Agile Methods to Embedded Systems Development
Principal Software Architect, ArrayComm,
3.1. Brief description of software
3.1.1. Software life cycle
3.1.2. Software coding tradeoffs
3.2. Brief history of software
3.2.2. Functional and Waterfall
3.2.3. Object-oriented and Iterative
3.2.4. Aspect-oriented and Agile
4. What are agile methods?
4.1. Agile method characteristics
4.2. Specific examples of agile methods
4.3. Industry opinions regarding agile
5. What are embedded systems?
well do agile methods fit embedded systems?
7. Best Practices
9. On-line References
About the author
consists purely of the author’s opinions.
The author does not purport to represent any formal group with his
opinions. The assertions in this paper
are based on speculation and common sense rather than hard data. The paper has not been edited, and thus is
lengthy and meandering. But if you want
to read it anyway, it will hopefully provide both a useful summary of
information and new insights.
roughly the past decade, iterative methods of software development have gained
acceptance, largely displacing older methodologies such as the waterfall or V
models of software development. The
past few years have seen agile methods, in particular, gain a widespread
following. Agile methods do indeed
represent an advance in best practices of software development, but the
benefits of agile methods vary across the different regimes of software
development. Embedded systems is an
example of a software development regime in which application of agile methods
can be challenging, and the benefits of using agile methods may not be as
pronounced as in other regimes of software development. This paper discusses how the distinguishing
aspects of embedded systems software development affect the application of
agile methods to embedded systems.
Although the net result of using agile methods in embedded system
software development is an improvement, careful consideration is required to achieve
the potential benefits.
process of creating, deploying, and supporting software has several fairly
distinct stages: system specifications,
system architecture / design, component specification, design, coding, unit
testing, integration, and maintenance.
Different software development methodologies address the stages
differently. Some focus on or neglect
certain stages. Some proceed serially
through the stages, while others allow for overlapping stages or cyclic
iteration across stages. Regardless,
each stage must be addressed at least in passing in any software development
many metrics that can be used to evaluate the "quality" of
software. Many code quality metrics are
correlated, but some are anti-correlated.
In particular, performance aspects such as cycles and memory usage are
often anti-correlated with code clarity aspects such as readability,
testability, modularity, and maintainability.
To get good performance, the machine code must be well matched to the
particular chip architecture. To have
good clarity, the source code must be easily understandable by human
reviewers. In theory, a compiler should
be able to translate good-clarity source code into good-performance machine
code, but in practice this translation is too complex to be completely
feasible. Ideally, a compiler would
generate highly tuned machine code from a natural language or simple graphical
specification, but compilers will not have sufficient artificial intelligence
to do this within the foreseeable future.
Moore’s law of exponential improvements in processor capability suggests
that the performance / clarity trade-off should be weighted towards clarity,
since machines continually improve their capacity to run machine code but
humans don’t appreciably improve their capacity to read source code. However, the optimal performance / clarity
balance depends on the software regime.
“chaos” model of software development jumps into coding and neglects
requirements, design, and incremental testing.
This model was used in the early days of computer programming, but works
only for very small and simple systems.
All subsequent development models have sought to improve on the chaos
model by applying decomposition to make software development of a large system
practical. Practical software
development relies on decomposing the system into largely independent pieces,
and building the system implementation by gradually accumulating working
pieces. Thus, practical software
development focuses at a high level on the whole system and at a detailed level
on small components of the system. This
is in contrast to the chaos method’s unscalable focus at a detailed level on
the whole system.
programming (a.k.a. structured programming) focuses on the intended behavior of
the software. The software’s gross
behavior is decomposed into functionally cohesive routines. The waterfall model of software development
makes a single long serial pass through the life-cycle phases, constructing all
parts of the system at once and assembling them at the end. This model is illustrated in the figure
Figure 1: Basic Waterfall Model
versions of the waterfall model allow for iteration between adjacent phases of
the life cycle, as is illustrated in the figure below.
Figure 2: Waterfall Model with
practice, it is virtually certain that in large systems some problems
discovered during later stages will not be addressable by quick fixes, but
rather will require re-architecting or even revisiting requirements. Thus, whether intentionally or not, in
practice the waterfall model usually ends up being large-scale iterations that
involve progressively more of the life-cycle phases. The potential resulting complexity is easily seen from the figure
Figure 3: Realistic Waterfall
paradigms were developed partially in reaction to the problems encountered with
the chaos model, and were used extensively through the ‘70s and ‘80s.
programming focuses on the characteristics of components of the software. The iterative model of software development
makes repeated serial passes through the life-cycle phases, constructing and
incorporating small pieces of the system.
Figure 4: Iterative Model
paradigms were introduced partially in response to problems encountered with
the waterfall model, and were used extensively through the ‘90s.
programming combines functional views of software (such as use cases) with
object/component views (such as class diagrams). At different stages of the software life cycle, either a
functional or object based view (or both) can be used, according to whichever
is more appropriate at the moment.
