Embedded Software Development with C Language Extensions

Arie van Deursen, with Markus Voelter, Bernd Kolb, and Stephan Eberle.

In embedded systems development, C remains the dominant programming language, because it permits writing low level algorithms and producing efficient binaries. Unfortunately, the price to pay for this is limited support for explicit and safe abstractions.

To overcome this, engineers at itemis and fortiss created mbeddr: an extensible version of C that comes with extensions relevant to embedded software development. Examples include explicit support for state machines, variability management, physical units, interfaces and components, or unit testing. The extensions are supported by an IDE created through JetBrains MPS. Furthermore, mbeddr users can introduce their own extensions.

To me, the ideas under mbeddr are extremely appealing. But I also had concerns: Would this work in practice? Does this scale to real world embedded systems? What are the benefits of such an approach? What are the problems?

Therefore, when Markus Voelter, lead architect of mbeddr invited me to join in a critical evaluation of a system created with mbeddr that they just shipped, I happily accepted. Eventually, this resulted in our paper Using C Language Extensions for Developing Embedded Software: A Case Study, which was accepted for publication and presentation at OOPSLA 2015.

The subject system built with mbeddr is an electricity smart meter, which continuously senses the instantaneous voltage and current on a mains line using analog front ends and analog-to-digital converters. It’s mbeddr implementation consists of 80 interfaces and 167 components, corresponding to roughly 44,000 lines of C code.

Main layers, sub-systems, and components of the smart metering system.

Main layers, sub-systems, and components of the smart metering system.

Our goal in analyzing this system was to find out the degree to which C language extensions (as implemented in mbeddr) are useful for developing embedded software. We adopted the case study research method to investigate the use of mbeddr in an actual commercial project, since the true risks and benefits of language extensions can be observed only in such projects. Focussing on a single case allows us to provide significant details about that case.

To achieve this goal, we investigated the following aspects of the smart metering system:

  1. Complexity: Are the abstractions provided by mbeddr beneficial for mastering the complexity encountered in a real-world embedded system? Which additional abstractions would be needed or useful?
  2. Testing: Can the mbeddr extensions help with testing the system? In particular, is hardware-independent testing possible to support automated, continuous integration and build? Is incremental integration and commissioning supported?
  3. Overhead: Is the low-level C code generated from the mbeddr extensions efficient enough for it to be deployable onto a real-world embedded device?
  4. Effort: How much effort is required for developing embedded software with mbeddr?

The detailed analysis and answers are in the paper. Our main findings are the following:

  • The extensions help mastering complexity and lead to software that is more testable, easier to integrate and commission, and that is more evolvable.
  • Despite the abstractions introduced by mbeddr, the additional overhead is very low and acceptable in practice.
  • The development effort is reduced, particularly regarding evolution and commissioning.

In our paper, we also devote four pages to potential threats to the validity of our findings. Most importantly, in our experience with this case study and other projects, introducing mbeddr into an organization may be difficult, despite these benefits, due to a lack of developer skills and the need to adapt the development process.

The key insight for me is that mbeddr can help bring down one of the biggest cost and risk factors in embedded systems development, which is the integration and commissioning on the target hardware. Typically, this phase accounts for 40-50% of the project cost; for the smart meter system this was 13%. This was achieved by extensive unit and integration testing, using interfaces that could be instantiated both in a test as well as a target hardware environment.

Continuous integration is not just about the use of a continuous integration server. It is primarily about carefully modularizing the system into components that can be tested independently in different environments. Unfortunately, modularization is hard, especially in languages without explicit modularization primitives. Our study shows how extending C with language constructs can help to devise a modular, testable architecture, substantially reducing integration and commissioning costs.

For more information, see:

  • Markus Völter, Arie van Deursen, Bernd Kolb, Stephan Eberle. Using C Language Extensions for Developing Embedded Software: A Case Study. OOPSLA/SPLASH 2015 (pdf).
  • Presentation at OOSPLA 2015 by Markus Voelter (youtube, slides)
  • Information on this paper at the OOPSLA program pages.

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