Sep 11, 2019 Aerospace and Defense

Embedded Systems: The Evolution of Embedded System Design

By Michel Genard

Embedded systems design is evolving as businesses are under pressure to innovate faster than ever before. Legacy systems that were once purpose-built must be modernized or give way to new fluid and connected systems. Of course, the need for this transition didn’t happen overnight. Let’s review the history of embedded systems and how things have changed to drive this evolution.

The Evolution of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems design is changing and following enterprise systems by becoming more flexible and software-defined. Traditionally, embedded systems were purpose-built using closed architectures that were unique to each device. They run a real-time operating system (RTOS) like VxWorks in systems that have fixed time constraints, where predictability is key. The RTOS ensures that these systems do not fail. Alternatively, systems without real-time requirements can run customized versions of Linux, such as Wind River Linux.

Embedded systems design is becoming more flexible and software-defined.

The picture below shows a simplified example of embedded systems at work, in this case, in an automobile that runs multiple, proprietary embedded systems in parallel. There’s a system for telematics, one for braking and control, one for radar, and one for connectivity. Each has its own OS, dedicated silicon, and certification process.

This traditional approach is now giving way to software-defined open architectures and consolidation. Using open standards, embedded systems design can leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. These include hardware-like certified/certifiable standardized board computers, PC platforms, and so forth. This shift leads to dramatically reduced costs and faster time to market.

What were once isolated systems are also now increasingly connected. In the automotive example, the telematics, braking, and connectivity systems may work together to send vehicle data to the manufacturer, fleet owner, or even an autonomous driving system. As the telematics system is updated over time, the braking and connectivity systems will also likely need to be updated—even if they are built on different technology platforms and manufactured by different companies.

Systems that were once isolated are becoming increasingly connected.

These automotive embedded systems, now connected to one another, need greater security countermeasures than when they were siloed. As many major recent data breaches have demonstrated, one system can provide hackers the path into another. This was the case for a major retail chain whose point-of-sale (POS) systems were hacked because the attacker penetrated the store’s unsecured but connected HVAC embedded system! This caused major damage to the retail store’s brand and reputation.

A comparable change is occurring in the way manufacturers attain certification for embedded systems. There’s a move to system-level certification versus certifying at the component level. This involves making sure that various separate embedded systems, each in a system component, can work together coherently.

Why Embedded Systems Design Is Changing

Drivers of changes in embedded systems design include improvements in hardware as well as the continuing evolution in software development methods.

At the hardware level, it’s now possible to do more with a single CPU. Rather than host just one application, new multi-core systems on a chip (SoCs) can support multiple applications on a single hardware platform while still maintaining modest power and cost requirements.

At the same time, advances in software development techniques point toward systems that are more software-defined and fluid than their predecessors.

Core Values Remain

While there are many changes in the embedded systems world, the core requirements have remained the same. Embedded systems have to be secure, safe, reliable, and certifiable.

  • Security: Cyberattacks have become more common at the same time that completely isolated systems are becoming rarer. Embedded systems engineers are taking security even more seriously than before.
  • Safety: This refers to the system’s ability to make sure that it does not have an adverse effect on its environment, whatever that might be. Sectors such as industrial, transportation, aerospace, and automotive can cause deaths or environmental disasters if their embedded systems malfunction. In this regard, determinism, meaning the predictability and reliability of performance, is of paramount importance. A failure in one zone should not trigger a failure of the entire system.
  • Reliability: Reliability in an embedded systems design means that it will always perform as expected. It should produce the same outcome, in the same time frame, the first or millionth time it is activated. After all, too late is not an option in systems that cannot fail.
  • Certifiable: The certification process is a critical and costly part of development for many embedded systems. Certification in legacy systems must be maintained and leveraged, while ease of certification for future systems must be managed.

How Can You Manage This Evolution? Virtualization for Embedded Systems

Organizations can take advantage of these changes in embedded systems design through virtualization. It’s a method that has been used in enterprise IT for years and is just now moving into the embedded systems market. A robust virtualization solution, like Wind River Helix Virtualization Platform, allows engineers to design for a single platform that will run essentially any embedded system, old or new. These tools can address the demanding security, safety, reliability, and certification requirements of modern embedded systems. Using virtualization bridges the past with the future to enable innovation.

Explore how virtualization can be used to modernize your legacy systems in our eBook, Virtualization for Embedded Systems: A Bridge to the Future.

Previous VxWorks Now Has a Pet Snake
Next Why are Containers a Benefit for Industrial IoT?