Generally speaking, a functional view is best for requirements
gathering, since users care about what the system does rather than how it is
organized. Both functional and
component views are important during system architecture. Detailed design, coding, and unit testing
tend to focus on component views so that the software can be constructed in
manageable pieces. During integration,
both component and functional views are important, culminating in acceptance
tests’ focus on function. Both
functional and component views are important during maintenance, as the
functionality of new features or fixes to existing features is considered, and
impact analysis and regression testing are applied to components. Aspect-oriented programming not only adds a
structured viewpoint back into component-based systems, but also provides a
higher-level functional picture. The
functional “aspects” often crosscut structured routines as well as components. Aspect-oriented programming relies on a
framework of “join points”, specifications of different aspects that could be
implemented at the join points, and advice for which aspect(s) to actually
use. An “aspect weaver” then augments
the basic / default functionality by splicing in the advised behavior at the
software development processes are a refinement of iterative processes, in
which continually changing requirements are accepted or even encouraged. Rapid iterations keep the system responsive
to changes, and close communication both between customers and developers and
among developers ensures that the growing and morphing system correctly
accounts for the changes. Test-driven
development ensures that only the minimum required software is constructed,
that it is constructed correctly, and that it remains correct throughout
speaking, agile processes are a sub-type of iterative processes. However, in the traditional sense, iterative
processes iterate on the design, coding, unit testing, and integration portions
of the life cycle, but still perform requirements analysis and system
architecture up front. In contrast,
with agile methods each iteration revisits all stages of the software
development life cycle, though with some sub-types of agile methods (e.g. the
Rational Unified Process, RUP), more emphasis is given to particular
“workflows” during iterations in different portions of the development
cycle. That is, though early iterations
incorporate some coding and integration, they focus on specifications and
architecture. Though final iterations
include some architecture and design, they focus on impact analysis, coding,
and regression testing.
Figure 5: Agile Model
distinction between traditional iterative processes and agile processes is
primarily in the iteration planning phase, which first uses the metrics from
past iterations to estimate the amount of work that can be done in the upcoming
iteration, and then chooses what new features and components to include in the
upcoming iteration. Thus, the agile
method not only builds the system incrementally, as do traditional iterative
methods, but also incrementally determines what kind of system to build.
is demonstrated by the parallel flow “swimlanes”, during the design, coding,
and unit testing phases, the iteration’s work elements are assumed to be
independent, and each proceeds through these phases at its independent pace.
paradigms were introduced in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and are coming into
principles of agile methods are explained at the Agile Manifesto web site: http://www.agilemanifesto.org. In short, agile methods
- use continuous communication (customer/manager/developer,
manager/developer, and developer/developer) to manage change
- keep close traceability
between customer requirements (“stories”) and the software
- deliver functional incremental
software releases with a rapid turnaround
- improve (“refactor”) old code
selectively and continually
tenets are explained in more detail in the following section.
principles of agile methods typically lead to specific practices such as the
- use regular rapid cycles which
create executable deliverables
- focus on coding rather than
planning or documentation
- refactor continually to
- communicate continually and
extensively within the engineering development team
- communicate continually and
extensively with customers
- continually measure project
progress, extrapolate projections, adjust long-term project goals (project
end date and feature set), and set short-term goals (work elements for the
- use test-driven development to
verify that code is initially correct, and emphasize regression testing to
ensure that the code stays correct
agile methods include XP, RUP,
Scrum, and Crystal. These agile methods
are briefly explained below.
- eXtreme Programming (XP) – See
The XP methodology focuses on small teams working very interactively to
iteratively deliver working code.
XP has four core values, which are addressed by core
practices. The core values are
communication, simplicity, feedback, and courage (empowerment and
satisfaction). The core practices
- whole team (customers,
management, and engineers all pulling together)
- metaphor (shared high-level
system picture to provide common context and vocabulary)
- planning game (customers list
“stories” (features), select stories to work on in each iteration, and
specify acceptance criteria for each story)
- incremental releases
(executable artifacts delivered at each iteration, feedback provided by
- simple design (build only
what is needed right now)
- pair programming
- test driven development
(write the test before coding the story, verify that the test initially
fails, then passes after the story has been implemented, automate
regression of unit tests and story acceptance tests)
- refactoring (continual
improvement of old code / architecture)
- continuous integration
(control software entropy growth through piecewise integration)
- collective code ownership (anyone
can write/rewrite any code, any time)
- coding standards (agreement
on common standards – allows refactoring to be substantive rather than
- sustainable pace (40 hour
work week rather than death marches)
- RUP – See http://www-106.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/253.html.
RUP divides a project into development cycles, and divides each
development cycle into phases:
inception, elaboration, construction, and transition. In turn, each phase consists of
development iterations, where each iteration produces useful (ideally
executable) artifacts. RUP
identifies a series of “workflows”, or topics, involved in software
development: business modeling,
requirements, analysis and design, implementation, testing, deployment,
configuration and change management, project management, and environment
management. All workflows are
addressed in each phase, but each workflow’s importance and effort ebbs
and peaks differently across the phases.
- Scrum – See http://www.controlChaos.com/Scrumo.htm.
The Scrum management process divides a project into short (30 day)
iterations, or “sprints”, where during each sprint there are short (15
minute) meetings (“scrums”) between the development team and the team
management to track progress, note current and imminent obstacles to
progress, and decide what work to focus on until the next meeting. The development goals are kept constant
during the sprint. Each sprint’s
goals are negotiated just prior to the sprint. Thus, the project goals adapt iteratively.
- Crystal – See http://alistair.cockburn.us/crystal/crystal.html.
The Crystal methods consider not only what is theoretically optimal, but
also what is actually practical, thus hoping to arrive at a good
compromise that will have the buy-in needed to succeed. In particular, “markers and
props”(documentation, discussions, meetings, etc.) are used where helpful
to facilitate progress (and can be reusable “residue” for facilitating
future progress). The formality of
the process is scaled to the size and nature of the project.
