report problems and results. The fact is, most embedded applications don't have a hard disk and many don't have any display device at all.

Some of the test scripts can and should coexist with the code. However, another drawback of embedded systems is the limited memory for code space. It's simply not possible in many cases to have elaborate test scenarios stored with the code image. What to do?

We've come up with what we believe is a simple and elegant solution to this problem. Almost every embedded system has (or can have) an RS-232 serial port. This is by far the most common interface to embedded targets. A serial port is also stable, simple, and cheap. Further, every PC comes with at least one serial port. Many PC-based programs for serial ports provide a way to write scripts where canned messages are sent out the serial port and responses are gathered. You can compare these responses to the expected responses and discern and display pass/fail results. You can also transfer binary files. With this test platform, a lot of the sophistication and size of the test code can be offloaded to the PC in the form of easy to read test scripts.

We prefer human readable (ASCII) messages be passed back and forth over the serial port. For example "START MEMORY TEST" could be sent to the target and a reply such as "MEMORY TEST: FAILED AT ADDRESS 12345" could be sent back. For complicated algorithmic-based systems (for example, image processing), you could send a raw binary file to the device for processing and have the results sent back for storage, display, and automatic so you can compare them with a known correct answer.

When we implemented this technique, we found it very powerful and believe it satisfies both the XP requirements and the spirit of those requirements. On all future designs, we're recommending a dedicated serial port just for this purpose. Note that a simple 3-pin header plus some inexpensive silicon is all that's required.

Another good way to unit test is to use a simulator. I mentioned this previously as a way to get a quick start writing and testing code. Simulators are made to run on platforms such as Windows and almost always provide simulated I/O. Rigorous unit testing is greatly facilitated since the host machine has the necessary peripherals (hard disk, display) built in. However, you'll not be able to test with the peripheral hardware (such as serial EEPROMs) that will be present on the final system.

XP is A-OK
We have found that both the XP techniques and the principles underlying those techniques are sound. To fit properly into the embedded systems domain, however, XP requires some tweaking. You'll find that it's a tenet of XP to expect to tailor the process for the peculiarities of each environment. Such tweaking is relatively straightforward, so developers can use XP on embedded systems and still achieve XP's overall goals. esp

Dan Pierce is principal engineer working on software and embedded development at Electronic Systems Products in Duluth, GA. He is a member of the AgileAlliance and serves as an editor of their newsletter, the Agile Times Newsletter. Dan holds a master's in EE from Georgia Tech. You can reach him at


  1. Beck, Kent. Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, Boston, MA: Addison Wesley/Pearson Education, 2000.
  2. Jones, Capers. Applied Software Measurement, Assuring Productivity and Quality, New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1997.
  3. Larman, Craig. Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager's Guide, Boston, MA: Addison Wesley/Pearson Education, 2003, pp 72-74.

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