The basics of programming embedded processors: Part 1

Wayne Wolf

July 24, 2007

Wayne WolfJuly 24, 2007

Designing and implementing embedded programs is different and more challenging than writing typical workstation or PC programs. Embedded code must not only provide rich functionality, it must also often run at a required rate to meet system deadlines, fit into the allowed amount of memory, and meet power consumption requirements.

Designing code that simultaneously meets multiple design constraints is a considerable challenge, but luckily there are techniques and tools that we can use to help us through the design process. Making sure that the program works is also a challenge, but once again methods and tools come to our aid.

Presented in this series of six articles we will contentrate on high-level programming languages, specifically the C language. High-level languages were once shunned as too inefficient for embedded microcontrollers, but better compilers, more compilerfriendly architectures, and faster processors and memory have made highlevel language programs common.

Some sections of a program may still need to be written in assembly language if the compiler doesn't give sufficiently good results, but even when coding in assembly language it is often helpful to think about the program's functionality in high-level form. Many of the analysis and optimization techniques that we study in this chapter are equally applicable to programs written in assembly language.

Future parts in this series will discuss (1)  the control/data flow graph as a model for high-level language programs (which can also be applied to programs written originally in assembly language) with a particular focus on design patterns; (2) the assembly and linking process; (3) the basic steps in compilation; (4) optimization techniques specific to embedded computing for energy consumption, performance and size.

Design Patterns
A design pattern is a generalized description of a way to solve a certain class of problems. As a simple example, we could write C code for one implementation of a linked list, but that code would set in concrete the data items available in the list, actions on errors, and so on.

A design pattern describing the list mechanism would capture the essential components and behaviors of the list without adding unnecessary detail. A design pattern can be described in the Unified Modeling Language (UML); it usually takes the form of a collaboration diagram, which shows how classes work together to perform a given function.

Figure 5-1 below shows a simple description of a design pattern as a UML class diagram. The diagram defines two classes: List to describe the entire list and List-element for one of the items in the list. The List class defines the basic operations that you want to do on a list.

The details of what goes in the list and so forth can be easily added into this design pattern. A design pattern can be parameterized so that it can be customized to the needs of a particular application. A more complete description of the pattern might include

  • state diagrams to describe behavior and
  • sequence diagrams to show how classes interact.
Figure 5-1. A simple description of a design pattern

Design patterns are primarily intended to help solve midlevel design challenges. A design pattern may include only a single class, but it usually describes a handful of classes.

Design patterns rarely include more than a few dozen classes. A design pattern probably will not provide you with the complete architecture of your system, but it can provide you with the architectures for many subsystems in your design:

By stitching together and specializing existing design patterns, you may be able to quickly create a large part of your system architecture.

Design patterns are meant to be used in ways similar to how engineers in other disciplines work. A designer can consult catalogs of design patterns to find patterns that seem to fit a particular design problem.

The designer can then choose parameters suited to the application and see what that implies for the implementation of the design pattern. The designer can then choose the design pattern that seems to be the best match for the design, parameterize it, and instantiate it.

  • Design patterns can be of many different types. A few are listed below.
  • The digital filter is easily described as a design pattern.
  • Data structures and their associated actions can be described as design patterns.
  • A reactive system that reacts to external stimuli can be described as a design pattern, leaving the exact state transition diagram as a parameter.
  • Douglass [Dou99] describes a policy class that describes a protocol that can be used to implement a variety of policies.

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