- XP eXcitement
XP is the
most well known, most interesting, and most polarizing agile method. It has generated much buzz and fervor
in the industry, and by now has attracted a sizeable share of
practitioners. Many adherents view
it as the messiah of development practices tainted by the waterfall model
and strict ISO 9000/9001 compliance or CMM adherence. Others view it as a pendulum swing that
has passed beyond a reasonable medium in its contrarianism to past
overly-rigid development practices.
- Voices of moderation
recently, people debating the usefulness of XP were greeted with scorn,
but now notable voices of moderation or dissent have spoken, pointing out
potential problems with XP. Still,
though, the industry as a whole continues to develop more interest in XP,
and there is inevitable progress towards acknowledgement of the benefits
of agile methods.
systems can be roughly defined as “a system that is not primarily a computer
but contains a processor”. But rather than
focusing on a definition, it is useful to consider aspects that most embedded
systems share, at least to some degree.
- Embedded systems are
frequently price and size sensitive.
systems such as PDAs or cell-phones are high-volume, low-cost and
low-margin. This requires use of
the cheapest components possible, which typically means simple processors
and small memory (RAM and NVRAM/flash).
This causes embedded systems software to trade off maintainability
aspects such as portability, clarity, or modularity for performance
optimization aspects such as a small boot image footprint, a small RAM
footprint, and small cycle requirements.
The increased up-front software development costs and periodic
maintenance costs are amortized by the high-volume sales, and outweighed
by the continuous hardware cost savings of cheaper components.
Many other embedded systems, though not so price-sensitive, have physical
constraints on form factor or weight to use the smallest components
possible. Again, this favors
performance optimization at the cost of maintainability.
In addition to trading off portability, clarity, or modularity, embedded
systems may also require optimization by using a low-level language, e.g.
assembly rather than C, or C rather than code automatically generated from
a UML model. However, this hand
tuning is typically only applied to small portions of the software
identified by the “90/10” guideline as being the major performance
- Embedded systems often have
systems run from a battery, either continually or during emergencies. Therefore, power consumption
performance is favored in many embedded systems at the cost of complexity
- Embedded systems are
most embedded systems are built to react in real-time to data flowing to
and through the system. The
real-time constraints again favor performance aspects (particularly cycles
usage) over maintainability aspects.
There are generally both hard real-time constraints, which require
an event to be handled by a fixed time, and soft real-time constraints,
which set limits both on the average event response time and the
permissible magnitude of outliers.
Real-time operating systems use preemptive prioritized scheduling
to help ensure that real-time deadlines are met, but careful thought is
required to divide processing into execution contexts (threads), set the
relative priorities of the execution contexts, and manage control/data
flow between the contexts.
- Embedded systems frequently
use custom hardware.
systems are frequently comprised of off-the-shelf processors combined with
off-the-shelf peripherals. Even
though the components may be standard, the custom mixing and matching
requires a high degree of cohesion between the hardware and the software
-- a significant portion of the software for an embedded system is
operating system and device driver software. Though this low-level software is often available for
purchase, license, or free use, frequently a large portion of the
operating system for an embedded system is custom-developed in-house,
either to precisely match the hardware system at hand, or to glue together
off-the-shelf software in a custom configuration.
Often the functionality of an embedded system is distributed between
multiple peer processors and/or a hierarchy of master/slave
processors. Careful thought is
required regarding the distribution of processing tasks across processors,
and the extent, method, and timing of communication between processors.
Furthermore, many embedded systems make use of specialized FPGAs or ASICs,
and thus require low-level software to interact with the custom hardware.
- Embedded systems are
predominantly hidden from view
embedded systems typically have a limited interface with their “user”
(real user or another component of the super-system). Thus, much of the system is developed
to meet the software functional specifications developed during architecture
and high-level design, rather than the user requirements.
- Embedded systems frequently
have monolithic functionality.
systems are built for a single primary purpose. They can be decomposed
into components, and potentially the components could have low
cross-cohesion and cross-coupling.
That is, each component could serve a distinct purpose, and the
interactions between components could be restricted to a few well-defined
points. Nevertheless, the system
as a whole will not function unless most or all of the components are
operational. A system that
requires all components to function before the system as a whole achieves
useful functionality is a "monolithic system". This non-linear jump in system
functionality as a function of component functionality is in contrast to some
other types of software, where the system may be 50% functional (or more)
when the software is 50% complete.
For example, a space probe is built to travel by or to other planets and
send back information about them.
Though there are many lower-level responsibilities of the space
probe components, such as targeting, landing, deploying sensors, deploying
solar panels, and communications, each of these lower-level
responsibilities is an indispensable component of the over-arching
functionality. The space probe
will be useless if any of these vital components is missing, even if all
other components are completely functional.
Another example is a cell phone, in which all the sub-features such as the
user interface, the cellular base station selection, the vocoder, and the
communications protocols are all vital aspects of the over-arching goal to
transfer bi-directional audio information between the user and specific
These are in contrast to other software regimes, such as web services or
desktop tools, in which lower-level responsibilities are more likely to
contribute independently to the aggregate system functionality rather than
serving as indispensable parts of a monolithic whole.
