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OS helps developers get to market on time

Posted: 01 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded? vdc? software? os? source code?

Embedded software and those who develop it are, it seems, on diverging paths. Industry statistics from Venture Development Corp. reveal that while lines of software code are growing at about 26 percent annually, the number of embedded developers is increasing at just 8 percent per year. For designers of embedded products, those two statistics translate to more work.

That, however, is not the end of the story. While trying to do more with less, embedded developers must also do it faster and with enhanced security. "Device design times are shrinking and have been for some time now," said Daya Nadamuni, senior analyst for Gartner Dataquest. "The average embedded device now takes about nine months to design."

The result is that embedded hardware and software components are increasingly being developed in parallel. That, in turn, means that engineers often lack the time to build prototypes and have fewer hours remaining for such tasks as debugging.

So what is a developer to do? While working more hours is a distinct possibility, experts say that off-the-shelf software packages may also lend a hand.

Five years ago, the rule of thumb in the embedded world was that half of all developers used off-the-shelf OSes and half were do-it-yourselfers. Today, the profile has changed. VDC estimates that just 11.5 percent of developers now fall into the roll-your-own category. Many who once subscribed to the homegrown philosophy have made a partial compromise, moving to Linux and then building their own OS atop the free, open-source software. Others have simply gone the way of commercial, shrink-wrapped OSes.

"We are fast approaching a situation where everyone who wants a commercial OS, or needs that kind of product, already has one," noted Chris Lanfear, an analyst for VDC.

Still, experts say that commercial OS packages do more to solve the work gap problem than merely provide code. Many, such as the OS from Microsoft Corp. and Wind River Systems Inc., now offer integrated development environments (IDEs) that include compilers, debuggers and source-code analyzers. On top of that, some incorporate integrated middleware. Wind River's general-purpose platform, for example, includes software for networking, error management, shared memory, distributed messaging and many other functions.

The bottom line is that a certain percentage of code development is removed from the engineer's task list.

"Today, the real value is in the software that surrounds the OS and makes your device more functional," Nadamuni said.

Since the OS itself is rapidly reaching commodity status, OS suppliers are also developing their software packages to be more application-specific. Wind River, for example, offers targeted platforms for aerospace and defense, consumer, industrial, network equipment, safety-critical applications and automotive systems. Similarly, Microsoft offers products aimed at automotive, industrial and retail point-of-service applications, among others.

Most experts believe that any time gained by using shrink-wrapped products will be reinvested in other areas of the development cycle. "It's well-known in the industry that devices are not getting to market on time, and often, the software is not being written to spec," VDC analyst Lanfear said. "So companies are hoping that engineers will use the extra time to drive devices to market faster and get them closer to what they are supposed to be."

As recently as 2000, many developers still wrote their own OSes, using an editor, compiler and debugger as they moved through the development cycle. Today, as more embedded applications incorporate communications, networking and graphics, vendors argue that developers who "roll their own" are losing valuable time. "It could take weeks, months or even man-years to develop their own systems, when they could just be buying it off-the-shelf," said Mike Hall, technical product manager for Microsoft's mobile and embedded devices division.

Metrowerks, a subsidiary of Freescale Semiconductor Inc., invests heavily in the integration of its OS and CodeWarrior IDE with silicon being developed at Freescale. Thus, those writing applications can get started early in the development cycle with tools that already comply with the so-called alpha silicon. "Ten years ago, when you'd kick off a 'build' on a deeply embedded product, it could take 8hrs to complete the compiling," said Mike O'Donnell, director of marketing for core tools and Linux at Metrowerks. "Today, with faster machines and faster compilers, it might take 15 to 20mins."

Similarly, Microsoft's Windows CE and Embedded XP operating systems include tools that incorporate a target analyzer. The target analyzer examines the embedded hardware and produces a software component that an engineer can use to speed the development process. With such tools, "building and deploying the OS from nothing onto a completely naked board takes less than an hour," Hall said. In contrast, he added, some customers had invested as much as nine man-years in developing software for communications applications.

Embedded products that make use of high-level communications, color graphics and sound are especially in need of integrated OSes and tools, vendors say. "Embedded developers should be spending their time on added value for the application," Hall said. "They shouldn't be in the OS business."

Still, some analysts believe that such products alone will not cut it. "There are a couple of ways to fill the gap," said VDC's Lanfear. "You can fill the gap with tools or platforms, or you can change the way you develop code. And, of course, you can always use consultants in India."

Most industry experts say the jury is still out on such methods as "extreme programming," which involves using team members working in pairs. Some believe that this development technique holds promise as a means for writing code more quickly.

Ultimately, however, most industry observers believe that engineers working in Asia will fill a certain percentage of the work gap. Such companies as Wipro Technologies, Infosys Technologies Ltd and Tata Group, along with other foreign-based consultants, could add as many as 12,000 engineers to the embedded work force, according to Venture Development.

"Since the presidential election, we haven't heard much about this issue, but it's not going to go away," Lanfear said. "It's going to become bigger, and then we'll see the consultants from China step in. And then there will be even more competition for business."

Whether device makers choose such avenues, analysts ultimately expect the amount of embedded software to continue to grow 26 percent annually. And because there is no end in sight for that growth, engineers will need to develop strategies for coping. "Hardware complexity is on the rise, and that creates more software complexity," Dataquest's Nadamuni said. "And at some point, the developers have to find some way to deal with it."

- Charles Murray

EE Times

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