Learning about embedded firmware development can be a vital part of deepening your skills as a developer, allowing you to embrace new technologies and build for a broader range of applications and devices. Embedded firmware is everywhere, utilised thoroughly in a range of devices and essential IoT technology. Here is all you need to know to get started with embedded firmware development.
What is embedded firmware?
While the difference between hardware and software is clear, the distinction between firmware and software is not quite so easy to get your head around. The fact both firmware and software utilise the same languages only makes things more confusing, although this can be extremely useful for new developers looking to get to grips with embedded firmware developers.
Fundamentally, firmware is different to software in how it can be changed. Software is entirely based on RAM in a system, meaning that when the power goes, the program and required data are also gone. The program is loaded up from memory as and when needed, which means it can be easily changed or modified. Firmware is different in that once it is been loaded onto a hardware platform, it is not intended to be changed. Computing systems utilise firmware to determine low-level operating procedures, such as starting up the operating system.
What’s the difference between firmware and software?
All firmware is software, but not all software is firmware. Firmware is the easiest to understand as the base functionality of a computing system. When you first turn the system on, you want it to load the operating system from memory, this is the role of the firmware.
While the software is usually stored in the RAM of a system, firmware tends to be loaded into the hardware, typically in the flash ROM. However, the location stored does not determine the difference. Instead, the key difference lies in functionality, and the role played in the overall system, as well as the usually unchangeable nature of firmware.
What is embedded firmware used for?
Firmware is frequently used for lower-level operating procedures, such as starting up and initiating the operating system of the computer system. This approach is also useful for IoT technology, with uses such as pacemakers, ambient devices, avionics and automatic pilot features in aircraft.
Firmware is much more embedded into the hardware it runs on, making much more fundamental use of its platform while being designed with the limitations and scope of the device in question. This makes embedded firmware development a vital skill for developers.
What programming languages are used?
Most standard programming languages are used in firmware development, with C/C++, HDLs and Python or MicroPython common. While those are among the most common options, most popular coding languages have an embedded version, allowing you to use whatever you are most comfortable with when moving into embedded firmware development. This makes it much easier for beginners, with no new language to learn and adapt to.
Key tips for getting started with embedded firmware development
Beyond having a deep understanding of your language, you must know your hardware and operating system when developing firmware. Optimal firmware depends on you having a great understanding of the strengths and limitations of your hardware.
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