Though the software components of an embedded system are combined into a
monolithic functionality, the components themselves are often very
distinct. Embedded systems will
frequently combine software components that perform signal processing,
low-level device driver I/O, communications protocols, guidance and control,
and user interfaces. Each of these
specialized components requires a distinct developer skill set.
- Embedded systems frequently
have limited development tools.
software regimes have a whole host of tools to assist with software
development, embedded systems software development are more limited, and
frequently use only basic compiler tools. This is in part because embedded
systems often use custom hardware, which may not have tool support, and
because embedded systems are often real-time and performance constrained,
making it difficult to freeze the entire execution context under the
control of a debugger or transfer control and data between the embedded
target and a host-based tool, or capture extensive execution-tracing logs.
Because of the limited choices of commercial tools for embedded systems
software development, many embedded systems projects create their own
tools to use for debugging and testing, or at least augment commercial
tools with in-house tools.
- Embedded systems frequently
have stringent robustness requirements.
systems are often used in harsh environments and for mission-critical or
medical purposes. Therefore,
requirements for reliability, correct exception handling, and mean time
between failures are typically more stringent for embedded systems than
for many other types of software.
This translates into rigorous development processes and testing
requirements. In turn, this
increases the overhead needed to make a release of software.
Some types of embedded systems are subject to regulatory requirements that
purport to reduce fault rates by mandating the software development
process, or at least specifying what documentation must accompany the
embedded systems product.
Furthermore, for several types of embedded systems, it is difficult or
even impossible to upgrade firmware, which emphasizes the need to “get it
right” in the system’s initial commercial release.
- Embedded systems are
frequently very long-lived.
systems often stay in use for many years.
Frequently the duration of support for an embedded system is far
greater than the turnover rate of the original software developers. This
makes it paramount to have good documentation to explain the embedded
systems software, particularly since the source code itself may have its
self-documentation quality compromised due to performance trade-offs.
section considers how well each agile method characteristics listed above
applies to embedded systems software development.
- Agile aspect: use regular
rapid cycles which create executable deliverables
In order to
deliver new features within a short cycle (about 1-2 weeks), the feature
set must be very granular.
However, because embedded systems tend to have monolithic
functionality, it is comparatively hard to decompose the functionality
into small parallel pieces. Thus,
a comparatively large amount of work is needed up-front to do detailed
feature decomposition plans to allow for rapid cycles. Rather than obsessing over the
decomposition, the cycle should be stretched to fit the size of the
natural feature decomposition size.
In particular, extra-long cycles may be required at the start of the
project, while the simulation and/or OS infrastructure is being developed
and the hardware bring-up is happening.
Furthermore, the rush to fit a new feature within a cycle period may lead
to the feature being initially implemented inefficiently, with the intent
to refactor to a more efficient implementation during a later cycle. On the whole, this is an effective
approach, but it has potential problems.
First, the executable deliverable may turn out to not work at all
due to cycle bloat. Secondly, by
the time the product is almost out of cycles and optimization refactoring
is required, some of the code that could have easily been improved when it
was first written will take substantially more work later, when it is no
longer fresh in mind. Finally, the
product may end up suffering from a general lack of efficiency, rather
than a few outstanding cycle-hungry functions/features. For example, debugging code may be
freely used throughout, and end up dominating the cycles / memory usage of
the product. If the debugging code
has been well designed, it can easily be dynamically disabled or even
compiled out. However, it if is
developed ad hoc, it will take a lot of refactoring work to disable
it. This "death by a thousand
paper cuts" scenario is extremely difficult to fix
retrospectively. In contrast, a
Big Design Up Front can set some specifications for which features need to
be implemented efficiently from the start, and what coding practices
should be observed universally to aid cycle and/or memory efficiency. Agile practices argue that up-front
design should be minimized. This
is a good practice to deal with volatile requirements and unforeseen
issues. However, the top-level
requirements for embedded systems are usually significantly more cut,
dried, and frozen than requirements in the general software arena. Though embedded systems software
development methods also need to account for change, the policy of
responding to change should be based on the degree of change that is
likely to happen.
Aggressive agile methods advocate creating a release for consumers as an
output of each iteration. Even if
an embedded system can deliver useful functionality in small pieces,
making a customer release on every iteration is often not feasible for
embedded systems, where the size, complexity, and required performance and
reliability are large enough to require significant system testing in
addition to the series of unit tests.
To the extent that these system tests can be automated, the
development process will greatly benefit.
But continually running load tests will require additional test
hardware systems, which can be costly.
Furthermore, a large embedded system requires many iterations. Releasing each iteration to customers
would cause an operations and support nightmare. Thus, for embedded systems it is a better policy to only
invoke the overhead of extensive system testing for commercial release
qualification and operations support only on selected iterations.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: neutral
- Agile aspect: focus on coding
rather than planning or documentation
coding rather than design and documentation has some large benefits. In particular, it allows some early
cycle and memory usage metrics to be taken. These early measurements, though still a poor predictor of
the final product, are immensely better than back of the envelope
calculations. Having cycle and
memory usage projections available early allows for course corrections, or
at least more accurate project planning.
If it is discovered early that the cycles projection is far beyond
the prototype processor's capability, perhaps a second prototype with a
more powerful processor, faster bus, or better memory system can be
developed. (Although, as is
presented in the “Best Practices” section below, the initial prototype
should already have the maximum possible capability.) Even if it is infeasible to introduce a
second spin of the prototype, at least it will be recognized in advance
that a lot of time will have to be spent in optimization.
The benefits of early feedback have to be weighed against the extra
importance of design and documentation in an embedded system. Up-front design is particularly
important due to unavoidable limits on how much the design can be changed
downstream. In other software
development regimes, poor designs may result in a product that is slow,
but still functional. In contrast,
embedded systems tend to have real-time deadlines - if it's too slow, it's
useless. Also, due to embedded
systems’ emphasis on performance, portability may be compromised. This makes the initial choice of
processors, operating system, compiler, and architecture particularly
important, and also requires the portability / performance tradeoff to be
well designed to account for system aspects that are likely to change
within the product lifetime. The
division of work among processors / tasks and the prioritization of tasks
cannot be lightly changed, so it is important to design the mapping of
work to processors and tasks up front.
Thus, design work merits extra attention in embedded systems, all
the way from the system level down to the code component level.
Embedded systems also often have extra documentation requirements. Due to the need to have optimized code,
embedded systems can't rely as much on "self-documenting code"
as software in other regimes.
Furthermore, embedded systems’ long-lived nature makes it highly
likely that none of the original developers are available throughout the
product's maintenance phase.
Finally, certain embedded systems are subject to regulatory
requirements regarding documentation.
Though agile methods give some thought to creation of other artifacts
beyond working software, the agile viewpoint is that these other artifacts
are often not necessary at all (the software should be self-documenting),
or if necessary, should not be created until the relevant portions of
software have been written, and then should be derived from the
software. This viewpoint that
working software is the overwhelming goal is simplistic. Though working software is indeed the
primary deliverable of a software development project, there are other
deliverables, which, though secondary, often cannot be neglected. These secondary goals include
- Objective proof that the
software works correctly
This may require
additional artifacts such as test / requirements traceability, test
records, test coverage records, and source code quality metrics. Ideally, the majority of this
documentation will be generated automatically by tools incorporated into
the agile process. It is
necessary to be sure that the emphasis on “working software” doesn’t
preclude this documentation, though.
- The ability to keep the
software working correctly in the future
require additional artifacts such as architecture documentation to help
code maintainers understand the high-level structure of the system,
design documentation to help code maintainers understand the trade-offs,
alternatives, and design decisions used when constructing the system, and
source code quality metrics. These
are artifacts that may not be requested by customers, because not all
customers are enlightened enough to be aware of and plan against future
needs. However, regardless of
whether the customer explicitly requests such documentation, developers
are bound by professionalism to produce it for projects whose complexity
- User documentation
methods are good at building good usability into software, software
usability extends beyond the software itself. Additional artifacts of user documentation might include a
user instruction manual, an installation guide, a change log / feature
summary, errata list, and customer service. Again, these will be explicitly requested by customers if
they are merited and the customers are sufficiently enlightened, but in
many cases customers will not be aware of pending needs until they
arise. To a large extent, these
artifacts can be created within the agile process, derived from the
already-working software that they document, but this needs to be carefully
managed, and again is a departure from the agile philosophy that working
software is all that really matters.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded
- Agile aspect: refactor
continually to improve code
The practice of continual refactoring to continually do directed
improvements of code modules is a great idea. In any software development project, there are challenges
associated with refactoring, such as choosing which software modules to
refactor on a given iteration, determining how extensive a chain of
tightly-coupled modules to refactor at the same time, keeping the
refactoring substantive rather than descending into religious wars about
coding styles, getting management buy-in to improve “working” code, et cetera. Refactoring provides many key benefits,
though. Foremost, it reverses,
halts, or at least slows the “entropy growth” (complexity, obfuscation,
and latent bug rate) of an aging software system. It can also serve as a very effective
method for developers to improve their coding knowledge and style, and it
disseminates familiarity with software modules across multiple developers.
However, refactoring is more challenging in the realm of embedded systems
than in other software development regimes.
First, the relative emphasis on performance rather than clarity or
modularity makes it more difficult for a prospective refactorer to
correctly understand and update the old code. The decreased readability of the code is mitigated somewhat
by a good architecture, with documentation available to the refactoring
programmers. However, agile
methods downplay architecture work, preferring to let the architecture
grow ad hoc as the system is built from the ground up. Even if there is a solid architecture,
it may have no good documentation due to agile methods’ focus on coding at
the expense of documentation.
Secondly, the ability to refactor may be limited by previous architectural
decisions which are immutable or at least very costly to change, such as
the partitioning of work across multiple processors. In cases like this,
refactoring-in-the-small may not be useful. For example, if one processor is out of cycles, it is more
effective to make a refactoring-in-the-large architectural change of
designating some of the overloaded processor’s work to another processor
(with the accompanying revision of data and control flow among the
processors, and the work prioritization within the processors) than to
make small, localized improvements within the original architecture. But to minimize these costly broad
shifts in architectural paradigms, reasonable effort should be expended to
make an initial best-guess architecture.
Thirdly, due to the vastly distinct areas of software specializations such
as operating systems, signal processing, control theory, communications
protocols, and user interfaces, which are combined within an embedded
system, it is impractical to have “universal code ownership”, in which any
developer can refactor code authored by any other developer. Most software developers have neither
the interest nor the skill to master all the above areas of
specialization. Thus, software
modules falling within one of these areas of specialization will require
refactoring by someone skilled in that specialization, rather than by a
generic programmer. The idea of
distributing code ownership is good, but differences in individual skills
and specializations limit the extent to which the code ownership can be
spread out. Universal code
ownership also requires diligent programmers or code reviews (such as pair
programming) to ensure that slacker programmers don’t succumb to writing
poor-quality code based on the assumption that the diligent programmers
will feel obligated to improve it later.
In spite of these extra challenges, the notion of refactoring is very
worthwhile in embedded systems, as long as the initial architecture and
high-level design is good enough to limit the need for large-scale
refactoring (rearchitecture), and if small-scale refactoring is approached
pragmatically. One benefit
refactoring particularly affords to embedded systems is a good approach to
optimization, wherein during each iteration the worst cycle/memory hog
software modules are identified and optimized, until the target
performance is achieved. This
iterative, incremental approach causes the optimization effort to stay
focused on the software components with the most bang for the buck.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: beneficial
- Agile aspect: communicate
continually and extensively within the engineering development team
Agile methods call for software developers to communicate as personally as
possible as much as possible, rather than relying on documentation or
messages. This communication can
range from code reviews to pair programming. Since the focus on performance in embedded systems tends to
result in more obfuscated code, increasing the personal communication
between developers pays large dividends.
An extra complication often placed on in-person communication by embedded
systems is the hardware-availability bottleneck. Due to cost or fragility, working prototype hardware systems
are often in short supply.
Furthermore, hardware reliability testing and software/hardware
integration compete with software development for the use of the limited
hardware systems. Hence, it is
often important to keep the precious functional prototype systems fully
utilized. To achieve this, developers
may end up working as a tag-team, wherein one developer works an early
schedule, then overlaps to hand off the development progress to a
developer working a late schedule.
This way, the development team can minimize the impact of hardware
shortages, but at the cost of face-to-face time between the developers.
Another potential pitfall of relying on in-person communication between
developers is not developing adequate documentation for future developers
who maintain the embedded system software. Frequently, documentation developed for communication
between the original authors of the system is also invaluable to the
system’s maintainers. Often,
relying on in-person communication results in neglect of the documentation
needed by future maintainers. This
is especially true in embedded systems, due to the long-lived nature of
the system, and the extra difficulty to make the code self-documenting.
Overall, in-person communication between developers is extremely
beneficial, as long as it doesn’t supplant generation of a reasonable
amount of documentation for use by future system developers extending and
maintaining the embedded system software.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: beneficial
- Agile aspect: communicate
continually and extensively with customers
Because the majority of embedded systems software is not directly visible
to the real customer, extending the communication between the development
team and the customers has limited payback. It doesn’t make sense for the customer or even marketing’s
customer proxy to pick the “stories” for the next iteration if the stories
are “replace Gaussian elimination with L-U decomposition”, “hand-code the
inner loop of foo() in assembly”, and “add in-band control feedback to the
channel X data stream”. Though
these are crucial decisions, it is counter-productive to spend the time
and effort to educate the real customer to the point that they can make an
informed decision. Instead, for
embedded systems, a tech-savvy marketing team or a business-savvy
engineering management team must stand in as the proxy for the real customer,
to decide what features are essential in the near and long term, and what
progression of stories over iterations will provide the optimal
development path of these features.
For embedded systems, it is particularly crucial that engineering
management has exceptional technical and business skills, and that these
skills are exercised proactively to set the course of the project, and
continually to make corrections.
A counter note is that since embedded systems may require a customer proxy
to stand in for the uneducated customer, it is useful to have the agile
capability to frequently evaluate and reshape the way the system develops,
to correct for disparities between the system visions of the real customer
and the proxy.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: unbeneficial
- Agile aspect: continual
measurements, planning, projections, and adjustments by management
This practice is particularly useful for embedded systems, which face
performance constraints in addition to the time, staff, and budget
constraints common to all software development. In addition to actively managing the feature set, staffing,
and projected delivery date, getting early and continuous metrics on
actual performance of a partial system allows the manager to determine if,
when, and where performance optimizations are required. The managerial projections need to take
into account that embedded systems work is particularly
unpredictable. Factors that cause
this variability include potential need for extensive performance
optimizations, and the unpredictable times required to find deeply hidden,
rare, and complex bugs. Embedded
systems bugs are often especially insidious, due to the close interactions
and potential race conditions between multiple tasks in a real-time
system. Furthermore, as is
discussed in detail below, debugging methods are harder to apply within an
embedded system. Nevertheless, the
best way to account for this variability is to measure debugging effort
required thus far, and statistically predict what is still required. These predictions are greatly
facilitated in an agile method by the rapid progress to code development,
and by combining testing, debugging, and integration with coding.
Due to their size and complexity, embedded systems are particularly
susceptible to Brook’s conundrum that adding developers to a late project
makes it later. The early feedback
provided by agile methods makes it possible for managers to evaluate
whether additional staff will be needed at a point early enough that the
overhead of adding staff is less significant than the team’s extended
enhanced production rate.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: beneficial
- Agile aspect: test-driven
development and regression testing
The agile practices of testing early and often are universally useful, due
to the proven wisdom that defect removal expense grows rapidly as a
function of the time since defect introduction. It is easy to debug at the unit level while bugs are
isolated to a small locale, but very difficult to debug at the system
level. Debugging embedded systems
is particularly difficult, for several reasons. Memory constraints may limit the use of debugging code and
logs. Timing constraints and
multi-tasking may make it impossible to use breakpoints to halt the system
or to single-step through system execution. Even the insertion of debugging code may alter timing enough
to hide the problem being debugged.
The physical separation between the target processor being debugged
and the host processor on which debugging tools may be running requires
special interactions and possibly special hardware to pass debugging
commands and data between the host and target processors. Frequently a special system must be
dedicated for testing and debugging, which may result in access
contention. Special test equipment
may be needed to generate a system load that exposes bugs. Even with a good unit testing process,
it is inevitable that significant debugging will be required during the
integration of software components and the integration of the software
onto the hardware. Nevertheless,
by removing as many bugs as possible through unit testing and using
incremental integration steps, the pain of debugging can be minimized.
A natural step to aid debugging and integration and to defer software /
hardware integration off of the critical path is to develop a simulator
for the embedded system. Use of a
simulator involves significant extra effort to design, create, and
maintain the simulator framework (particularly if the simulator handles
multiple tasks within a processor, multiple processors within a system,
and multiple systems), to design a good hardware abstraction interface
where the simulator framework can interact with the application software,
to compile the software for the simulator target as well as the real
target, and to deal with the slow execution speed of the simulator. Nevertheless, a simulator provides huge
returns on investment by decoupling software development from hardware
bring-up, providing a convenient facility for debugging, making wide-scale
software testing feasible, and allowing load testing that may not be
feasible in a physical system.
Regression testing also has extra complexities in embedded systems, due to
the need for specialized test harnesses and test equipment to exercise the
system under test, the relative difficulty of probing the internal state
of the system to verify correctness, and shortages of test systems. Naturally, regression testing should be
performed on both the real system and the simulator, preferably from a
framework that integrates test execution and test record logging across
the real and simulated systems. In
spite of the extra difficulties in performing testing and debugging in
embedded systems, it is very important to follow the advice of agile
methods by testing early and frequently, so that problems can be diagnosed
more easily and fixed while there is still time to do so correctly and
within the schedule.
Agile aspect benefit for embedded systems: beneficial
overarching aim of agile methods is to improve a project’s flexibility. There are many best practices related to
making projects flexible enough to deal with unanticipated changes. Other important areas of best practices are productivity,
enhancements, and quality. The best
practices listed below overlap significantly with the practices recommended by
the Rational Unified Process (RUP).
Notable differences are that the RUP concentrates on a single
development cycle (e.g. a single major release of a product) rather than
considering how a sequence of development cycles throughout a product’s
lifetime are related. This distinction
is emphasized in the figure below. The
RUP considers each cycle to be independent, but in reality the development
cycles are closely connected. For
example, creating coding conventions is a best practice that applies to the
initial development cycle, but should be propagated largely unchanged into
following development cycles. In fact,
the product lifecycle looks strikingly similar to a single development cycle,
but at a larger scope. The initial
development cycles within a product lifecycle play much the same role as the
initial iterations within a single development cycle.
Figure 6: Development Cycle
RUP is a meta-process that is not inherently tailored for embedded systems
- For the initial development
cycle, do an up-front initial system architecture without obsessing. Identify key components and their
interfaces, since interface refactoring is much more difficult than
internal refactoring. Review the
architecture periodically, especially as the initial functionality is
implemented or significantly different functionality is added, to see if
the architecture needs to be modified.
For follow-on development cycles, assess whether the previous
cycle’s architecture is reasonable for the new cycle.
- For the initial development
cycle, do an up-front product feasibility study that considers all
potential future development cycles.
For each development cycle, do an up-front feasibility study to
address technical financial risks, and reassess the feasibility,
especially at major cycle milestones. Periodically reassess the
feasibility of continued support for the product as a whole.
- Establish coding standards and
code templates at the start of the initial development cycle. Review the standards and templates at
the start of each subsequent development cycle to see if modification is
- Use iterative development to
get rapid prototype systems.
- Use development rate metrics
to extrapolate / refine projections of project completion.
- Use prototypes’ performance
metrics to extrapolate / refine projections of the full system’s
- Be careful to not invest too
much effort in simple but inefficient algorithms.
- Do initial software
development using a prototype hardware system which is as capable as
- Use the fastest processor and
bus speed possible (but try to choose something which is from the same
family and is pin-compatible with the long-term goal processor).
- Provide a generous amount of
flash memory and RAM.
- Use a FPGA prior to
committing to an ASIC.
- Store the FPGA image in a
network location accessible to the micro-controller rather than in a boot
ROM (or provide a boot ROM so the system can operate unplugged, but allow
the system to select whether to load the FPGA from the boot ROM or
network). Consider packaging the
FPGA image inside the micro-controller’s executable image.
- Provide the option to boot
the micro-controller with an image stored on the network rather than the
boot ROM / flash memory’s image.
- Create a simulator early on.
- Use the simulator for initial
software development until the hardware is ready for integration.
- Use the simulator to develop
new software components in parallel with integrating existing software
components onto the hardware.
- Use the simulator for
debugging and regression testing.
- Defer optimization until it is
clear how much is needed, and which software components are most suitable
for optimization. Estimate based
on code efficiency how much speed-up could be achieved with reasonable
effort, and weight the speed-up by the fraction of cycles currently used
by that code component. When considering
how much a software component can be optimized, account for the extent to
which the component needs to be left modular, portable, and generally
maintainable. Optimize algorithms
before optimizing code structure.
- Balance designing and coding
components to be extensible for future features against focusing the
design and code primarily on the current feature set. Write code that is easy to refactor,
but don’t make extensive predictions of what changes will arise in the
- Do proactive management
- Establish general long-term
plans but focus on the decomposition of the project into small pieces
(components / stories / work elements).
- Carefully consider how work
elements can be arranged to maximize parallelism. For example, create a simulator early
on so that software development can subsequently proceed in parallel with
- Focus first on “enabling
technologies” such as process definition, coding conventions, commercial
tool acquisition, in-house tools and component libraries, debugging and
profiling facilities, operating system choice and abstraction, and
hardware reliability verification.
- As the “enabling
technologies” start to emerge, use risk analysis and PERT analysis to
schedule work elements into iterations.
In addition to the risk innate in work elements, account for the
risk of integration by scheduling work elements to extend and link chains
of functional components, rather than developing components in isolation. If a low-risk component “connects” two
high-risk components, develop the low-risk component (albeit possibly in
a stub form) along with or shortly after the high-risk components it
- Proactively facilitate
in-person communication between developers working to integrate software
components together, and software and hardware developers working to
integrate the software onto the hardware. Having the relevant personnel work together as an
integration team is better than having individuals tackle integration.
- Create artifacts for internal
use documenting how to use the software, how to use the hardware, and how
to use the software on the hardware.
Maintaining a concise document is much more effective than trying
to have all personnel individually remember all information disseminated
by relevant domain experts, or to spend time searching for the relevant
expert when usage instructions are forgotten.
- Use metrics from earlier
iterations as feedback for revising plans and expectations for the
upcoming iteration and the project as a whole.
- Provide useful software and
hardware tools. Identify what
features are useful, then get a tool that provides nearly the
best-of-breed support for those features.
Look first for a free-ware tool, but don’t hesitate to purchase
tools. It is penny wise but pound
foolish both in terms of money and development schedule to avoid spending
a few thousand dollars on a tool that would result in a 5% coding /
merging / documenting / debugging gain for each of 20 engineers being paid
$70K salaries. Also consider
creating custom in-house tools.
- Expend the effort to make
software components and tools developed in-house as generally useful as
possible. Refactoring should not
be relied on to improve tools at a future time. First, opportunities for tool reuse will be missed until the
tool is refactored to be generally applicable. Secondly, changing the tool’s interface during refactoring
will necessitate wide-spread code changes, since a good tool by definition
is used extensively.
- During early iterations of the
initial development cycle, staff the project with only senior developers
who are well qualified to do architecture, design, and coding. During subsequent iterations, gradually
bring on more junior staff to serve as understudies to the senior
staff. Produce documentation based
on the process of introducing the initial junior staff to the project, and
use this documentation to off-load some of the senior staff’s work while
introducing new junior staff to the project. Near the end of each development cycle, allow senior
developers to investigate rearchitecture and high-level design for the
upcoming development cycle.
Proactively involve senior developers in the small-scale
rearchitecture that may occur during an iteration’s planning phase.
- Evaluate the low-level design
and code of at least the key software components with informal
reviews. Pair programming, a
mentor / trainee relationship, and peer reviews within a development group
are various methods of accomplishing this.
- Encourage unit testing.
- Make code templates for unit
- Have working examples of unit
- Store unit tests inside the
code component they apply to.
- Require unit tests for at
least the key software components.
- Automate unit tests so they
can be easily reused during code maintenance.
- Review unit tests to be sure
they are high quality and thus easy to maintain.
- Document unit tests so they
can be easily maintained.
- Primarily use a simulator
environment for unit tests, as it may be infeasible for all developers to
use scarce and complex hardware systems for unit testing.
- Attempt to make the unit test
able to execute on each variety of the real system, so compatibility /
portability can be tested.
- Encourage regression testing.
- Create an automated
regression test hardware / software system. Make the regression test system as friendly as possible for
interactive use by developers, but also able to be run in a bulk mode by
- Keep logs of regression test
results for each software build, noting which version of each regression
test was in use at the time.
- Encourage developers to
regression test their changes on all varieties of hardware platforms and
on the simulation platform before committing the changes to the master
- Measure cycle usage and
memory usage during regression tests.
- Cover unit tests, feature
tests and load tests as part of the regression testing.
emphasis of agile methods is to stay flexible to account for unforeseen
developments and a changing environment.
This is a universally wise strategy, as long as it is applied within
reason. Embedded systems development
benefits from many of the key tenets of agile methods. However, because embedded systems are more
rigid in some aspects than other software systems, agile methods don’t apply
universally, but rather need pragmatic adaptation.
http://www.embedded.com (the on-line
version of Embedded Systems Programming magazine)
http://www.embeddedstar.com (links and
articles related to embedded systems programming)
”Extreme Programming Without Fear”, Dan Pierce
”Extreme Programming and Embedded Software Development”, James Grenning
”XP deconstructed”, Jack Ganssle
”The Sprit of the RUP”, Per Kroll
Dahlby has over 8 years of experience with all phases of the software life
cycle in embedded systems development.
Doug is currently employed at ArrayComm, Inc. (www.arraycomm.com) under the title of
Principal Software Architect. Doug
received his doctorate major in Aerospace Engineering and minor in Computer
Science from Stanford University. Doug
welcomes email comments regarding this article (email@example.com), but is likely to
be too busy doing “useful work” to respond personally.